Traces of Marie Antoinette, Caught in a Phial of Perfume

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 19, 2007

VERSAILLES, France -- When Francis Kurkdjian, one of France's premier perfumers, set out to re-create a fragrance of Marie Antoinette, his greatest fear was that it would stink.

After all, he reasoned, the 21st-century nose might have little tolerance for the potent potions that the famous queen and her royal court used to mask the smells of their opulent but odiferous 18th-century environs at the Chateau de Versailles.

Last month, Sillage de la Reine -- "In the Wake of the Queen" -- an amber essence of jasmine, orange blossom, tuberose, iris, cedar and sandalwood was released for public sale. The deluxe version, 8.5 ounces in numbered Baccarat crystal flasks, costs $10,500. At that price, it's kept in a locked vault, available for purchase only via the Internet. For aristocratic pretenders with less princely pockets, a crystal phial containing just under an ounce is available for $450 in the chateau gift shop.

"It's a real queen's perfume," said Elisabeth de Feydeau, a historian and professor at the Versailles School of Perfumes, who made possible the revival effort with her discovery of the recipes for Marie Antoinette's favorite fragrances among musty boxes of centuries-old documents warehoused by the French government. "It's very luxurious. The person who buys this perfume wants to own something a queen should have."

The floral bouquet carrying the moniker of the queen who was beheaded in 1793 during the French Revolution has become one of the chateau's most elaborate commercial marketing ventures in recent years. Ten of the $10,500 Baccarat bottles were produced, of which five have been sold, including one to Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman -- who also purchased 25 of the smaller perfume phials, according to Versailles spokesman Jean-Francois Quemin.

The chateau is using the proceeds to purchase Marie Antoinette's ornate wooden traveling case from a private collector at a cost of $455,000.

But historian Feydeau said her initial suggestion to longtime perfumer friend Kurkdjian that he try to replicate a fragrance from the royal court of more than 200 years ago, met with an adamant: "Impossible, impossible -- it would be too expensive."

"You can play music from the 18th century, you can restore paintings, why not try to re-create a perfume from the 18th century?" said Feydeau, 40, who spent two years researching the recently published book that was the perfume's inspiration, "A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer."

Kurkdjian, 37, who'd made his name designing fragrances for Guerlain, Christian Dior and Elizabeth Arden, began studying 18th-century materials and techniques used to make perfumes. Only natural ingredients; no synthetic scents like those used in today's productions.

Together, he and Feydeau researched Marie Antoinette's favorite flowers -- roses, jasmine, orange flowers, tuberoses -- and pored over the notes of the palace perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon, who insinuated himself into the court at Versailles creating perfumes, soaps and pomades for the royals.

They roamed the vast gardens of Versailles once trod by Marie Antoinette. They wandered the labyrinth of private dressing rooms and bathrooms behind the queen's lavish bedroom of gold and rust brocades. They stood over the small, intricately inlaid dressing table where Fargeon presented his newest creations to his highest-profile client. The table was part of the furnishings in a small room painted blue-gray and studded with miniature gilded motifs of the pots used to burn perfume to mask the stench of human waste that was carried in the open ditches outside the shuttered windows of the palace.

They spent hours studying the bathing habits -- the queen introduced the novelty of bathrooms to Versailles -- and the personality of the enigma that was Marie Antoinette, first loved by her country as a winsome young Austrian-born queen, later reviled as the embodiment of monarchal excess.

They decided to focus on the fragrance of the more private, sympathetic queen, the period after the birth of her first child when she often eschewed the public arena (even during childbirth she had been ogled by an audience of witnesses and attendants). She favored the scented gardens of the smaller, more secluded Trianon on the grounds of the Versailles estate.

Reading the words of the queen's personal perfumer -- "fruity, heavy, flowery" -- Kurkdjian said he began developing "an olfactory sketch in my mind, more of a feeling than an actual recipe."

"The biggest difficulty was to explain to the responsible people at Versailles that it wasn't an historical perfume," Kurkdjian said. "Usually at Versailles, you restore something, you find the right piece of wood, you re-create something the same way it was." But the perfume "is something Marie Antoinette could have worn, it is possible she could have worn -- we're not sure she did."

He used rhizomes from a Tuscan iris -- cured for five years, just as they were in the queen's day -- along with the highest-quality essences and oils.

After six months of floral experimentation, Kurkdjian said, he reached "a point when what you have in front of your nose matches what you have in your mind."

Does "In the Wake of the Queen" capture the true essence of Marie Antoinette?

"It's not the perfume of the queen," Feydeau said. "In the 18th century, you weren't just a Chanel No. 5 woman. You had many perfumes because you couldn't keep the essences very long."

The chateau describes it as representing "the olfactory preferences of the young queen."

Feydeau said the perfume -- which bursts out of the bottle in a bouquet of competing scents, then after a couple of hours of wear settles into the fragrances of a summer evening in a lush garden -- turns heads and elicits compliments when she wears it to events at the chateau.

She confessed, however, that two of her friends who've bought the smaller phials, copied from the queen's original perfume containers on display in one of her private bathrooms, consider the royal fragrance too valuable to ever unseal or wear.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.


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