Ever see those “flowers” on stems that, once startled, flutter off the plant in a scatter-graph of wings? In nature this imitation is not merely flattery, but a viable stratagem for survival. It is incidentally, pretty spectacular.
Sometimes perfumers pursue this same goal: mimicry. On occasion a simulated note is better, fresher, a less clichéd version of the real thing. That’s true of rose perfumes, too.
Back in the late seventies when Guerlain’s Nahema (1979) was released, the rose note had been resurrected by The Perfumer’s Workshop in their mammoth seller Tea Rose (1972). Before that, there really were not that many rose perfumes on the market. Scents like Edmond Rounitska’s Rose (1949) for Rochas, had become hard to find, and many of the others were discontinued. Roses were rarities, and suddenly Tea Rose bloomed across perfume counters and women went crazy for this one diffusive soliflore.
The success of Tea Rose was hard to ignore in Paris, especially as Parisiennes had nothing comparable on the Printemps perfume floor. “One couldn’t go to New York without having a girl-friend beg you to bring her back this American Rose,” writes Catherine Donzel in Le Parfum. It was long before YSL’s Paris, and long before Sa Majeste la Rose or the Rosine line, Annick Goutal eventually released Rose Absolue, but not until ten years later. Guerlain must have noticed this brouhaha over a soliflore, an American one at that, and begun to wonder if it were not time to compose a rose scent of their own?
Nahema is not a straightforward rose (if there is such a thing) the fragrance has the strangest notes you will ever find in a rose perfume. Luca Turin writes that there has been much speculation that Nahema never contained any rose at all, but the notes from Jean-Yves Gaborit’s Perfumes (1985) list it as an ingredient, as does my H&R Guide. The notes vary, but both name rose, and it is the earlier book that has captured the progression of notes most accurately to my nose, namely rose, hyacinth, lilac, fruit (passion fruit) exotic woods and balsam. Jan Moran’s book specifies that the hyacinth is rose hyacinth, and this too, I think, is accurate, as the soapiness of hyacinth is not emphasized, but the rosy aspect is.
The reason I know all of this, or have such a pronounced opinion, is that back in the day, the day being 1993 or so, I tried to cohabit with Nahema. I used the oldest trick in my lexicon, that is starting with scented body lotion, because it was axiomatic with me then that anybody could wear anything if they started wearing it as lotion. It feels like your natural smell, and that is the key to accepting the perfume. Or at any rate it’s usually the key, but Nahema was one too many for me. It was clearly a sophisticated perfume, but it was- how shall I put this? Loud. Yes, I think the word loud is apposite here. Nahema had opinions and just like Nene Leakes on the Real Housewives of Atlanta, she did not choose to keep them to herself.
Translated into the demotic of the perfume world, Nahema had impressive diffusion. She rose and wafted, she whooshed into a room before you did, and flounced am impressive perfumed wake out after her (and much less to the point, you) when you left. No one could ignore you, and not even such creations as Amarige could compete in the silage department. Nahema, in those days, was a diva.
To wear Nahema in its original form you had to have the personality, the stature, and even now I cannot think of too many women who could pull it off, except perhaps Ms. Leakes or possibly Maria Callas in her heyday.
The coda to this story is that whatever I may have felt about Nahema, it has held its place in the Guerlain line, and may in fact be better appreciated now than it was in 1979. I wonder idly sometimes if this is because Russian consumers love her, or Middle Eastern ones, I cannot imagine many Parisiennes trading in their Coco Mademoiselle for the rose hyacinth and passion fruit flutterings of Nahema.
But then, most women aren’t bold enough to try wearing a gigantic rose that shatters into a thousand pink butterflies taking wing, all around them. I wasn’t.