Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Trio Of Bonkers Trips: No 2 (Belgium & France) - A "Drowned And Out In Paris" Sniffathon: Fragonard Museum

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, photo of perfume-making equipment from, photo of perfumer's organ from, photo of Fragonard products from the company's website, photo of the shop from


Ari said...

Well, I've taken the Fragonard tour in Grasse, and I think that they are not considered a serious player because they are only sold in France, right? So it's a relatively small-time, local house. Like Lili Bermuda in Bermuda. Perfectly nice perfumes, and the tour is very cute, but not giving Chanel any competition. The museum looks gorgeous, though!

Vanessa said...

Hi Ari,

Oh how interesting that you have been to the Grasse location! Did they do the hard sell on you in the shop afterwards - bringing out the calculator and everything : - )?

By "serious player" I suppose I wasn't thinking so much of scale as credibility. Scale may play into credibility, but not necessarily (am thinking of Ajne or Puredistance when it was starting out). I think the Fragonard perfumes - though undoubtedly good quality - miss the mark somehow for me. The note listings were more appealing than the reality, bizarrely.

And even though I would like to retry Capucine and Diamant, I wonder if my liking of them was somehow heightened because I had just had the fun tour with the France's Next Top Model lookalike? I very nearly bought Capucine on the spot, but stuck to my rule of at least an hour or two's testing before making a purchase - by which time I was in the IUNX shop, or somewhere else, anyway!

: - )

angie Cox said...

Like Ari I think of them as something like Yves Rocher. I do buy Rose de Nuit ( very light) and own about three others but they are not high end. They send me catalogues so I look forward to the Violet .

Vanessa said...

Hi Angie,

Interesting comparison. Yves Rocher is in wider distribution than Fragonard I'd say, but I know exactly what you mean in terms of their image, and I think of YR in just the same way. To be honest, I also feel like that about the L'Occitane range of fragrances, possibly unjustly.

Katie Puckrik said...

What a coink with our accidentally-timed Fragonard posts, Vanessa! I felt hustled by being funneled through the gift shop when I just wanted to leave the building, but then again, they'd just given me a free tour, so I don't harbor lingering resentment. Everyone else seemed happy enough to sniff and purchase, though - which makes me think Guerlain and Lutens and the rest should all stick a perfume museum on the front of their shops. I did a quick sniff -thru of Fragonard's fumes, everything seemed souvenir gift shoppy to me, designed to be inoffensive to the largest swathe of customers possible, so no, I guess I don't take their perfumes seriously.

Katie Puckrik said...

Oh, and I've read somewhere (Turin or Burr, can't recall) that plenty of perfumers smoke like the clappers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the virtual tour, Vanessa. Fragonard is really not on my radar at all, so I can't say whether I think of them as a quality or serious player type of house. After reading your post and the comments, though, a comparison to Yves Rocher seems apt -- especially if Fragonard does a catalog, as one of the commenters mentioned.

Anonymous said...

My neighbor wears Belle de Nuit. That is not exactly a measure of quality or lack thereof for the general public, but it tells me enough. ;)
Still, the museum part sounds lovely.

Vanessa said...

Hi Katie,

What a coink indeed! We were all unwittingly a two-woman Fragonard Museum joint blogging project... : - )

Very interesting to get your take on the brand, and the being funnelled into the shop at the end. Like you, I felt it was a fair quid pro quo for the free tour, much like the time Mr Bonkers and I enjoyed a free holiday in Lanzarote in return for compulsory attendance at a time share sales talk!

And as you found, the others in my party took the sales spiel quite seriously and all left with a purchase. This says to me that you are bang on the money with your suggestion that the big guys like Guerlain et al should bolt a museum on to their shop fronts sharpish! They are clearly missing a trick here...

Vanessa said...

Hi Katie,

I am not surprised to learn that some perfumers smoke like chimneys - it is the French way, after all. Well, a higher percentage of the French smoke than some other European nationalities, I believe. And wine with meals is very much the norm, come to think of it. So if a perfumer did have to give that lot up, it would be more of a wrench to the French, say!

Vanessa said...

Hi anotherperfumeblog,

I can quite understand Fragonard not being on your radar, given their deliberately limited distribution strategy!

I hadn't made the connection between having a catalogue and being a bit of a "B" brand, but that makes sense you mention it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

I am massively intrigued about your neighbour now!

In her favour, I guess she has done well to have winkled out a Fragonard perfume at all, living where she does, ie outside of France... : - )

Wordbird said...

Hi Vanessa
I've taken the Fragonard tour in Grasse twice. Small (aged 4 and 5) astonishingly enjoyed it both times, asked to go back (yay!) and played at making soap for days afterwards. This is because the tour at the Grasse factory features soapmaking (as opposed to the Grasse Museum of Perfume or the Eze factory - it all gets a bit confusing down there in the South).

Obviously, Grasse being a hub of the perfume world and very well known even outside our geeky little subculture, you get a massive throughput of tourists on the factory tour there. So there's not really a hard sell as such; they just channel you through the shop on your way out. It IS well staffed though, and the assistants are indeed very attentive. One of their main goals is to get your mailing info and get you onto their mailing lists, after which they contact you twice a year. It's ok, not too frequent and not overpriced. There's quite a range of homewares too. I suspect the target market is the sightly cultured and travelled bod like myself who might buy something a little out of the ordinary for themselves or as a gift.

From the shop I bought a set of something like 10x 5ml tester bottles of parfum. It was well priced and I did fall madly in love with Miranda - a coconut gourmand. I even went bought a bottle the next time. There are a number of nice perfumes there, I have to say. They seem well put together - to my blunt nose, better composed than Yves Rocher. I'd say they are a notch up from YR in terms of quality and complexity, though definitely crowd-pleasers - nothing challenging.

They're pretty generous with their samples, though they tend to use a 'perfumed wipe' delivery system, which makes for a one-off test. Personally, I prefer to try several times. However, the wipes are easy to post, so I can see their merit.

One last thing - Luca Turin is friends with one of the sisters who now run the company and I believe he mentioned in Perfumes The Guide that he had helped her reformulate a few scents. He certainly praised Fragonard's Eau de Cologne (Cologne Grand Luxe?) as being especially good and uniquely long-lasting. High praise from LT.

I can certainly recommend the soap. It's very good. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Wordbird,

Thanks for your detailed and most interesting take on Fragonard the brand, and its museum in Grasse.

The soapmaking bit sounds a lot of fun for visitors of all ages! A friend of mine gave me a soapmaking kit for my birthday, where you add a scent of your choice. She said she would help me do it as part of the gift, so I plan to add a favourite perfume to the soap I make.

I am not surprised that there is a higher footfall at the Grasse museum, and that the sales approach is more low key on account of the sheer numbers of tourists passing through. I didn't get myself on the Fragonard mailing list, but I can see how that tactic might work well for them - the amount of times I find myself reordering from Plumo and Museum Collection and the like never ceases to amaze me. : - )

Miranda sounds rather nice - I didn't clock that one - it wasn't one of the ones we were invited to sample at the end of our tour.

And how intriguing about the Luca Turin connection. He is a bit of a champion of underdogs (as I guess I sort of see Fragonard tbh...), Jasper Conran Woman being one of my favourite examples!

Undina said...

Vanessa, thank you for the tour, it was interesting to "walk" with you through that museum.

Many years ago a friend of mine was talked into buying one of the Fragonard's perfumes at some small boutique here, in California. She liked it (or the story she was told - about exclusivity and all that) so much that she shared with me an additional mini bottle she got with the purchase. I still have it - Soleil. It's nice but nothing special. Nothing that would make me to think about Fragonard as a niche perfume house.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I was interested to get your take on the Fragonard brand, and to learn that a bit of the product line has snuck out into bricks and mortar distribution in California!

I didn't try Soleil, but I think a consensus is forming that - while some of these scents are pleasant enough - they are not that special, and their exclusive aspect relates to their availability rather than their brand image.

Smedley said...

Love your blog! - I haven't posted before, but I read it regularly.

I am a fan of Fragonard. I think in general their perfumes are well-crafted and reasonably priced. They are not in the top echelons of perfumery, but they are far and away better than many popular brands that have a wider distribution.
My favorites are Belle de Nuit, Billet Doux, Grain de Soleil and Miranda.

Vanessa said...

Hi Smedley,

Thanks so much for dropping by and taking the time to give us your take on Fragonard! I am glad you enjoy Bonkers - it is lovely when a reader pops out of the woodwork - or "de-lurks", to use what I believe to be the technical term... : - )

I haven't tried any of the ones you mentioned except Belle de Nuit, which was my second favourite after Capucine. The tour convinced me of the fact that Fragonard uses high quality materials, and it is the "factory gate" sales strategy ( as the guide explained), which keeps the costs down. The brand does have a bit of an image problem I sense - in perfumista circles, at least - but for the money they are good value, no question, and I was tempted by that Capucine one.