“There are perfume legends, there are perfumer legends, and then there are perfumes that become obsessions. Fracas is all three, which is a hat trick less common that you’d think.”
Thus begins The New York Times‘ review for Fracas. It is a five-star review by the highly respected perfume critic, Chandler Burr, for a perfume that he rates as “transcendent.” And I couldn’t agree more. [Clarification: this post and piece is about vintage Fracas, both the very original versions and late 1990s Fracas, not the horribly mangled, modern reformulations.]
As a very small child of six or seven, and one already obsessed with perfume, there were two fragrances that I loved above all others: YSL’s Opium and Robert Piguet‘s Fracas. Out of the vast array of expensive French bottles littering my mother’s mise à toilette, out of all the Lalique jars and containers filled with various mysterious, adult things, out of all the things that made being a woman seem so fun and magical, there was really only Opium and Fracas that mattered to me. It was the 1970s, we lived in Cannes in a villa on the side of the mountain, overlooking the whole city below. There were exciting and often turbulent things going on, new things to explore, and make-believe adventures to be had. And, yet, I was always drawn back to that table. To be honest, it was primarily for the Opium which is still, to this day, my favorite perfume in all the world (in vintage version). But Fracas was a close second.
It was the empress of all white scents. It was a perfume that, as I recall, brought every man who passed by my mother to a stumbling, stuttering halt as they wondered what was that marvelous, incredible, hypnotic smell. It was a scent that I always thought was exuberantly joyful and happy, but which seemed to seduce whomever came within ten feet of it. It seemed like some cloud of happy white magic, all in one jet black bottle. It was the perfume worn by Marilyn Monroe (when she wasn’t wearing Chanel No. 5), Rita Hayworth, and Brigitte Bardot. And its modern die-hard fans range from such polar opposites as: Madonna to Martha Stewart, Ivana Trump to Courtney Love, Princess Caroline of Monaco to Bianca Jagger. It intoxicated them all. And it intoxicated a tiny seven-year old, too.
Years passed, and I never forgot Fracas. Even though I had my own bottle of Opium by now, I would often talk with my mother about that “amazing white perfume in the black bottle.” When she told me that it was no longer made, we both paused in a moment of sadness — a moment of silence, if you will, for the tragedy of a world without Fracas.
Then, one day, in 1998, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area when I heard that Fracas was back. I remember the exact moment I heard it. It was late afternoon, I was feeling unwell, and lying on a forest green, brocade sofa watching some criminal trial on Court TV when my mother called. She mentioned, in passing, Fracas’s return. Without exaggeration, I got off the phone, literally leapt off the sofa, and drove through horrendous traffic all the way to San Francisco. I bought it that evening, there and then. That is the power of Fracas over those who adore it.
But there is another side to Fracas. The side which sends people reeling with horror, the side which has been described as pure poison, redolent of “rotting fruit,” litter boxes, cat urine, and more. It is a scent which can trigger migraines that will knock out its sufferers for days on end, lying huddled and whimpering in a darkened room. It is a scent that some say should never be worn out to dinner because your neighbors at the table may be too overwhelmed to be able to taste their food. It is a scent where, allegedly, two sprays were enough to send the baristas at Starbucks into a coughing, watery-eyed fit as they gasped for air. It is a scent that can make some beg for an early death. Even one of its adoring male admirers describes it as “[t]he perfume of the black widow: it attracts you and then kills you with a kiss…”
Fracas was released in 1948 by Robert Piguet, one of the top, Parisien haute-couture designers of the time, and a man who trained or taught everyone from Hubert de Givenchy to Balmain to Christian Dior himself. The perfume was created by Germaine Cellier, an enormously respected, avant-garde perfumer who was quite willing to literally grab the underwear off runway models in order to get a better idea of what constituted the core scent of a woman. Cellier made Fracas four years after the release of her Bandit, that infamous, legendary leather chypre that is the black light to Fracas’ white one. The contrast seems to have been intentional. According to the perfume expert, Elena Vosnaki, Cellier was quite explicit in making the distinction between her two fragrances:
In the New York Times article, Chandler Burr explains that tuberose “is notorious among perfumers for being a difficult raw material to master” and that perhaps only Cellier could have managed to create a scent like Fracas. Or, perhaps, she and tuberose’s tempestuous, animalic nature were simply a match made in heaven:
[Cellier was] the creator of a striking style. ‘She transposed Fauvism and Abstractionism into perfume,’ Jeannine Mongin has written. ‘She created in dissonance.’ … It is possible that the secret of Fracas (1948) is an equilibrium between the power of Cellier’s style and the power of tuberose.
That creation “in dissonance” is one reason why Fracas horrified and bewitched people in equal measure. Another is that tuberose — and Fracas in particular — evokes carnal sex. The famous perfumer, Roja Dove, said bluntly:
Fracas is the big tuberose reference of perfumery, and tuberose is the most carnal of the floral notes. It smells like very, very hot flesh after you’ve had sex — that’s the bottom line. It’s very much in fashion just now, but current fragrances don’t use such an incredible concentration of it. While they may nod towards something carnal, Fracas is carnal all the way. [via The Independent, 12/14/2002.] [Emphasis added.]
Fracas continued to hold sway until sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s when it faded into the mists of legend. It seems that the house of Robert Piguet essentially died. Then, in the mid 1990s, the Robert Piguet name was bought by
Adrien Arpel, for his company, Alfin. He re-released Fracas in both eau de parfum form and some rogue eau de toilette version. Neither seemed to be much like the original. (So if you ever see any bottles of Fracas on eBay that come in boxes with the words Arpel on them, stay away.)
In 1995 or 1996, however, the Robert Piguet brand was bought by Fashion Fragrances and Cosmetics (FF&C). They made every attempt to release a version of Fracas that was close to the original in terms of notes and appearance. And, by most accounts, they succeeded as the current version is said to
be exceedingly close, though Bois de Jasmin says that the original is more aggressive and animalic, and various commentators around the internet insist that the new version is “watery” in comparison. (They also say to turn to eBay where it’s not hard to find the vintage version from the ’60s and ’70s in extrait form for extremely affordable prices.)
Whatever the changes, the return of Fracas was hailed by all and soon returned to its status as a cult legend. Luca Turin calls it the “Ferrari” of fragrances and, in 2006, it was inducted into the FiFi (Fragrance Foundation) Hall of Fame.
The new Fracas comes in either eau de parfum or pure parfum/extrait concentrations, and, like the original, comes in a jet-black, opaque bottle with a black top and a pink-framed label. The extrait version is said to be creamier, richer and more balanced than the louder eau de parfum version. My 1998 (vintage) bottle is the eau de parfum concentration and I don’t find it loud in the slightest, but then I was imprinted with the original, full-bodied, hardcore Fracas at a very early age.
Bois de Jasmin says that notes in Fracas are:
bergamot, orange blossom, greens, peach, tuberose, jasmine, violet, iris, lily of the valley, carnation, sandalwood, musk, oakmoss, and cedar.
However, I do not believe that list to be complete at all, particularly as it leaves out vetiver which is well known to be in Fracas, along with jonquil (otherwise known as narcissus). On numerous sites, I have read a far more extensive list of notes and I think we should go with the long list provided by Yesterday’s Perfume blog:
Top notes: Bergamot, Mandarin, Hyacinth, Green Notes
Heart notes: Tuberose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Lily of the Valley, White Iris, Violet, Jonquil, Carnation, Coriander, Peach, Osmanthus, Pink Geranium
Base notes: Musk, Cedar, Oak Moss, Sandalwood, Orris, Vetiver, Tolu Balsam[.]
Chandler Burr of the New York Times explains the effect and smell of some of the key ingredients:
Cellier packed her formula with Indian tuberose absolute, which gives it huge power and “sillage” (the olfactory trail). Like all good perfumers, she was an illusionist. To achieve an even more lifelike, more raw tuberose (this flower smells of armpit, flesh and decay due to heavy molecules called indoles; jasmine is similarly loaded with them), she used an even larger quantity of Tunisian orange blossom absolute, plus some astronomically expensive French jasmine and Italian iris root butter. Add natural violet leaf to give the sweet, heavy scent a refreshingly harsh, wet green aspect, iris for a woody depth, synthetic civet (the smell of unwashed construction worker) for power, the synthetics C18 for an unctuous, milky, soft tropical quality and methyl anthranilate for fizz. The result is a signature, a persistence on skin, and a diffusion that are – all three – astonishing. Another hat trick.
I’m hesitant to give one of my usually detailed, hour-by-hour breakdowns for Fracas. Some masterpieces can’t be dissected. And, in all honesty, I couldn’t even hope to sum up its key elements as well as that quote by Chandler Burr just did. But there is also something else: Fracas is such a magnificently blended perfume that the notes often merge together in perfect unity to create a strong, buttery, indolic, narcotically heady “sum total.” It is a symphony of buttery, creamy white, even though there are things that cut through the richness, like the green vetiver and the airy, spring-like, green lily-of-the-valley and hyacinth.
Despite that, there is almost a thick, viscous, rubbery richness at the heart of the sweetness. It’s because (vintage) Fracas contains two of the most indolic flowers around – jasmine and tuberose. And it smells very strongly of another white super-flower that is also very indolic: gardenia. (Gardenia is not one of the official notes, but it’s there and it’s quite powerful.) Indolic flowers can often have a rubbery element to the narcotic richness at their heart; over-blown ripeness that, sometimes, can verge almost on the side of decay. (You can read more about Indoles and Indolic scents at the Glossary.) These indoles are the reason why some people get the the impression of “rotting fruit,” sourness, urine, plastic, or Hawaiian flowers.
I’m fortunate not to experience any of that. [CLARIFICATION: again, I’m talking about my 1998, now “vintage” version of Fracas.] On me, it is predominantly tuberose and gardenia, with a touch of green, a base of creamy earthiness and, yes, a strong feeling of a hot body after sex. (Though never the gardenia and “bad-idea sex” that one person amusingly called the scent of Fracas.) The rest — the numerous, subtle nuances and undulating waves of notes — I refuse to break down. I won’t dissect Fracas. I suppose I don’t want to dig into why it creates the magic that it does for me. To me, Fracas is the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There are a lot of cadences involved, but some things are just meant to be appreciated as a majestic whole and to try for yourself. [Ideally, in vintage form.]
For all its glory, I would be the very first to say that you should never buy Fracas blind unless you are sure from ahead of time that you love powerful, heady white floral or tuberose scents. Never. One reason is the powerful projection and longevity of Fracas, which really cannot be emphasized enough. Read the comments on Fragrantica; they are uniform. When someone wrote that Fracas lasted through two showers, I believed it fully. When others write that it can induce searing migraines in even small doses to anyone sensitive to perfumes, I believe them too.
If you are not a fan of heady scents — let alone heady florals — you should not consider Fracas. EVER. In fact, if heavy white scents give you a migraine, you should take a plane to the opposite side of the planet from whomever may be wearing Fracas. I truly am not joking. This is not a scent to apply with reckless abandon if you’re going to be going anywhere close to masses of other human beings. As the perfume site, Now Smell This, said, “[w]hile Fracas doesn’t feel heavy, it packs a hefty sillage. It is exactly the sort of perfume that leads to no-fragrance rules in large office buildings.”
Even if you love heady florals, it may be best if you first try a sample, ideally for the vintage version. That Fracas is…. well, if you love it, words simply can’t do it justice. And, if you hate it, words can’t seem to convey the full depth of the fear or revulsion. Either way, one thing is undeniable: it is a legend which set the standard for all white florals which followed.
The question is: will you find it to be the white empress that seduces you, or the black widow that kills you?
PRODUCT INFORMATION, COST, LOCATIONS TO BUY & SAMPLES:
Cost & Type: Modern, current Fracas is available on the Robert Piguet website in numerous different forms, along with several accompanying body products. The Eau de Parfum costs $95 for 1.7 oz/50ml and $135 for 3.4 oz/100 ml. The Parfum, pure parfum or extrait version costs $235 for 1 oz/30 ml. (There should be a smaller and cheaper size which is usually around $110 for 0.25 oz/7.5 ml but I don’t see it listed on the website.) Fracas also comes in solid Parfum form for $75.
In addition to all that, there are gift sets and body lotions. There is a small gift set called the “Fracas Little Pink Box” (that Martha Stewart apparently recommends) that is $65 and which includes: 1 oz. (30 ml) Fracas Eau de Parfum Spray and a .33 oz. (10 ml) Fracas Eau de Parfum Roll-on. There is also a Limited Edition set that is $595. Fragrantica states that the matching body care products include: Silkening Body Wash (250ml), Silkening Body Lotion (250ml) and Silkening Body Crème (200ml). I have only seen the Silkening Body Lotion on most sites.