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The queen and the apprentice

04 July 2012

A black jade scent bottle once held the last remaining scents of a secret garden. The discovery of its formula, copied by an indiscreet apprentice, has finally revealed its mysteries.

In 1784, 10-year-old Pierre François Lubin became the apprentice of Tombarelli, a master perfumer of Grasse, in the south of France. After years of rigorous training, Lubin then went to Paris to complete his perfumery apprenticeship in the prestigious workshop of Fargeon, perfumer to the French Royal Court. The young Pierre Lubin’s ambition was subsequently to join the corporation of perfumers founded in the 15th century which was enjoying a growing prestige at the time and the queen’s perfumer Fargeon was therefore a familiar face at the Royal Palace of Versailles, where he regularly brought his preparations to Queen Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette

The 18th century saw the absolute power exercised by the sovereign increasingly subject to criticism. Under increasing attack, the French royal family was finally imprisoned in the Tuileries castle in Paris. Amidst this revolutionary Paris, Master Perfumer Fargeon remained loyal to Queen Marie Antoinette and continued to supply her with his preparations. One of these was his “eau de toilette”, an alcohol-based infusion that the queen applied to her skin during her morning ablutions to maintain the fresh complexion that caused so much envy at court.

The young apprentice Lubin carefully copied all his master’s formulae: he would remember them when he setup his own shop in rue Sainte Anne a few years later in 1798, when he too launched his own famous “eau de toilette” that established his reputation. Indeed, Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thérèse of France, who had become the duchess of Angoulême, quickly adopted it after her return from exile in 1815, and in turn appointed Lubin as “supplier to the Duke of Angoulême”.

But the young Lubin was also interested in a mysterious perfume that the queen had ordered from Jean Louis Fargeon during the creation of the Trianon rose gardens, her private domain. The roses in the recipe he carefully recorded of course evoked the flower garden, and are combined with jasmine from Grasse, but the use of spices and noble woods imported from distant lands, those that inspired the motifs of the wall decorations at Versailles, gave it greatly more exotic tones. Precious patchouli and sandalwood, vanilla and cinnamon, coriander and cardamom, frankincense and galbanum were brought to the perfumer at great expense from India and French islands beyond the seas. With these ingredients, the initially cool floral fragrance became mellow and warm on the queen’s skin. It left a discrete trace with notes of amber, elegant and sensual. The queen took it everywhere in a small flask of black jade that protected it from daylight.

In the House of Lubin archives, an overlooked recipe preserved by the young apprentice Pierre Lubin bore the enigmatic name of “jardin secret”, without any explicit reference ever being made to its true origin. Recent analysis however has finally connected this recipe to a gift entrusted to a noblewoman and very dear friend to whom the queen gave the black flask with its nostalgic whiffs when they parted for the very last time before her execution. Together, flask and recipe hold the “secret garden” of this tragic queen, the memory of her happy days, of spring evenings in the simple intimacy of the Petit Trianon, at Versailles, far from the pomp of the court.

View Black Jade here

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What the paper's say

Since discovering Woodforde & Co in Sidmouth, I know where to go to find my perfect perfume. This charming emporium is located in Church Street and is run by husband and wife, Jon and Jane Brewer, both of whom have an encyclopaedic knowledge and an enthusiastic passion for perfumery.

Devon Today