Monday, March 22, 2010

Vintage Houbigant Esprit de Noel Perfume; Spring is here but Christmas is still near and dear...

Spring is here and now I spend more time outside and smelling real flowers instead of chasing after the bottled fantasy. As soon as the intoxicating almond blossoms begin to fade, we are treated to the early spring showing of cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms are reputed not to have much smell, but that isn't quite right. We have cherry orchards surrounding our entire neighborhood and a very large tree right in our own front yard. If you sit under the tree, you gradually become aware of its gentle perfume, a papery honey sweet nectar scent and all of the bees that work the thick white clusters with such persistent dedication can surely smell it very well. Cherry trees open their flower blossoms before the tiny leaf buds begin to unfurl, and that's when the scent of Cherry blossoms peaks. Within days of those first blooms and by the time you see small leaves popping out, much of scent seems to have dissipated.

(image: Fashiontribes)

Despite the many charms of the garden, I have been contemplating a series of perfumes that I began collecting over this past winter, a Christmas themed perfume kick (or side kick). Caron's Nuit de Noël was my first inspiration for this series. Unfortunately I do not have a good vintage sample of NdN; mine is a modern EDP spray. It is a sophisticated fragrance, at once sweet and comforting, not nearly so dark or smoky as the vintage seems to be described, with vaguely mossy aspects. Classified now as an oriental fragrance composed of rose, jasmine, tuberose and ylang-ylang, sandalwood and (at one time) Mousse de Saxe and musk. While it did not blow me away, Nuit de Noel captured my imagination, so I began to notice and try a number of other perfumes with similar Christmas inspired monikers: Silent Night, Christmas in July, and White Christmas, to name a few.

(images: hprints)

When I spotted another Christmas themed perfume, Esprit de Noel by Houbigant, I knew it was one I really wanted to try. After all Houbigant creations are of superior quality and construction and the name is rich in history as well. Established in 1774, Houbigant began as the house that catered extensively to royalty and the ultra rich. Known simply as A la Corbeille de Fleurs, or Of the Basket of Flowers in the beginning, the shop was so called according to the quaint story that Jean-Fracois Houbigant arrived at the location of his first shop on no. 19 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore with a basket overflowing with a bouquet of mixed flowers. He began to use the image on his sale bills and signs and for many years the shop was simply known as the one with the "basket of flowers" sign over the door. Upon his retirement, Houbigant passed the company on to his son and from then it went to another Royal Palace perfumer named Chardin. After Chardin, Magny and Gabillot took turns running Houbigant.
(image: hprints)

In 1881, the company was acquired by Javal & Paul Parquet. Parquet is widely reputed to be one of the first to use synthetics in his perfume creations. He is also given credit for creating the first fougere fragrance, Fougere Royale, in 1882 or 1884 (depending on source). Royal Fern is famous in perfume history for the early use of the newly synthetized material coumarin in its formula— which British chemist William Henry Perkin had accomplished only a few years earlier in 1875. Coumarin is derived from the Tonka Bean; Tonka is commonly used in its natural form as a fixative base component that softens and sweetens the perfume. Many say Tonka approximates the effect and scent of vanilla, while coumarin has more of a grassy, almost grainy sweetness and is likened to the scent of newly mown hay.
                                                                  (image: hprints)
It is at this point, in 1882 that most perfume historians begin to catalog the names of Houbigant perfumes. As you would expect from a house with such a lengthy history the list is quite long and in some aspects incomplete. It varies somewhat depending on the source you consult. Both Philip Goutell's Lightyears Project and Basenotes have detailed perfumographies for Houbigant (among others) but my favorite Houbigant catalog (the most historically complete and accurate to this point) has been published online at Fragrantica by member Grace E. Hummel. Many of you may know her also as Cleopatra of Cleopatra's Boutique- to me she is a hero of the free information movement on the Internet and especially in the area of vintage perfume, without parallel. I've appended her Houbigant perfumography here (she begins with the most recent releases and works back in time):

(1988) Demi-Jour (dana)

(1988) Lutece (dana)

(1982) Raffinee (dana)

(1982) Monsieur Musk (dana)

(1973) Chantilly (dana)

(1941) Quelques Fleurs Royale

(2004) Apercu

(2000) Quelques Roses

(1997) Quelques Violettes

(1996) Duc de Vervins

(1991) Sportsman

(1988) Presence

(1984) Les Fleurs

(1980) Ciao

(1980) A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose

(1975) Ambergris

(1973) Civet

(1973) Air Nouveau

(1972) Indian Summer

(1957) Halyard

(1956) Eden Roe

(1955) Thunderbird

(1948) Chantilly (original)

(1946) Air Nouveau

(1945) Sous la Charmille

(1945) Anneau D'Or

(1945) Penny Merrill

(1945) Perseverance

(1945) Faune & Flore

(1940) Lilac Time

(1940) Transparence, reintroduced in 1945

(1939) Presentation

(1938) Magnolia

(1938) Honeysuckle

(1937) Eau Florale

(1937) Versailles

(1936) Verte Foret

(1936) Dedicace

(1936) Incartade

(1936) Farandole

(1936) Boutade

(1936) Town & Country

(1936) Country Club

(1936) Trouvaille

(1935) Chasse-Croise

(1935) La Nuit Tombe

(1934) A Demi Mot

(1934) Lyrisme

(1933) Cle Des Champs

(1933) Diapason

(1933) Presence

(1932) Abandon

(1932) Desinvolture

(1932) Dissonance

(1932) Demi-Jour

(1932) Autre Chose

(1932) Contraste

(1932) Les Heures Choises

(1932) Croquis

(1932) Allegorie

(1932) Ebats

(1932) Enchappee

(1932) Dedale

(1932) Floraison Houbigant

(1931) Entr'Acte

(1931) Parenthese

(1931) Avante Premiere

(1931) Avante Scene

(1931) Episode

(1931) Sports D'Ete

(1931) Sports D'Hiver

(1931) Subterfuge

(1931) Prophetie

(1931) Cadence

(1931) Resonance

(1931) Ritournelle

(1931) Interpretation

(1931) Jeux D'Orgue

(1931) En Sourdine

(1931) Consecration

(1931) Etude

(1931) Plein Ete

(1931) Emaux

(1931) Festival

(1931) Transition

(1931) Dominante

(1931) Chiberta

(1931) Tous-Deux

(1930) Fleur Bienaimee

(1930) Douce Quietude

(1930) Deci-Dela

(1930) L'ile De Beaute

(1929) Au Loin

(1929) Un Tour de Jardin

(1929) L'aile Du Reve

(1929) Intermede

(1929) Couleur du Temps

(1928) Essence Rare

(1928) Raffinements

(1928) L'Art de Plaire

(1928) Fraicheur

(1928) Premier Mai

(1928) Un Parfum Precieux

(1927) Bois Dormant

(1927) Dilettante

(1927) Royal Fern

(1927) La Fleur Bien Aimee

(1926) Un Coin du Ciel

(1926) Heureuse Surprise

(1926) La Fleur Noble

(1926) Temps Nouveaux

(1926) Sur La Terre Endormie

(1926) Souverainete

(1925) Celle Que Mon Coeur Aime

(1925) Curiosite

(1925) Princesse de Legende

(1925) Grand Air

(1925) Au Bois

(1925) Vert Gazon

(1924) La Belle Saison

(1923) Flatterie

(1923) Subtilite

(1923) Au Matin

(1923) Moulin Galant

(1923) En Butinant

(1923) Le Champ Des Oiseaux

(1923) Le Temps des Lilas

(1923) Douce Illusion

(1923) En Visite

(1922) L'Oeillet du Roi

(1922) d'Argent

(1922) Royal Bouvardia

(1922) Rose Ideale

(1921) Mon Boudoir

(1920) Un Peu d'Ambre

(1920) La Rose de France

(1920) Subtilite

(1920) Mes Delices

(1919) Un Peau D'Ambre

(1919) Mon Boudoir

(1918) Parfum d'Argeville

(1918) Note

(1918) Jasmin

(1915) Evette

(1915) Giroflee

(1913) Peau d'Espagne

(1913) Quelques Fleurs L'Original

(1912) Parfum Inconnu

(1912) Quelques Fleurs

(1911) La Rose France

(1908) Premier Mai

(1906) L'Oeillet Du Roy

(1903) Les Violettes

(1900) Le Parfum Ideal, reintroduced in 1926

(1899) Coeur de Jeanette, reintroduced in 1920

(1899) Eau d'Houbigant (original), reintroduced in 1920

(1885) Fougere Royale, reintroduced in 1900, 1920

(1882) Eau de Cologne Tres Pure

Anekdote (unknown launch date)
(image: trubells @ wordpress)

What a list! Well, you would expect such a thing from the favorite house of such illustrious and famous clientele as Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte, right? And if you're still tuned in after all of that, then let's continue retracing the history... Around 1900, Robert Bieniame, an assistant to Paul Parquet, began working as a lead perfumer for Houbigant creating Houbigant's next big hit and one of the classic 20th century perfumes, Quelques Fleurs. While it has undergone several subtle name changes and reformulations including reprises reinstating the original formula, there are still excellent vintage bottles of a variety of formulations- perfume, edc and edt concentrations available. Those of us lucky enough to know this magnificent creation in pure vintage form know it as a beautifully turned out floral composed of jasmine, rose, carnation and a plethora of other flowers. I will be somewhat lazy here and insert my old basenotes review, since I can't seem to think of much to add: "it is a beautiful scent, not green-sharp but very balmy, polleny, exactly like a lush bouquet of assorted flowers, lilac, honeysuckle, narcissus, lily, rose, iris, tuberose, carnation, violet and more, heavy at the point of still bursting fullness, and the base is sweet and precious with beeswax and softest resins. It is light enough to be worn anywhere, and if you recall the scent of Faberge Wheat Germ Oil and Honey Shampoo, you have an idea of the smell of this perfume"... I smell jasmine foremost and could add ylang-ylang and orange blossom, and cross lilac and violet off the list, smelling it today. But exactly part of the charm with Quelques is that its mix seems to allow you to project your current favorites onto it. You should probably seek it out if you haven't already and form your own impressions. Sometime in the 1970s , Houbigant decided to do a retro offering of some of their most popular scents. The boxed set contained 1/4 ounce Eau de Toilette bottles of IDEAL, QUELQUES FLEURS, INDIAN SUMMER and CHANTILLI, and it has a very good smelling representation of Quelques Fleurs.

(this image is mine)

And now back to the Houbigant perfume that sparked my renewed interest in the house: Esprit de Noel. EdN isn't listed among any of the perfumographies for Houbigant, making it an oh, so rare bird... yet it pops up from time to time for sale (usually for a steal, being so incognito). The bottle I purchased (second hand, estate) is from the years 1950-1970. It is frosted, globular with a rather defined shoulder and base, and an atomic, moulded gold-tone plastic screw on top. Embellished with a red and gold fabric bow and a gold foil label on the shoulder that reads: ESPRIT de NOEL/ Eau de Cologne/ Houbigant/ Paris New York/ Cont 4 oz/ Comp'd US. The bottom of the bottle does not have any label. The juice is a beautiful pale olive green in color and the scent is positively outstanding. It begins with a sweet and bright opening of Bergamot and a trace of cedar wood, married by subtle hushed florals quickly give way to the real stars of EdN- frankinscence, myrrh and tonka. The air of EdN is the air outside midnight mass, whisps of the incense softened by the cool night air, traces of pine wood wrapped within sweet resinous balsams. There is a small trace of something off early on- it is a wide flat note, I often describe it as fat. It is bland, weakly sweet and soft, reducing the edges from the composition. Thankfully here it is used in small amounts. And as time goes on, I grow more impressed with the lasting power and strength of the incense notes, along with the tonka they are still going strong after 6 hours. I prefer perfume in nearly every instance however EdN leaves me quite impressed, especially for an eau de cologne. After 6 hours, traces of incense remain with a hint of amber (or ambergris), salty and powdery a perfect punctuation for the lingering gentle incense. It seems Houbigant went with a classic interpretation of Christmas and created what has turned out to be the current star of my Christmas perfume collection. It is befitting that it's also a bit of a mystery... Please share if you know or remember this one!
(image: hprints)
Edit: I just wanted to make sure I included to tell you of the candied citrus and a hidden fruitiness in this perfume. I did not really say enough about how sweet and persistent it is, leaving a divine edible trace on any fabric, and adding another dimension to this scent as does the refined support of a smooth musk in concert with the tonka and ambergris base, and woven deftly with the warm and soft incense but which only appears to me with liberal splashing and after some additional skin time.
The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.


Angela Cox said...

Oh my goodness what I would give to smell all of that list .

Amelia said...

Me, too!

Angela Cox said...

Just got a bottle of Esprit de Noel for a mere £10.00's. I love it too ,much more than Nuit de Noel. I do so wish it could be revived .

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend recently found a bottle of Quelques Fleurs Eau de Toilette in his parents' attic, but I know nothing about perfumes and can't find anything about it through googling. I thought you may be able to point me in the right direction? The box is powder blue, with a lace pattern on it and the silver oval with ribbon, the number 2018 on the bottom. The bottle is a flat teardrop shape with a silver art deco-ish lid. Thanks in advance!

Amelia said...

Angela- you are so lucky to have snagged it for that price! And I do hope you'll be wearing it this upcoming Christmas- I know I will;)

Amelia said...

biro- you are lucky to have found such a treasure. Perhaps a new passion is calling out to you?? Quelques Fleurs has been produced for such a long time- on and off, that without seeing the packaging it is too difficult to date- especially since occasionally Houbigant has reissued vintage presentations. But it sounds like it might be an older version.

You should still be able ot get an idea about value by snooping around completed EBay listings for Quelques Fleurs (try looking for it in the collectibles category versus the fragance category to cut down your search numbers).
Good luck but I think you should just experiment with wearing it!