After the first few seconds trying to grapple with the orientation of the scent - something less than obvious, such is its vagueness - you just want to say that it smells good, very good.
34 Boulevard Saint Germain is the latest opus from the germanopratin perfume house which opened their first boutique in 1961 at said address. Diptyque is one of the earliest "niche" perfume houses to have opened the way to others although it started out as a decorative textile home boutique, then a general home decoration store focusing on the imports of English and Oriental curios.
In 1964, Diptyque started carrying Culpeper agabartis and pot-pourris from England and soon they were proposing English perfumes from the houses of Culpeper, Floris, Trumper and Penhaligon's under the unfluence in particular of one of the three founders, Desmond Knox-Lee. The two other walker-ons were Christiane Montadre-Gautrot and Yves Coueslant. Elizabeth de Feydeau recounts in the commissioned monography Diptyque that sometimes boats from England would deliver their goods for the store right next door at the pont d'Austerlitz.
The mark of the 18th century English barber perfume tradition with its accent put on freshness and lightness as well as a certain functional and aesthetic spareness, one could retrospectively point out, has left an imprint on the perfume house ever since. Seeing this thread is realizing that just like the English tailored tradition has been influential in creating a sense of minimalism in French fashion, so did its perfumery tradition born in barber shops help create the minimalist, economy-of-means orientation that is one of the characteristics of French niche perfumery albeit complexified by the French legacy of fashion and art....
Diptyque certainly was my own personal introduction to the world of word-of-mouth, off-the-beaten-track perfume houses.
Living in the area made me feel concretely the geographic meaning of the latter expression: Diptyque is located on a stretch of the Boulevard Saint Germain, after Place Maubert, which was felt by me (and other locals cf. Diptyque) to be on the outskirts of the hub of the neighborhood. Where it was, was quieter, calmer, more provincial. In the subtle geography of the mind of a native resident who felt "home" started when the bus-stops at the Place de l'Odéon loomed on the horizon, it was a different village out there. There was little reason to go in that direction at the time unless you wanted to go to the piscine de Pontoise, lived there or knew of Diptyque. Distances in Paris are short, but culturally and socially, there can be more or less immense nuances. Now there is the pull of the Institut du Monde Arabe off the far end of the boulevard which makes it still not more central a location but less provincial.
The new composition signed by perfumer Olivier Pescheux, who already offciated for the house to create their trio of colognes and Vetyverio, accidentally celebrates the 50th anniversary of the brand as the project started on paper in 2008 and is based on an original idea by Diptyque director of development Myriam Badault. She wanted to capture the olfactory identity of the original flagship boutique. Olivier Pescheux said that he had Givaudan Scent Trek expert Roman Kaiser in mind from the get-go. The latter is more generally associated with the Amazonian forest canopy and rare orchids hunted down in remote areas than with olfactory marketing and macadam explorations. Kaiser welcomed the challenge. The scientist explains,
"To be honest, at the first moment I was rather shocked, I saw me confronted with the ultimate challenge, I felt similar as before the first flight with the dirigible over the rainforest of French Guiana or as arriving in Port Moresby to make a scent expedition to the remotest places in Papua New Guinea. But very soon I also remembered that such challenges have always been good for me, that they always have been very stimulating and that they developed my understanding of scents. The confidence came back; my studies of olfactive environments in nature came back to my mind as those performed along the Ligurian coast, along the cost of Hachijojim, a small island 500 km south of Tokyo, or at the incomparable Sequoia National Park in Califormia, and I planned to apply the same approach to the first Diptyque boutique, 34 boulevard Saint Germain."
He visited 34 Boulevard Saint Germain in the spring of 2008, on March 26th to be precise, with the director and the nose. What took place was the realization that the boutique held a cacophony of smells, from the standpoint of the coherence of a fragrance composition, a complexity that would be hard to translate into a formula. After the initial movement of discouragement, the project started looking more feasible. While the olfactory atmosphere of the boutique was seen to be disorienting, they were nevertheless able to break down the pot-pourri that the boutique is. The candles shelves, the fine fragrances corner, the soaps section, the scent of rugs etc. mingled. They needed to be re-focused.
The perfume 34 Boulevard Saint Germain, which I smelled before I discovered the behind-the-scenes information, reveals all of those nuances, yet makes sense as a perfume to be worn on the skin. Roman Kaiser proceeded to capture the diffuse scents and later worked on breaking them down into four main aroma "blocks"; the nose then had to turn the original building blocks into a more supple and aesthetically pleasing form,
"Unusual green notes composed of damp mosses, crumpled blackcurrant leaves, sun-dried fig leaves. -- Spices like those you can smell on the markets in Damascus. -- Fresh flowers from English gardens, or elsewhere. Rich, exotic woods as well as milky and comforting balms."
Notes: clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, Turkish rose absolute, blackcurrant bud, tuberose, lavender, salvia, artemisia, fig, sandalwood, cedar, benzoin balm, labdanum, vetiver, patchouli.
These are my impressions before I had access to more information. Whenever factual details have been added, I stress them.
The first impression is soft and undefinable at the same time. It becomes ambery only once you have become aware of the base notes. The perfume feels light as air, with an Oriental understated heaviness managing to peek through the lighter, clear folds of the fragrance. My original impression is that I am reminded somewhat of the kind of sensations I derive from Préparation Parfumée by Andrée Putmann composed by nose Olivia Giacobetti. It is the same kind of perfumed-preparation feel, almost impossible to dissociate and break down because it is meant to feel like a vague, blended-in cocktail...a perfume that just smells of perfume.
As it turns out, the top notes are an homage, in part, paid to Diptyque Phylosikos composed by Giacobetti. The slightly milky and woody fig note, once you make the mental connection, dissociates itself from the concert of notes, but it could all just as well remain vague and undefinable if you didn't care to know and pinpoint notes. The structuration of the perfume is rather meant, in my opinion, to err on the side of vagueness.
One can discern in 34 Boulevard Saint Germain sweet notes of almondy, creamy tonka, green accents, a smidge of costus, but the notes are never meant to be showcased, rather they are self-effacing, all aiming towards the goal of creating a modern, minimalist perfume-y effect whcih nevertheless does not want to negate the pleasure of the senses. Again, the composition wants to smell good, but never in a flirty or catchy way. There are no or little seductive winks in this perfume, just a a sense of serene smiliness.
The costus-like note I smell, which is not listed, might be the perfumer's attempt to capture the scent of Oriental rugs which trap somewhat, sometimes, the scent of animal and human grease.
As the perfume progresses, its fabric becomes heavier and I have to say, a bit nauseating, if you are sensitive to something that comes across as the smell of costus mingling with an almond-y, heliotropin-like sensation. It is not that the olfactory effect is that heavy, but it is suggestively heavy and pushing the limits of our / my olfactive toleration; a dry, woody prune-y nuance contributes at the same time to the darkening of the scent. The dry nuances of ambergris -- Olivier Pescheux has said in the past that he is fascinated by Ambroxan -- add an understated sense of parched heat.
While it is difficult to classify the perfume initially -- the brand insists that as an innovating composition it does not belong to any known family of perfume -- there is something for me of the spicy, creamy and floating floralcy of L'Heure-Bleue by Guerlain in the scent, as 34 Boulevard Saint Germain deepens the clove-y, creamy-powdery sensation. But there are also fresher, galbanum and green-banana-like nuances.
The spicy heritage of Diptyque can now be felt more strongly. Its Orientalist thematic as well, as one catches a whiff of papyrus, it seems.
One of the core inspirations for the house from the beginning was the revival of ancient perfumery formularies including Elizabethan ones which presented themselves as perfumed recipes which had good overdoses of dry, medicinal spices. My first Diptyque love was L'Eau, a liquid pomander really. This aspect now surfaces better. The improbable creamy "costus-heliotropin accord", to my nose, presently appears enriched by the scent of mace, but also by a Tiger-balm like trail.
As underlined in the review of Rousse by Serge Lutens, Red Tiger Balm is based on the key ingredients of menthol, camphor, mint, cassia, cajuput, cinnamon, and clove. 34 Boulevard Saint Germain is now more firmly in this Chinese-medicinal-cabinet territory with the prune note smelling more distinctively of Chinese dried sweet-and-sour prunes, Wamui.
The No.34 at this point in time (I will use this shortened name whenever convenient) evokes the spicy floriental family but in a much more stripped down and travelogue-like version of perfumes such as Guerlain L'Heure Bleue or Yves Saint Laurent Opium. The 34 evokes the authenticity of smells which might have been caught on the Croisière Jaune expedition (1929-1933) rather than their fashionable, polished versions to be inhaled in salons and on avenues. True to the original spirit of Diptyque and their founders, especially, that of Desmond Knox-Lee, it smells like a scent well-travelled, covered in dust from the roads. It evokes the aridity of the desert, the spice routes.
34 Boulevard Saint Germain is a lovely, kaleidoscopic homage to the house bringing back for me the spirits of great adventurers from the past, when travels were daunting. Even the costus note (I insist) now takes on a new meaning, evoking the tiredness and unwashedness of bodies too intent on exploration for them to think or care about finding showers every day. The perfume does not smell dirty in the figurative, animalistic sense, but rather dirty in a narrative sense, letting you in on Kiplingian tales of heroic voyages. This composition, which was born in the heart of Paris makes me want to re-read Rudyard Kipling and write a series of reviews on perfumes inspired by adventure or the imagination of adventure.
This is the perfume you want take with you to tap into the conquering spirit of world-class travellers and explorers.
34 Bd Saint Germain spins the tale of sepia-colored photos of adventurers, which seat on a bookshelf or a wood table, opening up your imagination while managing to conjure up the comforting scents of home at the same time. Nuances of beeswax on softly shiny polished woods - a reference to the vintage wooden furniture of the boutique - are present as are the scents of the candles Maquis, Ambre and Patchouli, those familiar fragrances for the house, all contributing to a sense of serene adventure and voyage without ever feeling - what a feat - Baudelaireian, i.e., overly voluptuous, tortured, carnal, narcotic, brooding. It's a different style.
Here is a sense of perfumed adventure which feels both more classically ancient and more contemporary - streamlined.
If I ever go back on the roads of hard travels, this will be the perfume I take with me.