digging (into) vintage: Madame Rochas and Hermès Calèche

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(photo Cecil Beaton for Vogue 1948. Charles James Gowns)

At the start of the 1960s Guy Robert released two aldehydic floral chypre perfumes—Madame Rochas in 1960 and Hermès Calèche in 1961. The two perfumes have similarities but a back-to-back comparison reveals the differences that make the two perfumes diverge steadily over time. Though young, Robert quickly came to be one of the most influential perfumers of the era and an expert of the floral-aldehyde. The genre might seem dated today but the compositions are detailed and balanced. They say much about the style of the era and are pitch-perfect examples of the state of the art of mid-century perfumery.

If you are a fan of aldehydes they are the consummate perfume material. Bright, pure, exquisite. They always land at the far end of some spectrum or another. They give floral perfumes a feeling of standing on tippy-toe.  For whatever quality you apply to them— melodramatic, chaste, definitively feminine—they are superlative. Of course, if you don’t like them, they are piercing, tinny and harsh—like fingernails on a chalkboard. For this latter group, one floral aldehyde is like any other floral aldehyde and the differences between  Chanel 5 or 22, Arpège, White Linen, Parure, Calandre and Noontide Petals are minimal. If you acquire a taste for floral aldehydes, though, the differences become more noticeable and more interesting.

In the 1950s and 1960s new perfumes were far less common than today and a company often staked its reputation on a release. Perfumes weren’t briefed and panel-tested to mediocrity as has become the practice. The tactic was not simply to identify a perceived opportunity in the market and then tailor a product to fit it. There was a working assumption that excellence will out. The strategy was to work with an outstanding perfumer, have a meaningful discussion of the values of the brand and the goals of the perfume and then not to compromise on quality. The implication of this approach is that a brand shapes its identity by defining its own criteria, standing by it and then nurturing the sensibilities of its clientele. If you build it, they will come.

Rochas already had a solid reputation in perfumery. Its line of three perfumes launched in 1936 had been discontinued due to the necessities of the German occupation of France in WW II. Femme (1943-4), by Edmond Roudnitska, was the reboot of the company’s perfume line. It quickly came to stand shoulder to shoulder with Guerlain Mitsouko as the reference fruity chypre of the era. By the time Madame Rochas was launched there were four perfumes in the line, all by Roudnitska. (Moustache was composed by both Edmond and Thérèse Roudnitska.) Rochas also had the prerogative of a fashion house—it had the option of reinventing its style with each season.

Hermès is a different story. While fashionable, they were not a couture fashion house. They made functional fine art pieces for the elite horsey set and sought a perfume that conveyed the the particular sensibilities of their house. They had previously had only two perfumes to their name: Eau d’Hermès (1951, also by Roudnitska) and Doblis (1955, Guy Robert) both of which were unadvertised and available only in Hermès boutiques. Calèche was the brand’s attempt to have a wide-release, signature perfume—their Diorissimo, their No 5. Calèche would be like the Hermès silk scarf, a reasonably affordable entrée into the rarified world of the Hermès gentry. There was a lot at stake with Calèche.

Given the importance of Calèche to the reputation of the brand, it is interesting that Hermès chose a perfume so similar to one that had been recently released by another house and by the same perfumer. There are a couple of explanations. First, in the 1960s perfumers were not identified publicly, so few who bought perfume would know that the same perfumer composed both Madame Rochas and Calèche. More importantly, the floral aldehyde genre was the top of the French feminine perfume hierarchy and defined perfume. Small distinctions within a well-known genre can carry great significance and Hermès likely felt that their product would be specific enough from other offerings to distinguish it.

So, the perfumes. I have smelled the current version of Madame Rochas and will exempt it from the discussion as reformulation has distanced it too much from its original composition to be considered the same perfume. The current version of Calèche (eau de toilette, parfum, soie de parfum) is considered by some to have been killed by reformulation.  I disagree. I find the current version simply trimmed in the Jean-Claude Ellena style, like the other ‘classic’ Hermès perfumes such as Equipage and Bel Ami . Still for this discussion I am comparing a 1989 Madame Rochas Parfum de Toilette and a pre-1978 Calèche Eau de Toilette, both in excellent states of preservation.

The shape of the two perfumes is very similar in the topnotes, but Calèche is the more concise of the two. Its layers of notes are more tightly kempt than Mme. R which leans toward richness and a juicier layering. Both are expansive at the outset, but become less so as the aldehydes, so bright in the topnotes, become soapier and less forceful in the heartnotes. In both perfumes the aldehydes fulfill their traditional goal of amplifying and lifting the floral notes that form the central bouquet of the perfume. There are a number of aldehydes used in perfumery and they vary quite a bit, but the aliphatic aldehydes that are used in this genre have a similarly ‘lifting’ effect in floral perfumes. (For an excellent lesson on aldehydes, see Elena Vosnaki’s Perfume Primers: Aldehydic Florals for Beginners at The Perfume Shrine.) Neither perfume is vaguely minimalistic and the mix of floral notes when amped by aldehydes is complex and wonderfully difficult to reduce to any specific flowers. The floral elements of both perfumes form a swirling bouquet, though both jasmine and rose peek out a bit more, similarly to the way they anchor the floral mix in both Chanel 5 and Jean Patou Joy.

The differences of the topnotes become more pronounced over time and despite a similar start, the perfumes grow more distinct in the heart and basenotes. Calèche’s focus on woody notes keeps the composition tight and focussed. The floral topnotes become boxed in by the dry, woody notes that come to define the borders of the fragrance’s drydown. There is a coolness to the woods, a fir or pine note, that gives the perfume a leathery quality and brings it in line with another Robert perfume, Equipage, which would be Hermès’s next release in 1970. This compact woody-floral quality nailed to a leather backdrop can make the perfume seem a bit stern and unsmiling, but the same can be said of Chanel 19, the definition of austere luxe. A bit of aloofness seems appropriate to the Hermès brand, whose clientele at the time were more focussed on the equestrian life than world peace.

Calèche retreats from an expansive opening and settles into a sensibility of composure and restraint fairly quickly. Madame Rochas instead rushes forward, using the effusive topnotes to springboard into a much more lyrical and unbridled tone. Its aldehydic quality is waxier than Calèche and ties more to the languorous side of the floral bouquet—oily ylang and narcissus, earthy muguet. It gains a rich, dusty and vanillic aura in the drydown. Where woods defined the scope of the florals in Calèche, Madame Rochas has a powdery, resinous drydown that was typically found in the orris and tonka base of floral-oriental perfumes.

Mid-century French luxury and fashion were highly coded in their own symbolism and vocabulary. Their meaning in terms of social etiquette and class distinction is happily lost on me. Reformulation arguments aside, Madame Rochas and Hermès Calèche are relics of their time. They were embedded in customs, aspirations and genders that have a natural history museum-like quality to my 21st century post-queer perspective.  So what is their value today?  Each of us who rediscovers them might decide differently, but I find them beautiful and fascinating in their own rights. They also fill in the picture of the language that perfume creates not with each sniff, but over time. Mme. R and Calèche would have been fascinating to smell at the time of their release. Did women find them similar? Distinct? What would they have made of Guy Robert’s later work such as Equipage, Amouge Gold Woman and Gold Man?  Following the work of an individual artist is an interesting way to look at a whole field of work and Robert has left us an exemplary set of guideposts.

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