"For decades, Guerlain has united two essential values: tradition and modernity," one of the house's slogans goes. What was once modern is now traditional, and although famous for its enduring Guerlinade style, Guerlain and its perfumers have been affected by the currents of time and taste, and vice versa.
The imperial years (1828-1870)
It was a time of great changes when 19-year-old Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain left his father's spice trade to work as a traveling salesman of cosmetics. After the turbulent and prolonged French Revolution, monarchy had for a short period been restored in the country, ruled by King Louis XVIII, but by then the revolution had destroyed the livelihood of the merchants to royals and nobles, among them perfumers. Conversely, it opened up new opportunities for young entrepreneurs like Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain. In the 19th century, it was believed that bad smells caused disease, because the death rate was high in poor districts where the air was foul. Therefore, applying freshly scented toilet waters to conceal the body odours was thought to have a hygienic effect. At that time, England had a monopoly on fragrance production and they could only be imported from there.
During his studies of chemistry and alchemy in England, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain had learned soap fabrication and distillation of flowers, and he now wanted to use his skills to make superior French products, confident that the time was right in 1828. He established a small factory facility near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and opened a shop in the rue de Rivoli, on the ground floor of the deluxe hotel Le Meurice which was owned by his uncle. Starting out with a manufacture of soaps, creams, lotions and pomades, he soon began to experiment with scented colognes. Perfume chemistry was still very basic, offering only simple and fragile extracts from herbs, flowers and citrus.
Meanwhile, the new emperor Napoléon III promoted a cultured and refined lifestyle that was embraced by the high society, stirring an interest in things like bespoke tailoring, elaborate cuisine, fine furniture and perfume, the latter to the extent that the World Exhibition for the first time, in Paris in 1867, featured an independent section of perfumes and cosmetics. In 1853, Napoléon's wife, Eugénie, had been given Eau de Cologne Impériale as a wedding gift. She liked it so much that Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain soon rose in fame as being the purveyor of perfumes to the Empress and the finest perfumer in France. On the occasion, the cologne was presented in a bottle decorated with the Napoleonic emblem of efficiency and productivity, the golden bee. Guerlain's tradition of exquisite and evocative presentations was started. From then on, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain made bouquets of flower and herb extracts for a growing well-to-do clientele — breathlessly, a dozen new compositions each year — under the rigorous motto, "Fame is fleeting, only reputation lasts".
Empress Eugénie (1854).
The 1867 World Exhibition in Paris.
Fashion plate (1870s).
Typical materials: citrus, Provençal herbs, flowers.
The turn of the century was considered a golden and beautiful age, at least in retrospect. Peace and stability prevailed among the major powers of Europe, industrialization got up steam, wealth was unclouded by tax, and labour was so cheap that prodigious dinners with fruits, flowers and champagne could be held by the rich. Haute couture was born in Paris, basically continuing the sophisticated habits of Napoléon's Second Empire. Tensions between working-class socialist parties and the bourgeoisie belied the idyllic surface of the era, but it was not yet visible. Design was dominated by the ornamental and curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau, and the impressionist style of painting, no longer avant-garde, gained widespread acceptance.
The Industrial Revolution benefited both the quality and quantity of Guerlain’s production. While the chemical and synthetic products that were discovered at that time had many skeptics and critics, Aimé Guerlain, who had taken over from his father, embraced them as a means of making more persistent and creative perfumes. It wasn't until a new extraction method saw the light in 1873, using solvents instead of steam, which resulted in much more powerful and long-lasting flower extracts termed "absolutes", that traditional perfume making became widely seen as obsolete. Aimé Guerlain was captivated by the artistry and ingenuity of the time, and by the fact that a taste for the better things in life was developing among a wider audience than the privileged aristocracy. Like his father, Aimé had studied chemistry, and he employed the new synthetic fragrance compounds with strong and unusual smells to create a groundbreaking olfactory experience marked by abstraction, tenacity, and depth. That was Jicky, revolutionizing perfumery in 1889, and with it, the velvety Guerlinade signature was formed.
His nephew Jacques Guerlain continued his vision. Enthralled by impressionist paintings he composed several perfumes in their spirit, and gave them poetic and picturesque names to reflect the splendour of art and nature. The highlights were his two powdery compositions Après l'Ondée and L'Heure Bleue, portraying sceneries after rain and at dusk, respectively. The latter was bottled in the same romantic Art Nouveau style that was used for Guerlain's shop on the Champs-Elysées, inaugurated in 1914 together with the sublime tortoise bottle of Parfum des Champs-Elysées. The snail-shaped bottle for Voilette de Madame and Mouchoir de Monsieur was another fine example of Guerlain's Art Nouveau bottles.
Claude Monet: Le Jardin de Monet, les iris (1900).
Dreaming beauty (early 1900s).
Art Nouveau stained glass door.
Typical materials: heliotrope, violet, orris, anise.
World War I was a shock to Europe who since the Enlightenment had come to believe in progress, liberty and reason. The war proved all the destructive and atrocious instincts of mankind, and a cultural boom followed in its wake. Psychoanalysis began to explore the mind's unconscious libidinal and aggressive drives, the arts showed bold colours, strange perspectives and distorted motifs, assuming the end of certainty, while Social Democratic governments ousted the old European elite. Modernism, which had been a minority taste before the war, came to define the 1920s with its cultivation of the savage and irrational side of human nature. Women got out of their salons, corsets and bulky long dresses, and now wanted to look sporty and tanned — and smoke cigarettes! The Western compulsion to colonize the world carried back a preoccupation with all things exotic, and music, film and literature brought out titles like Turandot, The Egyptian Helen, The Sheik and Siddhartha. In the early 20th century, Eastern culture became fashionable, symbolizing eroticism, mystery, and decadence.
Although he never travelled, Jacques Guerlain was very much inspired by the cultural dynamism that surrounded him, notably the Parisian variant, Les Années Folles, wild years full of American jazz, razzle-dazzle and untamed carousing. Smoky and animalic materials superseded romantic flowers, and the nostalgic prewar bottle of L'Heure Bleue was refilled with Japanese mysticism, Mitsouko and its inscrutable chypre fragrance. Bouquet de Faunes followed in 1922 in an uncanny faun bottle. Shalimar speaks for itself, both emblematic of and transcending its time, with deep, lemon-soaked balsams and a magnificent Persian bottle. It was exhibited at Paris' large-scale Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, which firmly placed perfume in the realm of decorative arts. Egyptian-named Djedi, an utterly unsweetened scent of vetiver, leather and civet, completely capsized traditional femininity. The period was finalized in 1929 with Liu, a dry, peppy Quickstep beat of aldehydes, neroli and rose, presented in one of Guerlain's most splendid bottles, a blend of Chinese style and the new Art Deco.
Joan Crawford dancing (1925).
Pablo Picasso: Mandolin, fruit bowl, and plaster arm (1925).
Poster for the opera Turandot (1926).
Typical materials: synthetic compounds, balsamic and animal notes, smoky wood.
The cultural wildness of the Roaring Twenties came to a sudden halt with the total collapse of US stock market prices in 1929. The Great Depression that followed with its socio-economic impoverishment and inequality marked a whole decade and spurred on political tensions throughout Europe, slowly building up to World War II. Parallel to this, an energizing innovative urge was still going strong. Technology was racing, cars and machines became faster and smarter, airline companies opened, and imposing Art Deco architecture sprouted up in the cities. Futurism's infernal glorification of speed, height and armed force dominated the arts, and science fiction and horror stories were popular. Hollywood had its golden age with glamorous film stars and thousands of movies being issued from the studios, offering a momentary escape from dire straits.
The restless tendencies of the era seemed to be reflected in the works of Jacques Guerlain, all presented in severe and functional Art Deco design. The scents, too, were darker and austerer than before. Vol de Nuit communicated gravity and despair with its gloomy brown scent and aviation bottle. But, Vol de Nuit also reflected enthusiasm about, and, if one believed the novel that delivered its name, probably anxiety of, mechanics and the new means of travel by air. The wish to fly away was similarly the theme of Sous le Vent, green and breezy like a rainforest, inspired by the foreign black Josephine Baker. Véga returned in 1936 to floral ardour, dazzlingly shining and stiff like a queen with ylang-ylang, jasmine and carnation and bottled in the fascination with outer space. Atuana (1952) was one of Jacques Guerlain's last perfumes, an aromatic leather named after the Polynesian island where French Post-Impressionist painter Gauguin portrayed the native peoples.
King Kong film (1933).
The Chrysler Airflow (1934).
Tullio Crali: Nose Dive on the City (1939).
Typical materials: rich flowers, aldehydes, oakmoss, spicy resins, dark wood.
A youngster growing up before or during World War II was forced to take life seriously. Males were supposed to join the services or to go out and get a job and help support his family or a new bride. Women should meet a man, marry and have children. The postwar period seemed like a fresh start. Still faced with restraint and rationing, people were cautious but slowly regaining strength and fancies after the troublesome years. Christian Dior had scrapped the dull, practical war dress with his sweepingly feminine New Look silhouette, while it became modish to follow the existentialists' thoughts about each person's responsibility to live meaningfully and sincerely. Unexampled expectations and attitudes began to appear, among them youth as an independent identity, the teenager. Neither a child, nor a grown-up, but young people yearning to have their own life. London was still far from swinging, but these timid débutantes and young men dreamed about rockabilly and coming out and meet romance with the style and hipness they had seen in magazines or on the new television.
Jean-Paul Guerlain was himself a young man, making his professional début in those years. The forties having been very silent to perfumery because of the war, his early perfumes sparkled with freshness and youth, and easy-to-use atomizer bottles were introduced. For the first time, men wanted to have a fragrance, and he made Vetiver for him in 1959, everlastingly green and spicy, presented in masculine and sober tastefulness. Men's perfumery appeared like a conquest for the house but had in fact been close at hand all along, the femininity of Guerlain already dark and leathery. All it took was to turn up the woody notes a bit and remove a few floral ones. Cutely bottled Chant d'Arômes revealed that even a backward approach could work: it smelled like Vetiver's little sister with tangerine and honeysuckle added, charming and quiet and serious, for her who found her mother's Shalimar heavy and old-fashioned. Guerlain's slim margin between woman and man would become even narrower in the years ahead.
Teenager dancing with boyfriend (1959).
The Buddy Holly Story (1959).
Sewing pattern for a dress (1962).
Typical materials: citrus, spring flowers, vetiver, tobacco, moss.
An economic upturn and the new self-confidence of the youth prepared the way for a cultural revolution during the sixties, characterized by optimism, hedonism and a musical style that appalled older generations. Improved possibilities of employment and income started to free up leisure time, indulgence and style. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones made London Swinging while the Vietnam War angered American hippies and made them sing Jimi Hendrix' songs about peace, flowers and free love, leading to a global youth rebellion against conservatism and social conformity, with the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 and iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival as its heights. Brigitte Bardot was steaming hot, as was Jane Birkin's breathy pleasure in "Je t'aime... moi non plus".
Maybe perfumery hasn't much to do with revolt, but quite a lot with flowers and love, and it was obvious to put them into formula, that is, a fragrant one. The tone was warm, sensual, released and radiant, and it was the defining point of Jean-Paul Guerlain's career. Habit Rouge was launched in 1965, named after the formal dress of a horseman but featuring quite hippie concordant notes of vanilla, patchouli and incense. The scent had a phenomenal impact on people's perception of how liberated a men's cologne could be: a Shalimar for him. Chamade followed in 1969, a happy and summery floral with a hitherto unobserved crispness and depth, bottled in a psychedelic symbol of emancipated eroticism. Habit Rouge and Chamade are still regarded as Jean-Paul Guerlain's best creations, matching the time's trends perfectly.
Opel photo (1967).
Concert poster (1967).
Woodstock Festival (1969).
Typical materials: sunny flowers, fruity notes, patchouli, warm spices, vanilla.
By the middle of the 1970s the hippie culture was fading away, but its social progressive values, such as political awareness and women's economic freedom, continued to grow in the Western world. The fact that the seventies were perhaps the worst decade of economic performance since the Great Depression due to an oil crisis could not stop these strong forces. People sought after equality, welfare and education, increasingly striving for urban prosperity over agrarian life. The rhythm was funky and gay or provocatively hard as rock, art was pop and multicoloured like television, the Vietnam War was over and you could fly to the moon. Maybe the most striking trend of the period was the liberation of women, the Feminist Movement. Women wanted to prove their strength and have respectable jobs, bending their gender with wide jeans, leather jackets and Afghan coats picked from their husbands, if not even being lesbian. Some men, fed up with their worn-out role as breadwinners and bullies, actively supported the project and picked the long hair from their girlfriends in return.
Jean-Paul Guerlain, deeply fascinated with strong women, was also soon to react, men not being his big focus area during those years. He started out with Eau de Guerlain, a citrus cologne with spicy and musky base notes not common for the genre, as unisex and ambiguous as Jicky had been. However, he had always wanted to create a big-boned chypre perfume in style of his grandfather's androgynous masterpiece Mitsouko, and his answer was Parure, at once elegant and pungent with rose and lilac and all the masculine and dramatic qualities of a leather chypre. Bottled in extravaganza, almost kitsch, it followed the patterns of the seventies. His second unfulfilled dream was a robust and intense rose perfume. He worked on it for years, obsessed with the image of French actress Catherine Deneuve, icily self-assured yet very sensual. The deceptively elementary Nahéma was released in 1979, muscular and strong-willed like an Amazon, and although it never became Guerlain's hoped-for icon, it was forever Jean-Paul Guerlain's own greatest pride and joy.
Grace Jones: Muse (1979).
Yoko Ono and Lohn Lennon seen by Annie Leibovitz (1980).
Typical materials: rose, lilac, fruit, leathery resins.
The 1980s were tough. The decade saw a revival of capitalism, liberalism and hardline politics, in Europe known as Thatcherism. Unemployment was steep, the War was Cold and Wall Street hot in a way it had not been since the 1920s. City life magnetized people, demanding and flashy in their tastes, and things such as European sports cars and designer clothing became fashionable. Consumerism, competition, and Eileen Ford's vain top models totally overshadowed the social and cultural sensitivity of earlier years. Stepped out of their girly role as young urban professionals in line with men, women stayed late in the office buildings to earn money for material goods. Being single was now valued and happiness an individual nightclub project depending on being seen, heard — and smelled. With the quest for status symbols, the fashion and perfume industries witnessed a boom.
Guerlain had to leave its velvety and plushy perfumes behind and search for something more aggressive to face the unsentimental Zeitgeist. Jean-Paul Guerlain, romantic and cultured, had a hard time: most of his fragrances from the eighties didn't really meet the expectations of the fan base. He started out real hard in 1983 with Jardins de Bagatelle, an iridescent, almost shrill composition of white flowers dressed in a bottle as straight-lined and shoulder-padded as the women's sharp suits, all rightfully regarded as a complete break with the Guerlain tradition. Men got Derby in 1985, leathery and potent, "barbaric and very civilized," as said the ad — yet going rather unnoticed, maybe because its cryptic rosy moss smelled like the missing men's scent of the preceding unisex years (even the bottle looked like something from the seventies). The next two perfumes Samsara and Héritage, often seen as a couple, were still determined and focused but with a different wholeness and bottled with gentler roundness, reflecting a new spirituality that germinated around 1990 in response to pointless narcissism.
Vogue face model (1983).
Big city life, Manhattan.
Joan Collins in Dynasty (mid-1980s).
Typical materials: white flowers, lemon, pepper, rich wood.
People now seriously aspired to be something better than they were in the 1980s. With the new Millennium approaching, there was hope of progress in every aspect of life, emotional, spiritual, environmental, technological, professional, economical. The Flower Power youngsters from the sixties had by now become middle-aged parents, teaching their own children to be cautious, loving and preserving, not greedy. The Iron Curtain was finally gone and the world started to connect and communicate through an explosive growth of the Internet, making it easy to be aware and well-informed. Everyone could now seek out almost everything, and the market became global. In the air was a chase after the perfect life, but the possibilities and impulses were endless, a condition often described as "postmodern", leading to confusion, groping and doubt among the young searchers. The answer was an attraction to anything uniquely pure and minimalistic and a sort of staged serial monogamy in both lifestyle and love, ironic and streamlined and very much under control. With an enormous supply of goods and temptations, how to catch consumers' attention? Perfumery could no longer afford to live as an art form but required transformation into a smooth, marketing-driven industry. Calvin Klein had big success with this strategy during the nineties, releasing cleanly named fragrances like Escape, Contradiction, One, Be and Truth.
But for Guerlain, the situation was awkward and difficult, and the old family firm couldn't find a prosperous direction. In 1994, after some years of drifting, president of the supervisory board Jean-Pierre Guerlain finally took the painful decision to sell the heirloom to the world's largest luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, arguing that the future in an increasingly competitive industry would be best assured within a wealthy group. The new game plan involved the invitation of outside perfumers to compete against Jean-Paul Guerlain, something which had slowly begun with Samsara, and the first post-LVMH fragrance, called Champs-Elysées, was a pure, airy and sunlit floral by Olivier Cresp. Although the new fragrance proved popular, especially outside of France, most long-standing Guerlain fans saw it as an ominous break with tradition. Minimalism not being Jean-Paul Guerlain's cup of tea, he nevertheless made some understated, and underrated, perfumes during the late 1990s, like Coriolan, Chamade Pour Homme, Philtre d'Amour and the new Aqua Allegoria collection. Then, exalted by long and far away journeys to India, Nepal, Tunis and the Comores in his search for raw materials and ideas, he turned abruptly to an exotic theme with Mahora, Guerlain's most colourful, and possibly most miscalculated, launch. It wasn't a success, but its voluptuous scent of frangipani and almond blossom seemed to foresee a gourmand style that would be the house's future saviour. Disenchanted by his ill luck and all the marketing tactics, Jean-Paul Guerlain decided to retire in 2002, although still being active in the company.
Zaha Hadid design (1994).
Issey Miyake design (1994).
One of Calvin Klein's successful 1990s themes.
Typical materials: aromatic leaves, spices, sappy wood, green flowers.
Guerlain had gained time: suddenly, the audience once again stood by its talents. People's desire for uniqueness and high quality was even stronger after the year 2000, and they were willing to pay. Food had to be gourmet, fashion must be haute, and high-end restaurants, niche boutiques and delicatessen shops flourished on every corner of the city streets. There was a pursuit of the good old days and its fine craft, and collectible vintage goods became highly valued. As for perfumery, a taste for pastry-sweet, delicious and saturated gourmand scents had developed since Mugler's Angel.
All this was, needless to say, very good news for Guerlain who excelled in exactly these disciplines. The house began to reissue some of its long forgotten perfumes in their original and costly Baccarat crystal presentations, numbered and signed in limited editions. A modified form of made-to-measure perfumery, reminiscent of the prewar era, was taken up with special scents in very few bottles, only made for the occasion. At the same time, the new fragrances, devised by external perfumers hired ad hoc, were well-received. L'Instant de Guerlain, a sunny and honeyed floral by Maurice Roucel, became Guerlain's first real hit since Chamade. The same went for the masculine version, a scent of chocolate covered patchouli, extremely pleasing to the senses and with all the opulence of Habit Rouge. La Maison Guerlain opened in 2005 with new ornamental glory, gilded and grand, and to commemorate the act, new collections and creations were introduced, all aimed at the taste for the rare and the old-fashioned. Jean-Paul Guerlain presented Plus Que Jamais Guerlain, a symphonic ambery floral no less marvellous than his grandfather's mastodons, and after that, it only got even more scrumptious, rich — and successful. Guerlain had recovered its creativity and hectic pace: more than fifty different fragrances were launched during those few years.
Gourmet Michelin dessert.
Much sought after Louis Vuitton bag.
Motorola gold mobile phone.
Typical materials: amber, cocoa, rum, honeyed flowers, berries.
"Fame is fleeting, only reputation lasts," founder Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain predicted in the beginning. With a restored image as a house of exclusive elegance and everlasting style, Guerlain could breathe anew, and customers didn't abstain from small luxuries despite a new financial crisis. Having composed Quand Vient la Pluie, the magisterial pastiche of Après l'Ondée and L'Heure Bleue, perfumer Thierry Wasser was believed to be able to both modernize and continue the Guerlain tradition, and in 2008, while the house celebrated its 180th anniversary, he was sensationally chosen as the firm's first in-house perfumer from outside the Guerlain family. His first two big creations, Guerlain Homme and Idylle, recapitulated Jean-Paul Guerlain's début genius of breaking with heaviness and presenting his first perfumes as young and fresh.
It seems that Guerlain revisits delicacy and subtlety every fifty years, in between its deep and plushy periods. A name like "idyll", along with its charming scent of spring flowers and the bottle's fluid lines suggestive of Art Nouveau, further nourishes the image of a return — with a pointed cap as the obvious sign of a renewal, like spring flowers poking their heads out above the soil. With La Petite Robe Noire, on the other hand, opulence lives again, showcasing the wonders Guerlain can do with flowers, fruit and various dark and gourmand aroma chemicals. La Petite Robe Noire and its masculine counterpart, L'Homme Idéal, have put Guerlain back in the top ten fragrances sold in France. However, not all Guerlain lovers share the enthusiasm. They think that the brand has turned more industrial than ingenious, aimed at only following trends instead of creating them.
Typical materials: green notes, fruity gourmand notes, Bulgarian rose, almond, white musk.
The bottle for La Petite Robe Noire.
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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