It seems that times are changing. Green fragrances were the undisputed kings of the 70’s. They were here long before that but their popularity hit an all time high in the 70’s. Estée Lauder Aliage, Givenchy III, Jacomo Silences, Jean Couturier Corriandre, just to name a few of the fragrances released around that time, that were not only poignantly interesting but also hugely popular. Then the 80’s happened and as much as they brought a new exciting era for fragrances, they also brought an exuberance that made the self-controlled, self-sufficient gems of the previous decade seem out of place, outdated. The 80’s were all about being noticed and big flowers, spices and oriental notes get you there much faster. Balmain Vent Vert, one of the most well known representatives of the green genre, was born in 1947, an offspring to Germaine Cellier and the optimism of the post-war era. Germaine Cellier was a visionary perfumer who loved green fragrances. She facilitated one of the strangest unions in fragrance history by marrying Leather Master with Green Witch, in Robert Piguet Bandit, and in 1947 she unleashed the original version of Vent Vert which some credit as the first unabashedly green perfume. Unfortunately I have yet to sample a well preserved sample of that original formulation but a few months ago I found a modestly priced bottle of the 1999 formulation of Vent Vert by Nathalie Feisthauer: I knew that I wasn’t getting the real deal – after all Luca Turin holds Nathalie Feisthauer responsible for “defacing” the original idea – but I love anything green and I had to give this a try. After all how different can it be? And the bottle looks so cute, with that spherical cap, the lovechild of a thimble and a golf ball. Then a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to get my hands on a bottle of the 1991 formulation by Calice Becker, one that is still considered as acceptable in comparison to the green dragon of the 1945 initial release.
A lot has been written about reformulation in perfumes and the case of Vent Vert is not the one most often discussed because it is a very well documented case of reformulation. Three distinct generations, three documented perfumers, not much hidden. Things become a lot more complicated when people express their opinions on covert reformulations of well known, mass marketed fragrances. Reformulations that happen when production contracts expire and change hands from one company to the next. Like foster children, fragrances are passed from one factory to the other and the idea must be kept alive although the original first materials are kept captive by the company that used to own the production rights. The new company has to start producing a fragrance that will still be able to hold the original name of the fragrance, but they have to achieve the same result using different ingredients. Imagine trying to recreate the taste of the perfect hamburger using chicken meat. You will have to sue a lot of spices and condiments to create the illusion of eating beef. If you’re good at it some people will eat it and say that it is OK, not the best hamburger but still fulfilling. And others will taste it and say that it is absolutely horrible. who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? The exact same thing happens with fragrance: one day you buy your next bottle of your favourite fragrance and wear by wear the strangest feeling starts creeping in. Like having mixed up your underwear at the laundry, you start feeling that there is something going wrong here. At first you can’t quite put your finger on it but there is definitely something wrong. Subtly and mischievously your scent has betrayed you and in the worst possible way. When you look at it straight in the eyes it stares right back at you with the most innocent, devoted look. But the moment you turn your head away and you can only catch a side glimpse of it you can almost feel it nail you with a crazy, malicious stare. You are never able to catch it in the act because when you turn your head back at it its conniving grimace has turned back into that sweet, innocent face you know so well. But the damage is done. Although others may still compliment on how wonderful you always smell, you can never be alone in the same room with your perfume because there, with no one watching, you know you just want to take your latest bottle of your signature scent and empty it in the toilet. Well, that my friends is the bitch that reformulation is. Seldom openly acknowledged, it makes one lose faith in their own perception.
Balmain Vent Vert is the perfect example of how two formulations of a perfume can smell strikingly similar and completely different at the same time. The 1991 Calice Becker’s Vent Vert is the quintessential green: straight up galbanum from top to base, bitter green with a counter-intuitive transparency. Although unabashedly green, it maintains a clarity resembling emerald enamel. What I appreciate in Vent Vert is that it manages to come off as approachable using floral notes, but never gets lost in them. Jacomo Silences, which is one of my all-time favourite fragrances. uses galbanum in a much more austere construction, rigid and frigid, and eventually creates an almost masculine, glistening and cracking whip of galbanum. But Vent Vert creates an inviting version of this smell. I can smell some lily-of-the-valley and musks but they are always in the background. Lily-of-the-valley can be a deal-breaker of a floral, it can hijack the entire idea of a perfume making it smell like hand cream, but in 1991’s version of Vent Vert it doesn’t threaten the green vixen. Little side elements of parsley, basil and anything herbal and fresh you can imagine are also present here, acting as multiple facets of greenness cut onto the surface of galbanum. Official note lists also include asafoetida, a spice that are is know as “devil’s dung”, and although I don’t know exactly what this strange ingredient smells like, I found out that it is part of many green fragrances that I like, most notably Cabochard and Ma Griffe.
How does the infamous 1999 version compare to this? At times it feels completely identical, maybe the hue of green being a little more bright, more neon-like. But then something happens and through the natural, glossy, fresh green juices a nasty, synth- musk smell emerges that is incredibly textured, and not in a good way. The only way I can describe it is like sniffing a Brillo pad from up close, one of those abrasive, steel wool pads soaked in industrial grade, toxic detergent powder. The abrasiveness flies right into your nose and coats the nostrils with a desiccating sensation that goes utterly against the grain of the freshness of all other notes in Vent Vert. The similarities between the two versions are so many and yet the contradictory impact of that Brillo pad effect is so strong, that is impossible for me to give a straight-up answer, do they smell alike or not? I honestly don’t know! It’s like they are 95% identical and 1000% different. I can’t begin to imagine why this steely, woolly, grey note was introduced in the 1999 formula and I know I have smelt before in other fragrances, mostly masculine. I am sure it was meant to replace something that was lost in contract ownerships and regulation compliance , but the end result is like taking out the wheel of a carriage, replacing it with wooden crate and hope that no-one will notice the difference.
If you are interested in discovering what Vent Vert smells like and the 1999 version is the only one you can get your hands on, by all means give it a try. If you like it by all means look for one of the older vintages. If you don’t like because you feel this dry, caustic powder up your nose, then do look for the 1991 version. And lastly, but not least possible, if you don’t like it because you find the green overload tiresome and dated, then don’t go into any further trouble: Vent Vert is definitely not for you in any form and formulation. But since times are changing, green fragrances seem to be making a come-back. Tom Ford Private Collection is expanding with four new green fragrances and soon we may find more and more fragrance lovers swooning over galbanum.
Vent Vert notes from Parfumo: Asafoetida, Basil, Green notes, Lime, Orange blossom, Peach, Lemon, Freesia, Hyacinth, Jasmine, Lily-of-the-valley, Rose, Violet,Ylang-ylang, Amber, Oakmoss, Iris, Musk, Sage, Sandalwood, Storax, Vetiver
Vent Vert 1991 notes from my nose: Galbanum, Parsley, Basil, Lily-of-the-Valley, Musk
Vent Vert 1999 notes from my nose: Vent Vert 1991, Brillo pad