In honor of perfumer Guy Robert who passed away this week, I'm using the last drops I have of a very old bottle of vintage Madame Rochas. This fragrance was created in 1960, commissioned by Hélène Rochas and poured into a bottle of her design five years after Marcel Rochas' death. In 1944 Marcel Rochas had Edmund Roudnitska compose Femme de Rochas in honor of Hélène, his gorgeous teenager bride. In later years she commented (to Time Magazine) that her late husband played Pygmalion with her, and apparently did so with great success, as his still young widow took control of the Rochas brand and as its CEO turned the label into a huge perfume house. She also became a style and etiquette authority in her own right, which explains why in 1960 she wanted to redefine her perfume identity and do it her way.
Hélène Rochas told W magazine in 1984: "Women should have a fragile air, even if they are not". One can agree or disagree with her, but it's interesting to see how this statement reflects in her perfume. The voluptuous Femme, a Mitsouko cousin, could be called many things, but it has no fragile air. As a powerful executive, 33 year old Hélène Rochas chose to go the dainty way with a floral-aldehyde perfume that holds itself high and may have a spine of steel, but it keeps a very proper ladylike facade.
I admit that up until the last decade this entire genre of aldehydic florals (with the exceptions of Chanel No. 5 and Arpege) smelled pretty much the same to me. Up until I started spending some serious quality time with Caleche (a 1961 Guy Robert creation), I doubt I would have been able to tell them apart, and probably also confused them with the chilly 1969 Paco Rabanne Calandre or 1971 Rive Gauche (neither are buy Robert, but the influence is quite evident). I've reformed since then, and have fully embraced Caleche in vintage extrait de parfum. Madame Rochas is a bit more difficult for me. I perceive Caleche as somehow warmer (yes, I know), while the very distinct muguet note in Madame Rochas sends chills down my spine. Madame Rochas is greener in the top notes, and while the old formula definitely smells mossy it is not a chypre and is less plush.
I wonder if back in the early sixties one of these fragrances was considered younger and more delicate than the other. My money is on Madame Rochas with its silver bells "voice", though interestingly enough it is Caleche that held slightly better through reformulations and the revolving doors of fashion. Madame Rochas is still a crisp floral, a bit soapy (according to Tania Sanchez in The Guide it's a cheap soapy, but I don't have any of the current juice on hand to confirm) and very proper. I know this style is considered dated, but I love the green chill of aldehyde-infused hyacinth and narcissus especially on hot summer days. It doesn't last beyond a couple of hours (might be deterioration due to the bottle's age), but it leaves behind a clean green powdery feel that never turns sour.
Notes (via Jan Moran): hyacinth, neroli, aldehydes, greens, lemon, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, iris, lily of the valley, violet, narcissus, tuberose, amber, cedarwood, sandalwood, moss, vetiver, musk, tonka bean.
Images: vintage Madame Rochas 1960s ads via hprits.com, photo collage of Hélène Rochas from http://theredlist.fr.