Characteristic Carons

Distinctive ladylike image for a ladylike fragrance

Distinctive ladylike image for a ladylike fragrance

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.

Theda Bara in her heyday, surely a good candidate for Narcisse Noir?

Theda Bara in her heyday, surely a good candidate for Narcisse Noir?

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.

Another instance of a pre sound movie star, Constance Talmadge in this case.

Another instance of a pre sound movie star, Constance Talmadge in this case.

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.
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12 thoughts on “Characteristic Carons

  1. Thinking about old Carons as compared to old Guerlains reminded me, for some reason, of how Rumer Godden (a once well-known author who is now, like Caron, rather forgotten) used perfumes from these two houses in two of her books.

    Narcisse Noir (interestingly enough, worn by a man) provides the inspiration for the name for her book “Black Narcissus,” whereas Jicky symbolizes the erotic relationship between the straying mother and her lover in “The Battle of the Villa Fiorita.”

    For what it’s worth, Caron is one of my favorite houses, whereas Mitsouko is the only Guerlain I own.

    • Black Narcissus is probably the best remembered of Rumer Godden’s works, because of good old Deborah Carr playing a nun (again). And I had quite forgotten about the symbolism of Jicky and indeed about The Battle of the Villa Fiorita itself. That was a fascinating book.

      Mitsouko, said to be a great favorite of Jean Harlow’s and Diaghelev’s too just how disparate is that?

      Anyway I intend to go into the business of Carons and personalities in the next post. Do feel free to chime in. I would love to get opinions from long time Caron wearers 🙂

  2. Psst – Deborah Kerr.

    I spotted a Rumer Godden book in a local charity shop recently, and you’ve reminded me to go back and take a closer look.

    Bellodgia has been a cosy companion on these short cold days, and I think Montaigne would be cheerful too (if I can unearth it!).

    Looking forward to Part Two 🙂

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

    • Oh Bellodgia! Yes I must unearth my bottle as well.

      It is a comfort on cold rainy days and so is Poivre which warms me down to my toes!

  3. Hi! I’ve been thinking about this post and looking forward to the next installment. I started wearing Caron and Guerlain perfumes within the last five years, so my experience of them is compressed, and I am not sure that I see them as so different in character. Turin’s landlady story has always annoyed me, however, as does any reference to the standard good girl/bad girl dichotomy. It’s funny though! But I still don’t know if Carons really smell more ladylike. How so, I wonder? I am unable to understand Jicky, so let’s leave that one aside. If I compare my vintage extraits of Bellodgia and L’Heure Bleue, to take two likely candidates, I think there are similar doses of civet in each, so equal points for animalism. Does the Guerlain vanillin sexualize these compositions, while the Caron eugenol conveys discipline of mind? Is Mousse de Saxe more buttoned up than the Guerlainade? Perhaps! (I immediately liked MdS: I learned to like the Guerlainade–what does that say about me?) I raise all of these questions just to continue the discussion, Blacknall A. It is always interesting to follow your thoughts on fumes. And I still need to try En Avion!

    • Oh do try En Avion if you can. It reminds me of The Little Prince which my daughter just had to read for French class, though written earlier than En Avion was released.

      I think the Carons are not always “virtuous” take Narcisse Noir that’s definitely “naughty” but they are idiosyncratic. The Guerlains are wonderful but usually they’re retreads. Often they are Cotys as in Emeraude= Shalimar or they are Chanels as in Liu = No 5.
      Carons really aren’t, they are pretty original. So there’s this wacky individuality as in Poivre or Tabac Blond.

  4. Coincidentally, today, when I came finally to read this post, I was wearing Jicky. To the office and later to friends’ house. I hope I smelled respectable enough 😉

    I didn’t realize there was that division of perfume styles/notes in older times. When I read it now in your post, it makes sense and fits into my picture of the world. But I didn’t think about it before.

    In my mind Caron is a brand I associate, mostly, with you and a little with Steve (The Scented Hound) and hajusuuri: nobody else writes about Caron. Whenever I travel to NY next time, I’ll make sure to go to the boutique: I bet I can find modern perfume in their line that I’ll like.

  5. Steve and Hajusuuri have good taste of course!

    And I suppose that all this time later Jicky has lost its naughtiness (though personally I hope not). Some people really liked L’Accord 119 and some like Miss Rocaille which is cheap these days and very green like grass and springtime say some commenters. Maybe not bad for you. Did Steve like it?

    • Well… My memory is good but usually people have to mention liking/hating something at least a couple of times for me to remember 🙂 So, for now, nothing beyond the brand name: I remember that all three of you like more than one Caron.
      If I get to the boutique, I’ll try everything!

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