Report by Marianne Martin, Pictures by Derek Bird
I must start with thanks to the BSP committee, for bringing us all to the gates of Osmothèque, with swan-like apparent ease on the day. We could only guess at their efforts, which had quietly gone on in the months before, to glide us to our destination. Thanks also to the Osmothèque for giving us such a warm welcome.
The Osmothèque sits in the grounds of the ISIPCA, the famous school of perfumery, surrounded by opulent Versailles residences from bygone centuries. One could imagine horse drawn carriages arriving in a cloud of the latest Houbigant fragrance.
From the moment we stepped through the door of Osmothèque, we found many treasures of perfumery history. The cabinets in the foyer were packed with wonder, raw material bottles from the turn of the 20th century, with their intricate graphics. There was a delicately carved sandalwood box, slices of sassafras wood and ‘bois de Rhodes’. This was new to me, but the Internet has divulged that it was commonly used in the early solid fragrances, or Oyselets de Chypre, more of these later……….. .
There was also an extensive collection of antique fragrance bottles to feast the eye on.
Reminders of the use of animal products were there; boxes with Chinese prints depicting the musk deer hunt; a piece of ambergris; and civet horns from Africa still sealed with leather. They reminded me of a story a Bill Bearman once told me. One of his first tasks as a messenger boy in the 1930’s was to carry a civet horn across London on a bus! Much to his embarrassment and I suspect the annoyance of other passengers. All this magic was behind glass – our nasal delights were to come.
Patricia de Nicolai gave us a fascinating lecture packed with detail. She explained how the Osmothèque was founded by ‘Osmothècarians’, CFP (Comité Français du Parfum), the SFP (Société de Parfumeurs Français) and the Versailles chamber of commerce. She took us through the history of perfumery, the first use of synthetics and then gave us some examples from the Osmothèque classification of fragrances.
Osmothèque was founded in 1990. The name comes from osmo the Greek word for smell and theque, Greek for storage, so a place to store and study fragrance. All the latest fragrances find their place here, but we were to study the classics. Many of these are no longer on the market. Original formulations have been presented to Osmothèque, so that the creations from the past can be compounded again.
The fragrances are carefully stored, below ground level, in a ‘cave’ held at 12°C. The head spaces of the bottles are purged with argon, to prevent oxidation. We were not allowed into this inner sanctuary of fragrance, but were able to sample many of its carefully stored gems.
The oldest recipe held at Osmothèque is taken from the works of Pliny, written in the 1st century AD. The fragrance was said to be made for Le Roi de Parthes (king of Parthia). As the fragrance predated the discovery of alcohol by the Arabs, it was oil based. The scent was full of cinnamon bark, styrax and benzoin. A step into the royal court, at one and the same time, we felt a cultural gulf in the strange rich accord, but also some links across time with the familiar cinnamon.
Patricia explained how the Christians had banned personal fragrances, reserving the use of materials like frankincense for spiritual practices alone. The Arabs however loved fragrance. Patricia gave us a quote from Mohamed – he loved three things in life, women, children and perfume. The influence of the Arabs brought fragrance back to Southern Europe.