Veni, Vidi, and Vici (Histoires de Parfums)

I remember when there seemed to be no limit to what I might discover in the world of scent. Around every corner, a brand new olfactory voyage beckoned, if only I had the courage to leap on board. The usual safe rides – Chanel, Dior, Calvin Klein, Givenchy – didn’t interest me. I wanted adventure… and that meant choosing a ship of the rickety, ragtag, risk-taking fleet known as niche.

Paramount among this ramshackle armada towered Histoires de Parfums, a house whose every fragrance related an epic yarn complete with battle scenes and surprise unmaskings at midnight. Just as reading one superlative novel might prompt me to pursue the author’s other works, my first taste of 1828 Jules Verne encouraged me to seek out as much of HdP’s back catalog as possible. I started with the rest of the Parfums d’Auteurs, then moved on to the Tubéreuse trilogy. I played leapfrog through the Soliloquies and Cult Books, and here is where I landed.

In the main, perfumer Gérald Ghislain’s compositional skills admirably matched his imagination. No tale was too tall to bear his bold signature— and no detail too small to merit his care. Even the disappointments (which numbered only three— Colette, Tubéreuse Capricieuse, and Pétroleum) did not vex me as much as others I could name. Overall, this line seemed as safe as houses. So sated did I feel after my Grand Tour that I put all further exploration on the back burner.

I wonder now whether this was a mistake, or a godsend.

When did I start feeling nervous? In 2012, when Ghislain launched the Scent of Departure line (14 fragrances), the Alice & Peter kiddie-gourmand “dessert cart” (5 fragrances), AND the conquest-themed cardamom trilogy of Veni, Vidi, and Vici. That’s 22 fragrances all in one year—each with an excessively detailed concept and florid PR copy to match. I suppose one has to admire Ghislain’s ambition; clearly, he meant to move HdP (and his fans) from the fusty old library to the shinier vistas of mall, airport, World’s Fair. But the fragrances sounded contrived, undercooked—mere gimmicks designed for tourist-trap kiosks. The yawning distance between the HdP I knew and the HdP of the future made me very anxious indeed.

Veni, Vidi, and Vici do not settle my agita at all. They are wildly inconsistent, flailing in all directions around a supposedly shared center—a cardamom note barely detectable underneath all that PR stürm und drang about victory and destiny and raw natural elements. Veni (“I Came”/Earth) is a pleasant, sweet fougère in the coumarinic Pierre Cardin mold, and not much more. Vidi (“I Saw”/Water) is a nauseating concoction of musk, cucumber, and brackish low tide, straightforward in its nastiness. Vici (“I Conquered”/Fire) alone of the three deserves a raised eyebrow for its fierce take on dry-roasted seeds and spices— but even this has been done by others, if not better, then at least before. (Compare any of these to the windswept romance of 1828, or the finger-licking sticky comfort of 1740, or the youthquaking optimism of 1969… if you can. I know I can’t.)

It gives me grief to think that Histoires de Parfums has gone the way of so many old-fashioned bookstores— doors gated, windows shuttered, content digitized and repackaged for today’s more fickle “cloud” consumer. I had hoped to find so many more engaging narratives on HdP’s antiquated shelves— so many new voyages between the covers of each volume. But in the act of writing my recent review of Pétroleum, I truly wondered what other tales Histoires de Parfums might tell that I even would be willing to hear. Then I realized that I'd still not gotten around to writing about Tubéreuse Animale or Défilé New York-- two perfumes that might help to conclude this assessment on a positive note.

Our story may have its happy ending after all!

Scent Elements: Cardamom, cinnamon, galbanum, lavender, marigold, saffron, guaiac, patchouli, vanilla, caramel, musk, amber, benzoin, oakmoss (Veni); cardamom, cucumber, ozone, cyclamen, saffron, immortelle, musk, amber, cashmeran, vanilla (Vidi); cardamom, angelica, celery seed, aldehydes, basil, violet leaf, raspberry, galbanum, iris, osmanthus, incense, patchouli, musk, cedar (Vici)