digging (into) vintage: Caron Bellodgia, 1927

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Perfumer Ernest Daltroff

When a classic perfume falls from grace reformulation is typically the first target of rage. The story of how chypres and fougères were vandalized by IFRA has been repeated so often it’s become a moral fable. Replace IFRA and the consumer with the tortoise and the hare or the grasshopper and the ass and you have a modern addendum to Aesop. But in this case the story is largely true. The classic chypre and fougère are dead. I’d rather mourn the loss of Mitsouko, Miss Dior and Paco Rabanne pour Homme than wear the current version. Does this make me a snob? I believe it makes me an informed consumer. Mitsy, Missy and Paco have been hamstrung and I’d rather move on than wear a perfume that no longer meets Guy Robert’s principle criterion. (Bit of a lie, here. I have multiple vintage back-ups of each.) It’s proved harder than expected to find viable solutions to the loss of these pivotal components and replacement materials are only partially effective. Molecular tinkering (eg. low atranol oakmoss) has allowed some of the extant classic chypres and the fougères to lurch on, but the expression dead man walking comes to mind. The original versions were achingly stylish and flew out of the bottle like forces of nature. The current versions, meh.

The chypre and the fougère aren’t the only genres to have suffered the indignity of reformulation. Arguably, some genres have sustained even greater injury. Restrictions on the materials used in virtually all historical carnation and muguet scents have made their modern versions zombies. Muguet and carnation both live on as ‘notes’ in many mixed-floral perfumes but with a few exceptions there aren’t many modern carnation soliflors.

The state of the classic carnation is grim, but reformulation hasn’t been the only factor in the demise. Changes to composition have damaged the quality of the carnation, but trend and style have made it old, a mortal sin in perfumery. The carnation, poor dear, is simply out of fashion. It’s the creaky floorboard of perfumery. Reformulation is a motherfucker, but Bellodgia’s true tragic flaw is anachronism. The carnation, and Bellodgia is the consumate carnation, falls into every trap of perfume stereotyping. The late 19th century Dandy. The Good Girl. And of course, the Old Lady.

But vintage Bellodgia had an advantage: it is gorgeous. Carnation has always been an atypical floral, heavily indolic but unlike narcotic white florals; astringent but without the freshness of springtime green florals. Compared to the famously multi-faceted rose, carnation is direct and specific. The clovey crispness is the antithesis of the sultry, drawling tropical florals. Carnations were based on materials that are either restricted or banned today: eugenol (and related materials), benzyl salicylate, nitro musks and gobs of sandalwood. I don’t refer to these materials because I know anything about composition, but because I can smell the gaping difference between the vintage and the thin, sour contemporary version. It’s common knowledge that these retired materials were central to the original composition of carnations like Bellodgia. These materials recreated the scent of carnation, but equally importantly they gave dimension and subtlety.

Calling Bellodgia a carnation soliflor is misleading. By the standards of the time it is a floral oriental. A powdery vanilla/heliotrope/orris element covers the creamy sandalwood and dry, peppery carnation. To my nose, this combination has a lock-and key elegance similar to the chypre accord or the amber/vanilla oriental. Unfortunately, I suspect that to most noses it is just ‘perfumey’ [read: old]. Bellodgia’s genius lies in the way it avoids all oriental clichés. The indolic carnation and vanilla merge and a sharp muskiness prevents any gourmand references. Bellodgia creates a precise layer between creaminess and powder—like an olfactory version of a cosmetic pressed powder. Bellodgia’s composition might be complex, but the perfume itself plays out over a tight range. It has a pleasing sillage that suits the conciseness of the fragrance yet is a textbook example of the evolution and coherence that the perfumes of the era had perfected.

More than the other early Caron feminines that I know (Fleurs de Rocailles, Narcisse Noir, Nuit de Noel, En Avion) Bellodgia capture the difference between the Caron style and that of its historical rival Guerlain. Bellodgia’s indolic, dry vanillic tone is nothing like Jicky‘s smoked vanilla or the custardy vanilla of Shalimar. The parched, bitter pressed-powder is nothing like Mitsouko’s fruity powder-puff. Unlike Jacques Guerlain’s resinous smoky leather notes, Daltroff created a very specific hint of leather in Bellodgia, buttery but stiff. Bellodgia’s glowing rose was illuminated by sandalwood, nothing like the herbal rose nested in the guerlinade that underscored most of Jacques Guerlain’s perfumes.

Bellodgia points out how a perfume becomes anachronistic. For the most part carnation perfumes have passed on and carnation’s olfactory profile doesn’t have a counterpart today. Bellodgia was made with materials no longer in use today. And most of the the components that form the vocabulary of contemporary perfume didn’t exist in 1927. Many vintage fans love Bellodgia and appreciate the historical significance and aesthetic. But there’s a hook for the fan of more contemporary independent perfumes as well. Bellodgia is so dated that it could be new again. Untethered from its historical baggage it might appeal to those who have no previous associations with it.

 

(image source unknown)

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