The perfume house of Caron is perhaps not very well known outside the perfume-collecting community, but it deserves at least as much recognition by the general public as names like Dior and Chanel.
Caron is part of the tradition of French 'grand perfumery' - luxury products for a luxury market, containing the best of ingredients, both natural and synthetic, and a heaped-up, stick-it-all-in abundance that is the opposite of today's minimalist taste. Back in its heyday, Caron was a better-known house than Guerlain, and with a better reputation: Guerlain's perfumes were for cocottes, it was sniffily said; Caron's perfumes were for duchesses.
The house was founded in 1904 by Russian emigré and self-taught perfumer Ernest Daltroff, who worked with his mistress, Félicie Wanpouille, the inspiration for all his fragrances. Many of the perfumes from this era can be read as secret love letters from one to the other.
All Caron perfumes are said to contain a base named the 'caronade', which locks all the perfumes together as a family and smells of marrons glacés, the uber-sweet, sugary French dessert that one traditionally eats with cream and which is firmly associated in my mind with the Jardins du Palais Royal in Paris, one baking April day when I had just interviewed Serge Lutens and come away with a sack full of perfumes.
Certainly, the Caron perfumes I'm acquainted with have a certain 'deliciousness' in common. They are creamy, yummy and buttery, settle into the skin and stay quietly inside your clothing until a sudden waft escapes, giving the sensation - as Tania Sanchez said of Guerlain's Mitsouko - of someone else having walked into the room.
They develop beautifully on the warmth of the skin and go through quite distinct phases, but it is almost impossible to pick out individual notes, as the perfumes are too well blended.
Caron perfumes are also private pleasures, without a great deal of 'throw' or sillage: indeed people may not realise you're wearing perfume at all - the effect is more like you yourself smell wonderful. For this reason, they are ideal perfumes to wear for any occasion when you'll be in close proximity to others for some time, such as at the cinema or theatre, or during sex. But above all, wear them - like a cashmere sweater - for your own enjoyment, rather than that of others.
It should be noted, for anyone thinking of trying them, that Caron perfumes have undergone reformulations that many in the perfume community feel are disastrous, under the art direction of Richard Fraysse. However, IMHO, the ones actually created under his leadership are perfectly pleasant. You can also pick up vintage versions of the old Caron perfumes on Ebay. Failing that, it's best to find a Caron shop and sample the pure perfumes (an option that isn't open to me, living in rural France - I just make do with whatever strength I can find online, preferably EDP but EDT if there's nothing else).
Below, I'll review the perfumes that I'm actually familiar with. Other than the house of Serge Lutens, Caron is the only house I'm actively collecting.
Perfumes that I haven't tried from Caron include: Acaciosa, N'aimez que Moi, Tabac Blond, Infini, En Avion, Alpona and Farnesiana.
A violet-based fragrance, but when I say violet, for me it's violet leaf, not violet flower. This has a much earthier, skankier smell than Parma Violet sweets and their ilk, so get ready for a heavy, chocolately, rooty experience with this one. It's my least-favourite Caron so far, but I do find it's growing on me, and it definitely reminds me of walking into Chocolatier Casati at Bagnoles de l'Orne with its chocolate, guimauve, sugared-almond smells. The nose is Dominique Ropion, whose best work has been for Frederick Malle. Some others find this perfume sweeter than sweet from top to finish.
Based on carnation and devised in 1927, I have only tested the modern formulation. It is beautiful, but a little weak and quiet for my taste in the EDT. I found myself comparing it with Serge Luten's Vitriol d'Oeillet rather unfavourably. Vitriol d'Oeillet is a stiletto-sharp blade of a perfume - a savage, evil carnation, while Bellodgia is very quiet and creamy. Unfortunately, the modern formulation is so weak that it all but disappears in about 15 minutes, partly due, says Turin, to the new EU regulations on the use of clove oil, so here is one instance where I'll be trying the vintage version when I can afford it. For now, the best approach is to spray on two applications about half an hour apart, or layer it with a dab of Vitriol d'Oeillet.
Fleurs de Rocaille
Not to be confused with the same firm's Fleur de Rocaille (without an S), which is modern, this is a much older perfume. The perfume was devised in 1933 but my tiny Baccarat bottle of pure perfume and large bottle cologne are both 1960s vintage, though it they retain all the gorgeousness of the pre-reformulation fragrance. It's described as prim, proper and inoffensive by some reviewers, such as Luca Turin, but I don't agree at all. I feel completely delicious in Fleurs de Rocaille's flowershop bouquet embrace. Notes include half the perfumer's palette: palisander, bergamot, gardenia and violet; orris root, jasmine, narcissus, rose, carnation, lily of the valley, ylang-ylang, lilac, mimosa and iris; amber, sandalwood, musk and cedar. NB: the modern version, Fleur de Rocaille, is said to be a much more feeble creature.
Le Troisième Homme
Supposedly a masculine fragrance, with citrus and flowers, but so well blended that it is almost impossible to pick out the notes. I first tried the modern version, in a 4ml mini format and instantly went back out and bought 100ml. Citrussy top notes give way to a mixed floral and then a drydown of such exquisite balance that I can't really describe it - warm, beeswaxy, honey-like. For me, it was love at first sniff. What makes this fragrance a masculine is beyond me - it's beautiful on a woman.
One of Caron's modern offerings, devised in 2007 but smelling every bit like a vintage fume. This is a delicious spicy, powdery yellow oriental floral with great staying power - sprayed on before bed, it's still perfectly discernible after breakfast. The top notes are jasmine, coriander, mimosa and bitter orange, the middle note is single - narcissus - and the base notes are sandalwood, amber and vanilla.
Muguet de Bonheur
My bottle is vintage, from the 1960s. Muguet de Bonheur, the name of the lily-of-the-valley offerings that French people make to each other on May Day, is a green, bright muguet that came out about the same time as Diorissimo but was never as popular. It is a nice enough fragrance and perfectly respectable, but a little linear for my taste and compares poorly with Diorissimo's far greater complexity.
Nuit de Nöel
Named for Christmas Night, Félice's favourite night, you might expect this perfume to smell of cloves and spices, etc, but it doesn't at all. Top notes are ylang-ylang, rose and jasmine, the middle notes are sandalwood and oak moss, and the base notes are musk and amber. My bottle is 1960s vintage, and therefore a splash version, so I have decanted it into a spray. My version dries down very quickly, like Old Spice aftershave, but then remains on the skin for a long time - easily discernable in the morning when sprayed before bed.
A truly delicious perfume, devised by nose Jean-Pierre Bethouart who also designed Paul Smith's London for Women, this is a wonderfully spicy, peppery, cinnamony scent that makes me feel completely luscious. Notes include rose and narcissus, incense and musk, but the balance and weight of this perfume differ from any other I've tried in which the same ingredients appear. I would now love to try the 'Intense' version.
Pour un Homme
Another classic men's fragrance, based on lavender and vanilla. Starts out as lavender and dries down to vanilla, though the lavender is reactivated with heat, sweat or moisture. I have two versions of this - one the modern version in a mini 5ml EDT and the other a vintage 50ml spray. Both are EDT. The difference, I would say, is that the vintage version has much stronger top notes - very citrussy, with shades of rosemary and mint, and the lavender is much stronger, almost distressingly so. However, after an hour or so it settles to the same lavender/vanilla drydown as the modern fume. This is a most gorgeous fragrance for undecided days, days when you want to feel clean but don't fancy a white floral. The idea of it being a male fragrance is ludicrous - this would work well on most women and I wear mine a great deal.
Royal Bain de Champagne
I was extremely lucky to pick up this vintage version of the modern Royal Bain de Caron on Ebay, which dates from the days before the Champagne wineries forced the withdrawal of the word from all other manufacturers. The nozzle was so caked with resin that I had to pick it out with a pin, and the top notes were a weird blast of benzoin and something unpleasantly green (opoponax?). But oh boy, once it settled down, the ambrosial mix of lilac and rose, incense and amber, vanilla and sandalwood... Smells nothing like champagne, but an awful lot like heaven.
Yatagan is something I wanted because it's an animalic - a genre that I like very much (just chuck a wad of civet, castoreum and costus at me). I bought a mini bottle on Ebay and for some time thought it was a frag too far - way too strikingly masculine a fragrance to actually wear. But I have come round to it even on myself in small doses. You know a fragrance is good (like Serge Lutens' Gris Clair) when you're not sure you like it, but you can't keep away from it.
Fragrances I hope to test in the future include Tabac Blond, Farnesiana and Narcisse Noir.
Caron perfumes are available online, from the firm's store in Paris and via selected outlet.