I’d call Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps “youthful,” except that I’m not sure anyone young today would wear it, except ironically. Yet, L’Air du Temps seems ill fit for a mature woman. I imagine it on a mid-century ingenue, say Natalie Wood. L’Air du Temps’s clean, full floral bouquet with a hint of clove is too innocent for most people today over the age of 16, yet, at the same time, too old fashioned to appeal to them.
Francis Fabron, author of Givenchy L’Interdit, also developed L’Air du Temps. The fragrance launched in 1948 — the height of Dior’s New Look — and features notes of carnation, gardenia, rose, jasmine, iris, sandalwood, bergamot, peach, rosewood, neroli, clove, rose de mai, ylang ylang, orchid, lily, gardenia, jasmine, sandalwood, ambergris, musk, vetiver, benzoin, moss and cedar.
Nigel Groom’s 1999 guide Perfume says: “Together with Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, Arpège, and Joy, L’Air du Temps has been acclaimed as one of the five greatest perfumes in the world. There must be some truth in this, for it has been avowed too that one bottle of this fragrance was being sold somewhere in the world every second.”1 If we take Perfumes: the A – Z Guide’s word for it, popularity has not led to continued quality: “Today, L’Air du Temps is still, if you squint and concentrate, roughly recognizable: a lily with a salty amber background. Yet the quality has been horribly diminished over the years, worn so thin that you see its bones and nothing else.”2
One more note: in one of the creepiest movie scenes ever, in Silence of the Lambs the serial killer Hannibal Lecter sniffs the air while being interviewed by rookie F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling and identifies her perfume as L’Air du Temps.
This review is from a a sample vial of the vintage Extrait, likely from the 1990s. What I smell is undoubtedly not as sharp and glorious as it would have been, but is still a grand floral thick with classic white flowers, kept from being overly bridal with a wash of rose and spicy carnation. The fragrance’s bouquet is dense, and I can close my eyes and pick out its gardenia, jasmine, rose and carnation, especially.
L’Air du Temps’s underpinnings are soapy musk thickened with moss, amber and sandalwood. It’s a solid, old-school perfume foundation that you don’t smell much these days, but which seems as fundamental as pale pink girdles and scented stationery. My sample simmers on my skin for a few hours, but not much longer. After an hour or so, L’Air du Temps’s floral richness fades to what smells like a wash of expensive soap. It’s gone after half a day.
Really, L’Air du Temps isn’t particularly groundbreaking. Its vibe isn’t a million miles away from other clean, classic florals, such as Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds. Like crisp sheets, L’Air du Temps is the sort of basic that never ages. The problem is that it has stopped feeling fresh. No matter how pure the cotton, a plain white muslin sheet might start to come off as boring when sexier options await. I love Doris Day (and plain muslin sheets). But how would she play today?
I bet many of you have worn L'Air du Temps over the years. What do you think of it today?
Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps is widely available in a variety of formulations and products, starting at $18 for 50 ml of Eau de Toilette.
Ed. note: middle image (just above) shows some of the designs for the L'Air du Temps bottle over time. Since the years are hard to read, I'm repeating them here, from far left: 1948 (in this bottle, shown larger below, there was a raised dove design on the cap), 1948, 1950s, 1951, 1968, 1986, 2008 and 2010 (the 2010 was the Philippe Starck bottle). Here is another, shorter survey:
1. Nigel Groom, Perfume: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Finest Fragrances (Running Press, 1999), p. 161..
2. Turin, Luca and Tania Sanchez. Perfumes: the A – Z Guide (Penguin Books, 2008), p. 77.