Caron has been a constant in my blogging world and my closet for so many years now that I can’t remember when I first wore a Caron. The house is no longer a fashionable one and although some perfume critics used once upon a time to revere the company, Caron has garnered bad reviews, and released ho hum fragrances in the past decade which in turn garnered more bad reviews.
This is a little unfair. Even Guerlain is not what it was these days, with its plethora of releases, and its onetime art director starting a perfume company of her own.* That is not even to to mention the last living Guerlain perfumer initiating his own line*.
Caron was always different from Guerlain though. The difference was summed up by a quote from a landlady of the perfume critic Luca Turin’s in Paris. She said that there were really only two great French perfume houses, one was Caron and the other Guerlain, but that Caron was for “duchesses” while Guerlain was for “cocottes”. Turin went on a digression about Proustian duchesses (what is it about Proust and perfume people?) but the landlady’s remark stuck in my head.
Now several years later I know why. There was a substantial element of truth to it, that is if anything substantial can ever be said about perfume. Around 1903 when Caron was founded, there was still a convention about perfume. In 1903 mild colognes or simple floral waters on handkerchiefs were all that respectable women could wear and remain respectable. There were stronger perfumes which used animal sourced ingredients of a sexually allusive nature:civet, musk, ambergris and the rest, but those were for cocottes. They were worn on the skin (note the difference?) or brushed into the hair. No decent woman did that.*
Infact the difference was so important that a perfumer who could not keep his scents straight was apt to commit a solecism. He might confuse his proper buyers with his racier ones. Guerlain with Jicky in particular, had strayed into the tart’s world.* The perfume was worn by men and good time girls until sometime after WWI. Only then did Jicky become permissible for everyone else.
This is where Ernest Daltroff and Francois Coty stepped in. Both celebrated the idea of personality in perfume. The idea of expressing personalities suggested that there were more than two types of women, either. good ones or bad ones. Instead there was a spectrum of female people who had different tastes and habits. Coty based quite a number of marketing strategies on this idea, but it was Daltroff who created a host of characters that just happened to live in perfume bottles. He once wrote that he had found a means through chemistry of expressing a number of different characters, and that is exactly what you find in the old Carons. Each one is distinct and each one is an original fragrance.
This is something to emphasize. Guerlain created different versions of existing hit fragrances. They did not innovate, that was altogether too risky. Coty and Caron though had to carve niches out for themselves being new companies in 1904, and they did so by innovating, and one means of innovation was to compose fragrances for very distinctive types of people. However, when and how did consumer tastes change?
Remember that business of the handkerchief perfume? What had changed? What had happened in the interim from 1910 or so to 1920? The movies. Everyone wanted to be a vamp, everyone wanted to be Theda Bara, or Mabel Normand, or one of the Talmadge sisters. The unthinkable happened. The respectable began to smell like actresses
Part two next week!
- My Exclusive Collection is Jean Paul Guerlain’s new effort and the site is currently down but they promise to be back soon.
- Sylvaine de la Courte’s first collection is available at sylvaine-delacourte.com
- My information comes from Sicard-Picchiottino’s biography of Francois Coty
- Jicky only made it as a recommendation for women in women’s magazines after WWI and was worn by the writers Colette and Proust.