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Oh, what a monster we've created! Mention the word 'fougère' nowadays to a knowledgeable perfume lover, and you're unlikely to evoke an image of softness; the likes of Cool Water and Géranium Pour Monsieur notwithstanding, the genre is currently seen as occupying the rougher, more abrasive end of the scent spectrum. And yet the very first example of the type is a vision of tenderness, generosity and decorum.
This isn't the time to explore what's happened since 1882 to turn this particular Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde; hitching a cheap ride on bandwagons probably has a great deal to do with it, but we'll leave that aside for today. Nor is this the moment to delve into history lessons, mainly because the significance of the perfume (it was the first to use a synthetically derived material (coumarin); it marks the birth of modern perfumery; it became the model for countless masculine scents) has been examined at great length by several different writers. Instead, the focus here is on the smell of the stuff. And what a gorgeous smell it is.
Perhaps because this was the first time that the citrus-lavender-coumarin-moss accord was bottled - or perhaps because Paul Parquet's hand was guided by the scented heavens - everything feels absolutely right here. The bergamot brings luminosity, the lavender conveys outdoorsy liberation, the powdery coumarin suggests kindness and steeliness (it's both smile and stubble at the same time) and the moss grounds the whole with firm resolve. None of the elements is over-emphasised. Nothing demands excessive attention. At no point does the composition judder or shake. Indeed, so impeccable is the balance that it makes most modern compositions seem as ordered as a pile of Lego bricks attacked by a hyperactive toddler.
It is heartening to think that such a compassionate, humane piece of work became the very essence of masculinity for decades... and depressing to consider that it has now been coarsened and compromised. Late 19th and early 20th century society was obviously far more willing than we are to let men get in touch with their less antagonistic sides. Progressiveness must have been in the air round about then: the very fact that this fragrance - with its revolutionary, non-literal aesthetic - was embraced as passionately as it was speaks of its wearers' willingness to look towards the future. And thank goodness for their open-mindedness. Because without this wonder of comforting solidity, perfumery may well have turned out to be a far less inspiring force of culture. Like a pat on the head, or a caress of a jawline, or an all-encompassing hug on a winter's day, Fougère Royale is an unforgettable expression of open-handed humanity. It's a shame that the passing years turned its children into Frankensteins, but at least we can take some comfort from the knowledge that it started life as an Adonis.
A few notes...
Since writing the above, I've been informed by Osmothèque staff that Fougère Royale was probably first released in 1883 as a soap; the bottled scent probably emerged a year later.
There's evidence to suggest that the scent did not achieve popularity until the second decade of the 20th century.
As has been stated by the man who made it, the 2010 re-edition of Fougère Royale does not resemble the original; it dispenses with the powderiness and opts for a far more floral approach.