Fragrance Reviews Germaine Cellier (1909-1976): Innovator and Iconoclast

Germaine Cellier (1909-1976): Innovator and Iconoclast

10/21/09 22:42:35 (15 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

In the pantheon of great modern perfumers it is not often that we come across women, at least during the first half of the 20th century. Amongst them, one star shines brightest, that of Germaine Cellier; untrammeled by convention, free-spirited in an era that frowned upon most of her customs, but which could not deny her bold, ebullient approach to perfumery. It is no accident that Guy Robert's book, Les Sens du Parfum, himself the stuff of legend, dedicates precious space to her opus.

Born on the 26th of January 1909 in Bordeaux, the capital of wine, Germaine Cellier was quite formidable in grasping the finer things out of life but generous enough to share them with her entourage.

A great beauty in all the typically considered feminine attributes (blonde, slim, elegant, with big blue eyes), she sat for André Derain and was termed an “Arletty blonde” by those who crossed her path, as passed down by Jeannine Mongin.

Yet her virile style of perfumery and her atypical allegedly lesbian proclivities revealed a free spirit, full of ardor and intellectual aloofness, that refused to be harnessed: "Cellier infamously dedicated Fracas—a voluptuous tuberose scent conceived for 'femmes'—to the beautiful Edwige Feuillère, while she promised the butcher Bandit to the 'dykes.'"

For the latter she went as far as stripping models of their undergarments as they exited the runway, furtively sniffing in an attempt to capture “the best of their femininity!”

Starting her chemistry studies in 1930 in Paris, Germaine Cellier later joined the team at Roure Bertrand Dupont under the direction of Jean Sfiras, classifying fractions of synthetic products’ distillations and installing herself at the artistic endroit of Montparnasse, where she befriended Chas Laborde. She understood fashion and the value of presenting herself just right: She lived on fashion-conscious rue Boccador, opted for the icy hauteur of skirt-suits by Balmain, impressive cocktail rings and hats by Rose Valois, kept three pet Teckel dogs (named Cleopatre, Félix and Valentin) and one singing parrot, had a porter whom she called Foujita carry her bags on the street at two paces behind her and generally adopted the airs of a princess!

Yet her well-known generosity towards those in need (she was nicknamed “the great lady of the market of Neuilly”) and her great pains into securing what her friends desire more than compensates for those. More defiantly than the above she always talked in a crude, low-class manner and smoked like a chimney, when women were expected to be behave daintily. She ate tons of garlic at the dinner table while composing her Piguet fragrances along with the Swiss-born Parisian couturier. (It was not without poignancy that Hélène Rochas remarked of Robert Piguet that “he was dressed like a Protestant, always in black, but had a biting humor!" He was certainly on to something!)

More importantly to the advancement of her career, however, Cellier violently clashed with Roure's acclaimed star-perfumer Jean Carles, when subordinates were expected to comply: In their opposition, one can discern the abrupt antithesis of two systems; one of ordained taxis and one of creative chaos. It was Carles after all who pioneered the organization of perfumery materials in his famous charts and the anti-establishment spirit of Cellier couldn’t capitulate.

She went as far as coming to work at ten in the morning and leaving before noon, considering her work for the day accomplished. The solution to her Roure disputes, presented by Louis Amic, was to set Cellier up in her own laboratory in Paris in 1946 (baptized Exarome); a place where she could create her perfumes and meet her clients. At the time the great fragrance houses such as Coty, Guerlain, Houbigant and Caron produced their formulae themselves, while companies such as Givaudan, and Roure Bertrand Dupont monopolized the fabrication of raw materials and “bases,” i.e., ready-made accords that were conceived to cut down on labor when a particular effect was needed in the composition of a perfume. Yet Louis Amic was determined to inaugurate a tradition of finished fragrances in the creation of which Cellier was instrumental.



Although her creative career started by briefly acting as a functional scents composer for Colgate-Palmolive soaps in 1943 (a stint which lasted but three months) she went on to gingerly and boldly mix perfumers' "bases" at Roure. Despite such an approach seeming lazy, especially in view of the above behavior, her wit wondrously helped her into coming up with stunning compositions: The galbanum-souled Vent Vert by Balmain with its biting verdancy forever changing the visage of florals, the knife-scathing outlaw of Bandit with its intense leathery bitterness of quinolines in 1944, the oriental passport of Visa in 1946, the buttery radiance of tuberose in 1948's Fracas (all three for Robert Piguet), the nostalgic violet chypre Jolie Madame for Balmain (1953) which reworked the Bandit theme in more muted tones, as well as the masculine Monsieur Balmain which proved a success with both sexes.

One of her mysteriously disappearing acts is "Elysées 63.84" for Balmain, the name standing for the telephone number of the couture house, as well as a geranium-based Eau which Pierre Balmain fiercely guarded for his own use. For Nina Ricci she collaborated with Christian Bérard who designed the romantic heart flacon in Coeur Joie, an elegant and uncharacteristically delicate floral aldehydic of great refinement (1946).



Hers is the lesser known, but none the less majestic, La Fuite des Heures for Balenciaga in 1949, a Provençal herbs and jasmine formula of great radiance and tenacity. Among her portfolio there is also the agrestic Eau d'Herbes (Herbal Water) conceived for Hermès at an unspecified date during the 1950s meant to recreate just-cut herbs, which remains an enigma, and several compositions for Elizabeth Arden for distribution in the USA during the 1950s and 1960s.  

Dying of failing health in 1976 her legacy remains relevant to this day, most of her iconic creations having spawned a progeny of upstarts, imitators and bona fide homage.  Who can begin contemplating tuberose fragrances without comparing them to the Jungian archetype: Fracas? From the original Chloe to Gianfranco Ferré to Versace’s Blonde and on to the niche offerings like Tubéreuse Criminelle or Carnal Flower and numerous others, the lady is having a jovial laugh at the olfactory brawl (the meaning of the fragrance name itself) she has created through the halls of perfumery; hers is the landmark to which everything is measured up against!



Her style is one of dissonance, not of equilibrium, insisting on short formulae that put great emphasis on the vivid juxtaposition of strong materials full of character: They fight and they couple passionately like people of a tempestuous character like her own, while the finished fragrances fiercely limit their ability to accommodate the wearer remaining resolutely independent. The butyric yet rubbery feel of tuberose clashes violently with the sharper bergamot and oakmoss, the whole projecting itself at razor-sharp pitch. The dried herb, dusty aroma of thyme is fanning out the opulence and headiness of jasmine making the luxurious turn rustic. The fresh top of verbena and citronella provides the antipode of the pungency of leather and artemisia bites into violet powder to render a compelling fauve.

Her hand is also very generous with quantity: a daring 1% of the nose-singeing isobutyl quinoline in Bandit, a staggering 8% of bitter galbanum in Vent Vert, rewriting the rules of perfumery and introducing the archetypal green leather and the iconic verdant floral respectively. It is difficult to imagine how perfumery would have been today without Germaine Cellier (or how she would react to today’s perfumery of focus groups and discussion panels), such was the defiance with which she paved her own way and became one of the most rebellious names in fragrance creation. And for that we’re truly thankful

Ref:
Jeannine Mongin, Societe Francaises des Parfumers
Guy Robert, Les Sens du Parfum
Roja Dove, The Essence of Perfume

Images: Societe Francaise des Parfumeurs, Geurengoeroe


Author: Elena Vosnaki is a historian & perfume writer from Greece and a Writer to 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 recognised at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she has been contributing to publications around the world.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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irisjetaime
irisjetaime

Elle a créé Jolie Madame de Balmain.
Une pépite (encore une) d'une Dame géniale...

Dec
12
2016
Macassar
Macassar

Great , great nose ...Vent Vert ( original) was my mother's first perfume and she gave me the love for perfumes through Vent Vert .

Dec
13
2015
Gigi The Fashionista
Gigi The Fashionista

I love FRACAS thank you for this enlightening and educational article on the historic backround of this creative turn of the century woman. I love fragrances from the early 20th century and my absolute all time favorite include LA ROSE JACQUEMINOT by Francois Coty which dates from around 1903 or 1904. I also really love the vintage original Emeraude from 1921. Oh to go back in time to the 1900 to 1929 period and smell the original La Rose Chypre Emeraude Shalimars and Arpeges and to wear them. I am convinced that women used to smell better than they do today because the noses behind the fragrances at that time were true geniuses. We live in an age of gourmand gargabe. I wish we could go back to getting REAL PERFUME made of real ingredients of real flowers and woods. Maybe some day someone will want to make a real perfume lol

Dec
12
2015
miss mills
miss mills

Wonderful article, so great to read about free spirited women leading the way so long ago! Thank you, Elena for yet another inspirational and well penned read!

Dec
12
2015
ohjac
ohjac

I am yet another Dyke who loves Bandit. I look forward to giving some of her other offerings a whiff! Thank you Ms. Cellier!
And thank you Ms. Vosnaki for the deft bio.

Dec
11
2015
fied
fied

She was a great nose. I much preferred her original "Vent Vert" to the over-sweet re-engineered one in the 90s, which I find dull. In fact, I still can't find anything quite as green as Cellier's formulation.

Bye the bye, there's a story that she was the nose behind Judith Muller's oriental, woody, powdery "Bat-Sheba" in the early 60s (another long gone favourite of mine). You'd have to ask Muller to confirm or deny that, though.

Oct
26
2015
chayaruchama
chayaruchama

You never fail to enthrall, with your intensive research and lyrical prose, dear lady.

I would have adored La Cellier, sans doute.
What a woman .

Nov
06
2009
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@yesterdays' perfume,

you're most welcome, glad it resonated with you. Her portfolio is very distinctive! None of them is middle-of-the-road.

@zenman,

thank you! You bring a very valid point into the discussion, that of respectful reformulation, one which if not strictly adhering to the letter, it is adhering to the spirit of the thing. Happily the Piguet brand seems to be in good hands.

Nov
05
2009
zenman7
zenman7

I completely fell in love with Vent Vert in the 70s
and today, Bandit and Fracas (even in their reformulated incarnations) still hold a blazing fascination for me.
It does remind one that we desperately need the true individuals to return to perfumery and stand up to the committees and boards and marketing advisers...
Great article, thank you! :)

Oct
25
2009
yesterdaysperfume
yesterdaysperfume

Thank you for the fascinating profile of Cellier!

When I began to collect vintage perfumes, hers stood out before I even knew her biography — Bandit, Vent Vert, Fracas and even the more delicate Les Fuites Des Heures. Bold, iconoclastic scents that gave you a hint of the woman behind them.

There are so many perfumes to love, but when I want to smell something truly bracing and original, I go to Vent Vert and drink it up like sunshine. To me, it is one of the most satisfying fragrances of all time, and the reformulation doesn't hold a candle to it.

Perfumaniac at Yesterdaysperfume

Oct
23
2009
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Belle de Sud,

indeed she was very chic! Hence her footprint in history. Thanks for the kind words.

@Jeca,

you're most welcome and thanks for the warm hospitality!

@zoka,

indeed some things have something important to say in the first place and remain relevant no matter what new comes along. Glad you enjoyed the article!

@memechose,

such a sweet compliment, thanks so much!

Oct
23
2009
memechose
memechose

As always, Elena's articles entrance and delight us whilst providing incredible depth and stunning prose

Oct
22
2009
zoka
zoka

Now in the time of 300 to 400 hundred of fragrance launches per year where all are looking for traction but classics and creations of such a genuine artist will always have its audience no matter what new comes to market.

I enjoyed reading your essay about Germaine Cellier and learned allot of new things.

Oct
22
2009
jeca
jeca

Thank you, Elena, for such a detailed review, I have learnt so many facts about this great creator. Fracas is my favorite tuberose.

Oct
22
2009
belle de sud
belle de sud

Vive la Cellier! A groundbreaking artist and a challenging persona combined always make a memorable story -and her legacy live on like the undisputed queen of the 'noses' she was!

Great article, I devoured it! Une femme tres chic!

Belle de Sud

Oct
22
2009

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