The perfume marketing world loves a story. Sometimes the stories get so overblown that they topple over into sheer absurdity. The firm of Lubin experienced some blow back* when they suggested they were marketing the formula for one of Marie Antoinette’s perfumes in their release Black Jade.
The firm is a very old one so – for once – it was quite credible that they had on their books a perfume which might have been handed down by a servant, a valet, or ladies’ maid from Versailles, which may have approximated one of the late Queen’s scents, but the company’s founding date (1798) meant that it would have been posthumous, because Marie Antoinette was beheaded in 1793.But in The Secret of Chanel No. 5,Tilar Mazzeo suggests that the original formula of the last Russian Empress’ perfume might have been- purely by chance- a familiar one to us:
“Made by the firm of Rallet and company, it was known as Rallet O de Kolon No1 Vesovoi - or simply Rallet No. 1 perfume. It had been a royal family favorite, and the Czarina – for whom the scent had been invented – cherished it especially. In fact it may have been among the last beautiful things that Dmitri’s murdered cousins ever experienced. Among the personal possessions looted from the Romanov royal family’s prison chambers were vials of some unnamed perfumes.”
This is principally interesting because we know now that Chanel No 5 was based on Rallet No1, indeed composed by the same perfumer, Ernest Beaux, though he did variations on the original scent for Coco Chanel in 1920, ten of them, two of which became Chanel perfumes, No. 5 and 22.
I am a bit skeptical myself. That the Romanov family loved perfume is true. Meg at Parfumieren, a wonderful now discontinued blog, who is both a Romanov enthusiast, and lover of perfume, has suggested that the grand duchesses wore Coty perfumes from a presentation coffret, of the sort the company made in the early years of the 20th century. But what did Alexandra wear?
She does not seem the sort of woman to want an opulent abstraction in perfume. On the contrary, the Empress, by all accounts was a girly, highly emotional woman, a woman who adored the color mauve, and who had masses of lilacs in her rooms at all times. When you see her photographs and paintings, you see a melancholy beauty, an introverted lady who disliked Society, and who loved intimate tête-à-têtes. She was no hard-fisted little striver, like Gabrielle Chanel. No, this was a woman who ignored what the rest of the world thought of her until her life went into crisis. Public relations, to put it mildly, were not the last Empress’ strong suit. Had it been up to me to choose a perfume for such a woman, it would have been Apres l’Ondee- beyond a doubt.
But then, there is a coda to this story which is, that there exist three versions of that original Rallet No1 perfume. The first we’ve accounted for, the second was in the line-up of models Beaux created in 1920 probably No. 22, the third exists because in 1926 Francois Coty acquired the Rallet Company then based in Grasse (and still manufacturing No1 btw). As part of the deal, he naturally also acquired the company archives and the formula for Rallet No 1. So, it’s not really surprising, given the success of No5, already in the 20’s, that Coty should have had his head perfumer Vincent Roubert re-work that formula for mass production, and the result in 1927 was L’Aimant.
Now, I have not had the luck to smell Rallet No1, but I have smelled L’Aimant, and I wonder. It has a bitter myrrh note about halfway through, and it seems to me, that if I were Alexandra with my blasted health, and my hemophaeliac son, and my Empire in ruins, that the bitter note would have been rather appropriate to me and my circumstances.
Then again, I might have preferred an hysterically sweet, extremely refined bouquet of white flowers and incense powered by aldehydes. That is, I might have preferred No 22 with its whiff of feminine luxury underlined by the incense burned in every Orthodox cathedral. After all, the empress, we know, was a devout Orthodox convert. No 22, in an archaic form, would have appealed to her.
Who can say for sure? We’ll probably never know what the Empress wore, and it’s hard to tell which perfume, No 5, L’Aimant, or No 22 is closest to the original without actually smelling it, and that, short of the Osmotheque, is hard to do.
Rallet No1 is no more, nothing but tobacco brown sludge remains in the bottom of rectangular bottles. Who can say what an empress wore, but at least we’ve gotten three classics out of one Russian bestseller. It’s too bad the empress herself wasn’t as popular as the perfume(s) created in her honor.
ADDENDUM – Meg, of the currently discontinued blog Parfumieren, and a connoisseur of all things Romanoff, informs me that the Empress is recorded as having worn Atkinson,s White Rose, and since Alexandra was an anglophile, this makes sense.
Which is not to say that the grand duchesses may not have worn or tried Rallet No 1.
*On the polite forum of Olfactoria’s Travels, usually a showcase of civility by posters and commenters alike.