Tuesday, 10 March 2015
Victorian perfume reborn: Grossmith Phul-Nana
post on advertisements and products associated with King Edward VIII, and commented that it was a shame so many of the soaps and perfumes were no longer available. But wait! More might be available than you suspect, as Grossmith, one of the big names in English perfumery at the end of the 19th century, was revived a few years ago.
The revival of Grossmith is quite a lovely story: a descendant of the original owners discovered a book of formulae, bought back the rights to the Grossmith name, and set about recreating some of the firm's best-loved scents. Now, there are all sorts of restrictions and regulations to do with perfume ingredients nowadays, so an exact replica wouldn't be possible, but working with top nose Roja Dove, the fragrances relaunched were as close as possible. (Roja is my perfume hero; an article by him in Vogue in the 1990s sparked my initial interest, and his love of historic perfumery and appreciation of its artistry are respected globally.) And, I have to say, the three relaunched Grossmith scents are very lovely. A couple of years ago I purchased samples of Hasu-no-Hana, Shem-el-Nessim and Phul-Nana from Les Senteurs, and loved all of them. If you're used to perfumes produced post-1990, which tend to be light, very sweet and/or fruity and don't change much over time, older perfumes can come as a shock. They're more opulent, more changeable, more complicated. It's the difference between 'pretty' and 'beautiful'.
Grossmith perfumes are far from cheap, and I'm saying that as someone who takes perfume seriously and is prepared to spend on it. Even I've only been prepared to buy one bottle to date, and I chose Phul-Nana. Actually, I'd meant to buy Hasu-no-Hana, but picked the wrong box off the shelf – the packaging of the three relaunched fragrances is identical. I was pretty annoyed at first as I only realised after opening and spraying and therefore could not exchange it, so had made a VERY costly error. It's not that much of an error, though, as it is a stunning scent, and I never now regret buying it.
First launched in 1891, Phul-Nana was one of the bestselling perfumes in Britain at the time of the Great War. It's a rich scent in which the notes are well-mingled, and contains herbal notes as well as floral ones. I honestly couldn't tell you what it smells most of; it smells of itself, and while the vanilla and neroli can be picked out, they quickly hide away under other notes. I'd never have picked out the geranium on my own, but knowing it's there I sniff it and think, “Ah, yes, there you are – and now I see you, ylang ylang and sandalwood!” The notes seem to dance around. It's very different to modern fragrances, where you can pick out the notes fairly easily. And it lasts all day, even on my perfume-absorbing skin.
For obvious reasons, I like to wear this perfume when I'm wearing my steampunk gown. However, it's very versatile and I do wear it day and night, all year round. (Some scents I own, such as Habanita, are more for evening, and some only get outings in particular weather, such as Shalimar, which mostly only gets brought out in the cold, or Dilmun, which is mainly for summer.) If you like the romance of broderie anglais and summer gardens, afternoon tea and William Morris wallpaper, take the opportunity to try it if you get the chance. You'll fall in love!