The alluring beauty of tobacco, leather, honey, suede, florals, spice, smoke, fruits, and cream are given captivating movement in Naja, the long-anticipated new release from Vero Kern of Vero Profumo. The notes move like circular eddies in rippling water or like a sinuous snake weaving its way across the desert sand, because this is superbly crafted scent. It is also one of my favourite things created by Ms. Kern.
Androgyny, the dawn of the modern age, and the desire to blend masculinity with femininity are some of the inspirations behind Tabac Blond. It is one of the legendary leather and tobacco perfumes of the early 20th-century from the famous house of Caron.
Tabac Blond was released in 1919, the same year of another perfume giant, Guerlain’s Mitsouko. Tabac Blond was the creation of Caron’s founder and “nose,” Ernest Daltroff, who sought to create a scent for the new, modern woman. As Fragrantica puts it, it was a fragrance “for women who smoke cigarettes, since a cigarette was, at that time, the perfect symbol of freedom and chic of a Parisian woman.” Caron has a more evocative and vivid description:
To mark the dawn of feminine liberation, CARON made the bold move in 1919 of dedicating a deliberately provocative perfume to the beautiful androgynous women of the era, with their long ivory and mother-of-pearl cigarette-holders poised nonchalantly between their lips.
Tabac Blond: a subtly ambiguous fragrance that borrows the leathery head notes from the world of masculine fragrance, and combines them with Caron’s inimitable floral bouquet…
Tabac Blond is one of Caron’s Haute Parfumerie “Urn Scents” which originated as extracts or pure parfums. While Tabac Blond is now also available in eau de parfum concentration, what most people rave about is the vintage pure parfum. Now, I tried the parfum extrait version, but not the vintage version. I would like to, but, frankly, it’s not what most people have access to. So, modern Tabac Blond extrait is the focus of this review. You can find it at a handful of niche perfume sites, like Luckyscent, though I doubt anything would compare to the experience of buying it at a Caron boutique where the sales assistants will fill your bottle from their exquisite, famed Baccarat crystal urns into something a little more practical, portable, and pedestrian.
The Caron website lists only three things for Tabac Blond’s notes: Leather, iris, and cedar. Fragrantica has a much more complete list:
leather, carnation, lime blossom, iris, vetiver, ylang-ylang, cedar, patchouli, vanilla, ambergris, musk.
You will notice that tobacco is not mentioned anywhere. Yes, this perfume known for being the original tobacco, smoking scent does not actually include a single drop of the note. (Neither, for that matter, does Habanita which followed it two years later in 1921 from Molinard.)
I need to say something at the outset. I’m not really one for powdery scents, let alone powdery florals. My tastes run towards deep Orientals, heavily spiced ambers, smoky woody fragrances, or mossy Chypres, but I always appreciate something which is well-done and refined in nature. Tabac Blond certainly qualifies, even in its modern form.
The parfum opens on my skin with a flood of carnation that is primarily spicy, peppered, and almost a bit clove-like in its aroma. There is a hint of something akin to rose in its sweetness, but the carnation’s piquant, spicy nature really dominates. It is followed by powder, then leather which has a definite animalic undertone, as if it had been lightly coated with castoreum. Flickers of lime and vanilla quietly trail behind, but the main bouquet is of powdered carnation, lightly infused with animalic leather. There is a sweetness to the powder, which definitely comes from iris, but it is not heavily vanillic.
The Caron base which I’ve detected in a few of its other fragrances, like Nuit de Noel, is very evident here. “Caronade,” as it’s called, is very hard to describe if you haven’t smelled it, but it essentially consists of a bouquet that always makes me think of marrons glacée or glazed, iced chestnuts. It’s visually very brown, with a dark richness that is simultaneously dry, sweet, powdered, nutty, and a little bit vetiver-like in its dark, somewhat earthy woodiness. I realise that all sounds very odd, but marrons glacée or iced chestnuts are often mentioned by people when it comes to describing the Caronade, so try to imagine a slightly leathered, dry, faintly powdered, vetiver-ish, spicy, vanillic version of that, and you’ll be close.
Tabac Blond slowly starts to shift. About 5 minutes in, the iris becomes more prominent in its own right. It’s chilly, cool, and very much like scented, sweetened, makeup powder. The Caronade signature also becomes more visible, but the leather is surprisingly subtle on my skin. It drifts through the top notes as a dark spectre with an animalic undertone, but I would never sniff Tabac Blond and think, “ah, leather!” Carnation and powder, definitely, but the leather takes a distinct back-seat to the other two elements. Still, it’s really nice as it has both a warm richness and a refined smoothness that evokes kid-skin.
It’s hard for me to review Tabac Blond without bringing up Habanita, its younger sister. The two perfumes have a similar profile, share a number of notes in common, and are quite alike on my skin. For example, a subtle tinge of sourness. I don’t know if it is my skin or something about the lime blossom, but Tabac Blond has the faintest trace of sourness. It also popped up with Habanita which has bergamot instead of lime to go with all the florals, powder, and leather, but it was significantly stronger there. With Tabac Blond, it is much more subtle and fades away after about 30 minutes. Another difference is that Tabac Blond is much more leathered, dark, spicy, and smooth than Habanita on me. The latter was fruity, more synthetic in feel, and sweeter. Tabac Blond’s leather is much smoother, lacking Habanita’s rubbery or sharp edges. The Habanita is dominated primarily by rose, while Tabac Blond is all spicy carnation with a subtext of cloves. Finally, the Habanita lacks the very key Caronade signature, and is about ten times more powerful in terms of projection.
Yet, for all the subtle differences, the two fragrances are definitely related. Powdered florals, lightly flecked by leather, and carrying a trace of some vaguely abstract “tobacco.” The latter is much softer and more subtle in Tabac Blond than it is in Habanita, but the note is pretty much identical. It smells just like the powdered, scented paper in an empty pack of cigarettes. It’s never tobacco in the way of modern fragrances that have that note; this is not the tobacco of Tom Ford‘s Tobacco Vanille, or Serge Lutens‘ Chergui. This is scented, powdered paper in something that once contained tobacco and whose lingering traces have merely carried over.
Tabac Blond continues to change as time goes by. The sillage was initially moderate, but starts to drop after 40 minutes. At the end of the 2nd hour, Tabac Blond is almost a skin scent, though it is very easy to detect up close. It coats the skin as a discrete, silken layer of carnation and powdered, lipstick-y iris, with a faint trace of leather and tobacco paper, all nestled within the warm embrace of the chestnut-y, dark Caronade. The lime is no longer there, and faded away about 30 minutes in; the animalic undertones soon followed. The tobacco paper impression is now almost imperceptible, requiring a lot of hard sniffs to detect it lurking in the lower layers. The vanilla is also quite muted, adding an indirect touch of sweetness to the carnation which is now much less spicy and clove-like. There is a faint touch of warmth growing in the base, though it is wholly abstract and can’t be singled out as amber in any distinct way.
Tabac Blond remains largely unchanged until its very end, with only subtle differences in the strength of certain notes. The one new thing to appear is the cedar which becomes a tiny bit prominent in the drydown, as does the vanilla, while the carnation becomes increasingly abstract. By the start of the sixth hour, Tabac Blond is a true skin scent that is primarily an abstract, powdered floral with cedar and vanilla. There is a trace of something dark lurking underneath that sometimes feels like very soft, muted leather, but, at other times, merely seems like the Caronade.
In its final moments, Tabac Blond is just a blur of something powdered, vaguely sweet, and with the faintest trace of Caronade. A small quantity lasted for quite a while on my skin: about 1/4 of a ml, gave me just under 11 hours in duration. A slightly larger amount increased the time-frame to about 13 hours. The longevity is just as well, because Tabac Blond in the extrait version isn’t cheap. It’s $265 for 15 ml, though Luckyscent offers a 7.5 ml bottle for $100. Unfortunately, they are sold out of it, with no indication of when they might get it in. Somehow, the fragrance is cheaper in Europe where the 15 ml bottle retails for €120 or about $153. (See the Details section at the end for more information.)
I have mixed feelings about Tabac Blond. As noted earlier, powdered florals are not really my thing, but there is something appealing about the Caron’s version in the opening hours. It’s definitely very pretty at times, especially with the spicy clove undertone, and I’m sure the vintage was even better, with added darkness, smokiness, and bundles of animalic leather. The current parfum version is sophisticated, powdered femininity, but it’s a lot less complicated or interesting than I thought it would be. To be fair, this is not the version everyone talks about, and I rarely find powder puff scents to be interesting in general. Very few of them appeal to me, but I certainly think Tabac Blond is more nuanced than the current Knize Ten, another powdery leather thanks to reformulation. I definitely prefer it to Habanita, which isn’t as luxurious, high-quality, rich or smooth.
I think Tabac Blond skews quite feminine by today’s standards, as I suspect it’s too powdered and makeup-like for most men. Yet, a ton of men love Knize Ten which has been also reformulated into a very powdery scent these days, so who knows. Tabac Blond is much richer, and sweeter than the original Knize Ten, and not as oriental as Knize Gold. Plus, its leather is extremely different, as there is not an iota of birch tar in the Tabac Blond parfum that I tried. The note is much smoother and more refined than the leather in the Knize fragrance; perhaps more akin to the drydown leather of Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie. It’s also sweeter than the leather in both those fragrances, thanks to the Caronade with its mix of dryness, sweetness, vanilla and chestnuts.
Tabac Blond extrait is generally a much adored fragrance in its vintage form. You can read any number of rave, positive reviews for it on the blogosphere, as it may be one of the most discussed fragrances out there, and everyone gets around to covering it eventually. Take, for example, Angela at Now Smell This who wrote, in part:
Although I can imagine a man wearing Tabac Blond well, on me the perfume feels luxuriously womanly. It’s top notes are leather, carnation, and linden, with heart notes of iris, vetiver, ylang ylang, and lime-tree leaf. Its base is cedar, patchouli, vanilla, amber, and musk, although a smoky, spicy vanilla is mostly what lingers on my skin.
Tabac Blond’s range isn’t huge. I don’t get the piquant top notes that many fragrances provide, but instead tobacco leaf, gently supported by spicy florals, starts right off the bat. Then the scent of raw leather appears for a while, and the effect is that of a buttery leather ashtray full of cigarette butts and snickerdoodles, or maybe a leather-vanilla soufflé in a smoky brasserie, if anything like that were ever cooked up. Imagine lipstick-stained wine glasses on marble-topped tables, a smeared golden haze on the mirror over the bar, and worn, red leather banquettes, and you start to get the idea. Tabac Blond has good staying power, and a dab on each wrist and behind the ears will last all day.
It sounds lovely but, if you look at the date of that review, it’s 2007 and I suspect she may have tested the older, vintage version. I’ve tried to stay away from the issue of vintage Tabac Blond because, frankly, the majority of us will never get the chance to try it. It is simply too expensive, and hard to obtain.
It’s also not easy to find reviews of the modern, current Tabac Blond, as everyone focuses on the reportedly glorious original which was Marlene Dietrich’s favorite scent. A lot of times, talk of the modern version usually comes in the form of a comment posted to a review about the vintage version, with people lamenting the changes, the loss of the leather, and the dominance of powdered florals. Well, they aren’t wrong about that last part, and it makes me feel a lot better for my ambivalence towards the scent.
One person who has written, albeit briefly, about the current version is Bois de Jasmin who did a comparative assessment of both. She loves the vintage parfum which she rates at 5-stars, but gave the modern fragrance a rare one-star. Her review of the 2011 Tabac Blond is wholly disapproving:
It is telling that every time I try to write “Tabac Blond,” I invariably end up with “Tabac Bland.” Indeed, the new version is just that, a bland carnation. The original Tabac Blond has a dark smoky leather note that in combination with rich tobacco and sandalwood create a haunting, smoldering effect. None of those elements are present in what passes for Tabac Blond today. There is a hint of clove and sheer moss, a whisper of something green, but overall, Tabac Blond in its current form is not even worth smelling.
Others have noted definite changes in the scent as well, but my friend, Suzanne, of Eiderdown Press didn’t think they were enormous back in 2009. Perhaps things have gone further down hill since then, but you may be interested in her comparative view of two bottles of the Extrait which she purchased at different times back around the reformulation date:
the big question circulating the blogs last year was, Has this fragrance been “watered down” during the course of its reformulations? To which I can only say, I purchased two decants of the extrait de parfum back in 2007, and there were noticeable differences between them: the one purchased later in the year was distinctly less dense and full-bodied than the first decant. Yes, it was a little disturbing; but that said, the Tabac Blonde extrait from either one of those decant bottles still smells as provocatively unique and unto-itself as any scent in my collection. The fragrance’s smoky, spicy, burnt-rubber-and- carnations opening reminds me of the first delicious drags of cigarette—the first one you’ve had in ages—and as it dries down, the tar-like quality dissolves into warm leather, with an amber-and-vanilla finish that does not diminish the smokiness of this scent, but makes for a smooth, fat-bottomed ride that seems to go on forever. Put it all together, and everything about Tabac Blond—from its invitation to enjoy a private, leisurely smoke to its leather panels to its cushiony amber seat—says, Get into my car, babe. Let’s drive.
Suzanne’s version sounds significantly more leathered, tobacco’ed, and ambered than the sample I ordered in 2013, which makes me wonder if the fragrance has been watered down even more since she bought her decant in 2007.
Still, on Fragrantica, the current version of Tabac Blond seems to be much appreciated, though primarily by women. Something that struck me as very odd is that 15 people have voted for a similarity between Tabac Blond and Karl Lagerfeld‘s cologne. Now, I love and own the vintage version, but not the new, reformulated fragrance which appears under the name “Karl Lagerfeld Classic.” I haven’t smelled the latter in a long, long time, but, to my memory, it’s not at all similar to Tabac Blond. It certainly lacks the Caronade signature, as well as the richness and the smoothness of Tabac Blond. I also remember the new, reformulated Lagerfeld “Classic” as being significantly sweeter, more synthetic, and with more actual tobacco, but without any of the carnation spice.
Clearly, vintage Tabac Blond Extrait was a masterpiece of leather, but the current version isn’t terrible. It’s definitely something more suited to those who love powdery carnation or floral scents, but it does have pretty aspects. The Caronade adds a very lovely, rich vein of dark sweetness, and the leather (when it appears) is wonderfully smooth. It may not last very long, but I enjoyed its subtle flickers in the earlier stages. Tabac Blond definitely skews feminine in my view, and I think most men would struggle with the powder aspect. Still, a lot of men adore Knize Ten which, in its modern formulation, is also very powdery, so there is a slim chance that Tabac Blond might appeal. However, don’t expect a ton of leather with modern Tabac Blond, and the same goes for the tobacco.
The main conclusion to draw from all this seems to be this: perhaps we should all scour eBay for the vintage version. Modern Tabac Blond is a great interpretation of a carnation powder puff, with the added benefit of some other subtle elements, brief as they might be, but it’s not really a leather scent any more.