Eau d’Hermès is one of Edmond Roudnitska’s lesser known and lesser celebrated masterpieces; sought and treasured in the undergrowth as Femme, for Rochas, and Diorissimo, Eau Sauvage and Diorella, all for Dior, bask in the sun.
Femme was one of Roudnitska’s early perfumes, and the first he developed for Marcel Rochas, coming out months after the liberation of Paris, at the end of 1944. Through the remainder of the 40s, he continued to create for Rochas, with Mousseline, Mouche and La Rose, all now discontinued; and Moustache, a masculine encouraged by his wife Thérèse, which appeared in 1949. In 1946, he established Art et Parfum, with its laboratory in the Parisian suburb of Bécon les Bruyères – where Guerlain had based their production from 1894.
Diorama, from 1948, was Roudnitska’s first perfume for Dior. Luca Turin, in lamenting the state of the fragrance today, describes the ‘stupendous original’ as ‘a sunny orange-peel version of Mitsouko’. Eau Fraîche followed in 1955; and Diorissimo a year later in 1956, significant as a synthetic reconstruction of the scent of lily-of-the-valley, whose extract cannot be obtained naturally. 1966 saw Eau Sauvage; and Diorella came in 1972, bearing ‘all the hallmarks of Roudnitska’s mature style… a rich, woody-floral accord at once sweet and bracing, very abstract and of no definite sex’.
Eau d’Hermès came out in 1951, in the middle of Roudnitska’s career. It was his only creation for Hermès. Promoted initially as a unisex perfume, it is frequently categorised as a masculine owing to its accords of spices and leather notes, and its civet. The fragrance opens boldly with top notes of bergamot and lavender, accompanied from the first by the cumin and cinnamon which distinguish the perfume and persist throughout. It is this accord of spices which has given Eau d’Hermès the reputation of smelling somewhat like sweat; joined later by the civet, the fragrance is often described as dirty, sensuous, and animalistic, and divides opinion especially on first encounter.
The heart notes comprise jasmine, sandalwood, birchwood, cedar and vanilla. The drydown is rich, subtle and in my experience long-lasting, with the leather notes and civet prominent. Roudnitska reportedly wanted the fragrance to smell something like the inside of a Hermès leather bag; while the civet, traditionally obtained from the civet cat’s perineal glands, and described as ‘powerfully fecal’, is now synthetic.
The shape of Eau d’Hermès bears resemblance with Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky, which also possesses a bergamot-citrus opening, a jasmine-woody middle, and basenotes of vanilla and civet. Yet the spices of Eau d’Hermès change the balance of the perfume: in contrast to Jicky’s gradual development, Eau d’Hermès opens more stridently and more revealingly, with the succeeding notes layered atop one another and less easy to distinguish. Still, the fragrance remains restrained and never overpowering, warm on the skin; and suits any season and any time of day.
Roudnitksa’s perfume fell entirely out of favour until Hermès began re-marketing it in the early 1990s. Beginning in 1993, commemorative limited editions of the perfume were produced: 500 each year, sold only at Hermès stores, and coming in hand-etched crystal bottles. The 1993 edition featured an etched horse and rider; 1994 saw a variation with an etched Pegasus; and by the final run in 2002, the bottle displayed an etched carriage – all tying in with Hermès’ equestrian logo. These limited editions sold for as much as $1,000 a time.
Since then, Eau d’Hermès has again fallen into relative obscurity. It is not easy to find today outside of Hermès stores. Jean-Claude Ellena has been greatly influenced by Roudnitska: his Déclaration, for Cartier, created in 1998, shares Eau d’Hermès’ citrus opening and pronounced cumin; and Ellena wrote a portrait of Roudnitska in 1999, in which he remarked on the influence of Kant’s aesthetic theory – elaborated in the first part of Kant’s Critique of Judgement – upon Roudnitska, who in 1976 published his own L’Esthétique en Question: Introduction à une Esthétique de l’Odorat. Ellena has been the ‘nose’ of Hermès, their in-house perfumer, since 2004, creating a host of new perfumes and overseeing the reformulation of some of Hermès’ older classics. It is his Terre d’Hermès, from 2006, with its grapefruit and vetiver, which is typically forwarded by Hermès when one seeks a masculine fragrance.
Having sought Eau d’Hermès when living in York but to little avail, I purchased a bottle at the Hermès store in Amsterdam – along P.C. Hooftstraat, between the Vondelpark and the Museumplein – on my first visit to the city, before determining to move here last autumn. A polite manner and pleasant visage secured six samples, four of which are pictured below, all by Ellena: Vanille Galante and Osmanthe Yunnan, from the Hermèssence collection; Terre d’Hermès; and Eau de Pamplemousse Rose.
Jean-Claude Ellena’s ‘Portrait’ of Roudnitska, in French: http://www.art-et-parfum.com/textes/ellenaus.htm
Elena Vosnaki’s review of Eau d’Hermès at Perfume Shrine: http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.nl/2010/01/hermes-eau-dhermes-fragrance-review.html
Turin, L. & Sanchez, T. Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (Vicenza; Profile Books, 2009)