Vintages CARVEN: History & Vintages of a Chic Era

CARVEN: History & Vintages of a Chic Era

03/17/15 09:18:28 (12 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

“Olivia Johnstone was a hatbox covered in green crocodile plastic that released Ma Griffe when you opened it. Dagmar, the perfume counter girl at the Wertheim Department Store, let me wet cotton balls with the sample perfumes, which I stashed in film canisters in my pockets. Inside, I’d woven a nest of taupe and black stockings, which surrounded a Carnival mask of black feathers, and a beaker that held the white ocean. On its surface floated a gumball ring, also white.

"They were all here. A lunchbox decoupaged in flea market postcards of fin de siecle aristocracy was the Amelia Ramos. Inside, antique forks thrust up through a mat of black wig hair striped in white. The forks looked like hands reaching out, begging.”

Janet Fitch references Carven’s classic Ma Griffe perfume in her story about dysfunctional foster care, White Oleander. The “really chic French perfume” became the referent thanks to Fitch’s actress aunt who traveled to Paris. The glamor inferred in her childhood eyes dotted the “i” when Fitch was thinking about perfume referents for her novel, where the scent signals become a powerful metaphor for the relationship between the young narrator Astrid and her female entourage.

Carven Perfumes
have been sitting on a perfumery milestone for the length of their long history, eclipsing in their shadow the rest of the worthwhile production. This is because of couture houses that lost their footing with the rich and famous, or who changed direction for the worse. For Carven, a small and chic couture house from France, it all went downhill when distribution rights were obtained by Shulton (famous for Old Spice). The tenure proved unsuccessful commercially and the Englishman David Reiner was called to get the chestnuts off the roast, buying off Carven under the aegis of his International Classic Brands (which also owned Worth). However, by the time it was 1998, Carven was again in dire need of a sponsor, leaving many of its fragrances in limbo. Luckily for us perfumephiles, the group Jacques Bogart took Carven under its wing and tended to its archives, launching some of the maligned fragrances anew.



But let’s reprise Ariadne’s thread from the start.

Just after World War II ended, Carmen de Tommaso, a French-born who originally studied architecture and interior design, opened a couture house with the aid of three businessmen friends who had happened to have been war prisoners together. Ailed by her minute size, what we call 'petite" nowadays, de Tommaso had the idea to cater to women who also had a comparable figure. To inflect her brand with a more Parisian (rather than Andalusian) flair, as her base of operations was Paris, Carmen, like Charles Revson, substituted a letter in her name and became Mademoiselle Carven ever since.

What made for the success of this couture house, one among many starting in the mid-20th century Parisian landscape, such as Dior, Piguet, or Balmain? Simple, original ideas and the proper dose of marketing.

Profiting from her collaboration with corsetry mistress Rose Lebigeot, they invent together the “balconnet” brassiere in 1950. But it is already a year before this milestone that Jacqueline Francois sings “Les robes de chez Carven” ("Carven’s gowns") to wild aplomb. Michele Morgan, Leslie Caron and Edith Piaf aided in catapulting her fame into the limelight.

But celebrity endorsement, much as it has been invaluable from a commercial point of view, is merely the tip of the iceberg in what concerns the clever tactics promoted by Carven.

The issue of a signature fragrance shortly after opening the couture house was surely the one with the most cachet to this day.
 

In French Ma Griffe means both "my signature" (hence a designer's marquee is called "one's griffe") and "my talon" (accordingly pictured in the perfume’s advertisements in the 1970s). So basically, Ma Griffe hints at having someone in your clutches: not exactly the prim image we have of it, now, is it?

And yet the conception of Ma Griffe was from the beginning, much like Miss Dior by Christian Dior a short two years later, an affair for the young. They were also both composed by the master perfumer at Roure at the time, the great Jean Carles.
The composition centers around aldehydes, gardenia, green notes, asafoetida, clary sage and citruses, orris, orange blossom, orris root, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley and rose, labdanum, sandalwood, cinnamon, musk, benzoin, oakmoss, vetiver and styrax.

Aimed at debutantes, at younger women entering the world of society, needing a graceful “signature” that would herald their presence, Ma Griffe had everything in its favor. The prickling scent of just opening green gardenia buds, thanks to the innovative ingredient styralyl acetate, was fresh and exhilarating, while the spicy and sensuous note of styrax gave an odd persistence to the starkly “dry” effect. This was the scent of a groomed woman, feminine yet discovering her position as she went along. Such scents were not factory workers working in the factory, nor flappers who kohled their eyes and bobbed their hair. Chypres, such as Ma Griffe, feel emancipated and detached nowadays, such is the erosion of aesthetic criteria that a decade and a half of sweet syrup has inflicted. But back then, it was just the thing for women with twin sets, a slick of lipstick on an impeccably powdered face and an appetite for the new world that opened after the bleak war years. It's perhaps a sign of its eternal style (and the wit of advertisers spinning the yarn of perfume perfectly) that even in the throes of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s the Carven ads run thus:

"You're liberated. You lead a woman's march for equality. You carry the biggest placard. You wear Ma Griffe. A man comes along and carriers your placard for you. Ma Griffe apologises for unliberating the liberated woman."

Ma Griffe not only was the first fragrance to highlight styralyl acetate, it was also the first to have an impressive launch campaign when the whole of Paris was parachuted with tiny white and green packages containing miniature bottles!

The green and white stripes, like awnings over a chic boutique window, on the Carven Ma Griffe bottles have become a signpost and a symbol. Such was the visual pull of green, a color identified with the young and the hope connected to a much-needed spring “renewal” that when Carven issued their Vetiver for men in 1957, the green packaging of the fragrance inaugurated a vogue for green for all vetiver fragrances, formerly considered a “brown” smell thanks to its woody odor profile.

Carven’s trio of Robe d'un Jour, Robe d'un Soir and Robe d'un Rêve (a dress for day, a dress for evening and a dress for a dream) was another brilliant marketing idea.

From the three, only Rode d’un Soir survived till the late 20th century, a classic floral aldehydic composition that featured citrus essences (bergamot, mandarin, neroli) alongside a rich floral heart of May rose, peach, jasmine, lily, ylang ylang and orris.

The sensually warm base of amber, benzoin, vanilla created a plush of yore while the woody notes of sandalwood and vetiver bring balance.

But Carven had other ideas as well: the first brand to sponsor sporting events such as yachting and horse riding races, also the first brand to offer literary awards to young writers, according to perfume writer Nigel Groom. It was on the vanguard regarding travel as well; Carven was quick to capitalize on the duty free promotions of traditional luxury items sold onboard.

The 1960s didn’t pass by without falling into with the zeitgeist. Eau Vive was another “youth aimed” fragrance, this time unisex and since reformulated in 1996 by Quest, a citrus aromatic which presented itself at razor sharpness into the new wave of young people searching for new truth; the very same who two short years later would start May of 1968 and embrace O de Lancome, with its green citrusy aroma, as the symbol of an era. In the newer Eau Neuve edition, what strikes me most is the herbal core with its unrelenting aromatic character. The fennel and cilantro are unusual, even today in the climate of niche, with an almost soapy anisic feel, while the juniper and lavender nudge the scent into firmly herbaceous territory; for an edition from 1996 it feels sharp and bracing, like a dry martini with two olives in a sea of aquatics.

The vintage fragrances continue for some time, especially since madame Carven is still alive today. Monsieur Carven, a floral chypre for men, was launched in 1978. This scent's counterpart, Madame de Carven, was presented a year later, in 1979 and is alongside Mystère by Rochas the "tail" of a great lineage. A "tropical laced" mossy floral with a perfume-y background, Madame Carven comes in an ugly bottle of fake-looking plastic top in a kitschy knotted style, but the juice inside amply compensates for it. A hint of coconut, a slice of the salicylates style of Fidji and the oakmoss which we connect with great classics makes an appearance that stays on memory: if the Piña Coladas that have taken the Sephora shelves hostage is giving you palpitations, you'd be better thinking about other thoughts; the coco in Madame de Carven is grown-up and minus the ubiquitous suntan lotion vibe we associate with it today.

Both are discontinued but Madame de Carven and Monsieur Carven are still sought after by discerning vintage collectors.

Finally in 1982 Carven presented a ladies' fragrance that was composed by Robertet perfumers. This perfume, Guirlandes, features prominent white floral notes and accords of aldehydes, sandalwood and clove. In a characteristic bottle that reprises the curvaceous caps and the simple glass molds by verrerie Pochet et du Courval and designer Thierry de Baschmakoff reveals a diaphanous juice. My impression of it is of a romantic fragrance, French in its restraint like Molinard de Molinard, not the expected bombastic spice or oriental we would have expected from the "decade of carnage" that brought us Obsession, Poison and Giorgio.

It is interesting to note that a strange beast came out from the amalgamation of two Carven perfumes during the Reiner tenure at the helm: Madame Guirlandes is a fragrance which reprograms two of its past glorious products, Madame de Carven and Guirlandes. The combination couldn't be better than each of the two separately, but it's worth sampling all the same.

Intrigue, aimed at women, was launched in 1986. The powerful floral chypre perfume became an instant sensation, but the loss of firm direction meant its demise regardless. Thankfully the brand isn't abandoned and the new blood transfusion means a rekindling of the flames.

But these now rare, with the exception of the trailblazing Ma Griffe and steadfast Vetiver, fragrances peep sometimes beneath the pile on international auction sites. There are of course others still: Variations, Chasse Guardée .... And since they're not recognized instantly by a loud reputation preceding them, like with some other perfumes, the prices have remained competitive enough to justify taking the calculated risk of purchasing some from a reputable seller.

Carmen de Tommaso, Madame Carven herself, still alive at 105 years of age as of this moment, must be very proud.

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@celticelle,

glad you enjoyed.
One thing that stroke me as odd was your mention of Ma Griffe as "the prostitute's perfume" and I had to go over to Google Books to check the exact quote to make sure because I was taken aback. And here it is (the gist is a bit different): "Many a perfumista has mentioned that her grandmother has tagged Ma Griffe as "the prostitute's perfume". I think what they really mean is that it's the perfume of a woman doesn't give a damn." [sic]

Now, personally I feel like it's a bit odd that grandmothers would tag Ma Griffe "the prostitute's perfume" since they lived through the advertising campaigns of it and the concept was far from it in those (see below) and that evidence would be anecdotal at the very best (pity we don't have specific sources), but I certainly agree with Barbara's scent assessment which explains that it seems like a self-assured perfume. And it is!

Ma Griffe was routinely promoted as a "young perfume" aimed at debutantes (you can see it in the ads posted within the article, "un parfum jeune", the only sexually explicit ad comes from the 1980s) Promoted as something that is supposed to reflect clarity, assuredness, chic, elegance, marking your territory, not yielding to others or to vices.
I think this is why Olivia Johnstone who is indeed a prostitute in "White Oleander", as you correctly mention, chose it to give a sense of being in control of her own life (and Fitch fashioned it after a female model because it seemed like she led a colorful and self-chosen life I think).

The conflation with "prostitute's perfume" might have amalgamized in above mentioned "many a perfumista"due to the fact that the perfumer, Jean Carles, is also the creator of Tabu, which WAS conceived as "parfum de puta", the prostitute's brew and they got mixed up. Or it derives directly from "White Oleander".
In my old review of it from May 2008 I did mention that it was the prostitute's perfume referring to the character of Olivia Johnstone. Technically true, but not with the nuance inferred.

perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2008/05/caught-in-her-clutches.html

I guess, like I mentioned to Nebraskalovesscent, we will only ever find out if we directly ask Janet Fitch how she sees the perfume tying with the character: metaphorically as a "reflection" or ironically?

Mar
19
2015
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@enigmaticessence,
thanks for your kind words! They did make a lot of fragrances, most were quite good and deserve being relaunched, only I think the style they were fashioned after (that classical subdued aldehydic French genre) is not terribly in vogue right now. But I'm hopeful!

@angela,
you're very kind to say so! :-)

Mar
19
2015
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@perfumecritic,
thanks M! I think Ma Griffe is a special breed, as it bypasses everything formally "cute" to distill an energy that is exhilarating, almost powdery, very dry. Maybe that's the bitter thing you mention. Even in Bandit the bitter green is given a specific spin to reflect an aloof character, so it looks calculated and vampy, whereas in Ma Griffe it's resolutely fresh and not caring how it is perceived. That's how it seems to me, at least.

@Nerbaskalovesscent,
there's this powerful connection between scent and metaphor that I think Fitch caught, as she mentions some others too throughout. My interpretation of it is that Olivia Johnston wanted to outwardly appear respectable but also not giving too much credence to what people say; sort of dichotomized really. Chanel would be too M.Monroe, wouldn't it? I suppose that Guerlain wasn't really that popular stateside, even today you see this. Exempt people on perfume fora, of course. I don't know, we'll have to ask Janet Fitch to be sure.

Mar
19
2015
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@macassar,
They did make lovely perfumes, glad they have dedicated fans!

@sumotigercat,
thank you!

@rickyrebarco,
it's always encouraging to see a brand continued in style. Enjoy!

Mar
19
2015
Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

Thank you for the enjoyable and informative article Elena !

Mar
18
2015
celticelle
celticelle

NebraskaLovesScent, according to Barbara Herman's book, "Scent and Subversion," Ma Griffe was once known as the prostitute's perfume, and the character of Olivia Johnstone in White Oleander, who wore Ma Griffe, was a prostitute. So it seems that's why she did choose Ma Griffe as her perfume, and Janet Fitch knows a bit more about perfume than we give her credit for.

I always loved the late '60's to early'70's perfume ads for Ma Griffe showing the model with the vivid green eyes. Thanks for the history about Carven. Interesting tidbit that the brand name was derived from Carmen.

Mar
17
2015
enigmaticessence
enigmaticessence

Laughing....for some reason I didn't recognize Intrigue as Carven. I have it and Ma Griffe, and would love to smell all of her beautiful creations. These are just as any really good signature should be : restrained yet hinting of a mysterious strength. I never tire of them.

It is interesting you mention several other perfumes I love, such as Molinard de Molinard . They are alike in the sense of light, airy - or 'dry' - floral greens that say Chypre audibly.

Thank you for another informative article, Elena! Now I must go see Carven design once more to put this in perspective. The great design and fragrance of any era influence us even today.

Mar
17
2015
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

Great article, Elena!

I love and own Ma Griffe, and I actually found my way to it via Janet Fitch's White Oleander, but once I actually acquired a sample and sniffed the perfume, I felt she hadn't chosen the correct scent to represent the character of Olivia Johnstone, particularly for the time period in which the novel's main character knew and interacted with Olivia Johnstone. Had the author known a little more about perfume houses and French classic perfume houses in particular, I think a Guerlain or a Chanel would have been chosen instead.

Mar
17
2015
perfumecritic
perfumecritic

Wonderful article, Elena! Thank you so much for illuminating this house : ) It is a shame that it is so little known today despite its glorious history. I tried to love Ma Griffe (ca 2000) but found it so terribly bitter. I look forward to re-visiting some of their classics.

Mar
17
2015
rickyrebarco
rickyrebarco

Great history of a great perfume house. I love the recent Carven offerings, Carven EDP and Carven L'Eau de Toilette.

Mar
17
2015
SumoTigerCat
SumoTigerCat

Very charming article and pictures! I adore vintage Ma Griffe! It is very pretty, very French. Thoroughly enjoyed reading all about it, and the Carven brand. Thank you.

Mar
17
2015
Macassar
Macassar

the vintage ( and beautiful) "Variations" de Carven : a real beauty :o)

Monsieur de Carven ...one of my favourite ones

Mar
17
2015

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