The first Cologne de Toilette
For his first job in perfumery, François Coty was put to work lashing up a cologne for a small Paris pharmacy where he worked as lab assistant. His boss was so impressed with the results that he sent the young apprentice to train at Chiris, the prestigious oils house in Grasse.
Years later, when he came to think about composing his own Eau de Cologne, Coty was already a master perfumer with ground breaking works such as La Rose Jacqueminot, L'Origan and Chypre under his belt. Coty was evidently not content to follow convention and present just another citrus eau to market, he wanted to strike out in a new direction, and in composing his new cologne he brought to it the same level of care and attention that he lavished on all his perfumes.
To see what Coty produced that was so different from the competition I will compare Eau de Coty (1909) with three other venerable colognes which were on sale at the time, and are still available today: 4711 (1792), Roger & Gallet Extra Vielle (1806) and Guerlain's Eau de Cologne du Coq (1894). Although it's hard to know what the original formulae smelled like (vintage samples are extremely rare) its still possible to compare Eau de Coty with modern versions of the others.
Broadly speaking, they stack up like this: 4711 is mostly bland sweet powder with a little citrus tang; Extra Vielle is pithy citrus over a powdery bland body - with a little floral and some pronounced bitterness; Eau de Cologne du Coq is a delightful sparkly citrus with a pinch of herbes de provence, and this is set to sweet powder and florals. This 'good cologne with a drop of Jicky in it' as Luca Turin calls it is definitely the best of the three. In fact the Guerlain's finely wrought citrus head is better than that of the Coty, but its base is rather weak.
Eau de Coty - on the other hand - is a crackling mossy lemon and citrus verbena, which stays largely intact as it moves into a lovely floral heart which is not shy of expression. This then fades into the most ravishing sweet brown woody and long lasting base.
One of the strengths of Eau de Coty comes from the high quality neroli oil, which - to quote Wikipedia - is sweet honeyed and somewhat metallic with green and spicy facets, and it's these notes that form the core of the profile.
Add to this some jasmine absolute, an herbaceous verbena accord, and top grade lemon with mossy overtones, and you have - broadly speaking, the top half of Eau de Coty.
But the real brilliance of Coty was to pair this with a fully worked out base. By this bold move he took a citrus cologne and gave it a perfume structure with a satisfying drydown. The base gives the composition the stability of an Eau de Toilette, and truly impressive longevity (several days on paper) while the second half still manages to release the odd whiff of citrus from time to time. This makes the structure coherent, but it pays a price for the intransigence - the crisp lemon citrus can feel a little bit out of place against the warm round notes of the base.
Like certain other of Coty's works the quality is impeccable but it somehow lacks that final degree of perfection.
Before Coty, even great perfumers like Aime Guerlain were essentially rewriting their own versions of the Eau de Cologne. Each of the versions looked at here was an improvement on the last, but none of them sought to change the fleeting structure of the cologne. The reason for this reluctance was historical.
In an 18th century book the Manuel de Beauté, Louise d'Alcq asserted that the Eau de Cologne (as typified by Jean-Marie Farina's cologne of 1709) was 'universally accepted'. "It bothers nobody" she wrote "its perfume pleases everyone" [quoted from Le Roman des Guerlain by perfume historian Elisabeth de Feydeau].
The convention of the time was that cologne was the sillage of the chaste woman while patchouli marked the odour of the courtesan - a high class prostitute.
This schism between acceptable and transgressive perfume had lasted for two centuries by the time Coty challenged the old fashioned idea in 1909 and brought Cologne and Patchouli together. To this end he forged a beautiful base of vetiver, patchouli, vanillin, woods, moss, eugenol, and probably hydroxycitronellal (marketed in 1905) to complement and give weight to the citrus and floral accords of the cologne.
The result was Eau de Coty - the first Cologne de Toilette. With its revolutionary dark base it went way beyond any citrus composition. Not only was it revolutionary was also very beautiful. The more Eau de Coty plumbs its resonant brown base, the more ravishing it gets; a veritable masterclass in base construction.
The structure of Eau de Coty, lemon centred citrus on a sweet vetiver base, turned up years later in Lubin's excellent Eau Neauve. The vintage version is a good substitute for those who would like to know what the Coty smells like.
Eau de Coty's influence spreads much wider than straight-up copies however. It can also be felt in the many cologne-type flankers that appear in the summer. More significantly, many original compositions have developed Coty's idea. A few of the more notable examples are cK One, Pleasures for Men and Declaration Cologne .
It is very sad that Coty's brilliantly original composition is no longer known and enjoyed today, but it couldn't be made now - the amount of moss would bar it from production.
This is not only a great perfume, it is historically important too. It represents the birth of a new chapter in the history of perfumery - the point where the Eau de Cologne hybridised into the Cologne de Toilette. This would later give rise to the 'fresh' Eau de Toilette idea; every fresh summer flanker is a distant descendant of Coty's visionary work.
As the point where the salutary cologne first encountered the dark seductive perfume, Eau de Coty is Perfumery's missing link.