Many fragrances from the 1950s helped women to express their erotic selves through carnal, animalic perfume notes, or as the Max Factor Primitif ad put it: to "say the things" that women "would not dare to."
But this is a familiar trope in perfume. Sniffing Caron's Poivre and thinking about all the metaphors of fire and explosives in its ads and descriptions, I got to thinking, how many perfumes express violence and danger in their notes, perfume signifiers not entirely subsumed by sexuality?
Well, Caron’s Poivre, for one. Apparently, Caron creative director Félicie Wanpouille, who had collaborated with Caron perfumer Ernest Daltroff on the drop-dead sexy Narcisse Noir, wanted to buck the trend of 50s well-mannered, ladylike florals. So she asked Caron’s then-perfumer Michel Morsetti to create something fierce and wild.
Caron's Poivre extrait starts off with a firey and earthy spark of crushed black pepper and sharp florals (you really smell the ylang ylang). Then, like a slow-motion olfactive explosion, it unfurls carnation's clovey facets, weaving together floral and spice, with sweet warmth from clove and opoponax.
To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, it turns out that pepper is not the only note that signifies darkness and danger in Poivre. Not only has the American carnation largely lost its characteristic spicy smell, it appears that we don’t have the dark associations with carnations/cloves that Europeans do. In France, cloves have been considered bad luck for centuries. Carnations have long been associated with funerals and even repressive communist regimes. Grain de Musc blogger Denyse Beaulieu gives us an even bloodier association: in her post on Serge Lutens’ modern carnation perfume Vitriol d’oeilette, we learn that “this was the flower that was carried by aristocrats as they went to the guillotine during the Terror in 1793.” Yikes.
Notes: Red and black pepper, clove, carnation, ylang ylang, jasmine, opoponax, cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, oakmoss, musk (Notes and information on Félicie Wanpouille's hand in the creative side of Poivre thanks to Perfume Shrine; her image from Perfume Projects)
A heady mix of florals armed with explosives and spice, Poivre by Caron could easily be a niche scent today. It's hard to imagine the stereotypical 1950s woman warming up to it — until you remember that not everyone in the 50s was Sandra Dee and Doris Day. (Even Sandra Dee and Doris Day probably weren't Sandra Dee and Doris Day!)
Who could I imagine wearing Poivre? The other 1950s women: poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and photographer Diane Arbus — all three artists who came of age in the 50s who were fascinated with intensity, violence and dark eroticism. They were women who didn’t need a perfume to say the things they would not dare to — all three dared to, and then some. And even though they got burned by the fires they got too close to, they at least tried to break free from the 50s trap that enclosed many women in that era.
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Some vintage perfumes are as hard to find as endangered animals in the wild. You know when you can't even find it on eBay, you're going to have to do some serious sleuthing — or begging, as the case may be. After falling in love with Roger & Gallet's Blue Carnation (a clove-splosion if there ever was), I needed to get a whiff of what I'd heard was one of the most beautiful renditions of carnation/clove: Caron's 1954 Poivre. It became a quest for a mythical beast as exotic and beautiful as the Chinese dragon in the above ad. (Incidentally: HAPPY YEAR OF THE DRAGON.)
When I read a comment on some long ago blog by Fragrantica writer and perfumista extraordinaire Ida Meister/Chaya Ruchama about owning vintage Poivre, I shamelessly (but gingerly?) approached her on Facebook and asked if I could buy a teensy sample. Although she didn’t have much, she wouldn’t let me pay and generously sent me enough for several whiffs and a review. (Thank you again, Ida! I even got a lovely note with a lipstick kiss on it. So sweet!)
I’m in love with clove/carnation notes, now, particularly in perfumes that don’t play up the floral angle. (I want to love Caron’s other carnation scent, Bellodgia, but its carnation/clove notes are overpowered, in my opinion, by too-sweet florals. Poivre does the opposite: it turns the bass up and turns down the higher notes.) Apparently, IFRA (the International Fragrance Association, otherwise known to perfumistas as The Enemy), has started clamping down on eugenol, the primary component of clove. I’m not sure if this means I’m going to have to stick to vintage and kiss modern clove notes goodbye, or not. I've heard varying reviews of the Poivre and Coup de Fouet (its EDT) reformulations. If they're not great, don't blame Caron; blame IFRA and its compulsion to mess with ingredients like eugenol. (The Grain de Musc writeup for Serge Lutens’ Vitriol d’oeillete got me smacking my lips. I've ordered a sample, so we'll see if it holds up!)
I end with an electrifying recording of Sylvia Plath reading her poem Fever 103. Here’s to women who play with fire and the perfume that they can smolder in.