There is something so perfect, yet so simple about a well-executed eau de cologne. On face value this style of fragrance may seem like a simple blend of citrus fruit, flowers and herbs, yet the precision in which these notes must be configured demands the same skill as a complex oriental or chypre perfume. With eau de cologne, there are no dark corners to hide haphazard perfume construction. Even though brands such as Roger & Gallet and 4711 have proven eau de cologne can be produced as low-cost fragrance, the beauty of an eau de cologne made from fine raw materials, costly neroli oil from Tunisia and essential oil expressed from the skin of Mediterranean citrus fruit is an entirely different experience. A quality eau de cologne is one of perfumery’s simple pleasures.
Over the past decade many of the luxury brands making perfumes have revisited this 400-year-old recipe and a classic eau de cologne now features in their collections. Chanel, Christian Dior, Tom Ford and Hermes currently have one or more, and traditional houses such as Guerlain continue to produce eau de cologne, which has been a cornerstone of the brand for the past 160 years. After Pierre-Francois Pascal Guerlain created Eau de Cologne Imperiale in 1853, each generation of Guerlain perfumer has been charged with the responsibility of reinterpreting their founder’s work. Aime Guerlain created Eau du Coq in 1894, Jacques Guerlain created Fleurs de Cedrat in 1920; Jean-Paul Guerlain created Eau de Guerlain in 1974 and the house’s most recent cologne, Cologne du Parfumeur, was created by Thierry Wasser in 2010. These colognes maintained the classic structure of the original but they each had characteristics particular to their generation. Cologne du Parfumeur had an intense greenness, a signature of Thierry Wasser’s style and it used modern raw materials that made it unmistakably 21st century.
In 2001 Frederic Malle and perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena set out to create a new cologne for the 21st century. The task they set themselves was to rework the eau de cologne concept whilst maintaining its recognisable structure, in the same way great masters of perfumery, including the Guerlains, had previously modernised eau de cologne. To do this the pair worked on the concept of bitterness. Jean-Claude Ellena approached Monique Remy Laboratories (LMR) in Grasse to customise an oil of bigarade (bitter) orange. The company, now a subsidiary of International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) are known for their ability to produce some of perfumery’s highest quality natural raw materials. He requested they remove the facets he did not want via molecular distillation. This meant removal of the oil’s natural turpentine-like smell and the phototoxic molecules, which prevent perfumers from using the oil in large doses. He also requested the oil to be colourless. After some dialogue and a small series of four trials being exchanged between the perfumer’s studio in Cabris and Frederic Malle’s office in Paris, the pair agreed this new bitter cologne was finished. A more intense version Bigarade Concentree was created the following year.
There is something beguiling about Jean-Claude Ellena and Frederic Malle’s bitter cologne. In some ways it ticks all of the traditional eau de cologne boxes but it also takes the wearer on other journeys not historically linked to the eau de cologne story. In true Ellena style, an existing concept is taken and the excess is cleared away leaving a bare string of elemental notes, which the perfumer splices together with surgical precision. As a result of Frederic Malle and Jean-Claude Ellena’s vision, this stark reinvention of eau de cologne is the essence of bitterness. This is eau de cologne at its most elemental. Gone is the fizzy accord that results from combining citrus notes with lavender. Gone is the floral harmony dominated by indolic orange blossom. Even the rustic rosemary note that usually punctuates this short perfume stanza is omitted. What is left is an unwavering plain of bitter orange. The accompanying blurb on the back of Cologne Bigarade’s box describes the scent as “being faceted by faint brushstrokes of rose and sitting on a base of hay and cedar.” I can’t help but feel like the work of master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska had a hand to play in inspiring an element of Ellena’s Cologne Bigarade. Underlying the cologne’s bitterness is the scent of ripe human skin, reminiscent of Roudnitska’s Eau d’Hermes from 1951. This contrast between fresh and sullied is a concept Jean-Claude Ellena explored three years prior to Cologne Bigarade with Cartier Declaration, a fragrance that paired fresh notes with cumin, an odour reviewers often liken to the smell of male armpit. As terrible as that sounds, the reality of human attraction is; like all animals we are attracted by the scent of a potential mate. Therein lies the irony that in today’s sterile world, we turn to perfumers to put back the smells we fastidiously wash off our bodies at the beginning of each day.
Eau de cologne is perfumery’s version of the classic white shirt. It goes with everything, it can be dressed up or down and it runs little risk of offending anyone. When it comes to selecting a white shirt, it is about how comfortable you feel in it, the cut, the quality of the cotton, the fabric weight and small details like the collar and the buttons. Eau de colognes are similar in that they come in a range of sizes, the quality of the raw materials varies and embellishments express the creativity of the designer. When compared quickly they run the risk of smelling very similar, just as a stack of white shirts look the same when folded. On closer inspection you can appreciate each shirt’s unique qualities and the same can be said of eau de cologne. For me this style of fragrance is a perfume staple and given the relatively high cost of Frederic Malle fragrances, many will understandably see Cologne Bigarade as a luxury staple. The issue with luxury is; after you experience it once, it is hard to go back to anything else.
Alternatives: Frederic Malle Bigarade Concentree, Hermes Eau d’Orange Verte, Hermes Eau d’Hermes, Cartier Declaration
Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Bottle Designer: Frederic Malle
Release Date: 2001
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Citrus