Top 15 classic scents with timeless appeal

Bewildered by the influx of new fragrances? Maybe it’s time to check out the classics.

According to international fragrance expert Michael Edwards, more than 1000 new fragrances were launched in 2011. A thousand! On average, three a day. Compare that to 17 in 1973, 60 in 1988 and 142 in 1996, and you wonder where it’s all going to end. As confusion reigns, classic fragrances could be the way to go. In the first place, there are fewer of them to choose from. Secondly, they don’t scream “celebrity” or “latest trend”. They were designed purely to make women smell divine and unlike the latest offerings, most of which will be gone in a year or two, they’ve withstood the test of time.

Created by master perfumers, in the days before fragrance became commoditised, classic perfumes have their own unique smell. You would never mistake Chanel No 5 for Shalimar, for example, or Arpege for Joy.

One of the people dedicated to making a new generation of women aware of the pleasures of wearing a luxury scent is Francis Hooper of World. In his World Beauty boutiques, he stocks only rare perfumes and hard-to-find classics. So who’s buying? Little old ladies seeking to recapture the past? “No way,” says Francis. “Young, fashion-cool women are coming in and their reaction is – wow!”


Eau Imperiale (Guerlain) 1853
As the name implies, this has royal connections. Guerlain created it for Empress Eugenie, the last French queen, in 1853. Her husband Napoleon the Third wore it too, making it one of the first unisex scents. The royals would have dabbed the bergamot and lemon-based cologne on their handkerchiefs or gloves as “nice” people then didn’t scent their skin. Eau Imperiale is still presented in the original bottle. The bees on the bottle weren’t designed just to create a buzz but were the symbol of the Napoleonic house.

L’Heure Bleu (Guerlain) 1912
L’Heure Bleu takes its name from the “blue hour” between daylight and dark, dusk, in other words. This was the time when Frenchwomen traditionally received their lovers, and wearing it makes you feel like a decadent heroine in a Colette novel. A seductive floral oriental, it captures perfectly the stillness of the air and the scent of flowers on a warm summer evening. Iris gives it a powdery quality. The bottle, with its curlicues and stopper in the shape of an upside-down heart, is typically Art Nouveau. The same bottle was used for another Guerlain classic, Mitsouko, launched in 1919. In the current TV series of Upstairs, Downstairs, the fashionable Lady Agnes wears Mitsouko. Its presence is integral to the plot in the final episode.

No 5 (Chanel) 1921
Five was Chanel’s lucky number. She always showed her summer collection on May 5, the fifth day of the fifth month. But to give her signature perfume a number instead of a name was a pretty radical thing to do at that time, as was her choice of a plain geometric bottle. Described as smelling like a flower garden in the abstract, not one that ever existed in reality, Chanel No 5 is arguably the best-known perfume in the world. A bottle is on permanent display in the New York Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol celebrated it in a series of screen-prints and Marilyn Monroe is reported as saying that the only thing she wore in bed was a few drops of No 5.

Shalimar (Guerlain) 1925
If you ever wondered what temptation smelled like, well Guerlain figured that one out when they created Shalimar. The first perfume to contain the creamy-sweet vanilla note, ethyl vanillin, it remains the benchmark for sensual oriental fragrances to this day. It was inspired by the devotion of an Indian mogul for his wife and the Shalimar Gardens where they met. The mogul, Shah Jehan, later erected the Taj Mahal in his wife’s honour. The bottle represents a fountain playing in the gardens, and the stopper an oriental palm fan. Shalimar was first presented at the Arts Decoratifs Exposition in Paris in 1925, and typified the party mood of that decade.

Arpege (Lanvin) 1927
Referred to as the fragrance of 1000 flowers, Arpege was dedicated by Jeanne Lanvin to her musician daughter Marie-Blanche. The name is a derivation of the musical term “arpeggio”. The bottle, known in France as the boule noir (black ball), is decorated with a gold representation of Lanvin and Marie-Blanche taken from a sketch by the famous French fashion illustrator Iribe. Arpege was thought to go particularly well with luxury furs, not a selling point you would wish to push today.

Joy (Jean Patou) 1930
Joy is probably the only perfume that originated as a floral fix for financial woes. French couturier Jean Patou had it specially created to send as a gift to his wealthy American clients, many of whom lost their fortunes in the 1929 stockmarket crash and could no longer afford haute couture. It takes 10,000 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses to produce one fluid ounce of Joy. For many years, it was promoted as being the most expensive perfume in the world and, as jasmine fragrances go, it has few peers. Patou, a debonair man-about-town, liked to throw champagne supper parties where he mixed fragrance samples for his guests from his own personal perfume cabinet.

Miss Dior (Christian Dior) 1947
1947 was an auspicious year for Christian Dior. He presented his famous New Look fashion collection and launched his first fragrance. Mossy and woody with green notes, Miss Dior is a couture perfume in every sense of the word, right down to the bottle, a stylised interpretation of a tailored suit with square shoulders. Frosted houndstooth checks embossed on the glass give the impression of fabric. The name Miss Dior suggests a chic young woman. That’s why Dior chose it. He didn’t name the fragrance after his sister as it was often supposed.

L’Air du Temps (Nina Ricci) 1948
There’s a lot of emotion tied up with some of the classic scents. French for “the air of the time”, L’Air du Temps alludes to the feeling of liberation that followed the end of World War II in Europe, which had only been over for three years when the perfume came out. The Lalique frosted glass doves that form the stopper symbolise peace. To a blend of bergamot, musk and sandalwood has been added a summer bouquet of gardenia, jasmine and clove-scented carnation. L’Air du Temps is a very lyrical fragrance, although the thing most people associate it with today is the allegorical bottle.

Youth Dew (Estee Lauder) 1953
Most classic perfumes come from France but Youth Dew is a notable exception. In 1950s America, women conformed to the perfect housewife image. They dressed to please men and rarely bought prestige fragrances for themselves. Ever the entrepreneur, Estee Lauder got around this by developing something she knew women would buy – a heavily perfumed bath-oil that doubled as a dab-on scent. The spicy bath-oil proved so successful, it evolved into a proper perfume – America’s first oriental – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Diorissimo (Christian Dior) 1956
A highly superstitious man, Christian Dior believed the lily-of-the-valley to be his lucky flower. He never sent a couture gown down the runway without first tucking a sprig of the tiny white flowers somewhere in its folds. Often imitated but never replicated, Diorissimo is the definitive lily-of-the-valley scent. For his perfume advertising, Dior preferred illustrations to photographs. It was for Dior that legendary fashion illustrator Rene Gruau did some of his most memorable work. One of the limited edition Baccarat crystal bottles that Dior had specially made for the launch of Diorissimo, came up for sale recently on the internet. The asking price? US$2500 ($3178).

Opium (Yves Saint Laurent) 1977
Naming a fragrance after an illegal narcotic may not have been socially responsible but it certainly paid off for Yves Saint Laurent. For 35 years, Opium has been one of the world’s top-selling scents. The idea to do an exotic oriental fragrance came to the designer on a visit to China and Japan. Inro, the small lacquered wooden boxes Japanese samurai hung from their belts, and in which they kept their opium pellets, provided inspiration for the unusual bottle. Advertisements featuring provocatively posed sexy women – actress Emily Blunt is the latest – have also helped keep Opium in the public eye.

Paris (Yves Saint Laurent) 1983
Yves Saint Laurent’s olfactory tribute to the city he loved is as much about roses as it is about the City of Light. Paris is a classic rose fragrance composed mainly of richly-scented, old-fashioned roses with a touch of iris, violet and musk. It made its debut on the runway at YSL’s 1983 winter couture show, accompanied by models carrying armfuls of pink roses. In France, when Paris first hit the shops, it was sprayed on silk rose petals for customers to sample. To mark the perfume’s 10th anniversary in 1993, a Paris rose was bred in its honour.

Jardins de Bagatelle (Guerlain) 1983
Flowers and gardens were always a source of pleasure for perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain. In his time, he created many floral fragrances, and Jardins de Bagatelle is one of the most enchanting. A profusion of white flowers – gardenia, jasmine, neroli and tuberose – it was inspired by the Bagatelle Gardens, a breathtaking public garden on the outskirts of Paris in the Bois de Boulogne. Marie-Antoinette used to stroll there with her ladies-in-waiting, and Parisians flock there each summer to admire the flowers. The classical bottle for Jardins de Bagatelle is based on an 18th century garden column.

Coco (Chanel) 1984
The idea for Coco came from the Paris apartment where Chanel spent much of her legendary life. Decorated in the baroque style, with copper-gold papered walls, crystal chandeliers, tapestries, beige suede sofas and an eclectic collection of exotic treasures, its opulence invited translation into a sophisticated scent. Excluding Cristalle (a cologne), it was the first perfume to be developed since Chanel’s death in 1970, and calling it Coco was a tribute to her memory. Defined as a soft oriental, Coco is rich but not overpowering, a diffusion of flowers and spices on a woody amber base. It’s the only Chanel fragrance to have a black label on the bottle.

Jean Paul Gaultier Classique 1993
Like the clothes he designs, Gaultier’s signature scent challenges the old taboos. In it, he sought to capture the smells of his childhood – his grandmother’s makeup and the scent given off by the actors’ rice powder on his first visit to the theatre. An early ambition to be a pastry chef, and the vanilla cakes he loved as a child, led to the inclusion of vanilla. Gaultier wasn’t the first to present a perfume in a torso-shaped bottle but he was the first to dress a bottle in a pink corset, another reference to his beloved grand-mere. Every summer, the bottle is attired anew in a dress reflecting that season’s fashion collection. The “Gaultier fragrance wardrobe”, as it’s called, is highly collectable.

* All the featured fragrances are still available, if not in New Zealand then online.

By Cecilie Geary

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