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Archive for June 14th, 2011

Did a Fragrance Really Trigger the Events That Led to the Infamous Beheading of Marie Antoinette?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

Did a Fragrance Really Trigger the Events That Led to the Infamous Beheading of Marie Antoinette? 

Jean-Francois Houbigant launched his famous Perfume atelier and shop on the Fauborg St. Honore in Paris in 1775. This was during the gilded age of French royalty and of the elite that that parasitically clung to the Court. Luxury, hedonism and sensuality were the cornerstones of life for these denizens of hedonism. 

Mr. Houbigant opened his shop and carried a beautiful basket of flowers over the threshold on its first day in business. The basket of beautiful flowers drew very favorable comment from his initial clients, so, being a clever Marketer he commissioned a sign to be painted representing the bouquet. This sign was hung over Houbigant’s shop door at 19, Fauborg St. Honore and became indelibly identified with the success of the Fragrances and Soaps produced therein. For decades Houbigant advertisements and handbills copy began with “At the sign of the Basket of Flowers”. 

The list of clients who frequented Houbigant included everybody who was anybody in pre-French Revloution Paris. Only the finest, rarest Toiletries were produced and made available at Houbigant. Dandies, church prelates, government ministers and military officers and their wives were listed on preserved invoices as having been customers. But it was the Royal Family and their Court members that conveyed a special patina on Houbigant. 

Alas, the glow of the royal life would be sundered by the violence and anarchy produced by the outbreak of the French Revolutionary. The rich and luxuriant class associated with all that was wrong in France was hunted down by the mob, instilled with the lust to remove those whom they perceived had caused their impoverishment and servitude.   

The Empress Marie Antoinette was certainly a prime target for revenge. Her ladies in waiting knew that she was a highly prized object of derision by the mob and that violence would be done her if caught. The Empress was purportedly bundled into a carriage and surreptitiously led away, hopefully to safety. 

The escape was foiled, however, when the carriage carrying Marie Antoinette became bogged down in the confusion of peasants fleeing the violence in all directions. There was a maelstrom of mob activity, noise and mistrust around her. Then someone sniffed an elegant scent emanating from a carriage. Only a person of real wealth and refinement could wear such a Fragrance. That person would naturally be an enemy of the enraged proletariat. 

And so, Marie Antoinette was captured by the mob. Her beautiful, refined Houbigant Perfume had signaled that she was definitely not one of the masses. This story has taken hold and become part of the legend of Houbigant. After the spouting the infamous quip, “Let them eat cake”, the Empress Marie Antoinette was unceremoniously beheaded. Houbigant survived the French Revolution. It seems that the new non-bourgeoisie rulers of France loved luxury Perfumery too. 

For the next 200 years Houbigant prospered, introducing over three dozen unique Fragrances including such classics as Quelques Fleur (1912) and Chantilly (1941). The luxury and exclusivity that Houbigant represented insured that stores around the world pampered the brand. 

Unfortunately, as so often happens when classic family nurtured brands come under the control of asset managers, Houbigant declined in the late 20th century. By the 1980’s Houbigant products were only to be found in mass merchandise outlets. The Company was acquired out of bankruptcy by a start-up; Renaissance Fragrance. Renaissance itself filed for bankruptcy in 1999. 

By the beginning of the 21st century the venerable House of Houbigant was no longer producing Perfume Products. The revered Brands that the Company had launched, nurtured and pampered had been watered down, diluted and were sold in deep discount chains. The Luxury Scents that had enchanted Marie Antoinette, and is said to have lead to her capture and subsequent execution, also has disappeared forever as a harbinger of beauty, quality and exclusivity.