By day, she was a delicate ingenué, tending to her charges in her job as a nanny in a Bohemian arrondissement of 1920s Paris. She would wear long, old-fashioned, frilly, white dresses up to her neck and dainty ankles, and she dusted her body in floral and raspberry-scented powder.
By night, she haunted the smoky nightclubs of Montmartre and La Pigalle, luring men with the subtle tease of a dominatrix’s black leather whip that she eccentrically carried as she danced away the night in a flapper dress as white as silvered snow. She still smelled of raspberry powder, but now, she was also imbued with the smoke from the long cigarettes she held in a leather holder between her vermillion-red lips. Men did not fall for that pale face of baby innocence and floral sweetness, but for the contrast between her angelic facade and the biting sharpness that issued from her lips. She was a powerhouse of forcefulness and paradoxical contradictions that awed even the wild Zelda Fitzgerald. Her name was Habanita.
Habanita is perhaps the most famous, influential, historical perfume that is never sold in stores. It is a legend amongst perfumistas — and not only for its long history, or for how it is a tobacco perfume that is made without a single drop of actual tobacco. Habanita comes from the Grasse perfume house of Molinard, first established in 1849 and still run as an entirely family-owned business to this day. In 1921, Molinard released Habanita as perfumed sachets to enable those newly emancipated, modern women who smoked to do so with a perfumed cover to hide their habit. As the perfume blog, Now Smell This, succinctly explains, Habanita was originally introduced:
not as a personal fragrance but as a product to scent cigarettes. It was available in scented sachets to slide into a pack of cigarettes, or in liquid form: “A glass rod dipped in this fragrance and drawn along a lighted cigarette will perfume the smoke with a delicious, lasting aroma” (quoted in The Book of Perfume, page 76).
The perfume version soon followed in 1924, housed in a beautiful, black Lalique bottle decorated with cavorting nymphs. As the Molinard website proudly announces, it became known as “the most tenacious perfume in the world.” I’m unclear if that description applies to the pure parfum, solid parfum, the eau de parfum or to the eau de toilette, but I’m pretty sure you can describe almost all Habanita concentrations, now and in the past, as pretty damn tenacious! In the 1980s, Molinard reformulated Habanita and this is the version that I’m writing about, in eau de toilette concentration. Finally, in 2012, Molinard issued a new (and, again, reformulated) Eau de Parfum concentration as well.
2012 was also the year that I bought a big bottle of Habanita Eau de Toilette, blindly, off eBay, and due solely to the force of the blogosphere adoration for the scent. My post-lady handed me a small leaking package, commenting, “Boy! That’s strong!” And it was. There wasn’t a huge quantity that had seeped out, but that moderate amount, even partially dried, left a mindbogglingly enormous trail of scent in my wake as I made the walk back to my house from the postboxes. Later, I sprayed some on me and was almost blown out of the water by its strength. I enjoyed every bit of it, back then, overcome by its power, its novelty, and its unusual nature.
Unfortunately, a few more wears (and a very bad experience later in the fall with the scent on clothing) quickly led to a radical change in thought. The simple truth is that I don’t like Habanita very much and, if I’m really, truly honest with myself, I know deep down that I never did, and that my first initial appreciation stemmed purely out of wishful thinking. (Plus, a huge desire to justify a blind buy.) I wanted to like it; I knew I should like it, especially given the history (and my total faiblesse or weakness when it comes to anything historical), but mostly, I wanted to like it. So, I convinced myself that I did. Now that I’m a perfume blogger, I put great thought and analysis into each review, I rip things apart in a way I never did, don’t engage in risky blind buys, and I’m candid with myself from the start. If that post-box trip were to happen now, I would admit right away that Habanita is most definitely not for me, though I’d still respect and admire it for its history. And, dammit, I still want to like it! I almost feel like a traitor to history.
Habanita is classified on Fragrantica as an “Oriental” perfume, but I personally consider it more of a chypre-leather. The notes — as compiled from both Now Smell This and Fragrantica — seem to be:
bergamot, raspberry, peach, orange blossom, galbanum, oakmoss, jasmine, rose, ylang ylang, lilac, orris root, heliotrope, patchouli, amber, leather, musk, vetiver, cedar, sandalwood, benzoin and vanilla.
Habanita is a complicated scent on some levels and a simple one on others. If you were solely to smell the bottle, you’d detect makeup powder with florals, citrus and chypre notes. Even when on the skin, unless you really looked at the notes while smelling the perfume, you may initially conclude that you’re dealing with an avalanche of makeup powder alongside powerful (but completely amorphous, abstract) floral notes backed by the feel of scented tobacco paper and tinges of leather.
The same thing happens when you put Habanita on the skin, though greater nuances are immediately noticeable, because it’s an incredibly elusive scent in terms of its layers. There are citrusy notes atop leather that has hints of something vaguely verging on animalic. The leather feels almost raw, at times, and there feels like whiffs of castoreum underneath it. The notes are sharp and, on some tests, can seem either medicinal or quite sour on the skin as well. I suspect it’s due to the galbanum which is never noticeable in an individual, distinct, separate way, but whose effects can be seen most indirectly in that leather. As a side note, galbanum’s sharpness was often used in leather fragrances — notably in Robert Piguet‘s Bandit — so I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the cause for the raw, sometimes sour nuance to the leather here.
Habanita also contains a powerful whiff of something that is extremely hard to pinpoint if you don’t stare at the ingredient list, a note that is rarely used in high-end, niche, or classic perfumery: raspberry. Each and every time I put on Habanita, I struggle to place that one, odd, unusual, seemingly “off” element before I remember, “Oh, raspberry. Right.” I don’t know about you, but I actually can’t recall ever smelling raspberry in a significant way in perfumery. Making it all the more complicated for me is the fact that the raspberry in Habanita is not like the fresh, sweet, fruit of summer days. It feels simultaneously: desiccated, syrupy, sour, leathered, and highly powdered. Honestly, I’ve never smelled anything quite like it and, on my skin, it is always a heavy part of Habanita’s opening hours.
Nothing, however, can possibly detract from the powder note which is created by the iris, orris root, heliotrope and vanilla (perhaps, also benzoin) notes. It is not baby powder or talcum powder simply because this one is scented — and scented with a variety of things to boot. Thanks to the heliotrope, it has a subtext of almonds mixed with Play-Doh. The orris root — an ingredient long used in makeup and lipsticks as a fixative — gives it a makeup vibe, while the florals imbue it with rose, lilacs, and a whiff of jasmine. The vanilla adds its voice to the powder, too, perhaps solidifying some of the makeup associations.
There is something much more important underlying the powdered note, however, something that makes many people classify Habanita as a tobacco scent. The interplay of the powder elements with the other notes in Habanita create the overwhelming feel of powdered tobacco paper. Growing up in France, there were a number of cigarette boxes whose silver paper lining I recall being scented with a powdered note. I’ve never seen it in America, but I have seen similar sorts of boxes in India, the 1980s Soviet Union, Italy, and other parts of Europe. It’s a hard scent to describe if you’ve never encountered it because it doesn’t have the aroma of cigarette, nor stale ashtrays, but also not of paper or pure powder. It simply smells like talcum-powder tobacco paper.
I suspect the reason lies in the vetiver. It’s not like the sort of vetiver that most of us are used to; it doesn’t smell anything like the note in Chanel‘s Sycomore, for example, or Guerlain‘s Vetiver. It’s neither fresh and green, nor rooty, earthy, or woody. And, yet, when combined with the other elements, it creates “tobacco” in a powdered, papery form. Luca Turin categorizes Habanita as a “vetiver vanilla,” while CaFleureBon simply writes: “[a]lthough the perfume Molinard Habanita was originally produced to scent women’s cigarettes, it contained no tobacco and incorporated rose, vetiver, vanilla, and incense notes.” Whatever the exact alchemical reason for the note, “tobacco paper” is a profound part of Habanita’s character for much of the perfume’s development.
Habanita’s opening, as I’ve described it, can vary a little in its nuances. Sometimes, in the first minutes, the extremely sharp, almost pungently bracing, opening note of citrus-rose-leather softens a little, bringing out more of the powder. At other times, the note turns extremely sour on the skin, probably due to the arrival of copious amounts of raspberry which always turns into syrupy, raspberry leather dosed by talcum powder. Sometimes, the vanilla is much more immediately noticeable, while occasionally, the leather with its castoreum-like undertone doesn’t hang back quite as much. Every now and then, I get a fleeting flicker of lilacs in the florals tones, but generally, it is a rose note which rises to the surface.
Almost invariably, whatever the nuances, I get a headache. There are synthetics in the reformulated Habanita EDT, and it gives me that telltale burning sensation high up in the bridge of my nose. I’m not the only one who thinks the reformulated version is quite synthetic. The blogger, Brian, from “I Smell Therefore I” am wrote in a comment to his review of Habanita: “I think current Habanita is probably so synthetic that the pyramid is pure fantasy.” I fear that may be true. I do know that I’m not the only one who got a burning sensation from Habanita; I had a friend try it a while back, and they had a similar reaction.
Regardless, as Habanita opens up and develops, it turns into a scent that is primarily raspberry-vanillic powder with amorphous florals, Play-Doh undertones, and a whisper of raw, black leather in the background. It’s seriously extreme, a turbo-charged powder that feels like something from the vivid imagination of Willy Wonka.
Eventually, about five hours in, Habanita turns into something much more leathered in feel. It’s not like a cold, stony leather, exactly, but it’s definitely not like a richly buttered, oiled, soft, creamy leather. It feels like a rubbery, black leather jacket, imbued by a layer of sharp smoke. There is no incense listed on Habanita’s notes, but there certainly should be. At the same time, both the leather and the smoke are backed by the scented powder, fleeting flickers of rose, and a lingering sharpness that feels more dark green than ever before. Undoubtedly, it’s the galbanum which has risen to the surface alongside the leather. At times, wearing Habanita, I’ve also detected something that feels very much like the powerful black, smoky tea, Lapsang Souchong; only here, it’s imbued with some sharp, green, citrus elements. It’s all due to that endless black smokiness underlying Habanita. The whole thing evokes the image of a 1920s smoky club but, also, of that same 1920s flapper draped in a leather jacket atop a large Harley-Davidson, smoking as she flexes her whip. Whatever it is, it involves some sort of femme fatale domination and cigarettes. It’s… different.
In its final hours, Habanita turns into a fruited-powder scent with rubbery leather. It usually lasts about 8.5 to 9 hours on my perfume-consuming skin, almost all of that time pulsating away with high-intensity projection. On someone with normal skin, I wouldn’t be surprised if two good sprays lasted 16 hours or more. Four sprays, and you may be smelled from New York to California for more than a few days. If you think I’m exaggerating, check the longevity votes on Fragrantica where 49 people chose “very long-lasting,” 37 chose “long-lasting,” and 1 person chose “poor.” Similar numbers apply to the sillage: 46 for “enormous,” 43 for “heavy,” with 5 for “soft.”
As for fabric, I can tell you that Habanita will last on it forever. In my last wearing of Habanita — the time that put me off it more or less for good — I quickly sprayed some on my neck and on my sweater in a rush out the door. It was Fall and the weather was generally cool, so I can’t chalk it up to the heat for what happened next: a blast of incredibly sourness hit my skin, followed by that avalanche of scented powder. I put up with it, mostly because I didn’t have a choice, when I started to detect an odd smell wafting up from my sweater. It was like sour, powdered cigarette smoke. And it just kept getting stronger and more sour until I felt actually quite embarrassed. When I got home, I hurriedly took off the sweater and didn’t give it a second thought, certain that the perfume would eventually go away. Four months later, during an unexpected cold burst, I took out the sweater to wear it only to detect a massive amount of sour, stale, powdered cigarettes, and that odd, sour, raspberry note. The sweater went off to the dry cleaner, and Habanita was permanently banished to the darkest recesses of my armoire. Basta!
It is impossible to write about Habanita without bringing up the well-known perfume blogger, Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc. Even before she wrote her recent book, The Perfume Lover, Ms. Beaulieu was well-known to adore Habanita. It is one of her favorites, along with Robert Piguet‘s legendary black leather and galbanum fragrance, Bandit. But it was Habanita which was her signature scent for years and years. I suspect my tastes range far from those of Ms. Beaulieu who seems to adore the dominatrix-like, black leather fragrances. I liked Bandit when I tried it, but I had to force myself to really, really give it a chance, and it is a very difficult fragrance. At the end of the day, it is a little too brutal for me, a little too harsh, probably due to the galbanum (a note I struggle with) as much as that ferocious black leather.
Habanita is not Bandit — not by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an equally difficult perfume to wear, even if the reasons are different. I suspect that I would have a considerably better time of things with the vintage version, especially the vintage Eau de Parfum, as I’ve read that it’s lovely and apparently has quite a bit of sandalwood. But this review is for the current version of Habanita in eau de toilette, not the vintage Eau de Parfum or the new 2012 Eau de Parfum. If you’re interested in those concentrations, you can read some comparative assessments of the EDP from some readers of Grain de Musc. As a side note, the Eau de Toilette is no longer available or listed on the Molinard website, which leads some people and even the Perfume Posse to speculate that it has been discontinued and replaced by the IFRA-compliant 2012 Eau de Parfum version. According to one person on Fragrantica, Molinard confirmed it to her in an email. Despite that fact, however, the eau de toilette is still easily found and in plentiful quantities, especially on eBay.
I think the best assessment of the Three Faces of Habanita comes from the perfume blog, I Smell Therefore I Am. In it, Brian compares vintage Habanita (Version 1), the reformulated Eau de Toilette which is what I’m reviewing (Version 2), and the new Eau de Parfum released in 2012 (Version 3). A portion of his review for Vintage Habanita versus the current Habanita is as follows:
When I read on Fragrantica that a reader thought Habanita had, on first spritz, the “strongest blast of baby powder, EVER,” I felt pretty sure she was referring to Version 2. No mistake, Version 1 is powdered as well, but not to the same degree. I would argue there’s a lot more going on in Version 1, but the nose approaching Version 2 could easily mistake bombast for complexity. I like Version 2 a lot, and it smells very rich. It’s also incredibly powdered. I say that in a good way. Almost without fail, when someone talks about powder overload and Habanita I feel sure they’re referring to Version 2. Version 1 is thick, too, but you feel its layers. Version 2 is a sort of wall of scent; equal parts tobacco, vanilla, and oakmoss. Fragrantica lists raspberry, peach, orange flower, Lilac, Ylang-Ylang, rose, bergamot. I’d be lying if I told you I get anything remotely floral, and not getting any closer to the truth if I led you to believe this is because the fragrance is so “well-blended”. I believe that Version 2 is a much cruder facsimile of Version 1, and that many people take this crudeness to be the source of its infamous reputation. Again, I love this version. I happen to like crude and bombastic. But Version 2 resembles some of my favorite cheapo drugstore fragrances (Toujours Moi comes to mind) and relates to Version 1 the way they relate to their earlier formulations. Many people get root beer or cola from this version. I never really have.
I think his review is very interesting, and I agree on Habanita having a small similarity to the “cheapo drugstore fragrances.” But I don’t share his love for Habanita. In part, it’s because I dislike very powdery perfumes, but the powder isn’t, per se, my real problem. It is Habanita’s sharpness, the sourness that almost feels rancid at times, the sheer overbearing forcefulness of that powder, and the lingering cigarette effect which I find difficult to bear. A few people on Fragrantica have even written that the perfume has a morbid feel to it, with one talking about Habanita’s opening blast of dead florals evoked “a plague [death] mask.” Though I don’t agree, I can certainly understand it because, every time I start to think that, maybe, just maybe, I can handle the perfume, I quickly realise that I’ve really had enough. Habanita always starts out as an interesting novelty that, on some level, fascinates me with its uniqueness, its oddness, its almost niche-like complexity. But then it just becomes too damn much. The constant burning in my nose from the synthetics doesn’t help much, either. Undoubtedly, it would be a whole other matter if I tried vintage Habanita, let alone vintage Habanita Eau de Parfum with its slightly different notes and its sandalwood base. But I don’t have it, so I can only tell you about the current Eau de Toilette. And, in my opinion, it’s a stinker. It really is.
My favorite review for Habanita on Fragrantica amusingly sums up just a miniscule fraction of what I think about the scent. In it, “nikitajade” writes:
First initial spray I am hit full in the face with powder. Like an angry nanny has just slammed down the Johnsons&Johnsons again. ARGGGGHHHHH. Luckily, as it dries down the baby powder disappears and this smoky, leathery gorgeous fruit and spice appears. I’ll just say the nanny apparently moonlights as a dominatrix and leave it at that.
I’m significantly less appreciative of the fragrance than she is, but Habanita receives a LOT of love of Fragrantica, even from those who find it impossible to wear:
- As others have said, yes it is leathery-dusty-powdery with just a touch of vanilla. Yes, at first it is so sharp it numbs your nostrills. But I love Habanita. The same way I love a classic houndstooth Chanel deux pieces, but would never wear it. If there was a perfume museum, Habanita would be on a pedestal in the main gallery.
- What a masterpiece. I almost doomed it at the first sniff, for the sweet powder. But man, how i´m happy i didn´t. [¶] Just the history and idea of Habanita is stunning. […] It´s like an old daguerreotype of mysterious young lady who´s beauty persists for centuries. [¶] Habanita smells velvety smooth and incendiary. Maybe it’s the balance of its main attributes – woman (lipstick, powder, rose) + man (tobacco, leather, motor oil).
- Habanita is such a BIG TEASER, [¶] The most complicated smell I’ve ever come across. She introduced herself in sweet, fresh, delightful feminine manners…BUT it’s not too long before she stripped off of her light floral dress into the hidden dark & nasty clinging leather suit. She would captivate you, tortured you like a real dominatrix, and you just couldn’t help but yield to her eventually… After an hour, as the leather faded she might show some mercy and comforted you with the most beautiful ghost of heliotrope in rich smokey creamy powder. [..]
There are pages of similar reviews, with vast swathes of them using the word “femme fatale” and raving about how stunning Habanita is, about how she sends you back in time to the most elegant 1920s club filled with velvet and passion. Intermixed in those gushing accolades (most of which go on for far too many paragraphs for me to quote them) are a handful of solitary voices who talk about how sour the perfume was on their skin, how it smelled “rank and stank,” about the hot rubberiness of the leather, “burnt gasoline,” or about the impossibility of dealing with all that powder. More than a few said it made them think of an old lady locked in a room and chain-smoking, or the 1980s Love’s Baby Soft fragrance “covered with cigarettes.” One person — who says she loves leather fragrances — said it was absolutely the worst thing she’d smelled in years, akin to car cleaner and incredibly “dirty.” The dissenting voices are comparatively few and far between though, because, for the most part, Habanita is worshipped. We’re talking hardcore genuflection and obéissance here!
It’s even more loved on the blogosphere. I could link you to a gazillion reviews, but the most interesting one was this more balanced assessment from Anne-Marie at the Perfume Posse which sums up the feel of Habanita, along with its elusiveness:
What I love about Habanita is the elusiveness created by the powdery notes (orris and heliotrope). For me, powder suffuses the whole thing, but it shifts constantly. Suddenly I get a sharp bite of sticky fruit. The powder takes over again, but in the next whiff it clears and I get … oh yes, vanilla! … and so on through all the major effects: flowers, vetiver, woods, leather, and so on. For me there is no real top-middle-base structure in Habanita, just a series of fascinating and deeply alluring fragrant moments, all glimpsed through that whispy veil of powder. The contrast of sweet/soft with bitter/acrid (almost Bandit-like) notes has me utterly enthralled.
Many people get tobacco and smoke, but I don’t. I do get a smoke-like effect created by vetiver and leather. Or okay, perhaps that would be a leather-like effect created by smoke and vetiver? I can’t tell. But look, if Habanita was produced firstly as a fragrance to add to cigarettes, why would it smell of cigarettes itself? Put like that, it doesn’t make sense, does it? […]
Depending on your tastes and sensory experience, Habanita will seem absurdly old-fashioned or intriguingly niche-like and modern to you.
I think that last statement is very true, and I’ve heard it echoed a number of times by others. Habanita feels extremely old-fashioned while — simultaneously and oddly — seeming completely modern, and very much the sort of thing that a perfume house like Etat Libre d’Orange might put out. It isn’t really timeless so much as so odd, so off-kilter, and so old-fashioned that it could be a modern niche perfumer’s intentional, revolutionary riff on old perfumery. It’s a completely paradoxical fragrance.
I also find it to be an elusive one, not only in terms of assessing the notes and individual layers, but as a whole. Every now and then, something about it makes me lift up my head and go, “Hmm…. maybe.” But, each and every time, that thought is short-lived because, deep down, I really don’t like it. Not the deluge of powder, not the feel of cigarettes, not the synthetics that burn my nose, not the sour sharpness, not that odd raspberry note, not the black rubbery undertones…. nothing. But I keep feeling as though I must love it, that I should love it. It’s the only perfume I know that leaves me so utterly torn between expectations and wishful thinking, versus the simple reality deep-down. It’s one reason why I’ve taken this long to review Habanita. Everything about it is just so damn complicated.
The honest truth, though, is that I really can’t bear it. In six months from now, a year from now, or even three, I will probably still be bullying myself over this fragrance and still be hating every moment of it on my skin, while still feeling incredibly guilty for being an utter philistine. So be it. I am a Philistine. Modern Habanita is not for me. You can start stoning me in…. three, two, one….