In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the believing we do something when we do nothing is the first illusion of tobacco.
In the words of The Scentimentalist, the believing we smell something when we do not is the first illusion of Tabac Blond.
Infamously idiosyncratic and nigh-on impossible to obtain, Caron’s 1919 chef d'oeuvre has endured some 90 years without a tobacco flower or leaf in sight. Rather, it works its pliant and tantalising sleight of hand through an interfusion of leathery (isobutyl quinoline) topnotes, with a heart of spicy carnation, iris, vetiver and ylang-ylang, and a stolidly ambergris, musk, patchouli and vanilla base.
In its earliest incarnation, Tabac Blond (or Le Tabac Blond as it was first known) would have been most usefully classed as a ‘leather chypre’, though recent assaults on its formulation appear to have left us with something more ‘oriental’ in orientation.
And herein lies the difficulty when we speak about Tabac Blond (for such is the might of its legend that most who love perfume profess an opinion on this scent): of which version do we actually speak? For, as this author, amongst others, will readily testify, even a side-by-side sampling of the EdT, EdP and parfum concentrations yields wildly heterogeneous results – and this is before we take post-’80s formulation-fiddling into account.
What is more immediate and less problematic to grasp is the context of Tabac Blond’s appearance: the social and cultural transformation that followed the First World War, owing in no small part to the presence of American servicemen in Europe. As the promise of women’s emancipation beckoned, and just as corsets were discarded for short, looser outfits for sporty, cigarette-smoking, bob-haired girls, Caron launched its olfactory homage to les belles androgynes of that day.
It has been suggested that Tabac Blond was first composed with a male market in mind; the fact that Caron elected to pitch this scent at the urbane, elegant sophisticate and the glamorous garçonne, goes some way towards underscoring its unorthodox, avant-garde character. As the Caron website is keen to remind us, this was a ‘deliberately provocative’ move on the company’s part.
Tabac Blond still possesses the power to provoke and stir. Arresting images of (purported) devotee Marlene Dietrich present a striking fantasy of the ‘archetypal’ Tabac Blond wearer. (On a side note: look at the length of the ash on Marlene’s cigarette in the image above. Its creator, Cornel Lucas, informed a confidante of mine that the star could maintain a pose for inordinate lengths of time.) Curiously, many (including renowned perfume critic Luca Turin) have alluded to a certain ‘Sapphic’ quality to this scent, while it generates panting product endorsements such as the following, on Ebay: ‘[Tabac Blond is] the scent that sends nuns to the dark side, angels to hell and saints to their knees. Pure carnal knowledge in a flacon.’
In the unrepentantly subjective view of The Scentimentalist, there is no question that Tabac Blond is a fragrance of profound sensuality. But, in her experience of its (highly attenuated) current form at least, it offers so much more besides: a smooth intelligence, a tawny insouciance, a liquory, golden heart. Where one might have anticipated ashtrays and resin, it delivers a caressing balm of the sweetest, most supple leather sillage.
Do smoke in bed … for where else to wear Tabac Blond?