The word I have in mind is vanillin. Vanillin is one of the earliest synthetics from 1874 actually when first produced by the firm of Haarmann & Reimer, and you would recognize the smell even if you were not fascinated by fragrance because vanillin, like the SPECTRE organization in James Bond stories is everywhere, though mostly these days in food, along with its close associate ethylvanillin. If you’ve eaten candy bars you’ve eaten vanillin.
These days you can’t come across the old synth in fragrance because apparently other newer synthetics mimic vanilla better, most of them derived from guaiacol which sounds like something I didn’t like swallowing as a child with bronchitis, but is the usual suspect in modern vanilla fragrances.
But I wonder. If it’s true that Jacques Guerlain used to mix his vanillin (bought from de Laire a particularly tasty and slightly impure vanillin) could we ever really recover the smell of an original Jicky? Luca Turin in The Secret of Smell contends that Jacques Guerlain mixed his vanillin- that grubby vanillin- with one part actual vanilla to give the result a musky tartiness, the slattern component of Jicky’s deity. So, how does the modern Jicky compare?
I’ll just bet that modern Jicky has cleaned up its act. Modern Jicky, like modern Knize 10, or modern Tabac Blond is probably well washed before going on before an audience and speaking its lubricious lines. But was that always the case? When vanillin was in charge, along with measurable amounts of bona fide vanilla, was the story altogether hairier and sweatier?
This leads me to another little speculation, that Spirtueuse Double Vanille was perhaps a small allusion of Jean Paul Guerlain’s to that original slightly dirty vanillin mixed with one tenth vanilla? You could be smelling what is essentially only one segment of Jicky, which was to give the perfume its due, reputedly a simple formula. I can see the joke. You take one of the simplest parts of what makes up a vanilla perfume and make it into a blockbuster.
Myself I wear de Nicolai’s Vanille Tonka which is her retread of Shalimar, cast however with what I suspect is real vanilla. Vanille Tonka though has gone through some changes since it was first put on the market, and the bottle I have is probably from that first year in the early 1990s. The perfume is a serious vanilla bath, almost a vanilla wallow, from which you dry off with a dry and nubbly frankincense. My first bottle which dated from some years earlier used to start with a distinct lime note then proceeded to a limited vanilla very specific, as though each note were being ticked off a list, then flowers including a modern carnation and finally frankincense. This bottle, like an old tenor, has lost some of its high notes and moves into the vanilla and carnation bel canto rather quickly, but this does not matter much since I always liked the vanilla part of Vanille Tonka best anyhow. All versions of Vanille Tonka resonate long after you thought the performance over. Half of my jackets and coats smell of Vanille Tonka, and as I once
thought I was being branded a smoker because of that whiff, it’s nice to notice that the older formula is very vanilla centric.
I had to go back and smell Spirituese Double Vanille today just in order to have a sense of how times had changed with regards to vanilla chez Guerlain, and the formula seems thinner to me now. The flowers and the rounder aspects of the vanilla seem to be gone. I appreciate the initial cedar note more than I used to do, but it takes up too much space now, and the ylang ylang though still that wonderful Guerlain version, takes up too little. Back in the day though, was some of Double Vanille’s greatness due to vanillin, like that other great classic a Hershey Bar? I can’t help but wonder.