While at Esxence, I walked past the Jacques Fath stand without stopping when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the name Green Water which I remembered from years ago as a complete joke. I was wrong: this was not the dismal earlier reissue, but an entirely different new thing done for Fath by independent perfumer Cécile Zarokian, together with three other fragrances. Her name seemed to be on everybody’s lips at Esxence, I heard it three or four times during the day; and with good reason, her creations are remarkable. When I realised belatedly that the Fath lineup was hers I asked for samples and they kindly sent some. I also read an interview of Zarokian in which she explains how Green Water was brought back, if not from the dead, at any rate from a deep coma.
Some of the facts in this interview are so strange and so typical of the crazy world of perfumery I had to read them several times to make sure I had it straight. It is well known that the Osmothèque, the Versailles perfume museum, has Green Water in its collection. This is because the son of the original (Coty) perfumer Vincent Roubert who composed it gave the recipe to Jean Kerléo, ex-Patou perfumer of immense distinction and Osmothèque founder. Fath and Zarokian commendably wanted to recreate the original. This would seem a clearcut case: the Osmothèque’s mission statement is to preserve the glories of the past, and if the house that paid for the perfumer’s work in the first place wants to recreate the fragrance, you would think they, or at least the perfumer, would have access to the formula.
Not a bit. The formula is secret, and Jean Kerléo alone has it. Zarokian could smell it at the Osmothèque, as indeed anyone can in principle, but could not even take away a sample to smell at leisure for the recreation. Note that a smelling strip in a cellophane sleeve would likely be enough to do a full chemical analysis if it came to that, but never mind. She had to go back time and again to the Osmothèque to refresh her smelling strips, her memory and her notes, and guess at all the materials in the formula. Kerléo was apparently very helpful, guiding the recreation with advice and hints (I picture him saying “warm” and “warmer”, etc.) and in particular insisted on the importance of a big dose of neroli in the composition. In other words the entire thing was done as a guessing game when handing over a piece of paper, under a non-disclosure agreement if necessary, would have instantly solved the problem. How this benefits Roubert’s estate, the preservation of perfumery’s past, the Osmothèque or anything other than Kerléo’s status as Keeper of the Sacred Flame I do not know.
That’s for secrecy. Now we come to the second weirdness of perfumery, called formula cost. You would think that recreating a classic to be sold as an el expensivo niche line would by necessity be a cost-no-object affair. After all, if the oil costs an outrageous $1000/kg, and is present at 20% in a 100 ml EdP bottle, that’s $20 in a thing which is to be sold for about $100, what most businesses would consider a pretty decent markup. Not in perfumery: apparently Kerléo’s suggestions and Zarokian’s tests resulted in a specification of 5% neroli, which costs something like $3000/kg, and therefore contributes $3 to the 100ml formula cost. To their credit Jacques Fath went for it, but it is clear from the interview that this is to be considered an extravagance on their part rather than humble duty.
How does it smell? Wonderful, as it happens. Zarokian’s trips to the Osmothèque were not wasted. Green Water is an unusual citrus fragrance, with a peculiar top note which departs from the standard Eau de Cologne canon by being richer, darker, mintier, almost rubbery. It is at times reminiscent of Monsieur Balmain, which was reconstructed by Calice Becker years ago and for which she, far more reasonably, was given the original Germaine Cellier formula. The drydown, that telltale heart of all fresh fragrances, is soft, powdery and refined. Green water has a scrubbed, relaxed, easy-breathing feel to it which is very rare in masculine perfumery these days. At all times, it remains quiet and enticing. A woman would have to come awfully close to figure out what this delicious smell was, which is of course the whole idea.