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Prince Georges V. Matchabelli – the Georgian nobleman, and his perfume

Dear readers, recently I have an obsession with a 'little crown', it has nothing to do with the TV show ‘The Crown’ but solely my interest about vintage perfume and history that takes me there, so what’s this ‘little crown’ about? The story starts from my vintage junk hunt last year, I came across something that really caught my eyes, it’s a vintage perfume bottle which the design is in the shape of an imperial crown, for some reason, this little bottle fascinated me so much as I realized how costly it is to create such an unique perfume bottle like this, and then I started to look things up online to see who designed and created this unique perfume that I’ve never seen before, it takes me some time until I discovered this forgotten perfume brand, Prince Matchabelli perfume, and its Founder’s story behind.

Prince Georges Vasili Matchabelli is a Georgian nobleman and diplomat, born in Tiflis (the capital of Georgia) in 1885, he was a member of the noble family of Machabeli when Georgia was still part of the imperial Russia back then. He studied in Europe and later, after the imperial Russia collapsed in late 1917, he became the First Secretary of the Georgian Embassy in Italy. Despite his passion in politics and yearning for the independence of his home country, Prince Matchabelli’s political career came to an end after the Soviet invasion of Georgia and took power in 1921, with this inevitable reality happened right in front of their eyes, he and his Italian wife, Norina Gilli (Princess Norina Matchabelli, stage name as ‘Maria Carmi’), a beautiful Florence-born actress, decided to move to the US and starts their new life there. Perhaps, when you read up til here, you may ask: “What does this late Georgian nobleman / ex-politician (whatever…) has anything to do with gentleman elegant lifestyle anyway?" Well, it started from what he did after his emigration to the US; like most of the Russian émigrés after the collapse of the imperial Russia and the revolution, in order to survive in a foreign country, they can no longer rely on their former prestigious social status anymore, instead, they need to work and earn a living, as the result, the couple decided to open a small antique boutique, named ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’, at 545 Madison Avenue in New York City.

Being in the antique business trade gives them the benefit of doing something that they are good at, especially being a nobleman (with his beautiful actress wife) during the imperial era back then, is that they were surrounded themselves by some of the finest, rarest and exquisitely made things throughout most part of their life, which shapes their sensitivity when it comes to art of living and style, it also nurtured them a pair of great eyes, to see and identify sophisticated and tasteful work-of-art and creations; one can simply tell his unsaid sophistication by the Prince’s impeccable classic tailoring menswear he wore in those vintage photographs. Besides the Prince’s sophisticated taste and interest in antique, surprisingly, he also has another ‘hidden’ talent on his sleeves, which he never reveal only after he settled down in the US, and that is - perfume making!

Prince Georges V. Matchabelli established his namesake perfume brand, along with his wife, in 1924 in America; as an amateur chemist himself, Prince Georges would do the perfume blending, formulation, as well as being the face of the brand to market his luxury perfume creation, while his wife helped to design the crown shaped bottle, which reminiscent to the Matchabelli crown during the imperial time. The earliest version of the crown bottle were made with gold ornated detail without any obvious brand name nor logo, which shows its understated elegance, nobility and prestigiousness, a sign of the creator who is eager to put his artistic creation, his genuine work and merit, and his consciousness over quality way beyond his own self or ego. As far as I looked up online, the brand started off as creating private blending perfume for their elite customers, and subsequently, it started to produce their ready-made fragrances; the perfume by Prince Matchabelli were made in the US (despite some of the bottle indicated as France-made), and they used to have a showroom boutique in Paris too, which located at 26 Rue Cambon back in the 1930s! The exterior of the boutique has a large display window, featured his perfume in one-color made packaging, background in marble and brown mixed with golden brown draperies and furnishings for the interior.

For the brand’s showroom office in New York back in 1935, do you know that the entrance hall was designed by the esteemed late English fashion and portrait photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton? The design integrated with a combination of modernist, Victorian and Russian decorative elements, with product showcases framed in array of colors included yellow, blue, green, purple, black and red velvet that built into the grey colored walls. The space was furnished with some simplistic sofas and tables, upholstered in purple felt, the floor was covered in scarlet white carpet, and lighting fixtures that made in the shape of an imperial crown that echoed the design of the perfume bottle, the then-New-York-showroom literally interpreted the understated elegance, the imperial aura of Prince Georges, and his impeccable classic style.

When I received the vintage crown bottle which I found a couple of weeks ago, I was completely ecstatic because I can finally touch and feel this precious piece in person! The more I learnt about Prince Georges’ perfume work and creation, the more respect I have for him, as his work did speak for itself: the prestigious elegance, the imperial splendor and luxury, it also reflected his sophisticated style and taste wordlessly. I can tell you that this little crown, especially the earlier version, is such a rare piece of objet d’Art, and it’s getting harder to find nowadays except in certain European auction houses which specializes in vintage perfume pieces; the one that I have at hand now is in robin egg blue and gold color, and it is just exquisite (despite it is rather small) like a piece of crown jewel or royal treasure! Perhaps you can understand now why I was so obsessed with this little crown!

Throughout the span of the Prince Matchabelli perfume brand during Prince Georges' ownership and management, he has created (along with his friend, Cyril Gurge, the chief perfume chemist at the brand’s lab) some of the most iconic fragrances, including his earliest work such as “Ave Maria”, which dedicated to his wife, “Princess Norina” and “Queen of Georgia” (all three were launched in 1928), these luxurious fragrances all named and created with the inspiration of the imperial style of the Prince’s home country. Besides creating perfume, the brand also developed a wide range of cosmetic thanks to its great success of their luxurious perfume, yet, I'll be focusing on their perfume in here instead.

The perfume founding couple got divorced in 1933, and subsequently, with Prince Georges' passing in 1935, Norina sold the perfume company to perfume manufacturer, Saul Ganz, in 1936; the Prince Matchabelli brand then change hands for a couple of times in 1941, 1958, 1987 and 1993 respectively. Sometimes when the brand changed hands, the product changes too; in the case of this princely perfume brand, the original bottle in those delicate gold ornated details was gradually faded out, and submerged deep into the ocean of perfume history.

Despite the absence of the original Founder and his direct involvement and creativity, the brand Prince Matchabelli perfume did created some popular fragrances after the Prince’s passing, with the most iconic one which is called “Wind Song”, a floral bouquet fragrance for ladies which launched in 1953; another now-lesser-known but once a popular fragrance called “Stradivari”, a semi-oriental floral fragrance which named after the formation of Prince Matchabelli Orchestra in 1942, also as the first perfume of the brand since WWII started. Although I have found the perfume bottle which dated back to Prince Georges’ time, for some reason, I was extremely craving to experience how these sophisticated and imperial inspired fragrance smells like! After making some effort and constant research, thankfully I am able to find some of them! Not only “Stradivari” and “Wind Song”, but also a couple of other now-lesser-known fragrances of Prince Matchabelli too!

“Stradivari” is indeed an intense fragrance with a strong woody and spicy scent on top of its elegant floral fragrant, while it’s not exactly my kind of fragrance, yet, as a vintage perfume collector, I do respect the olfactory formulation as it is, and I perfectly understand it’s the scent that captured the fashion of its time back then; but one thing for certain, I do love the packaging presentation of this perfume a lot! Especially this very original version dated back in the 40s, with the luxurious lucite case, and the hand-tied thin gold string, which made it an unique and precious bottle packaging presentation of the brand, and reflects the luxurious and preciousness of this exquisite perfume, it also demonstrated the eagerness of the brand to invest such resources, meticulous and delicate detail into this little creation, putting the art and quality first and foremost before a lucrative business gain.

As the lucite presentation is so impressive, rare and beautiful, I was deeply moved by its elegance and luxuriousness, which makes me to re-create a visual setting from one of their ad campaign (from the 1940s I supposed), with the precious piece of lucite set of the vintage perfume that I have at hand (I did the hand-tied gold string myself as it didn't come with the original string when I received it), despite the setting didn't turn out exactly what I expected, yet, can you see the resemblance?

Do you know that their "Stradivari" perfume was being promoted in the music performance of the Stradivari Orchestra through radio broadcasts back in the 40s? With the orchestra conducted by late American composer and conductor, Paul Lavalle, the musical promotion consisted a 15-piece ensemble created by Matchabelli, included eight genuine Stradivari violins, which mostly rented from Rembert Wurlitzer and Emil Herrmann collections. Now you can see how tight knot, and how essential it is, for an elegant fragrance to associate with sophisticated art: including music, high quality (musical) instrument and artists! Although I cannot find the exact music that played for the “Stradivari” perfume campaign, let's listen to the track by the late conductor here to recapture the splendor and elegance of the 40s fashion and style:

The iconic “Wind Song”, in particular the vintage one that I have at hand, has a rich floral scent which undoubtedly evokes the classiness and post-war elegance of the 1950s, its pleasant and glamorous floral notes reminds me of the cleanliness, the combination of the misty steam and the light scent of the bath gel after the shower, and then putting on an impeccably tailored and clean outfit with the thoughtful make-up, the classic elegant style of 1950s - sophisticated and luxurious, reserved and unapologetic, a certain poignant beauty of recovering from the traumatic post-war era, it has a certain unspeakable allure that captured one’s heart without you realize it. I can’t keep noticing one thing when looking at the ad campaigns of “Wind Song” back then, in particular those in the late 1950s to early 1960s, most of them featured with a sophisticated and suave handsome man in their classic menswear outfit, an impeccably tailored suit and tie, with a neat hair-do and an attractive sweet smile; despite this fragrance was dedicated to female, I can’t help to wonder: “Are these the type of men that one is going to attract when wearing this “Wind Song” fragrance?”, or “is this fragrance going to make a man becoming someone like this sophisticated and handsome after wearing it?” (if it’s the earlier one, I guess I don’t mind to keep stocking and wearing “Wind Song” until it becomes a reality!),

At the same time, I can’t keep thinking who is the ‘Don Draper’ behind all these ad campaign? I think it’s such a tasteful, sophisticated and witty campaign that interprets this iconic fragrance - which kind of man will be attracted after wearing it, and how did such bygone imperial elegance can still relate and relevant in the contemporary fashion, making such a surreal and unattainable fairytale into a reality. And just like that, the scene from the TV show ‘Mad Men’ just popped up in my mind, it's when Salvatore Romano was meeting with Elliot Lawrence for an evening drink, under such elegant and seductive encounter, doesn’t it evoke the similar kind of sophisticated gentleman style from the ad campaign of “Wind Song” in the late 1950s?

Besides those two iconic fragrances, I am truly thrilled to be able to sniff some of the now-lesser-known fragrances of the brand, that included “Duchess of York”, an English garden bouquet fragrance that dedicated to Isabella of Castile, Duchess of York (1355 – 1392), this fragrance was launched in 1934; “Crown Jewel”, a floral woody fragrance which launched in 1946 as the first postwar perfume that the brand released, some even said that this fragrance has a certain resemblance of the famous French perfume “Joy” by Jean Patou! “Beloved”, a warm floral bouquet fragrance which launched in 1950, and “Abano After Bath Cologne”, a chypre woody oriental fragrance which launched in 1954 (the original “Abano” fragrance was launched in 1931 actually), it refers to the thermal springs and ancient Roman bath in Abano, Italy.

While I won’t be writing my impression of these fragrances here otherwise this blog will be getting very long-winded, the bottom line is how fortunate, and grateful I was to be able to discover this forgotten perfume legend, his brand and his sophisticated style, to smell the elegant history through these rare vintage perfume, despite there’s no single book that dedicated to his work (which I hope one day there is, and it deserves one too!), it’s thrilling to know another great nobleman, with such refinement, taste and sophistication, who was multi-talented and able to create something that is so exquisite and elegant, and how much it inspired and motivated me to do my own work with such dedication, sophistication and patience.

Before wrapping up this blog, I would like to end it with a rare footage, which featured Prince Georges in an interview rehersal (I supposed) to talk about his perfume creation, there are two things I would like to point out here which makes it the reason why this nobleman's work is certainly related to refined menswear and lifestyle: first of all, take a look with how impeccable the Prince's attire is, the tailored and refined double-breasted, peak lapel fine wool suit (I think it should be in deep charcoal grey) and his crispy white pocketsquare, and his demeanor throughout the interview. Secondly, although it might not be a concern anymore as nowadays a lot of men are eager to wear a fragrance; listen to what Prince Georges has to say about why did a gentleman should wear a perfume (back in his time). Hope you'll be inspired, enjoy!


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