Guerlain's rich history is one of the reasons why we love the brand. We imagine Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain presenting Eau de Cologne Impériale to Napoléon III and his bride Eugénie, we fantasize about Aimé Guerlain as he composed Jicky, and, not least, we see in our minds how Jacques Guerlain made L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko and Shalimar. While we know a good deal about Jean-Paul Guerlain and Thierry Wasser (Jean-Paul Guerlain has written books about what inspired him, and Wasser often gives interviews), our knowledge about Guerlain's earlier creators is limited and anecdotal. We who admire the classic Guerlain perfumes have always wished to find out more about this fascinating and influential perfumer. Thanks to the Osmothèque in Paris, our wish has now been granted.
Will Inrig (pictured above on the right) is a research intern at the Osmothèque, studying at the American University of Paris and the Université Paris-Sorbonne. As part of his undergraduate thesis in art history, he has been researching the life and work of Jacques Guerlain, and published his findings as a Wikipedia biography. Here he generously answers a few of Monsieur Guerlain's questions about what he has learned about Aimé and Jacques Guerlain.
Monsieur Guerlain: What do we know about Jacques Guerlain's background and how he was trained as a perfumer?
Will Inrig: Jacques Guerlain was literally born into the world of perfumery. His father, Gabriel, managed the family business, while his uncle, Aimé, was chief perfumer. It’s possible that Jacques Guerlain was first educated at a boarding school in England, in keeping with family tradition, but it’s certain that he was eventually enrolled at the École Monge, a new and rather progressive institution in Paris that preached a totally modern pedagogy. There he was schooled in history and literature, learning German, then English, as well as Greek and Latin.
His uncle Aimé Guerlain, gay and childless, sought a successor within the family. He likely trained Jacques Guerlain from the age of sixteen, when the latter created his first perfume, Ambre. Jacques Guerlain finished his secondary education at seventeen and, armed with only the slightest notions of science, interned in the organic chemistry laboratory at the Sorbonne under the great chemist and mineralogist Charles Friedel. Such extensive technical training would have been unusual for a perfumer of the period, but Jacques Guerlain’s father perhaps thought it necessary. As a result, Jacques Guerlain would become a highly skilled chemist.
When Jacques Guerlain joined the family business in 1894, he was allowed to experiment widely in both fragrance and cosmetics. With the great Justin Dupont, Jacques Guerlain published extensively on the subject of various essential oils, such as basil and rose, while perfecting a method for perfuming ink. It all makes for rather dry reading, but in any case Jacques Guerlain’s technical expertise impresses.
Monsieur Guerlain: Did you learn much about Aimé Guerlain?
Will Inrig: Reasonably little. Gay, as a young man he was the black sheep of the family, and so moved to England in search of some freedom. Unlike Jacques Guerlain, Aimé is remembered as an unconventional dreamer, a true artistic spirit. When in 1864 he was called back to Paris to take over from his father, he obeyed. The family has kept some of his letters, the most interesting of which date from the Franco-Prussian War just before the siege of Paris. Gabriel Guerlain is frequently mentioned, and the two brothers obviously shared a very close relationship. As Aimé became increasingly important in the world of business, the family arranged for him to marry his sister-in-law, Jeanne Alexandrine Dupérié-Pelou, in order to hide his sexuality. It seems she was a widow with two children in need of a father.*
Aimé owned a country home in Le Crotoy, where he hunted and bred dogs, called the Guerlain griffon. He was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1892. In 1900 he gifted the family homestead, a stately villa in Colombes, to the Salvation Army. Then he retired to Le Crotoy, where, towards the end of his life, he invested in the building of the Eden-Casino. He died in 1910, and his place of burial is unknown.
*) In her book, Le Roman des Guerlain, historian and perfume expert Élisabeth de Feydeau offers a revision of Aimé Guerlain's family circumstances that goes against these findings by the Osmothèque. Feydeau, who doesn't say anything about Aimé's sexuality but states only that he married late in life because he was "secretive and mysterious by nature", reveals that he actually had a son and a daughter with his wife (who wasn't his sister-in-law, but the widow of his sister-in-law's brother). Sadly though, the boy died at the age of seven, and Aimé decided to retire from the business to take care of his family.
A young Aimé Guerlain. Unlike Jacques Guerlain, known for his stringency and general conservatism, Aimé is remembered as an unconventional dreamer and a true artistic spirit, says Will Inrig.
Monsieur Guerlain: Is there anything in particular that explains why Jacques Guerlain loved the Guerlinade accord so much?
Will Inrig: His olfactory signature, the famous Guerlinade, developed out of his uncle’s rich, sweetish palette. It was second nature. His fondness for certain materials — vanillas, citruses, violette-smelling ionones, aromatic resins, herbes de Provence, strong musks, etc. — were basically a matter of aesthetic taste, informed by family heritage.
Monsieur Guerlain: Can we say anything about what made him different from his contemporaries?
Will Inrig: Unlike Parquet, Coty or Daltroff, autodidacts who revolutionised early 20th century perfumery, Jacques Guerlain distinguished himself by his discernment and relative conventionalism, no doubt informed by the weight of family heritage. I think of perfumer Marcel Billot, who aptly described Jacques Guerlain as a “genius who knew to be of his time while living nonetheless in keeping with tradition.”
Also remember that Jacques Guerlain possessed an unusual degree of technical expertise — Parquet and Coty were miserable chemists — perhaps best demonstrated in his selection and treatment of certain raw materials whose chemical composition he’d studied inside and out.
Monsieur Guerlain: Did he have contact with other perfumers of his era or did he mostly work alone?
Will Inrig: He definitely worked alone at his laboratory, first in Bécon-les-Bruyères, then in Courbevoie; only his assistant, who carried heavy loads, was allowed entry.
Extraordinary though it may seem, there’s little evidence to suggest that he ever met Coty, Beaux or other perfumers whose work he admired. Jacques Guerlain was “the opposite of a socialite,” to quote his son, Jean-Jacques Guerlain. Perhaps the only exception was Jacques Rouché, who lived nearby and with whom Guerlain shared a passion for the performing arts. Remember that Guerlain’s grandfather, Pierre-François-Pascal, had worked at Piver before establishing his own boutique, so there was something of a familial connection to the company. I wonder if L'Heure Bleue doesn’t have in it something of Rouché’s Le Trèfle Incarnat.
Monsieur Guerlain: What do we know about his personality? And can we say anything about how it influenced his work?
Will Inrig: His grandchildren remember him as alternatively severe and generous. He was taciturn — painfully so. He never spoke about anything, not even his vacations, let alone perfume. He devoted himself, discreetly and methodically, to his passions — perfume, art, music, literature, horses and horticulture. In his work, he was business-minded, like his father and grandfather, self-critical and slow. His creations speak to his refined taste and constant perfectionism — everything is balanced, smoothed, polished — as well as his general conservatism. Jacques Guerlain was no great pioneer, rather he was known, in the words of Luca Turin, to “reinterpret the fashionable and do it slightly better.” If Shalimar is a reinterpretation of Émeraude, it is definitely an improvement.
Monsieur Guerlain: Can his passion for art be seen in his work?
Will Inrig: Jacques Guerlain admired many artists whose work he collected, including that of Goya, Manet and Monet, among many others. Gauguin is referenced in his work (Atuana), as are authors Claude Farrère (Mitsouko), Joris-Karl Huysmans (Parfum des Champs-Elysées) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Vol de Nuit), composers Puccini (Liu) and Rimsky-Korsakov (Coque d'Or) and various celebrities including Josephine Baker (Sous le Vent), Sarah Bernhardt (Voilà Pourquoi J'Aimais Rosine) and Diaghilev (Coque d'Or).
Monsieur Guerlain: Did he travel like Jean-Paul Guerlain did?
Will Inrig: Jacques Guerlain was essentially an armchair traveller. His perception of the world was largely informed by literature and art. The South America of Saint-Exupéry, the Japan of Claude Farrère, the China of Puccini, the Egypt of the Westcar Papyrus. His family told me he’d never travelled to his beloved Orient. There is, however, rumour that Jacques Guerlain once visited Indochina. I’ve yet to see the proof.
Monsieur Guerlain: If not, from where did he get his inspiration?
Will Inrig: As with any creator, it’s difficult to say. His life experience. His wife and family. The war, as seen in the cynically named Kriss. Literature. Art, especially the Impressionists and the Orientalists. Music. His gardens and orchards at the Vallée Coterel, his country estate in Les Mesnuls. Perfumery, both that of the past and that of his contemporaries including Beaux, Coty, Daltroff, etc.
Monsieur Guerlain: There was no marketing department back then. Who decided what to create and what to discontinue?
Will Inrig: Jacques Guerlain enjoyed almost total creative freedom, while his brother, Pierre, decided which products to push and which to withdraw. Jean-Paul Guerlain wrote that his grandfather worked like a painter at his easel. And when a creation was finished, he would choose a bottle and put the new perfume on sale in the boutique. As simple as that. Inconceivable today.
Monsieur Guerlain: How was his relationship with his wife? We've read that he adored her.
Will Inrig: At thirty-one, Jacques Guerlain married Andrée Bouffet, a Protestant from Lille. He did so according to Protestant law, thereby suffering excommunication from the Catholic Church — quite something at the time. It’s accurate to say that he adored her. An image I think of is from after the First World War, when Jacques Guerlain was injured and could no longer drive, so Andrée, or Lily as he called her, drove for him.
Jean-Paul Guerlain remembers his grandfather telling him, “One always creates perfumes for the woman with whom one lives and whom one loves.” It’s thought there’s a fair bit of Jacques Guerlain's wife in Après l'Ondée, created a year after their marriage, around the time of the birth of their first child, Jean-Jacques.
Monsieur Guerlain: And his children? They say that Jean-Paul Guerlain was not very attentive to his children. Was Jacques also a strict patriarch?
Will Inrig: To quote Sylvie Guerlain, “They mustn’t have laughed.”
Monsieur Guerlain: Why didn’t he create another masterpiece after Vol de Nuit?
Will Inrig: At the outbreak of the Second World War, Jacques Guerlain’s youngest son, Pierre, then twenty-one years old, was mobilised and fatally wounded in Baron along the River Oise. Jacques Guerlain was devastated and stopped creating for two years, also abandoning his stud farm in Normandy. The factory in Bécon-les-Bruyères was destroyed by bombing the following year. Then, as the war drew to a close, Jacques Guerlain’s situation worsened when rumours spread of his apparent collaboration. He fell into a deep depression which was exacerbated, it is thought, by a fair quantity of hashish, though I have no proof of that. He continued to work during the last eighteen years of his life, though created little. Increasingly he retreated to the Vallée Coterel, attending to his flowerbeds, orchards and Japanese garden. His final creations, like Fleur de Feu, Atuana and Ode, are good but by no means masterpieces. I’m not sure he had it in him any more.
After all, it must be a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a son that way. Sylvie Guerlain told me about attending her grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, when Jacques spoke about Pierre. “It was the only time I ever saw him cry,” she said.
Monsieur Guerlain: It has been said that Jacques Guerlain made four hundred formulas! But only a handful have survived. Was the main part made to private clients? And is it correct to say that most of his formulas could be grouped into a few categories inside which there were only minor variations?
Will Inrig: Around eighty of Jacques Guerlain’s perfumes remain known, though it’s true that certain estimates suggest he composed some four hundred. Therefore it’s perhaps natural that many are easily mistakable. Most are subtle variations of the signature Guerlinade, rapidly devised for a specific event or celebrity.
But to his credit, Jacques Guerlain’s best creations, often improvements upon the work of his contemporaries, are unmistakable, even from the model by which they were inspired. The proof? In France, who doesn’t know L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko and Shalimar?
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