Hundreds of perfumes are released every year. But only a few of them are successful. And even less make history. To make history, a perfume doesn’t just have to sell a lot, but it must be groundbreaking. Innovative. It must give birth to a new fragrance family. Use accords no one had thought of before. Introduce a new note never smelt before. It must be copied. imitated. It must serve as inspiration for new perfumers who take the innovative idea and put a different twist on it.
How many perfumes do you know that fullfill all those criteria? Not many. Yet, it was very difficult, when I started to compile this list, to pick, among the iconic classics, some of which have been almost forgotten today, only 10 perfumes. There are others that made the history of perfume too, but in my opinion, these 10 were the most groundbreaking:
1. Fougère Royale by Houbigant (1882)
Fougére Royale was the first perfume that mixed natural essences with synthetic notes. Perfumer Paul Parquet wanted to create a fern fragrance. To achieve his idea, he blended, in the top notes, courmarin, a synthetic material, with lavender, geranium and citrus. Carnation, heliotrope and geranium made up the heart of the composition, which ended with a rich accord of amber, oakmoss and musk. Thus, both Fougére Royale and the fougére fragrance family were born. The scent has recently been reformulated, and is now a thinner and subtler version of the glorious original.
2. Chypre by Coty (1917)
Perfumer Francois Coty put a new spin on an old idea. The bergamot, moss, and labdanum accord was known since Roman times, but Coty added to it leather and florals. Unfortunately, the fragrance was never popular with the public. But it can still be considered a success because it inspired other perfumers to create new chypre scents (famous examples include Guerlain Mitsouko and Carven Ma Griffe), giving birth to a new fragrance family. Unfortunately, Chypre has been discontinued.
3. Chanel N°5 by Chanel (1921)
Can any list about perfume and its history be complete without the iconic Chanel N°5? Of course, not. Although many believe its success is due to clever marketing, the juice inside is worthy of praise too. Not everyone these days appreciates its cold aloofness, which is due to its aldehydes (it was the first fragrance to feature them), but N°5 is a well-crafted and polished fragrance. The composition also includes notes of jasmine, rose, iris, vanillin, and animalic notes. The aldehydes may be what made this fragrance remarkable at the time, but it is its floral accord that inspires perfumers today. As for the original, it is still going strong.
4. Shalimar by Guerlain (1925)
Shalimar is one of the few fragrances that has retained its uniqueness. Almost a century after its launch, it is still original and avant-guard. Shalimar contrasts the typical citrusy cologne (with a more than generous dollop of bergamot oil) with a rich oriental accord made of vanilla, tonka bean, castoreum, and musk. Although at the time, natural materials were used, they have now been substituted with their synthetic equivalents, but the scent is still beautiful and radiant. Interesting is also its inspiration. Shalimar pays homage to the love story of the Emperor Shahjahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. When she died, the devastated emperor built the Taj Mahal in her memory. Shalimar can still be purchased today in all its glory.
5. Old Spice by Shulton (1938)
Created by perfumer Albert Hauck, Old Spice was the first spicy fragrance created for men. It opened with a sparkling burst of citrusy notes enriched with basil and nutmeg. The heart is a spicy floral bouquet composed of carnation, geranium, cinnamon, and pimento. Finally the drydown was a woody-ambery accord. These days, the scent seems to be either loved or hated, which is probably partly due to the fact you can smell it everywhere. The new blend now available in stores, though, is different from the original. To make it more appealing to modern audiences, the interesting oriental and spicy accords have been toned down, and the fresh citrusy notes amped up.
6. Ma Griffe by Carven (1946)
Carven was the first perfume house to create a fragrance for younger women. But don’t let that fool you. Ma Griffe has little in common with the sickly-sweet gourmand or fruity floral concoctions that appeal to teenagers today. A chypre-floral scent with oriental-woody facets, Ma Griffe opened with a green gardenia accord. Its heart featured a soft bouquet of rose and jasmine, while the drydown was composed of sandalwood, labdnanum, oakmoss, and vetiver notes. Ma Griffe had to be reformulated due to new regulations about allergens, but it is still worth a sniff.
7. Diorissimo by Dior (1956)
Diorissimo is the ancestor of modern fresh floral scents. But what’s truly remarkable about its composition is its blend of realism and abstraction. Up until then, most floral scents were dedicated to only one flower. Diorissimo took this a step further. Influenced by the abstract trends popular then, perfumer Edmond Roudnitska used the new synthetic notes recently introduced in perfumery to create a fresh and dewy blend that captured both the essence of the lily-of-the-valley and the spring, sunny day when it blooms. Diorissimo features notes of lily-of-the-valley, ylang-ylang, amaryllis, boronia, and jasmine. Still available in stores, the new version is, however, thinner than the original.
8. Vetiver by Carven (1957)
Vetiver by Carven, created by perfumer Edouard Hache, made this eathy note, derived from the roots of vetiver grass, popular. This masculine scent amped up the spicy and citrusy facets of vetiver, which were enriched by mint to give it a cool and fresh vibe, and then darkened and warmed up by a blend of amber and patchouli. Since its launch, many perfumers have added a generous dose of vetiver in their compositions. The original scent was discontinued and then reformulated.
9. Lauren by Ralph Lauren (1977)
If you hate the ever popular fruity floral fragrances, blame Lauren. It’s this 1977 scent created by perfumer Bernard Chant that inspired the trend. But while its modern offsprings are often boring, dull and too sweet, Lauren was a perfect example of how amazing a marriage between flowers and fruits can be, when done properly. It opened with a fresh and sparkling burst of green grapes lying on a bed of leaves. Then, it revealed the elegant and rich, but not heady, bouquet of flowers (rose, freesia and jasmine), before settling down to an alluring and cool moss-sandalwood drydown. Lauren is still around, but because of the many reformulation it underwent, it doesn’t resemble the original composition that much anymore.
10. Opium by YSL (1977)
Yves Saint Lauren released Opium at the height of his career, creating a sensation. Everything about it, from the name accused of glorifying drug use, to the bottle inspired by the wooden box where samurai stored the herbs and opium useful to alleviate the pain from their wounds, to the rich and heady juice inside, was shocking. Opium paid homage to the classic oriental scents of the past, such as Shalimar, but also introduced new, floral, elements into this genre. It started with aldheydes, followed by a rich spicy accord laced in carnation, and ended in an ambery-woody whisper. Opium was discontinued in 2009 and relaunched, reformulated, shortly afterwards. Because the original contained a lot of ingredients that are today considered allergens, the new formula sadly doesn’t have much in common with it.
Have you tried any of these classics? And what other perfumes do you think made history too?