The Symphonic Fragrance

Dublin Symphony Orchestra

Dublin Symphony Orchestra

Periodically the fashion press will trot out the statement that “perfumers have been liberated from the old pyramidal structure” of fragrance. This to me is often a tip off that the new scents about to be described by a harassed beauty editor are essentially accords.

Whole perfume business models have been built on this idea, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but if you don’t like layering fragrances, the modular system can be daunting. If you prefer to wear something finished and worked out to the final evaporation, with no roughness, no fade outs, and no awkward sections, what you are looking for is the symphonic fragrance.

I suppose I’d better pause here and make a distinction. I’m not talking about a linear scent. These are essentially the single note or accord fragrances that I just mentioned. They make up the bulk of, for instance, the Jo Malone production. Symphonic perfumes by contrast, can be very complicated but their impression is singular. They have a theme and they keep presenting that theme to their wearer in a discreet way. Unlike Shalimar, which is sequentially lemons, then flowers finally amber, a symphonic fragrance is : fuzzy peach, more or less all the way through, but the most sophisticated fuzzy peach you’ve ever encountered.

Probably the hey- day of this kind of composition was the late eighties and early nineties when the industry vogue was for long formulas. The quintessential example: Red. Released by Giorgio of Beverly Hills in 1989, Red’s formula was supposed to contain 692 ingredients, and the scent was a floral aldehyde. The effect was soft, fuzzy peach in fact, a deconstructed floral peach of a scent that didn’t actually modify during wear very much (as far as I could judge from a spritz or so) but was very enduring and never awkward on skin for a moment. Red, no matter what the implications of such a name, was in fact a soft giant peach, plush, and easy-peasy to wear. That’s another hallmark of the symphonic, a luxurious, easy going evaporation that goes on forever.

First Van Cleef & Arpels

Van Cleef & Arpels

Jean Claude Ellena’s First, was another such perfume. Though it dated from 1976, this baroque masterpiece of French perfumery contained nearly everything but the kitchen sink. He has written that at the time of First’s development he was following existing scent models. The archetypical perfume in the mid seventies was complex,  and so was his creation. He composed First at at the grand old age of 28, before he had a style of his own. (But that style may have been on its way. He also did a delightful green perfume for Sisley the same year based on the tomato leaf, Eau de Campagne, which is almost the opposite of First).

First is a grand dame of a perfume. Another floral aldehyde, it’s sparkling where Red is soft. The scintillation, similar to what the French call petillement, makes sense. As a jeweller’s scent, First was designed to recall the pave diamonds winking and glimmering in a VC&A bracelet. First’s heart was opulent: lily of the valley, boozy turkish rose, orchid, jasmine, tuberose, and narcissus- just to add a soupcon of sex appeal- and carnation, to continue the shimmer on skin a bit longer.

Must de Cartier is another in this series of symphonics, this time from 1981, a heavy oriental, crammed with ingredients. Once again, the perfume doesn’t have much evolution but that spicy, gingery, ambery core, glows on and on. The only floral I really ever registered in Must was carnation, although the heart also contained orris and ylang-ylang, and leather, this before you ever got to the dry down. Mostly Must was a thorough homogenous perfume. It should never have been worn before six p.m. being far too dramatic for daylight.

London Symphony Orchestra

London Symphony Orchestra

What about recent fragrances? Are symphonics produced now? Many fewer are, but the company that I think comes closest to doing them, and doing them pretty well, is Puredistance. That’s a concern which uses Annie Buzantian and Roja Dove as perfumers, and the results of their careful high quality fragrances is essentially the same as those 1980s scents: versatility. These are perfumes that are designed to be signature scents for people who want to smell good, but like themselves every day and who are willing to pay a bit more for a product that can live with them and which despite a sophisticated composition is consistent. Antonia is green ivied florals, Puredistance M is opulent car leather, Opardu is a  wet garden in late spring, planted with lilacs and purple heliotrope.

Antonia Puredistance


Essentially the company hopes you will buy and wear their fragrance as a signature, and cut down on your other purchases. This is what symphonics are designed for, continuous use. My only worry is, does the modern consumer have a personal perfume style? You can’t produce a symphony with too much dissonance after all.

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2 thoughts on “The Symphonic Fragrance

  1. So interesting. I love the idea of a symphonic fragrance, and all the vintages that you mentioned here. I am terrified of loving Puredistance and having to sell my home to afford them. Yes, I do know that their pricing is becoming commonplace, yes, I also have been told that these guys do it better than anyone else. We walked past their shop in Vienna and I was excited to have been at the door, it was enough.
    Portia xx

  2. How I wish that pricing were not becoming commonplace!

    Anyway, I think you can still do pretty well with Guerlains and Amouages 🙂

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