If you start to explore vintage perfumes, sooner or later you will encounter one that recalibrates your nose, your perceptions, and the entire set of categories with which you understand perfumery. For me, this happened when I sniffed some vintage nips of Lucien Lelong’s Indiscret (1935). (For the uninitiated,“nips” were a form of perfume sample popular between the 1930’s and 1950’s, containing drops of perfume mysteriously and hermetically sealed within a tiny icicle of brittle plastic.) I had read that Indiscret was the signature perfume of the incandescent Lauren Bacall so you can understand that my hopes were very high. I imagined a slinky dark chypre, Bandit-like, rich with leather or tobacco. I cracked open the nip and sniffed…warm, spiced punch? Really? (And just to be clear, I can find no hard evidence associating Bacall and Indiscret, so this could be just another perfume legend.)
As I explored more vintage perfumes, I realized that there were quite a few that were similar to Indiscret, an entire spicy, herbal, ambery class of perfumes that I struggled to name and were not often discussed as a group. These perfumes were defined for me by their strong aromatic spices and their very restrained use of vanillin or benzoin, giving them a dry, aromatic warmth. Sources distinguish between the “ambreine accord” as found in Shalimar, with its contrast between hesperidic and balsamic elements and the “mellis accord” which is characterized by its clove and/or carnation notes, via ample amounts of eugenol, the flowery warmth of benzyl salicylate, and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cardamom. “Mellis,” meaning “of honey” sounded right, and as I kept reading, I knew that I had my new name for these perfumes–honey waters–as found in pharmaceutical and perfume recipes for “aqua mellis” or spiced colognes that date back to the 17th century. These honey waters were distilled from brandy and honey, styrax and benzoin, laced with warm spices and infused with herbs such as lavender, bay leaves, and marjoram.
A good starting point for exploring early 20th-century honey waters is Ernest Daltroff’s Bellodgia for Caron (1927), a gorgeous and unusual perfume that is dominated by its clove or carnation note, with a mossy and resinous base reminiscent of the earlier Nuit de Noel (1922). My Bellodgia extrait, probably from the 1950’s-60’s, has a good dose of vanilla but the sweetness is kept in check by the spices and moss. The smell of cloves can elicit unpleasant associations for some, since oil of cloves was used as a painkiller by dentists in the past, but if you are free from such sad memories, you can just relax and enjoy the complex scent of cloves in Bellodgia. Jean Patou’s Moment Supreme (1929), composed by Henri Alméras, is less honeyed than Bellodgia, with aromatic lavender sprinkled in among the cloves. The original Indiscret, composed by Jean Carles, was rich with cloves and cinnamon: it has since turned into a wan fruity floral. Another great perfume from the House of Lelong, Balalaika (1939), perfumer unknown but I am going to guess Carles again, has herbal facets similar to Moment Supreme and no perceptible cloves, but it is still spicy, dark, and rich with a beautiful gardenia note.Tailspin, created by Carles for Lelong in 1940, has a deeper phenolic medicinal quality, reminiscent of the now-banned coal tar soaps, but in a good way, if you can imagine this. But the most successful honey water of all time has to be Tabu, composed by Carles for Dana in 1932. Leaving aside all of the flimflam about Tabu being designed for prostitutes and the frissons induced by the tagline “The Forbidden Perfume,” one can perceive that Tabu fits right in, almost demurely in fact, with the other aromatic honeyed waters of the 1930’s and 40’s. And I cannot fail to mention Josephine Catapano’s Youth Dew (1953), a big-boned and exuberant American continuation of the genre.
Are there contemporary perfumes that smell like these vintage honey waters? Tabu and Youth Dew are both still in production, still recognizable and worn by seekers of atavistic perfume pleasures. Among more recent perfumes, I would point to Daniela Andrier’s Gucci Eau de Parfum (2002), Christine Nagel’s Fendi Theorema (1998) and Michael Roudnitska’s Noir Epices (Malle) (2000), where the spices and resins give off their gorgeous aromas without being overshadowed by too much synthetic woodiness or oudy-ness or overly syrupy gourmand notes. (Be sure to check out Ana’s great review of Noir Epices as a “cold oriental” here:
Sadly, recent restrictions on eugenol (2013) suggest that these spicy honey waters may be a thing of the past, unless perfumers find new ways to evoke the rich and long-treasured scent of cloves and carnations.