The notion arose during the late 1970s, in several minds at once. Why not amass in one place, for safekeeping and delectation, all the perfumes ever created? A wonderful idea, and in time the renowned nez Jean Kerléo brought the collective dream to fruition. The Osmothèque, the only institution of its kind in the world, was inaugurated in 1990. Nowhere else can a perfume lover inhale thousands of fragrances created today, yesterday and even in distant history, including a royal perfume of the Roman era and the medieval Eau de la Reine de Hongrie.

The experts at this unlikely conservatory, situated on a side street in the city of Versailles, have even reconstituted, from a formula discovered by chance in a drawer, the eau de cologne produced on Saint Helena for the exiled Napoleon. Hundreds of perfumes once thought to have evaporated into the mists of time have been revived at the Osmothèque. Dabbed onto paper strips called mouillettes, the fragrances transport visitors to the woodland glades of their origin, or the era of their first appearances on the perfume scene: heady Narcisse Bleu by Mury (1920), nostalgic Nuit de Noël by Caron (1922), Chanel’s sensual Cuir de Russie (1924), Millot’s opulent Crêpe de Chine (1925), to mention only a few.

The Osmothèque also represents a definitive homage to the pioneers of the perfume industry. Louis-Toussaint Piver, one such trailblazer, bequeathed us Le Trèfle Incarnat (1896), with a freshness that has lost none of its appeal to this day. Another, the innovator François Coty, created the famous Rose Jacqueminot (1903) that had customers of the Bon Marché department store swooning over its roundness and grace.

Paul Poiret became the first couturier to branch out into the fragrance field with his Parfums de Rosine, endowed with the same verve, originality and lightheartedness that characterized his fashion design. A whiff of his seductive Arlequinade (1924), for example, keeps you lingering over the mouillette, savoring the vapor over and over again. Another couturier, Jacques Fath, beguiles the senses with the shaded accents of his subtle Iris Gris (1947). The list goes on and on. It seems unfair to cite only a few among so many equally delightful and astonishing concoctions. Indeed, the entire aristocracy of the métier is represented at the Osmothèque. The Guerlain dynasty, most notably, has had only four parfumeurs since 1828, all members of the family—Jacques Guerlain practiced for seven decades—and remains an inspiring model for its sure-handed merging of tradition and innovation.

The modern era in perfumery began with the invention of synthetic scent compounds in the late 19th century. In 1882 Houbigant took the first daring step with Fougère Royale, based on coumarin synthesized by Perkin; Aimé Guerlain came out with Jicky in 1889 using Reimer’s synthetic vanillin. Finally, in 1921, Ernest Beaux created the world-famous Chanel No. 5 with an audaciously high aldehyde content—permanently enshrining artificial ingredients among the industry’s stock in trade. However, using them and admitting to it are two different things, and many perfume companies have exercised the utmost discretion about the synthetic components of their perfume. Some, playing on the public’s mistrust of change, have concocted special scents exclusively from natural sources, preferably the rarest. Thus Jean Patou commissioned Henri Alméras to create “the most expensive perfume in the world,” the floral bouquet Joya questionable snobisme given that, used correctly, the right chemical compounds can equal, in full measure, the purest natural essences.

Musc, a wonderfully sly novel by Percy Kemp, depicts the agitation of a dandy when he learns that his fetish eau de cologne will no longer be made with natural musk. Monsieur Eme, the protagonist, goes to disquieting extremes to avert the final depletion of its stock, a crisis linked to his panic at aging. “As long as the image of his scent had been stable, permanent, renewable at will,” the author writes, “his baldness, his crow’s feet, his veined hands, his knobby knuckles, his stooped posture were invisible to him. And to everyone else, he thought, caught up as they were in the image of his scent and his olfactive shape.” (This notion of “olfactive shape” was first advanced by Edmond Roudnitska, the brilliant creator of Eau Sauvage for Dior, in his book L’Esthétique en Question, in which he describes the dense, tangible character of fragrances, as recognizable as faces to the well-trained nez.) Monsieur Eme’s reaction, if exaggerated, is hardly unique; most users feel freer and more relaxed under the protective halo of their familiar aroma.

The power of olfactory perception to suggest and evoke, to trigger an association or a faraway memory, enables every aromatic essence to create its own world, enveloping us in a private realm of impressions and images, harmonies and desires. Manipulating our most intimate sense, the parfumeur becomes the architect of emotional spaces, a painter on the canvas of imagination, a sculptor in an intangible material that works at the deepest level of sensibility.

The Osmothèque, which is primarily a resource and teaching institution for perfume professionals, is open to the public by reservation only, for two-and-a-half-hour sessions given (in French only) by perfumers. Sessions are held on Wednesday afternoons and some Saturdays, and include discussions, videos and slide shows covering the history of perfume and the profession of the “nose”, a presentation of the raw ingredients used in perfumery, and the opportunity to sniff mouillettes of many of the perfumes in the collection. 36 rue du Parc de Clagny, Versailles, 01.39.55.46.99. €15. website

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of France Today; updated in May 2011.

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