Molinard was founded in 1849 in Grasse, Provence, France. It still is a family-run business and is the oldest of its kind. They have been in the same perfume factory building since 1900, a building that was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Patty and I had the pleasure of touring Molinard a number of years back and I pretty much think it is a one-of-a-kind place.
Molinard launched Habanita in 1921. I'm sure they had no clue at the time that this fragrance would still be popular nearly 100 years later. It was originally marketed as a product to scent cigarettes and not a perfume. 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). By 1924 Molinard had launched Habanita as a perfume for women.
There seems to be a number of different listings for the notes in Habanita. I've compiled them into our listing. Habanita is an oriental chypre leather fragrance featuring top notes of orange blossom, raspberry, peach, bergamot and galbanum; middle notes of lilac, orris root, jasmine, heliotrope, ylang-ylang and rose; and base notes of leather, amber, musk, benzoin, vanilla, oakmoss, patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood and cedar.
Habanita is probably one of the most reviewed fragrances on the Internet and there seems to be quite a bit of a love/hate thing going on. From "masterpiece" to "vile" and "heavenly" to "offensive", the feelings differ but one thing that can be said is that Habanita is that it does illicit a strong response. It has been described as "unique, kind of freaky little fragrance", "I love it; I hate it", "I don't understand this perfume", "definitely an acquired taste", "interesting, definitely not boring" and "scary".
I think it is best summed up by christianne1 on fragrantica who said: "Habanita isn't a perfume; it is an experience."
Susan Irvine's Perfume Guide describes Habanita as the "corrupt, sweet flesh of a sinner".
Thenonblonde calls it "the love child of Bandit and Shalimar".
Luca Turin gave it four stars in his book Perfumes: The A-Z Guide and named its overall description as "Vetiver Vanilla". His review is as follows: "Molinard, like all the Grasse firms ending in -ard (like Fragonard and Galimard) makes mostly cheap and cherrful stuff for its factory shop, and only one serious fragrance worth mentioning, the colossal Habanita., Allegedly composed by a Grasse pharmacist in 1921 (shades of Francois Coty's early days, when he learned fragrance composition making lotions in a pharmacy), it juxtaposes vetiver and vanilla in such a way that both disappear and are replaced with something that is not the sum, more like a vector product of the two. I once described it as Arthur Miller arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe, but in truth it would be their gorgeous hypothetical child."
It is interesting to note that L'Artisan Seville a l'Aube which was created by Bertrand Duchafour in collaboration with writer Denyse Beaulieu and was inspired by her experiences of a passionate night in Seville during Holy Week many years ago, has a "Habanita" accord in it since that was the fragrance she was wearing at the time.
In reviews, it is noted that the pure parfum goes straight into the narcotic tobacco scent and bypasses the green opening you get with the other versions. It is also the most smoky and the leather is more buttery. It was noted by Queen Cupcake on Grain de Musc that "sniffing this one was like inhaling the scent of a cedar cigar box. I found it to be dry, spicy and utterly hypnotic. Leather stays as a significant partner with the tobacco, although to my nose it is a smooth suede leather note. This would be beautiful and incredibly sexy on male skin."
Following is an excerpt from a review by Tempest Moon on Basenotes:
A dark, sexy beauty. There are a few fragrances in the world that provoke such a strong response that you go "wow" when you first smell them. For me, Habanita does this straight away. I find this a fascinating and utterly deep and intoxicating fragrance. It always evokes emotions in me when I try it.
What this is, is a dark, earthy, smoky, deep vanilla fragrance. It's like if Shalimar were a heavy smoker almost! The interesting thing is though, is that there is no tobacco in this at all! Many people get the smell of old dusty perfume and leather mixed with tobacco. But the real effect of tobacco here is a dark, smoky vetiver, a very dry grassy root which smells of earth and dust. This is mixed with a strong leather note, and with resins, orris root, heliotrope and vanilla. There is also a very faint hint of rose, jasmine and even a dried raspberry note.
The immediate impression I get of this is the 1920's jazz clubs. This is almost the smell of the air in those places. Women's perfume (not like today, this is the opulent, dark amber, rose & vanilla type), mixed with the smell of tobacco in the air and makeup, etc. It's so evocative for me. Very deep, very dark, very noir. You can imagine slim young 1920's women with short, dark hair and ruby-red lipstick seducing rich men at the bar, the jazz music reaching a high tempo in the background, cocktails and golden lights, the trail of smoke from women with cigarette holders dancing in the limelight. This is such a "bad girl" type fragrance!
I have not tried newer formulations, just this vintage extrait. But what a beauty this is! I have never found another fragrance that stirs up so much emotion for me. This is such an intriguing one, it's like a dancer that is always tempting you, she's so intriguing that you want to come closer, but you can't, she's almost forbidden. There's nothing you can do but sit and watch her do her dance, mesmerized... until the end.
I sometimes struggle to put into words such an intriguing experience. I would encourage anyone to seek this beauty out. Again it is a fragrance which sets a certain mood... and one which commands a certain behaviour from you. Me, I wear it only when dressed in black, and in top style. Leather, amber, vanilla, dry, smoky tobacco-like vetiver, if this were released today it would be considered a high-end niche fragrance (like Kilian's Back to Black). This was so ground-breaking to me that when I smelt it I was instantly transported to another time and place... it's really just something else! I sincerely hope they never discontinue this one, and I want other people to experience this. Like a piece of history in a bottle... and totally wearable even today. Old, and also so powerful it's almost modern. A perfume which is to me so utterly mysterious and complex. Mesmerizing!
If you are interested in reading more, following are excerpts from reviews of Habanita:
Take One Thing Off:
At the heart of Habanita lies a soft, worn leather note that recalls the smell of the inside lapel of a well-loved leather jacket. It is an intimate smell, a beat-up leather mixed with twenty years of human skin rubbing up against it. It’s not a leather with aspirations to luxury, like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, or leaning towards unbearably animalic, like Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. It’s just a low-down, rough-copy leather, a smell with history, and aware of its humble beginnings as a liquid used to perfume cigarettes. Habanita wraps it all up in a thick blanket of baby-powder florals (rose, heliotrope, and jasmine) and submerges it in a base of sandalwood and vanilla. I also get a buttery almond-like smell akin to the cherry tobacco smell of an unlit pipe, so perhaps there is tonka in there too (I’m convinced there is). But despite the complex list of notes, I have to say that Habanita maintains its rather singular identity all the way through. It never smells overtly floral (although there are tons of flowers) or incense-y (although it has resins). Even the vanilla and the vetiver don’t smell like vanilla and vetiver – they meld so completely with the honey, flowers, woods, and resins that their separate identities are completely consumed. What they give birth to is a new form – that nutty, dry leather core of Habanita.
Now Smell This:
Habanita opens with dry, bitter green and a whisper of jammy fruits (lovers of modern fruity florals will hardly notice the fruits, trust me). It quickly moves into woods (still very dry) and earthy notes, and for a brief time the flowers stand out quite distinctly, each on their own, before the whole devolves into a smoky, powdery, dusky-oriental blend, heavy on the amber and leather, and only lightly sweetened by vanilla. If you can imagine dousing yourself in baby powder, donning an old leather jacket and then smoking a cigar in a closed room with a single rose in a vase 10 feet away, you'll get the general idea.
By day, she was a delicate ingenué dusting 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. 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. Habanita is perhaps the most famous, influential, historical perfume that was 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 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. 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. 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.
Eventually, about five hours in, Habanita turns into something much more leathered in feel. 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.
There are pages of reviews on Habanita, 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. 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.
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.
Smoky, fruity, and floral notes rest on a base of vanillic, creamy benzoin and leather, making Habanita a complexly comforting scent of sweetness and warmth. A haze of tobacco smoke and the earthiness of leather tie together what starts out sharp (vetiver), gliding later into what one reviewer described as jammy sweetness, another reviewer likening it to a fruit compote. (As the perfume dries down, it smells almost exactly, to me, like the foil that lines a pack of cigarettes.)
I'm not a huge fan of wearing scents that smell of tobacco and leather (unless something extraordinary is going on around this base) although I love the idea. What might at first sniff seem like sensuality in Habanita comes across instead as gourmand, and the tobacco smoke and leather suggest powderiness rather than roughness. So instead of being the dangerous perfume a femme fatale would wear, Habanita signifies comfort — like being stuck in a cafe in Paris on a cold day, comfortably trapped in a room filled with cigarette smoke, an old lady's violet-scented dusting powder, and the aroma of buttery baked goods.
Raiders of the Lost Scents:
Imagine to walk in an oriental spice bazaar, with a bunch of exotic flowers in your hands, and a leather factory on your left, and a tobacco manufacture on your right....and suddenly a cloud of talc powder comes down to surround you. This is Habanita."
You will find spices, tobacco, leather, flowers, talc powder, blended all together. It seems Habanita has been fulfilled with almost every ingredient used in perfumery. Actually, according Molinard, Habanita contains more than 600 (!) ingredients.
Apparently, according to tradition, Habanita could stay in the group of those perfumes called "feminine but masculine": Tabac Blond de Caron, Bandit de Robert Piguet, Cabochard by Grès, Jolie Madame by Balmain. But, in my opinion, Habanita is more similar to another lost gem from the past: Tabu by Dana. However, if you know and appreciate any of these perfumes, you will feel comfortable with Habanita. In addition, sporting a strong tobacco/spice/leather core, Habanita could fit perfectly for men, too.
The Scented Hound:
Habanita has a dramatic opening that is glowingly sweetened, with a blast of fruit followed quickly by a warming floral mix that is highlighted by lilac and rose. The perfume is so deliciously inviting as it seems to envelops the wearer. Habanita has a sweet edge to it, but it’s not a perfume that I would categorize as sweet. Maybe because as it develops the dryness of the oakmoss, the fresh tobacco and sheen of leather tone down the higher pitched notes. As the perfume settles down, the various notes even out creating this incredible balance between the spice, florals and woody notes. Habanita is sexy without being dangerous, but it draws you in making you want more. Habanita is one of a kind. It’s the kind of perfume that I crave. Unique, beautiful, radiant…I can’t imagine not owning a bottle.
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