The next stop on my semi-random itinerary in Paris was the Musée Fragonard (9, rue Scribe), which I just happened to walk past as I headed towards Place Vendôme. I didn’t know Fragonard had a museum, and if I had, I would have expected it only to be in Grasse. It was in an elegant old townhouse. and as I walked into the empty foyer I was warmly greeted by the lady on the reception desk, who asked if I wanted to take a tour. There was no charge, for as later became apparent, the tour ends in a bit of a sales pitch in the shop downstairs. Several people came in just behind me and the receptionist performed a quick triage between those who wanted an English-speaking guide and those who preferred a French one. In my case, I was happy to take the next tour in either language, as my feet were starting to hurt by this point! Within 5-10 minutes the French guide, a willowy girl who could easily have given up tour guiding and applied to enter France’s Next Top Model, hove into view and escorted our small group of four upstairs, where the museum occupied a handful of rooms.
Cameras were not allowed, but I have found a few snaps on the Internet taken by bolder visitors than me. The first room housed some splendid alembics and other perfume-making paraphernalia. As we were given a quick run-down of the various methods of extracting essential oils such as steam distillation, maceration and enfleurage (for delicate flowers like jasmine and tuberose that can’t stand the heat apparently – much like my friend Geraldine, I thought fondly), I couldn’t help but think of Tarleisio, and her blog, The Alembicated Genie.
The guide went on to relate how Fragonard brings out a new release every year showcasing a particular note. Last year it was mimosa, this year fleurs d’oranger, while violet is up next in 2012. We also learnt that Fragonard doesn’t export its perfumes and its bricks and mortar presence is confined to in-house shops in Paris, Grasse and Eze. This sounded to me like an exclusivity policy akin to that of Puredistance in its early days, but I must say I don’t have Fragonard down as a luxury brand.
In the second room we were shown displays of perfume bottles through the ages, from early, tapering glass ones that women used to tuck coyly into their corsages, to later models in porcelain from Germany and the UK. The guide explained that the bottles Fragonard uses for the parfum version of its scents are made of stainless steel to maximise their shelf life. I was reminded of Montale and Comptoir Sud Pacifique’s similar use of steel, but had always assumed this was for aesthetic reasons unrelated to longevity.
The next exhibit on our tour was a perfumer’s “organ”, containing a couple of hundred different materials in little brown apothecary-style bottles, though apparently a “top of the range” organ might run to 1000 bottles! According to the guide, "noses" only work for a maximum of 20 years while they are in their prime, and as well as ensuring that they eat a balanced diet (no stinking hot curries, I inferred), don’t drink or smoke either so as not to compromise the sensitivity of their precision sniffer. I kept trying to remember the time I met Bertrand Duchaufour at the Penhaligon’s launch of Amaranthine. I could have sworn he had a glass of cava, but maybe not… : - )
In the final room we took a smelling test to see how good we were at recognising different odours. We were each assigned a spot at a long bench, and given a dozen or so bottles containing unnamed scented waxes, which we had to place on the picture corresponding to the note we were smelling. Examples of notes were cinnamon, mint, lavender, strawberry, pineapple, licorice and rose. It was a fun but relatively easy exercise, and all four of us got them all right! I think we would probably have managed to get most of them even without the picture clues, though the fruits were a bit tricky.
The talk over, the guide led us down to the shop, where she gave us a “tour” of the Fragonard parfum strength scents, available to buy individually or in sets of 3 or more for a greatly reduced price. Because we would be paying factory gate prices, even the starting price for a single 5ml mini of a parfum struck me as quite reasonable at 26 euros, and this price also fell sharply if you were willing to buy a humungous canister of 250ml, or whatever the biggest size was. The guide even whipped out a calculator to stress just how significant a percentage saving we would make if we opted for a bulk or multiple bottle purchase. She was veritably the Carol Vorderman of fragrance SAs!
The parfums I tested on card were:
ETOILE – overly sharp citrus bouquet
Notes: "lemon, apple, bergamot, ginger, gardenia, lily of the valley, jasmine, cedar, amber and musk"
EMILIE – overly sharp floral, despite the rather appealing note list below!
Notes: orange blossom, rose, jasmine, violet, lily of the valley, amber and sandalwood
BELLE DE NUIT – Fragonard's best selling feminine, recommended by the guide as the safe choice for buying as a gift for someone, and I would agree - it struck me as a pleasant, but mainstream light floral oriental.
Notes: mirabilis, violet, geranium, rose, plum, woods and musks.
DIAMANT – softly spicy gourmand oriental – initial impression was of something a little discordant, but this grew on me, and I wish I had tested it on skin.
Notes: mandarin, orange, pepper, rose, jasmine, plum, patchouli, vanilla, musk and caramel.
CAPUCINE – surprisingly sweet oriental given the note listing: very potent and powdery going on (with all the muzzy force of EL Knowing, if that makes any sense), but the far drydown was yummy in a Prada Candy kind of way, and I regretted not buying at least 5ml of the parfum.
Notes: green tea, bergamot, rose, jasmine, musk, winter woods
BELLE CHERIE – not yet released, but we were treated to a sneak preview. A fruity gourmand scent, again with a slight discordant aspect that didn’t go away, unlike Diamant. The lone reviewer of this scent on Makeupalley detected a "whacking great whallop of ethyl maltol", which probably gives it its sweetie shop character.
Notes: tangerine, star fruit, jasmine, heliotrope, lily of the valley, sandalwood, tonka bean and vanilla.
So in the end I came away empty handed, though Capucine and Diamant definitely merit a retrial. Seems like I will have to wait till I am back in Paris for that.
I would be interested to get anybody else’s take on the Fragonard range, namely views about the company's low key sales strategy, and whether the brand feels exclusive to you or not. Despite having taken the tour of the museum, I haven't changed my view of the brand, I must say, but I can't quite put my finger on why I don't quite consider Fragonard "a serious player".
Photo of museum entrance from france-for-visitors.com, photo of perfume-making equipment from inthemo.com, photo of perfumer's organ from whattoseeinparis.com, photo of Fragonard products from the company's website, photo of the shop from tripadvisor.co.uk