Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Carven Vert et Blanc Perfume

Carven Dress 1960

Madame Carven circa 1970 sitting atop a factice Ma Griffe perfume box. They say she is a very small lady, but really! I think she must be a very good sport.

Vert et Blanc came to me wrapped in traditional green and white, an old 1960s import from Japan. The juice was not perfect, some had evaporated due to a deteriorated stopper. Despite that I can still smell the jasmine, ylang-ylang, and something like tuberose or is it just the rubber? Vert et Blanc is sharp green and floral. Yet the bottom radiates a unique warmth thanks to a spectacular helping of ambergris, while the top remains impossibly crisp and chic.

Above is Madame Carven's first dress; note her signature green and white stripe. Madame Carven, aka Carmen de Tomasso, began her career in fashion in 1941. Soon she got into perfumes and scored a huge hit with Ma Griffe, composed by Jean Carles. Vert et Blanc, or Green and White, was created for the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels- the first world's fair following WWII.

Above, Carmen De Tommaso in 1951 wearing one of her own designs. Below Carven is 101 years old yet something about her remains child-like. 

Vert et Blanc was typical of Carven's approach to perfumes which she felt were often too heavy and intense for most women. She advised women to buy perfumes that were bright and uplifting instead of wearing something selected by a man who bought it because it smelled good on "the blonde selling perfume in the store." Her attitude was as refreshing as her Vert et Blanc. Classified with Miss Dior, Vivara, Givenchy III and Revlon's great resious green Intimate but Vert et Blanc fits better alongside perfumes like Bandit and Jolie Madame, imo. Certainly it has nothing in common with any powdery, aldehydic or soft perfume.

Classic Perfumes from the House of Carven:
Ma Griffe 1948 (floral chypre aldehyde)
Robe d'un Soir 1948 (aromatic fougere)
Chasse Gardée 1950 (floral amber-spice)
Vert et Blanc 1958 (green chypre)
Eau Vive 1966 (fruity floral citrus)

Modern Releases:
Madame 1980
Guirlandes 1982
Carven Homme 1990
Variations 2001

Musings on Vert et Blanc:

The green is for galbanum. Native to the Mediterranean, Galbanum is related to fennel. A scrubby little shrub with clusters of tiny yellow flowers, the plant has hollow stalks that exude a milky white green substance when cut. Once dried the fragrant resin is used as a fixative for perfumes or burned in incense. Used in perfumes since antiquity, galbanum is one of the four ingredients in holy incense along with stacte, onycha, and frankincense. Its bitter odor is said to represent the bitterness of sin in the world.

Green but not grassy, leafy, or mossy, galbanum is unique and complex. Almost a complete perfume on its own, the notes weave a trail from bright and sharp to deep and meditative: green apples, green bamboo, bitter parsley, evergreen, resins, spices, woods, balsam and musk. It's one of the perfumer's favorite greens because it has the power to create vibrant, saturated green perfumes. Carven must have loved it. Chanel 19, Must de Cartier, Vent Vert, Bandit and Cabochard all rely on galbanum for a lush lash of green.

The white is for ambergris. Ambergris is aged whale puke; sperm whale puke, specifically. Ambergris is made up of a bunch of fatty cholesterol-like compounds including something called ambrein. Ambrein comes from squid and cuttlefish originally; the ancient Romans reputedly used dried cuttlefish as a base for their musky scented fragrances. Sperm whales love their squid and cuttlefish but have trouble digesting the sharp beak bits tucked inside the mouths of cuttlefish and squid. Below, a handful of the squid/cuttlefish beaks:

The sperm whale secretes a sticky black material that binds up all the beaks; then they puke the whole sticky, smelly black mass up. Whale-puke turns waxy and lightens in color as it is pounded against the ocean water and bleached by the sun. The resultant foamy gray-green goop eventually turns to a whitish gray. Once it's aged it has a pleasantly sweet, earthy and salty diffusive odor. Ambergris has been known since antiquity as a fixative par excellence. It is used for precious perfumes since it has the effect of making other fragrances last much longer than they would otherwise. Aged and weathered ambergris is said to be able to retain its odor for centuries.

Above image: aged "beach combed" ambergris available at, currently $25 /gram. Ambergris has been used to flavor dried fruit, tobacco, wine, hot chocolate and even chewed as lozenges. In the Middle East, it is/was used a medicine. In other parts of the world eggs are still fried in fat flavored with ambergris. Ambergris is traditionally used for perfumery in the form of a tincture: 3% solids dissolved in 95% alcohol. The key characteristics of the odor are seaweed-like (I say: salty-inky), woody (sandalwood) and moss with a sweet buttery undertone of radiant appeal and great tenacity. 

People don't like ambergris because of it's association with whale hunting. Today, it is typically collected after the whale expels it but I have seen it being pulled from a slaughtered whales as well. I wouldn't wear a vintage fur, but somehow I justify it for the vintage ambergris. There really isn't anything like it; my apologies to all offended fans of ambroxan. But it's the tension between the combination of green and white that makes Vert et Blanc sparkle and light up so. Not like Ma Griffe nor any of the others it resembles, it's a shame Vert et Blanc went away.
The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.
detail of John Singer Sargent painting
hand with cuttlefish beaks from links
netstrider Ambergris pathfinder
pictures of perfumes, Madame Carven from
hprints for the first photo, black and white dress
Carven 1951 at elssey

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