Are you old enough to remember the fiercely intelligent and progressive punk band Gang of Four in their prime in 1979, when they sang “I’ve found that essence rare, it’s what I’ve looked for/I knew I’d get what I asked for” ? Back then, when I was wildly dancing to this song, I thought the refrain was abstractly philosophical, but amidst lyrics referring to popular culture, consumerism, and politics, it may be that the band was riffing on a contemporary advertising campaign for Houbigant’s Essence Rare perfume, which announced in 1977, with deep portent, “We searched until we found the Essence Rare.” When I started collecting vintage perfumes a few years ago, I began to connect these rather obscure dots of memory and experience and of course I decided that I needed to have a bottle of Essence Rare in my collection.
But there are in fact TWO Essences Rare. The original Essence Rare was a fabled and very expensive Houbigant perfume issued in 1928 and discontinued a decade or so later. This Essence Rare was advertised as “the most precious of perfumes” and presented in sumptuous Baccarat flacons. Whenever I research vintage perfumes, I am always struck by the abundant evidence of the pervasive market reach of early twentieth century perfumery. Grace Hummel, a vintage perfume collector and blogger, has unearthed a 1929 ad by the Lazarus Department Store in downtown Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, offering crystal flacons of Essence Rare to its discerning customers, with the largest bottle priced at $125 (that’s about $1,750 today) (https://houbigantperf umes.blogspot.com/2013/05/essence-rare-by-houbigant-c1928.html
Back then, Wilkes Barre was flush with coal mining money and at the peak of its prosperity. I’m fairly certain that you won’t find a similarly costly bottle of perfume selling on Main Street in Wilkes Barre today but, then again, you won’t see children working in its coal mines either. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a time of extreme social inequality and laborious methods of production and distribution, any woman with sufficient wealth and means could get her hands on a bottle of a exotic perfume such as Essence Rare.
(Advertisement: Houbigant, inc. (1930, May 24). Vogue, 75, 2.
During its second coming, in 1976, Essence Rare could therefore be promoted as a kind of rediscovery of a long lost and rare treasure, through allusion to the older, more exclusive perfume, rather than as a launch of something new. But the 1970’s Essence Rare was more accessible than its predecessor and produced for the mass market. Even so, it was a beautifully made and desirable perfume, especially when compared to our current offerings. My 1970’s parfum flacon is shaped like a textured chunk of wood turned to ice. Manufactured by the French glass company Pochet du Courval, the Essence Rare flacon is a pleasure to hold and to apply and is beautifully suggestive of the scent, which, in its 1976 incarnation, is a cool, dry, herbal aldehydic and woody perfume. Its aldehydes feel astringent and deep, rather than sparkling and light, with lots of fresh saddle soap lather and oakmoss, pre-IFRA restrictions. Within the structure of the perfume’s composition, I perceive some subtle floral notes–mostly LOTV, rose, and carnation–and tiny hints of warmth. Not at all green or leafy, Essence Rare reminds me of autumnal leaves and grasses and other similarly austere perfumes such as vintage Tweed, Cialenga, or Replique. If you love these vintage perfumes, you may want to look for some Essence Rare of your own. Since I have only one Essence Rare, I have no idea if my 1970’s parfum resembles the older Essence Rare: that is a search for another day and I really don’t know if I will ever “get what I ask for.”