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Bombay Duck London

Houbigant Quelques Fleurs Parfum

I don’t know about you, but The Scent Critic generally prefers her fragrances to come gift-wrapped with a large serving of history, rather than confected with the help of a marketing department, a mood-board and some socio-demographic charts.  And on that front alone, there are few perfumes to knock spots off Quelques Fleurs.  Houbigant, its creator, was a favourite fragrance house of Marie-Antoinette’s.  (Allegedly, she tucked three vials of Houbigant fragrance down her décolletage to wear to the guillotine.)  Napoleon loved the perfume house, too.  (There were Houbigant ‘pastilles’ – an early way to scent the air – burning in the room where Bonaparte died, but lest we get maudlin here, Queen Victoria – not to mention her Russian Tsar cousins – were crazy for Houbigant while very much alive.)

And Quelques Fleurs itself – which by rights out to be one of the most famous fragrances in the world, but somehow isn’t – was a ground-breaking scent in its own right:  the quintessential (as the name suggests) floral, in which jasmine and rose waltz around heady ylang-ylang, in a swagged, crowded ballroom of a scent which features no less than 313 different essences.  Roja Dove calls it ‘one of the 5 most important fragrances ever created’ (right up there with Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar) – and when launched in 1912, it ground-bracingly featured aldehyde, the first synthetic fragrance ingredient (known for delivering a ‘sparkling’ quality) long before No. 5 was a twinkle in Ernest Beaux’s eye.

Why Houbigant dropped off the radar, though, is that as successive owners played pass-the-parcel with its formula, it was downgraded.  Diluted.  Lost the perfumed plot, basically.  (As, tragically, is so often the case.)  Until Roja Dove himself was enlisted by the brand’s new owners – the perfume-savvy Perrin family – to be the velvet-clad prince who brought this sleeping beauty back to life, after the original formula was found serendipitously lurking in the archives.  And I have to say, the result is very beautiful indeed, even if there were some tweaks required due to Brussels’s ‘perfume police’ banning lots of ingredients in the interim.

You probably have to be at least thirty to ‘get’ this, however (although I’m told that a posse of young beauty editors – many of whom appear to me to be about 12 – are happily wearing it).  It’s so grown-up.  Got-a-mortgage grown-up.  Able-to-parallel-park easily grown-up.  Old enough to understand the virtues of investment dressing over the allure of Primark grown-up.  You wouldn’t wear it on a first date (far too serious for that), but you might well wear it to get married.

At first firework-like burst, it’s incredibly spring-like (I want to say there are echoes of L’Air du Temps and Madame Rochs, although actually, on a strictly time-line basis, it’s the other way around.)  There’s muguet, and hyacinth, I’d put money on it – but something pretty grit-in-the-oyster, too:  a very definitely animalic-esque (there, I just invented a word) note that stops this being too frou-frou, and makes it not just pretty but – oh, all right, pretty dirty.  (It’s not actually animalic, of course, in this day and age.  But the slightly – oh, alright – faecal nuances are there, as they are in every great scent.)  The white flowers take a while to emerge:  tons of ylang-ylang, jasmine, a sweet breath of orris, too, plus heliotrope and tuberose.  By rights, it ought to be the scented equivalent of one of those garish Swindon roundabouts planted with in-yer-face bedding plants – but it’s not:  it’s a diva’s armful of long-stemmed, elegant flowers, as she curtseys for the umpteenth curtain call at L’Opéra.

On my skin, it does have Camay-ishly soapy moments – but I’ll forgive Quelques Fleurs that, because I’m bewitched by the whole package.  The box, with its creamy, blotting-paper-ish texture.  The little sculpted bottle, with its gold threaded neck.  And above all, the history:  one dab, and you’re basically a hop-skip-and-a-scented-jump away from Marie-Antoinette, the Comtesse de Matigan, my namesake the Empress Josephine, Queen Victoria and Sarah Bernhardt – hey, even Tolstoy! – among other Hobigant fans.  (Only I defy anyone to stop at one dab.)

This is the magic that is fragrance.  And this is the magic that marketing bods in expensive Paris and Manhattan offices can’t go out and buy, for all the roses in Grasse…



2 comments to Houbigant Quelques Fleurs Parfum

  • Ben

    Believe it or not a less aldehydic version of this is sold by Al Rehab perfumes in the UAE as “Bakhour”, which means incense in Arabic. It is extremely popular in the Middle East and the Muslim parts of West Africa. I have even smelled a toned-down version being used as a posh airfreshener scent added to the AC in an hotel in Khartoum.

  • [...] rose, violet, iris Base: Sandalwood, tonka bean, amber, musk, civet, oakmoss, honey and vanilla. The Scent Critic says better than I ever could: Houbigant, its creator, was a favourite fragrance house of Marie-Antoinette’s.  Allegedly, she [...]

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