My perfume friend Heather (American-born, now living in London) indulged my love of the obscure this year by sending me an adorable bottle of this perfume I'd never heard of by Italian princess Helietta Caracciolo. (Turns out I had read about it before — but promptly forgot it.)
I pulled out the little genie-looking bottle with the cream-colored swirled cap recently and got very curious. What could I find out about this beautiful fresh floral chypre, its namesake, and its availability? I guess you could say I found some things out, but they all added up to a bigger mystery than before I started, in some ways.
First off, the perfume. I think the only reason anyone knows about Helietta at all is due to Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent. In a passage about how declassé Luca Turin thinks Italian perfumes are ("with no chic whatsoever"), we're told Turin excludes from his withering diss two perfumes: Fendi's Theorema and Helietta. Thus spoketh Luca:
The Italian perfume aesthetic is, of course, completely different. What I call cashmere indigestion. They like floral Orientals, spice, and flowers together, that sort of warm, uniform, suntanned beauty with no chic whatsoever. Middle-class taste writ large. There's a couple of really great Italian fragrances, mind you. Helietta by Princess Helietta Caracciolo. I actually tracked her down at her shop in Rome recently to ask her if she still had any of the fragrance. She's a sweetheart. Orange-peel chypre with a woody angle. And Teorema by Fendi. But in general, Italian perfumery — I essentially look down on it. It's boring. Nothing is more nauseating than good taste in high doses.
This "orange-peel chypre with a woody angle" is quite beautiful, with enough oakmoss that I actually had to pop an allergy pill this morning after some midnight sniffin'. It starts off with a burst of sweet citrus (orange blossom and bergamot?) and then, like clouds on a summer day, an unmistakable coriander note adds a dusky and moody counterpoint to its sunniness. (Helietta reminded me a lot of a Calandre/Coriandre hybrid at this point: leafy, fresh, and transparent, but interesting.)
It blooms into a radiant, golden floral. My guess, since it seems similar to Calandre and Coriandre, is that there's rose, jasmine and lily of the valley. Once its strong opening subsides, it dries down to a sexy woody powderiness. In my notes from last night, I wrote, "Helietta is like a good lover. It comes on strong, then makes you chase after it, and finally you can still smell its warmth on your skin when it's gone." (Cornball, for sure, but I have an excuse: I was drinking wine!)
My guess at its notes? Citrus, bergamot, orange blossom, rose, jasmine, lily of the valley, sandalwood, vetiver, oakmoss, orris
You could say that Helietta smells regal, strong, and carefree, like many feminist-era '70s fragrances. Speaking of the year it was released — there was no information to be found. 1980, maybe? I tracked down a trademark page indicating that Caracciolo trademarked her name in 1980.
OK, enough about the perfume. Who is Princess Helietta Caracciolo? (The bombshell I've featured here is sixties Italian film goddess Claudia Cardinale, of 8 1/2 fame.) Well, Helietta's supposed to be a real princess. According to a Basenotes commenter in the know:
Helietta Caracciolo is related to Marella Agnelli who was born a Principessa Caracciolo di Castagneto. I think you must look for Helietta’s heyday during the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s during which the Cinecitta Studios were believed to become the new Hollywood and aristocratic ladies actually began to work for their money. Helietta’s main claim to fame was that she designed the World’s first round handbag for Jacqueline Kennedy and some jewellery for Death in Venice and some other classics.
This is where it gets fun. I checked out Helietta Caracciolo's IMDB link, and I learned that Death in Venice isn't the only classic she did design work for. She's also listed as the jeweler for other masterpieces such as A Policewoman on the Porno Squad, The Hot Potato, The Mountain of the Cannibal God (no, I’m not making this up), and La vergine, il toro e il capricorno. (Does that really translate to "the Virgo, the Taurus, and the Capricorn?!" Awesome.)
Anyway, I loved this perfume, and you should try to find it if you can (close to impossible?), but perhaps you can see why I'm left scratching my head.
(Thanks to Martina for finding the picture of Princess Helietta to your left there. It's from 1981 when she was "Lady Roma.")