If any nation can call itself the birthplace of perfume as we know it, it is France. While the origins of fragrances stretch back to ancient civilisation, it was in France that the humble use of perfume was transformed into an industry. The fashion began with the French court, which was looked on as a centre of culture, and gradually spread to a wider society. Nowadays, scent is an indulgence that has the power to transport us to other worlds, to lift our mood, to evoke cherished memories or simply to add the finishing touch to an outfit. While hundreds of different ones emerge each year, only a few stand the test of time. And many of the most enduring are produced by the historic fragrance houses of Paris.
Founded by Jean-François Houbigant in 1775, Houbigant is one of the world’s oldest perfumers. Its beautiful scents were loved by the most important names of their era, from the French queen Marie Antoinette and the emperor Napoleon to Queen Victoria of England. Houbigant was known for innovation, both in the way its perfumes were made and in how they were used, such as to scent a fan so that a coy wave would release the perfect hint of fragrance.
Houbigant’s creations have been so well-loved that they have endured for decades, even centuries. Fougère Royale, launched in 1882, was a revolution in the world of fragrances. ‘If ferns had a perfume smell, it would be that of Fougère Royale’, said perfumer Paul Parquet at the time, and this groundbreaking scent created a new fragrance family which remains the most popular for men. Due to its absolute commitment to excellence, Houbigant keeps its range small, with a focus on longevity. An exemplary scent smells as good today as it ever did, after all, and while the packaging may have changed – the fragrances can now be bought in limited-edition 18 carat gold-painted porcelain vessels, for example – the appeal of Houbigant’s signature scents has not.
Creed is one of the few fragrance houses whose founding predates that of Houbigant, although the Parisian element of its history began later. Established in 1760 in London, Creed was another favourite of Queen Victoria. In 1854, the firm moved to Paris at the invitation of Eugénie, empress consort to Napoleon III, and its perfumers were soon making bespoke scents for both the most discerning citizens of Paris and the courts of other European countries.
A family business
The business remains in the hands of the founding family, and is run today by Olivier Creed, aided by his children, Erwin and Olivia. The company continues to grow and expand, and yet heritage is crucial. The earliest ever Creed perfume, Royal English Leather, is still in production. As Olivier explained to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, it is the unique nature of the company that allows it to retain the original Creed spirit. ‘Other houses would be scared to keep something so old, but because we are independent we can keep making it’, he explains. Erwin, the heir apparent, shares this passion for tradition and for Creed’s way of doing things. ‘My father knows the exact formula of all his scents. Other brand owners don’t know what’s in their fragrances.’
What the Creed family see as their defining factor is their absolute control over their business, and the independence this gives them to create fragrances. Crucially, there is no limit on the time taken to create a scent, and no limit on the budget. The importance of this is echoed by Richard Fraysse, perfume creator at Caron. ‘I am lucky enough to have complete creative freedom, with no budget or marketing constraints. I can favour rare natural essences … so as to remain true to the great tradition of luxury perfume.’
Caron, established in 1904, has over a century of history to its name. Founder Ernest Daltroff was inspired by his love for his colleague Félicie, and together they created a host of powerful fragrances. Its first fragrance exclusively for men, Pour Un Homme, was released in 1934 and still sells well today. Similarly, Tabac Blond for women – launched in 1919 – remains one of Caron’s most iconic products. Limited-edition vessels, such as a marble and wood case carved to resemble a horse pulling a bottle of Tabac Blond, maintain the avant-garde spirit that propelled Caron to fame without altering the crucial elements from its heritage.
What makes these scents so enduring? Fraysse has the possible answer. ‘Despite advances in chemistry and the pursuit of profit, fragrance should remain a rare and precious luxury product, so as not to lose its original purpose: to make the wearer dream.’