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Woodforde's historic perfumes

It's the night of 20 June 1791 and King Louis XVI of France and his wife, Marie Antoinette, are fleeing the French Revolution. Disguising themselves as 'mere servants' in the coaches of a Russian Baroness, they are attempting to leave France by its Eastern border. During a stop at Varennes, however, Marie Antoinette is identified. How? It was simple: "Only a queen could smell that good"! (the day before their flight the queen had called in at Houbigant's perfume shop to stock up on scents for the journey). Historians may have since debunked this story, but for more than 100 years this tale was the tagline for one of history's greatest perfume houses, perfumers to Marie Antoinette, Houbigant.

Founded in 1775 and one the five greatest perfume house at the turn of the last century, there's not much left of the great Houbigant legacy. Their factory was bombed during the second world war and the brand never recovered its former glory. However, although Houbigant's creations for Marie Antoinette have been lost to history, one great historic Houbigant scent lives on, the 1912 Houbigant creation Quelques Fleurs, itself a landmark scent as the first true multifloral of the modern era.

Of course, Houbigant's pre-revolutionary roots reflected a growing interest during the enlightenment for the new arts of personal perfumery that, in France, came to its apogee under the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, Madam du Barry and later the aforementioned fated Marie Antoinette. Progress however was somewhat arrested by the French Revolution which beheaded pretty much all of the customer base of the nascent French perfume industry. Montpellier, in the South of France, which had up to this time been the perfume capital of Europe, saw all of its distillers and perfumers forced into bankruptcy, many never to recover.

However, from the ashes of the Revolution arose new perfume houses. Under the patronage of Napoleon I, the perfume house Rance was founded in 1795 (although the family had traded for centuries earlier in another perfumery town, Grasse in the South of France) and just a few years later, Pierre Lubin (who had been apprenticed to the Marie-Antoinette's perfumer, Fargeon) had set up his own house in Paris. In England the patronage of Queen Victoria was extended to Grossmith in 1835.

By the 1870's and 1880, the great French perfume house of Gerlain (founded 1828) was coming to the fore and experiments with new synthetic ingredients widened both the perfumer's palette and customer choice. In 1882, Houbigant created the first scent ever to use the new synthetic ingredient, Coumarin, in its Fougere Royale, later followed by Gerlain when it used both Coumarin, Lavender and a new synthetic vanilla (vanillin) in its 1889 Jicky (which, stylistically, is not dissimilar to Caron's classic gent's scent, Pour Un Homme).

The idea that perfumery in the first decades of the twentieth century still pursued the Victorian passion for single note florals is not entirely true (although ionone, the newly discovered synthetic violet, made single-note Violet scents affordable to the masses for the first time). The newly discovered and reproduced Grossmith fragrances, Phul Nana, Hasu No Hana and Shem el Nessim are accurately dated (from a hand-written recipe book) to 1908 and display a complex balance of floral and oriental elements. Exactly around this time in France, Ernest Daltroff founded the house of Caron and in a similar experimental vein was using the newly available synthetic ingredients with abandon. We like to think of Chanel's 1921 No5 as the first aldehydic scent but it is clear that Daltroff too had been using aldehydes as early as 1912 in his creation Infini.