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Of all our senses there is nothing more intimate than the sense of smell. Nothing more personal, and nothing more fleeting, and hard to explain. We can recreate costumes, act out dramas, watch films, listen to iPods, but experience a facsimile of a scent is not something technology has brought to us. Perhaps reserving the most emotional of the senses for our most personal experiences.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to experience smelling the perfume of a monarch, Marie-Antoinette. Aside from Chanel No. 5, (both Marilyn Monroe’s and my mother’s perfume) I had no other cultural references to perfumes. I was invited to attend
a shopping party at the de Young/Legion of Honor, they unvield
Sillage de la Reine, a recreation of Marie-Antoinette’s personal perfume.



The French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian developed the perfume using historic components Marie-Antoinette was known to have loved; she calls it “a ghost of a perfume.” It contains the intensity of rose, iris, cut jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom modulated by the delicate scent of cedar and sandalwood. It sells for the royal sum of $900 per bottle.

At first wave, the smell was intoxicating and very rich. I love all the elements of the perfume, roses are my favorite flowers, jasmine and orange blossom are amongst my favorite night scents (ever take a walk past night jasmine on a summer night? lovely). But the smell was so intense for my sensitive nose… but that was the most intriguing part, an experience both intensely feminine and powerful.


Diane Ackerman describes in A Natural History of the Senses, the importance and ritual of perfume to women of that era…


An eighteenth-century woman’s dressing called for elaborate preparation and a discerning nose. She wore sweet-smelling hair powder ans scented makeup; her perfumed clothes were kept in an aromatic clothespress; she lavishly perfumed her body, and then soaked cotton pomanders in cologne to tuck into her bodice. Potpourris sat on her tables, scenting the room from their [...] At midday, she changed into a fresh array of aroms equally overwhelming. And then again in the evening.


Inevitably Sillage de la Reine left me with the haunting feeling that I had been in the presence of monarch in a very intimate way. How strange, and how lovely that one can experience history in such a manner.

The perfume celebrates the exhibition Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon opening at the Legion of Honor on November 17, 2007.

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3 comments for “Perfume”

  1. i love this post, all the little details. that first paragraph captures the essence of scent and memory and all the personal emotions associated.

    Posted by thealchemist | July 24, 2007, 7:43 pm
  2. What an amazingly personal way to experience history! I’m totally intrigued.

    Posted by Kori | July 25, 2007, 7:38 am
  3. how wonderful! i always wonder what people smelled & smelled like (is that weird??).

    i’m sure they had to layer themselves in lovely fragrances at versailles, as it (and the people who came & went) was not known to be very clean. =)

    i’m sure the perfumes back then weren’t so cloying as modern perfumes are, since they were made from natural flower essences instead of synthetic facsimiles of the scent. i would hope for $900 it’d be the real thing!! i’m so jealous you were able to “smell” marie!

    Posted by Anonymous | July 26, 2007, 3:15 pm

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