Once upon a time I knew that Tabac Blond was the first tobacco scent ever introduced to perfumery. This turns out to be a canard. In fact it was the third. The first was a perfume called either Cigalia or else Les Cigales by the old firm of Roger et Gallet, with a remarkably beautiful bottle done by who else but Lalique. Here it is. Lovely no?
You do end up finding out all sorts of odd things as time goes on, but the story of the first tobacco perfumes does not end with Cigalia. In fact there was also a Coty perfume. You knew there had to be one? It seems that whenever anyone had any kind of new material or base or idea in the perfume world of the early twentieth century there was Francois Coty already set to market his version of whatever it happened to be. As far as I can discover Coty introduced his tobacco perfume in 1912 inside a Baccarat bottle topped with a crystal cut stopper. According to Edmond Roundnitska L’Or was in the air a lot in
the twenties and was a beautiful golden tobacco note which met with considerable success if not as much as Chypre or L’Origan. He admired Coty’s work, was often impressed with Coty’s innovations, but made no mention of Cigalia which can only have been a year older than L’Or.* Had the tobacco vogue slowed? Not a bit of it, the note had merely evolved. In 1919 Tabac Blond came out with its modernist, some would even say Fauvist, take on the bright young things who had survived the First World War as well as Spanish Influenza and were now sticking cigarettes into holders, while skewering convention in Parisian cafes.
Tabac Blond has been extensively described, but one aspect remains little remarked upon and that is its uncompromising leather and smoke start. If you’ve never smelled the vintage, you can actually be put off by the blast of smoke TB spews at you and it takes several minutes for you to realize that this flapper/disturbingly handsome young man is wearing an expensive orange blossom cologne, that their opinions are interesting, and that just maybe you will stay at this cocktail party after all.
Things hadn’t heated all the way up to twenties temperatures yet in 1919, and Habanita, that
most fiercely powdered flapper hadn’t shimmied into her step ins yet. Habanita (1921) **was erotic but also very much of its era. You have to admire the dry fluffy vanilla notes that coat your skin like swans down, but the fluff is neither edible nor innocent. There is an aura of the sexual about Habanita, though maybe it’s only the post tryst plume of tobacco smoke exhaled by couples, punctuated by a little pillow talk.
In other words the tobacco perfume had become as sophisticated as Duke Ellington’s Lady. It had gone from the simple dried leaf note, to the daring smoking conversationalist, to the boulevardier in the boudoir. Where was the glorification of tobacco itself? Where was the tobacco that, like love, made men go from shore to shore?
L’Or is naturally long gone, so long gone that these days I’d consider myself in luck if I could still smell that at the Osmotheque. But the tobacco note, the floating smoky remains of the huge party that was the twenties was not yet entirely dissipated.
The narcotic perfume of Habanita was supposed to run along your cigarette from a dropper (one of female smokers’ early refinements of puffology) and thereby increase the decadent thrill of the experience of smoking in the first place. Not everyone in the twenties enjoyed such glamorous smoke, my Dad’s big thrill came from smoking corn silk or tobacco ends in the backyard as a small boy. How’s that for Americana? Oddly though it’s my Dad’s experience I want to recreate rather than the Parisian one circa 1923.
What had happened to the tobacco field perfume? The drying sheds fragrance, the scent of a drowsy summer afternoon in the South? Even a production like Lubin’s Black Jade, which barely alludes to tobacco, is enough to make me nostalgic. You can still smell the tobacco as it was first introduced into perfumes, or very nearly. The answer is not A*men Pure Havana. Tobacco extract is quite expensive and therefore seldom appears in today’s perfumes.
I suppose that I should specify my dislike of smelling like smoke, as in Bel Antonio or Jasmin et Cigarette, or overly sweet as in Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille or worse yet Ambre Narguile. Both make me feel as if I have stepped in a kind of dire caramel with a tobacco inflection to it courtesy IFF. No I’m looking for the genuine smell of pipe tobacco and a little outdoors, maybe even a tobacco flower or two. I love Nicotiana in bloom. So, long story short I’ve finally found and bought a little bit of Cigalia. I hope it is pipe tobacco because so far… no cigar.
* My information comes from a French biography, Coty.
**My dates come from, Commercial Perfume Bottles.