Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Victorian perfume reborn: Grossmith Phul-Nana


A bottle of Grossmith Phul-Nana standing on vintage table linen
At the start of February, Fleur de Guerre did a 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.
The label on a bottle of Grossmith Phul-Nana perfume
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!

14 comments :

  1. I do love a good historical perfume-haven't tried any of the Grossmith ones, but now you have me intrigued.

    The bottles are beautiful too-they really captured the time period well. Older perfumes are strange creatures, and you're right about the notes being a bit more part of the overall effect. I have a small decant of vintage Djedi, and for the life of me, I cannot tell what is going on with it. Notes? *Shrug* who knows.

    I don't know about broderie anglais, and afternoon tea, but I'll take the summer gardens and William Morris wallpaper. I'll have to look out for a decant, it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy.

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    1. If I were able to send samples to the US, I'd send you some, but I think Customs would give me a smack for it.

      The bottles are made in Sheffield - one of the things the firms is very pleased with is how much of the packaging is British. I suppose it adds to the cost of the final product, but I like it better than companies claiming to be one nationality and then producing everything somewhere else.

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    2. I was thinking the same thing about sending some things to you. They make it really difficult to ship flammable liquids overseas. I suppose that's sensible, but there's a big difference between shipping perfume or say, kerosene.

      I get to the UK once in a while, so I'll look for it. The wee one wants to go stand on the Prime Meridian (I don't know, why) so that might be the next visit.

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  2. Mim, darling, this souns like heaven.
    Having a "signature scent" was never something I could manage, and moatly due to the fact that most of those amazing bottles of wonderfull smells are quite expencive.
    But, then.. What if I sum up all the ones I've bought so far - togehter they are more expencive than the single bottle of "signature" loveliness.

    I'm glad you made that call.

    Marija

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    1. I used to wear Mitsouko all the time, but then Guerlain reformulated it, sending me off on my quest to find something I liked as much. I ended up with a whole shelf of bottles! My cheapest one was just £5.

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  3. Oh Mim, another cause for Smellovision to be developed! I'm drooling at the sound of this. That Les Senteurs site is really good, and great you can buy samples. It's just that I've got so much perfume to use up before I could justify purchasing more! Not all of it great, mostly pretty cheap to be honest, but I do have an interesting Icelandic one that I won in a competition. x

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    1. If you ever fancy a sample of anything I've mentioned owning, let me know. I've got some decant vials so can easily send you a sample. (And you can have some of the genuine, no-longer-made vintage if you like - not something I'm prepared to do for just anyone!)

      I have lots of perfume. Some people are shoe people, some are bag people, but for me it's perfume and jewellery. I've given up trying to justify it; I like it and I can afford it and that's as much justification as I need!

      Les Senteurs is lovely. It's very high-end, but the staff are really friendly and helpful. My favourite modern brand is Ormonde Jayne, if you're ever in London and at a loose end I heartily recommend checking them out. They're pretty exclusive, though, and I believe you can only get their stuff in London in the UK.

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  4. Really must try and smell this....sounds yummy xx

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    1. If ever you're in London, I know Les Senteurs and Fortnum & Mason stock them (they even do a new, exclusive scent for Fort Noms).

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  5. What a fantastic find! I adore perfume but after reading this I realise just how little I know about its history. I'm very tempted to order the samples of all three scents just to see what they're like. I looked at the price and yes, this is definitely expensive stuff, even in my terms.
    Do you know anything about Je Reviens by House of Worth? I bought an unopened bottle of it from an antiques place about 20 years ago and have no idea of its age. It's in a Lalique bottle which was one of the reasons I picked it up, along with the fact that I had studied House of Worth at college.

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    1. Je Reviens has changed a lot over the years, so if you've got an old bottle, treasure it. Nowadays there are two versions in production, the cheapo Je Reviens and the closer-to-the-original Je Reviens Couture. And keep it in the dark and away from heat! Heat and light are the worst things for perfume.

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  6. I love how you and Goody write about perfume, even though my nose is nothing like as sophisticated, and I don't get half the "notes" that you describe! I'm not really a perfume person - I do wear it every day, but I only ever have one bottle at a time, I use it till it's gone, and then I shop around for another one; no favourites, no loyalty, just as long as I like it, it doesn't have a celebrity's name on it, and hopefully it's on offer! xxx

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    1. Last time I counted I had over 30 bottles on the go. That's one of the things I love about Goody's blog, that she loves perfume and appreciates vintage scent. Some of the things she reviews make me deeply envious!

      I do have one sort-of-celebrity scent - a bottle of Star Trek Pon Farr. Pete got it for me as a joke one Christmas, and it's surprisingly nice for something that cost under a tenner. They're not usually great, though. Kylie Sweet Darling is one of the worst perfumes I've ever smelled. Niche brand Etat Libre d'Orange have done scents for Rossy de Palma and Tilda Swinton, and 'Like This' (the Swinton one) has a real cult following, I keep meaning to check it out.

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  7. I am interested in scent, even though I can wear very little of it, it's such a fascinating process. And I love the bottles, some of the old ones are so exquisite.

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