The luxury bubble: why you should choose gold over Guerlain
If you think of deluxe perfume bottles as an investment, you're advised to think again. We're in the middle of a luxury bubble!
Helped by the influx of funds from global luxury conglomerates, since the late 1990s firms like Guerlain have begun to launch collectible "haute couture" items in an aim to stand out from the ever-growing mainstream market and add a touch of exclusivity to the brand. To name just a few such items from the Guerlain repertoire, we've had vintage Baccarat reissues, Muguet, Guerlinade, Guet-Apens, Metallica, and Plus Que Jamais Guerlain. These special editions were obviously not targeted at investors, but at lovers of beauty. If you had a few hundred Euros to spare, Guerlain offered an exciting possibility to make your personal perfume collection even more special.
Sadly, things aren't that exciting any longer. During the last decade, the price of high-end luxury goods has skyrocketed — even when we adjust for accumulated French inflation in the same period (around fifteen percent), it has multiplied several times. As a footnote, the average French income has increased by around twenty percent in the last ten years.
The Guerlain catalogue from 2005 lists that year's special Baccarat edition (Plus Que Jamais Guerlain, 500 ml Parfum) at 1,500 €. Compare that to the latest Baccarat edition of La Petite Robe Noire (250 ml Parfum) which goes for 12,000 €. The vintage edition of 2005 was Voilette de Madame and Mouchoir de Monsieur EdT in 100 ml copies of the original snail bottle and its box. The pair could be had for 2 x 800 €. The bottle was not Baccarat, but the box handmade. In 2014, the vintage edition (Coque d'Or Parfum) comes with a 190 ml Baccarat bottle gilded by hand and a handmade replica of the original box. It's priced at 17,000 €.
In 2005, the "haute couture" exercise was still fairly new to Guerlain, and the pricing policy on deluxe editions was modest and exploratory. Now, Guerlain — and LVMH — have cast all modesty aside and announce prices that are ludicrously steep, leaving even the most ardent of perfume collectors appalled and disillusioned.
If you're looking for an investment, you should choose gold over Guerlain. Auctioned perfumes, even the more affordable ones, barely hold their original value. The value of gold, on the other hand, has increased by three hundred percent since 2005.
Significant Guerlain events 2014
In addition to the annual list of twenty new releases, in 2014 Guerlain has given us several things to talk about:
Re-creation of historic Guerlains. Thierry Wasser demonstrated his deep concern about the Guerlain patrimony by deciding to re-create twenty-seven historic Guerlain perfumes. The idea came in waves, he explained. The first was a purely technical and internal wish to evaluate the current state of the Guerlain classics by comparing them with exact remakes from their original, handwritten formulas, dispensing with all restrictions on ingredients. Guerlain's assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone then suggested that Guerlain lovers should be able to smell the old perfumes, especially now that Maison Guerlain has set aside a room for a museum of vintage Guerlain perfume bottles. The two concluded that it was time to open up to the public the discussion about reformulations and how the industry's safety norms affect the olfactive patrimony of Guerlain. Unfortunately, Guerlain has subsequently decided to charge 130 € for smelling the re-created perfumes.
Discontinuation of the Vintage collection. Just as Thierry Wasser had invited the public to discover his set of re-created historic Guerlain perfumes, Guerlain chose to discontinue the Vintage collection, which included EdT versions of Jacques Guerlain's two 1930s scents Sous le Vent and Véga. Guerlain's PR department explained that "the products must always be more efficient, of better quality, and with the highest possible diversity. As a consequence, the weak demand of a product forces us to discontinue its fabrication." Is Guerlain implying that the Vintage collection was not of the best quality? However, it has been suggested that the Vintage collection will still be available in larger and more luxurious presentations, made to order.
Mitsouko voted best reformulation. It's common for perfume houses to deny reformulations and changes in raw materials. At Guerlain, Thierry Wasser has put an end to all the charade and often gives interviews about IFRA restrictions and reformulations. Mitsouko was voted best reformulation of the year by Olfactorama. "Robertet makes some oakmoss and tree moss without any of the nasty, naturally occurring molecules," Thierry Wasser explained. "If you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn't want any more, then you create an olfactive hole. So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it's smelling real oakmoss. I put in a little lentiscus, which is a bush with a green note. The new oakmoss evaporates very quickly, but old oakmoss was a fixative. So the long-lastingness is a problem too. The trick is to get the same density to achieve the same long-lastingness. There are several solvents which are so heavy that they stay forever, but they don't smell of anything. When you blend your whole 'à la oakmoss' composition, the role of these solvents is to hold your composition down. And so, if you use them, you have your old oakmoss. That's what happened with Mitsouko, and that's why Mitsouko is now back. You just have to be creative even when you're doing technical things."
Bottle bling for billionaires. LVMH has proclaimed Guerlain to be the "haute couture of perfumery", which translates as insanely expensive, crystal bottle editions, often with some jewellery around the bottle neck. 2014 saw some of Guerlain's most high-priced presentations, and the most expensive vintage reissue to date, namely that of Coque d'Or (17,000 €). We wish that LVMH would drop the “haute couture” attitude and make Coque d’Or within financial reach for those of us who have a genuine passion for historic Guerlain.
The sickness of making flankers. After three years with disappointing sales figures, Guerlain finally decided to announce the discontinuation of the Shalimar flanker Parfum Initial. While in 2011 Thierry Wasser was clearly proud of his new creation, he has been very frank about its lack of success and the absurdity of the flanker industry. "I think the whole concept didn't work. There is only one Shalimar," he said. "But frankly, I work for a company and we're not philanthropists, we have to make some money. The sickness of making flankers every five minutes is very upsetting, but if I don't want to get kicked out for not doing my job, I have to do it." He obeyed orders and in 2014 created yet another Shalimar flanker, called Souffle de Parfum.
Thierry Wasser awarded the Legion of Honour. Thierry Wasser was raised to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour, a French order established by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize excellent societal conduct. The order is the highest decoration in France. The motivation for awarding Thierry Wasser was described as follows: 1) For meeting the European Commission with an aim to defend the use of natural raw materials. 2) For making France shine around the world through the know-how of Guerlain's perfume art. 3) For helping local communities in foreign countries to develop a production of raw materials.
The good old days were much better
In the 170th anniversary year of 1998, Guerlain started a new tradition of making perfumes with temporary availability, meant for a specific occasion and sold in collectible presentations. The first two such were Muguet and Guerlinade. At that time, Guerlain's pricing strategy was far more modest than it is today, so that a limited edition could actually be afforded by a collector with lots of passion but only a middle-income budget.
"One of my dreams, which I couldn't live out, was to renew the 'haute parfumerie', to copy the universe of haute couture, where each woman could be proud to own a perfume created for her alone," Jean-Paul Guerlain explained. "Utopia, of course, because the structures of today's society and the fierce competition cannot sustain it. Still, we have begun this play of exclusivity by launching perfumes in limited edition as poetic celebrations."
Also, in 1998 Jean-Paul Guerlain created a fragrance specially for Marie Claire magazine, as a Christmas gift to one thousand of its readers. The scent was a rich, powerful floral composition with tuberose, orange blossom, narcissus and lily.
According to Guerlain it was the same fragrance that was reused and renamed for another special edition the following year, namely Belle Epoque, launched to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Harrods in Knightsbridge in London. The two editions, Marie Claire and Belle Epoque, each revived a historic Guerlain bottle. Marie Claire came in the keg-shaped Sous le Vent bottle (1934), while Belle Epoque had the Fleur de Feu bottle (1948), which resembles a memorial column. The packaging of Belle Epoque, an octagonal case with various Belle Époque motifs, echoed that of Jean-Paul Guerlain's Guerlinade from 1998.
Le Bolshoï Black Swan
While Guerlain's first two editions of Le Bolshoï were a reissue of an existing fragrance (the same one, by the way, namely Les Secrets de Sophie), the latest one is a whole new formula. Named Black Swan, it's centred around sandalwood, accompanied with citrus and fresh floral notes. Guerlain describes Black Swan as "woody, milky, fresh, and sparkling."
By itself, sandalwood essential oil smells incredibly rich, warm and creamy, and in some floral compositions it can feel almost overpowering, as some might claim it does in Samsara. One could argue that the Guerlain catalogue already counts one sandalwood fragrance that is "fresh and sparkling", namely Jicky, however, Jicky uses sandalwood merely in a supportive role, and it's not very floral either.
In Black Swan, Guerlain manages to pair sandalwood and floral notes and still have it smell light and fresh. Some chroniclers argue that this ability is a long-established Guerlain speciality. The fragrance starts with a quick burst of citrus mixed with the warmth of sandalwood and a tingling, airy sweetness of jasmine and lily of the valley. While the presence of sandalwood is strong right from the start, there's a clarity and subtle freshness to it, tempered by the drier profile of cedarwood, and quieted by a surprising chai-like note that feels as if jasmine tea were mixed with warm milk, honey, a few spices, and a drop of vanilla. This, the blend of jasmine chai and wood together with the lily of the valley, is probably the main charm of Black Swan, and what gives it a special flavour of Guerlain. It persists for quite a while, throughout the perfume really. Along the way we have rose, peppery and not the least bit fruity, as well as a violet note that is at once powdery and leafy-green.
Le Bolshoï Black Swan is one of the rare instances when we get a woody fragrance that is entirely feminine, but in that old-fashioned way that is not too feminine, pretty yet anything but girly. Notes listed are sandalwood, milky note, lemon, bergamot, mandarin, jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, violet, cedarwood, white musk and vanilla.
Two cities, two sandalwood perfumes
Guerlain plunges into the scent of sandalwood this winter. Santal Royal presents the material as dark and syrupy, whereas Le Bolshoï Black Swan makes it fresh and sparkling (its name notwithstanding).
Santal Royal is a Dubai exclusive (but lent to London), and Le Bolshoï Black Swan is strictly limited to Moscow. If you're a real Guerlain fan, you need to be a globetrotter! Read more about Santal Royal and Le Bolshoï Black Swan
Is Guerlain really three different brands?
Decades ago, making and selling perfume was much simpler than it is today. Speaking of the time of Jacques Guerlain, Will Inrig from the Osmothèque said, "When a creation was finished, he would choose a bottle and put the new perfume on sale in the boutique. As simple as that." Back then, perfume manufacturers were few and small, competition was nothing to worry about, and the market segment was limited to a rarefied group of socialites with money and refined taste.
Not so nowadays: companies are countless and multinational, competition is fierce, and the market segment consists of everything from teenagers and workers, to art lovers, fashionistas, creative professionals, and billionaires.
No wonder an army of marketing directors is needed to manage this world. If you want to strike it big without hurting anyone’s feelings and olfactory nerves, you practically need a university degree. At Guerlain, the marketing department operates as a marriage counselor who aims at making a romantic L'Heure Bleue and an upbeat L’Homme Idéal get along well. Thierry Wasser doesn’t seem too confident that the match will turn out to be an easy one: "Today, we are sitting on two chairs — the heritage chair, and the new chair — and both feel somewhat uncomfortable,” he said in a recent interview with perfume blogger Sorcery of Scent. In fact, there’s even a third chair: the haute couture one of LVMH, which for perfumery translates as insanely expensive, crystal bottle editions.
So, is Guerlain an arranged marriage between its respected patrimony and modern tastes, each feeling a bit awkward in the presence of the other? Or is it a complicated ménage à trois of honourable heritage, pop culture, and high-priced objets d’art? Or, is Guerlain really three different brands, a connoisseur brand, a mainstream brand and a collector’s brand?
Can you see the forest for the trees?
According to Absolutely Fabulous' notorious Patsy Stone, you can never have enough of a good thing. In perfumery, this premise translates as flankers. And chez Guerlain, it translates as Shalimar flankers (as well as La Petite Robe Noire flankers). "There are 15 Shalimars out there ranging from the sublime original (1925) to the ludicrously named Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau Si Sensuelle (2013), which I have yet to experience," Luca Turin says in his unfavourable review of Shalimar Souffle de Parfum. "The pressing need for this new one is not clear to me, but I guess these days the Red Queen rules: if you're not running you're losing ground."
His comment proves that even a serious and highly intelligent specialist on the perfume scene can miss the forest for the trees if there are too many. The bare statistics: Guerlain has to date launched just four Shalimar flankers (Light, Ode à la Vanille, Parfum Initial and Souffle de Parfum). The rest are either minor reworkings of each other or special bottle editions. We sincerely hope that Shalimar Souffle de Parfum will help Guerlain widen the circle of Guerlainophiles. But a few of us begin to worry when someone like Luca Turin believes that there are fifteen different Shalimars and that the latest one "just smells cheap and dissonant." Read Luca Turin's review of Shalimar Souffle de Parfum
Where have all the Parisiennes gone?
In 2005, LVMH started the repositioning of Guerlain as a luxury brand. Among several initiatives, the brand launched two exclusive perfume lines, Les Parisiennes and L'Art & la Matière, at that time available only in Paris. Les Parisiennes introduced a new 125 ml bee bottle format. Guerlain described the idea behind Les Parisiennes as a collection of resurrected Jean-Paul Guerlain fragrances that once had been launched as limited editions. For this occasion, some of them were renamed: Metalys (formerly Metallica), Attrape Cœur (formerly Guet-Apens) and Quand Vient l’Eté (formerly Voile d’Été). The collection also included Philtre d’Amour, Guerlinade, Purple Fantasy, Derby, and the rare Parfum version of Chant d’Arômes, as well as Jacques Guerlain's 1929 fragrance Liu.
Because Chant d’Arômes was a Parfum, and not an EdP or EdT like the rest of the collection, it came in a 30 ml quadrilobe bottle, and not a Parisienne bottle. However, Guerlain insisted that it should be a Parisienne member. We also note that the masculine Derby back then was designated as a Parisienne, despite the fact that the word Parisienne is feminine. Derby has now been incorporated into the men's Parisien line.
Ironically, Liu, the Parisienne that stands out from the aforementioned Jean-Paul Guerlain premise, is the only one left from the original selection. Owing to diminished popularity or restrictions on ingredients, or maybe some other undisclosed reason, all the rest have been replaced. Guerlain lovers lament especially Attrape Cœur and Philtre d’Amour. Today, Les Parisiennes include — apart from Liu — L'Heure de Nuit, Mademoiselle Guerlain (formerly La Petite Robe Noire Modèle No.2), Mon Précieux Nectar, Mayotte, Nuit d’Amour and Cherry Blossom. Only the latter three are by Jean-Paul Guerlain.
Unlike Les Parisiennes, the L'Art & la Matière collection has seen only one discontinuation so far, namely that of Thierry Wasser’s Iris Ganache. Read more about Guerlain's exlusive lines
La Petite Robe Noire at 12,000 €: when fragrance wants to be haute couture
Guerlain is one of the few remaining luxury brands to stay clear of fashion. While other houses treat fragrance as merely an accessory to fashion, at Guerlain it's the other way around: a great perfume is far more important for a woman's attractiveness than stylish clothes. "If she's beautiful," Jean-Paul Guerlain told an interviewer in 2002, "when she takes off that, she's still beautiful. But if the perfume stinks, it's a disaster when she turns off the light."
The human species has (at least) five senses, but Guerlain specializes in just one of them: the sense of smell. Although the brand produces makeup and skin products with visual beauty in mind, the pride of Guerlain — and what has made its name famous — is olfactive artistry.
Olfactive beauty is an invisible beauty, which probably explains much of its mystique and esteem. At the same time, this invisibility is causing serious problems for a perfume house like Guerlain on today’s market.
Improved possibilities of employment and income during the 1960s triggered an increase in consumption, which in the 1980s reached the luxury goods market. Via the new yuppies, expensive designer clothes suddenly descended from catwalk to offices, nightclubs and streets. The same went, to an even more drastic degree, for the perfume industry. Hundreds of new perfume brands and names arose in those years, and fragrance became a common indulgence, available everywhere and for everyone. When something becomes accessible and popular, it eventually loses its power and allure. High-end fashion brands have solved the dilemma by dividing their lines into prêt-à-porter and haute couture. With a middle income, you can get yourself a Dior top and steal a bit of catwalk glamour. Wearing the affordable Dior top, you're actually paying for the brand's advertising, and Dior can maintain its elitist character by continuing to offer haute couture to those who can afford it. It’s what we’d call a win-win game.
Exactly because fragrance is invisible and thus indivisible, perfume brands can't find the equivalent of selling a Dior top: you simply can't wear a Shalimar top. Either you wear Shalimar because you think it smells great, or you turn to another brand that makes great perfumes. To keep up with the competition, perfume brands are forced, unlike fashion brands, to release the best they have on the free market, even at the expense of prestige and luxury brand image. It’s what we’d call a Catch-22.
Prestige and luxury are the hallmarks of Guerlain, and it’s well known that the 1980s and 1990s were difficult years for the company. Perhaps Guerlain wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t entered LVMH in 1994.
LVMH started to reposition Guerlain as a luxury brand in 2005 with the renovation of Maison Guerlain and an introduction of so-called exclusive lines. LVMH wanted Guerlain to be the haute couture of perfumery. However, the idea of having a deluxe Shalimar, containing the crème de la crème of raw materials, next to a more plain prêt-à-porter version is unthinkable. The plain one would be despised and destroy the image of Guerlain.
The solution for LVMH and Guerlain has instead been to offer popular fragrances at affordable prices and extremely costly special bottle editions as well. At least a bottle isn't invisible (although you can't wear it in public). Hence, you can go to Sephora and get yourself a bottle of La Petite Robe Noire for 49.50 € or, you can visit the dazzling Maison Guerlain and get the scent for 12,000 €. The 250 ml of juice has a value of around 900 €, leaving 11,100 € worth of crystal bottle and embroidery. If you think about it, there’s something quite questionable about it. But it’s probably the only thing a perfume house can do to stay in the luxury league.
Hope for Habit Rouge
In recent years, Habit Rouge has been slimming, as some might put it. Where there once was a certain portly strut about Habit Rouge, it’s today drier and leaner, all straight lines and sharp angles from start to finish. On closer inspection, the entire line of classic Guerlains has gone through the same slimming diet. From Thierry Wasser’s re-created vintage Guerlain perfumes, accompanied by his illuminating explanations, we now understand the main mechanisms of the diet: the restriction of raw bergamot oil and nitro-musk in today’s perfumery.
Raw bergamot oil gives fruitiness and richness in the top notes, with complex facets of sweet mandarin, petroleum and dark earth. Nitro-musk adds fluidity, warmth, creaminess, puffiness, and a melting sensation to the entire composition. The bergamot and musk used today, which conform with the IFRA guidelines, smell quite one-dimensional in comparison.
No wonder Habit Rouge smells different! (As do Jicky, Mouchoir de Monsieur, Mitsouko, Shalimar et al.) The good news is that many perfume lovers embrace the leaner shape as easier to wear and more modern; there’s a certain heavy, old-fashioned quality to the vintage materials. Another good news is that Thierry Wasser is trying, as we speak, to do some amazing tricks in the laboratory and make things better. We can’t wait to smell it all.
Now, let's hope that IFRA will keep its fingers away from styrene. The leathery, plasticky odour of styrene, known from the leather upholstery of expensive new cars, is at the heart of Habit Rouge. Read more about Habit Rouge
Maison Guerlain turns 100 years old
On Friday the 14th of August, 1914, Guerlain opened its brand-new shop on the fashionable Champs-Elysées boulevard. The shop, quite small in size for today's standards, was located on the ground floor of a whole new building, now called Maison Guerlain, which also housed offices and an apartment for the Guerlain family.
In 1939, rooms upstairs were remodelled into a beauty institute. In 2005, the shop area was expanded to include part of the first floor. In 2011, Guerlain set up a pop-up store on the ground floor of the building next door where a restaurant once resided.
In 2013, Maison Guerlain underwent a major renovation and redecoration, connecting the former pop-up store with the rest, and making room for an even bigger shop area on the first floor and a restaurant on a new underground floor. As these images demonstrate, the design of the historic shop area has been largely preserved. It still holds the original staircase, the marble wall panels and the massive marble counters. Only the floor, the ceiling, the mirrored shelves and the chairs have been removed and replaced. Read more about Maison Guerlain
How do you want your red berry jam?
These two fragrances are made from the same addictive recipe of a bergamot, rose and red berry jam with a pinch of anise. One is with black tea (La Petite Robe Noire), the other with powdery marzipan (French Kiss). This reviewer has a special fondness for marzipan but still prefers the black tea version. Black tea adds great contrast and a complex, smoky freshness that marzipan obviously doesn't. Only on evenings when I can't get it gourmand enough, I might prefer the sweet meringue that is French Kiss. Read more about French Kiss
There is only one Shalimar
"I had a lot of pride for Shalimar Parfum Initial," says Thierry Wasser. "I love the fragrance, but I think the whole concept didn't work. There is only one Shalimar. But frankly, I work for a company and we're not philanthropists, we have to make some money. The sickness of making flankers every five minutes is very upsetting, but if I don't want to get kicked out for not doing my job, I have to do it." So maybe to avoid losing his job, in 2014 Thierry Wasser has created a new Shalimar flanker, a fresh floral fragrance called Souffle de Parfum. We ask ourselves why Guerlain keeps issuing Shalimar flankers that don’t smell one bit like Shalimar. It’s not unlikely, though, that flankers serve to direct new attention to the original perfume, thereby strengthening its position among perfume customers who don't know Guerlain, let alone the Guerlain classics. Shalimar is probably the obvious medium for that purpose — after all, Shalimar is almost synonymous with Guerlain. Read more about Shalimar and Shalimar Souffle de Parfum
The almond addiction
Guerlain's perfume machinery is driven by the triple forces of imitation, integration and innovation. The Guerlain perfumer grabs the trend of contemporary perfumery and then integrates it into the house signature. The result is something new and innovative yet familiar. L'Homme Idéal takes the muscular and highly popular "boisé sec" type fragrance and makes it join with the bergamot-rosemary-almond opening of Jicky and the patchouli-cedarwood-coumarin base of Héritage. The result smells as if Jicky were made into an Amaretto Sour, served with a box of cigars. Delicious and elegant. Read more about L'Homme Idéal
The controversy of Kriss
The extreme rarity of Jacques Guerlain's 1942 perfume Kriss is due to the fact that it existed only for a very brief period. The perfume had some controversy attached to it, as it has been suggested that it was created for the Nazis and named after a stabbing weapon called "kris", a dagger with a wavy blade originating from Southeast Asia. This kind of dagger, in a modified form which incorporated several examples of Nazi symbolism, was a standard accessory issued to all members of the greatly-feared SS. European colonists often used the spelling "kriss" for this weapon. Spelled with “ss", we get some very sinister and malevolent associations, considering the time in which this perfume debuted. According to research by Will Inrig from the Osmothèque, unfounded rumours spread of Jacques Guerlain being a collaborationist as the war drew to a close, and Kriss was quickly withdrawn. Guerlain explains that its short lifespan may also be due to the scarcity of raw materials during the war.
The perfume was relaunched at the end of the war under the new name Dawamesk, but the fragrance formula remained unchanged, a fougère with floral and oriental notes. Dawamesk came in the same bottle as Coque d'Or (which Guerlain reissued in 2014), as well as in the quadrilobe bottle and also the so-called war bottle. The name Dawamesk refers to a hashish "jam", a greenish preserve made of hashish, pistachio, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, sugar, orange juice and butter. In the 1840s, lots of dawamesk was eaten at the Club des Hashischins, a Parisian group dedicated to the exploration of drug-induced experiences. Members included famous French writers like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac. According to Will Inrig's findings, it is thought that Jacques Guerlain himself used hashish, at the time when the collaboration rumours spread and he fell into a depression. He was already devastated by the fact that his youngest son had been fatally wounded in combat. Whether he took hashish in the form of dawamesk is unknown, as is the eventual link to calling his perfume Dawamesk. It's not unthinkable, though, that the fragrance was inspired by what the dawamesk mixture tasted like. Read about the Coque d'Or reissue
Souffle de Thierry Wasser
Now that Thierry Wasser has been serving as Guerlain's master perfumer for six years, perhaps we can talk about a "Wasser signature". It has been noted that, compared to his mentor Jean-Paul Guerlain whose style was impulsive, direct and full of red-blooded contrast, Wasser searches for harmony and refinement. The latter could be said about Jacques Guerlain too, however, Wasser's fragrances are made with much more delicacy and freshness than the rich, animalic brocades of Jacques Guerlain. Perfume critic Luca Turin calls it "the weird long-term freshness that Thierry Wasser somehow builds into the fabric of his fragrances." Turin is very impressed by Wasser's skills and uses the term "weird" in the positive sense, as in "fascinating".
We get a sense of the delicate Wasser signature in his two recent fragrances, L'Heure de Nuit and Shalimar Souffle de Parfum. Meant as Wasseresque interpretations of old Jacques Guerlain classics, they both depart resolutely from their original source, with airy, angelic accords. Key ingredients are tender citrus, orange blossom, jasmine, rose, white musk and light gourmand notes, but whereas L'Heure de Nuit retains some of the ladylike powder of L'Heure Bleue's orris and heliotrope, Souffle de Parfum abandons all things Shalimar, as crisp and transparent as fresh air. Read more about Shalimar Souffle de Parfum
New box art
Do we see a certain design pattern emerging with Guerlain's two latest launches? The box of Shalimar Souffle de Parfum features a print of one of Maison Guerlain's Shalimar silk scarves.
Guerlain's new name print design is old
When Guerlain opened its Versailles boutique in April 2013, a new print design of the brand name was revealed. Using a streamlined sans-serif font, the new design is sleeker and expresses less formality than we are used to from Guerlain. Despite the very contemporary look, the print is actually a revival of an Art Deco design that Guerlain used in the 1930s and 1940s. Shown here are an advertisement for the perfume Vol de Nuit and a standard box which Guerlain used during World War II due to shortage of supply.
When Guerlain chooses humour over glamour
These days, composing beautiful scents is just a small facet of selling perfumes. The market is so inundated and cluttered with releases that sales depend almost entirely on ad campaigns to attract attention with striking and appealing stories and imagery.
If the aim of the printed ad for Guerlain's new men's scent, L'Homme Idéal, is to rouse curiosity and a bit of commotion, it seems to have succeeded, even before the official launch date. The ad has been met with mixed reactions, to say the least. Inspired by a 1969 James Bond film poster, it depicts seven girls (carefully selected on the basis of ethnicity, perhaps to once and for all wipe out Jean-Paul Guerlain's racist remark a few years ago) in casual little black dresses, clinging to an immense print of the perfume bottle. No cool male supermodel, no motorcycle, no car, no designer clothes or furniture. Many people have found the visual strangely lacking the luxury and elegance we associate with Guerlain. Some have even — rather cynically — likened it to an Axe deodorant commercial.
The upshot of the L'Homme Idéal campaign is to make a joke about the serious, stereotyped image of the perfect man which so many men's fragrance ads promote. To get the desired effect, Guerlain has chosen humour over glamour.
Looking back, apart from a few celebrity faces (notably Natalia Vodianova for Shalimar, Hillary Swank for Insolence and Ollie Edwards for Habit Rouge), Guerlain ads have never been all that fashionable or sexy really. There has always been a certain unintentional clumsiness to Guerlain’s visuals, some of which have been total flops. Too many colours and details, and typically French movements and poses that are too theatrical, appealing to only a few.
Sometimes, however, the humour is obviously intended, as in the case of L’Homme Idéal. In fact, it’s not wrong to say that there exists a kind of historical Guerlain humour.
The first example of Guerlain's humorous ads was probably the one titled “We Don’t Have Any First Name.” This slogan was published around 1930 to clarify any confusion with a Parisian perfume firm called Marcel Guerlain which had no connection to the Guerlain family. Guerlain brought a successful lawsuit against the firm whose name was subsequently changed. Then there was the somewhat morbid, completely dark Shalimar ad, stating “In Memory of all the Men who Fell for Shalimar.” Hardly glamorous, but very touching. A 1970s ad for Habit Rouge daringly went, “To all the Secret Followers of Guerlain Perfumes: You can Come Out in the Open with Habit Rouge for Men.” Around the same time came the “outer space” ad portraying the eternal beauty of Guerlain, which was also the theme of the “Perfume Laughs at the Passage of Time” ads. Guerlain took quite an intellectual but still humorous direction with the “inner vs. outer” ads which talked about the profound nature of Guerlain's perfumes. Recent years have seen the tiger face for Guerlain Homme, more arresting than sexy, as well as the cartoony, completely faceless La Petite Robe Noire girl.
One might have to be a well-versed Guerlain scholar to get the streak of historical humour in the L’Homme Idéal ad, but there is undoubtedly something liberating about its mocking the idea of the ideal man. Read more about L'Homme Idéal
The unconventional dreamer
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, research intern at the Osmothèque.
Jacques Guerlain: the untold stories
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 wife 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 Jacques Guerlain 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, to be published next month as a new Wikipedia biography. Here he generously offers a sneak peak, answering a few of Monsieur Guerlain's questions about what he has learned about 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 Duperié-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.
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? Read more about Jacques Guerlain
How to make a cliché intelligent
The marketing brief for Guerlain’s new men’s scent, L’Homme Idéal, was as follows: use in as many ways as possible the age-old fantasy of the ideal man, and twist it so that it becomes at once elegant and satirical. Guerlain obviously thinks that too many men’s scents are worked around an image of deadpan, self-important masculinity.
The satirical part of L’Homme Idéal is taken care of by the advertisement, in which no cool, muscular men are to be seen. In fact, the printed ad doesn’t feature any man at all. There is just a group of excited girls clinging to a poster of the perfume bottle. The message is that the idea of the ideal man is foolish and futile; instead we should just be ourselves, buy a Guerlain perfume, and let that be all we need to shine.
The elegant part of the launch is conveyed in the bottle, the box, and the fragrance description. An ideal man is the following, says Guerlain: intelligent, beautiful, and strong. (Some would add wealthy, but that probably comes if you are first things. All good things come in threes). These qualities are then written into the three layers of the olfactive pyramid, the top notes, middle notes and base notes. And voilà! "No need to be l’homme idéal anymore, you have your fragrance."
Intelligent top notes: the freshness, clarity and nip of citrus, orange blossom and rosemary.
Beautiful middle notes: the warmth and suave, delicious features of almond, praline and tonka bean, the so-called "amaretto" accord.
Strong base notes: the dark, hoarse dryness of vetiver, cedarwood and leather.
Is this scheme being too corny? Well, it may be a bit far-fetched, but somehow all the parts of Guerlain’s new L’Homme Idéal seem to click into place.
After months of waiting, Guerlain's new men's fragrance will be presented to the press on June 3rd.
Vol de Nuit: as good as old
I recently smelled a tester bottle of Vol de Nuit Parfum at Maison Guerlain, batch coded 3X (October 2013). I was so impressed by it that I have updated my review of the reformulation. We know that Thierry Wasser is currently in the process of making improvements on the classics, but whether something has been done to Vol de Nuit lately, or I just had a bad day when I smelled it last time, is open for debate. Thierry Wasser's set of re-created vintage Guerlains unfortunately doesn't include Vol de Nuit to compare; instead, the following description takes as its starting point a bottle from the 1980s.
"Thank goodness Guerlain has found it paramount to keep this historic gem flying despite both little popularity outside of France and the ongoing oakmoss battle. But, if anything, it's the lack of animal tinctures, banned for obvious ethical reasons, that could threaten the existence of Vol de Nuit. All things considered, it's amazing how faithful modern Vol de Nuit is to its older spirit, richly ambery and with a long-lasting glow of sandalwood, spices and oakmoss. No need to hunt for a vintage." Read more about Vol de Nuit
Four messages from Thierry Wasser to all Guerlainophiles
When Thierry Wasser recently invited a group of perfume bloggers to discover and discuss vintage Guerlain, we learned a myriad of things. However, we could extract four overall messages that might interest many a Guerlain lover:
1) The restrictive safety norms on raw materials pose a major challenge to Guerlain's classic catalogue. Notably the restrictions on bergamot and musk have significant impact on how Shalimar and Jicky smell these days. As for Mitsouko, there are additional obstacles concerning oakmoss and eugenol.
2) Perhaps even more serious than the safety norms is the classics' dependence on perfume bases from external suppliers. Jacques and Jean-Paul Guerlain used bases extensively. A supplier can choose to change or discontinue a base for either technical or commercial reasons, which Guerlain is unable to control. When Parure was taken out of production, it was because an indispensable base became unavailable, Thierry Wasser explains. He also says that eventual changes in Habit Rouge can be due to changes in one of its bases.
3) Thierry Wasser expresses clear concern about the Guerlain patrimony and about preserving the original spirit of the classics. His efforts include meeting with policy makers in Brussels, as well as constant work in the laboratory on norm-conforming materials. He has done considerable improvements on oakmoss, and reveals that he's right now in the process of improving Guerlain's bergamot. At present, we're most amazed about how faithful modern Mitsouko is to the vintage version.
4) Customers and Guerlain lovers are taken seriously by Thierry Wasser. Gone are the days when shop assistants were instructed to suppress the truth about what had changed and what hadn't (though some of them still do). Guerlain's marketing department may sometimes have arguments for implementing adjustments that aren't pleasing to an idealist, but Thierry Wasser's invitation of perfume bloggers to discuss facts demonstrates a longing for transparency and integrity in his work as Guerlain's perfumer. If anything, this meeting has taught us that change is not always for the worse. Read more
The fascination of the fruity chypre
One of the most fascinating aspects of perfumery, maybe even its reason for being, is that it produces scents that you won't find in nature. The human mind seems to have a constant urge to push the limits of what the world can offer. Take the fruity chypre, for example. This genre of perfumery oddly yet beautifully combines the deep breath of sea fog we know from oakmoss, penetrating and warmly grey, with a sense of fruity colour and glow. It's generally accepted that the accord owes its fame to Jacques Guerlain putting a peach note into Mitsouko, a major novelty at that time and, like all good ideas in perfumery, a source of inspiration for competitors (of which Rochas' Femme was one of the best).
Not surprisingly, Guerlain itself has tried to copy the success of Mitsouko's fruity chypre fragrance. Jean-Paul Guerlain came with Parure in 1975, while La Petite Robe Noire Couture is Thierry Wasser's proposal of a modern fruity chypre, or a fruitchouli as some say (successful it is in any case).
Jacques Guerlain's own variation on the theme was Coque d'Or (1937). According to Guerlain annals, he dedicated it to his personal friend Serge Diaghilev, Russian art critic and founder of the Ballets Russes, who was a big admirer of Mitsouko. From first whiff, Coque d'Or gives us the unique feel of oakmoss mixed with fruity aldehyde, in this case a curious exotic fruit note reminiscent of pineapple and coconut, far more sweet than Mitsouko's peach. The effect is ladylike in a 1930s film star kind of way, glamorous yet aloof and slightly soft-focus.
The unmistakable scent of orris, with its strong hints of lipstick, old books, and brandy, is prominent in Coque d’Or from the beginning to the end, yielding that powdery vintage vibe that goes through all the historic Guerlains. Not a single fluff or unevenness is to be found in this perfume, wrapped in a cocoon of musk; if Mitsouko were velvet and Vol de Nuit were fur, then Coque d'Or is heavy silk. It exudes smoothness, understated luxury and a deep-voiced elegance that perfectly fits our nostalgic image of what someone like Marlene Dietrich would have been wearing back then.
Guerlain reissues Coque d'Or as an exclusive vintage edition in 2014, using a small lot of old original Baccarat bottles excavated from the archives. The perfume will of course be reformulated to conform with the existing safety norms. Read more
If there were no vanilla, there'd be no Guerlain. Guerlain uses this sensual, irresistible aroma in many forms, both natural and synthetic; each method has its own quality and effect, and Guerlain often combines them for an optimal impact. To name just the most commonly known:
Ethylvanillin is a synthetic molecule, not found in nature, which smells incredibly potent, creamy and sweet. The overpowering vanilla scent in Shalimar is derived from this colourless aroma chemical, without which Guerlain's legendary oriental perfume would never have been possible.
Vanilla absolute is a red-brown, almost black, oily substance made from the vanilla pod. It has a deep, natural scent of vanilla, much darker and woodier than that of ethylvanillin. Smelling it, you get the heavenly feeling of opening a pouch of plump, moist vanilla pods. Together with its depth, vanilla absolute has a low and slow diffusion, and therefore works excellently as a long-lasting background note.
Vanilla tincture is a Guerlain speciality, made by letting vanilla pods macerate in alcohol. The result smells less rich than the absolute, but the diffusive, volatile property of alcohol, in which the vanilla is dissolved, allows the fragrant molecules to be perceived throughout the perfume's evaporation curve, from the top notes to the drydown. Therefore, for perfume compositions with a big amount of vanilla tincture, the vanilla note is often mentioned in not only one, but two or all three layers of the olfactive pyramid diagram. Read about the Guerlinade ingredients
When Guerlain went green
Both Vol de Nuit and Sous le Vent are known for their use of galbanum, in their time a novelty in perfumery. The scent of galbanum is often likened to that of green pea pods, intensely leafy and slightly spicy. However, only Sous le Vent was what perfumers would call a green perfume, more precisely a green chypre. Its main accord was an elegant and remarkable marriage between the sweet smell of makeup and the freshness of herbs and leaves.
Jacques Guerlain created it by all accounts for Josephine Baker, the famous cabaret artiste who daringly performed nude except for a brief banana skirt and strode the streets of Paris with a pet leopard. It followed the times' chypre trend designed for the new self-confident, short-haired and trouser-clad "garçonnes". Josephine Baker was from St. Louis, but the French always seemed to forget she was American, instead associating her with the exoticism of her costumes, so Guerlain named this perfume after the tropical Leeward Islands of the lesser Antilles. Jacques Guerlain was very excited about green notes during those years, and he found a perfect illustrative setting in this French overseas colony ("greener than one can imagine," as said Guerlain, quoting the Guadeloupe-born poet Saint-John Perse). The Sous le Vent accord became an inspiration to other perfumers' works like Miss Dior and Balmain's Vent Vert. Read more
The lemon pie
Raw bergamot oil, with its power and depth, is what accounts for much of the roundness and richness of vintage Shalimar, because it enwraps and transforms the slightly fecal odour of the animal base. It's for the same reason, explains Thierry Wasser, that vintage Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur appeared less sharply animalic than they do today. When you're used to the modern product, Shalimar with raw bergamot oil feels almost shocking. This is Shalimar the lemon pie, made with Sicilian lemons, double cream and French butter. Read more
L'ADN Guerlain box set
Trying to know vintage perfumery is a bit like dealing with that famous river you can't step into twice; we are stuck with the choice between an oxidized antique and a fresh reformulation. In the end, this may actually be one of the charms and lures of the perfume hobby, but we sometimes dream of meeting the past freshly blended. Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone have collected 25 vintage Guerlain perfumes, re-created with the exact same ingredients as when they saw the light of day for the first time, to share with us the Guerlain patrimony. Box produced by Frédéric Sacone who asked Monsieur Guerlain to design the label, a gesture meant to express the special relationship between bloggers and vintage Guerlain. Read more
Bergamot is one of the Guerlinade ingredients, and from Thierry Wasser's meeting with bloggers, where vintage Guerlain was shared and discussed, we now know just how much it counts.
Raw bergamot oil (in French "bergamote brut") has a deep yellow-green colour and smells rich and rounded, with complex facets of sweet mandarin, petroleum and dark earth. It adds a great sense of contrast, animation and fullness to the perfume. However, raw bergamot oil is no longer used due to its potentially skin-damaging effect. The norm-conforming bergamot employed today has almost no colour and smells sharper, drier and somewhat one-dimensional next to the raw oil. The quality of bergamot has a significant impact on any Guerlain perfume, notably Mitsouko and Shalimar whose formulas contain a very large amount of bergamot. Other bergamot prominent fragrances are Habit Rouge, Vetiver, the Eaux and Jardins de Bagatelle.
Thierry Wasser reveals that he is in the process of improving Guerlain's bergamot in order to move the classics still closer to their original spirit. He explains that the improved bergamot, as well as other improved raw materials, will be gradually incorporated into the entire range of Guerlain perfumes. Read more
Guerlain has added Mademoiselle Guerlain to the Parisienne line, a reissue of La Petite Robe Noire Modèle No.2 from 2011. The sales staff noticed that many customers asked for the fragrance which had a remarkably short life; it was hastily withdrawn in order not to coincide with the worldwide launch of the new version of La Petite Robe Noire.
The scent has absolutely no connection to La Petite Robe Noire apart from its former name, a light, sweet floral composition in the delicate style of Thierry Wasser. Much akin to L'Heure de Nuit, it's worked around orange blossom with soft gourmand notes and white musk, but here with the green top note addition of galbanum together with lemon. It's not a big perfume, but as Guerlain puts it, it has all the charm of a pretty Parisian girl.
How Guerlain came from Eau de Cologne Impériale to Shalimar
"For decades, Guerlain has united two essential values: Tradition and Modernity," one of the house's slogans goes. And for once, a marketing slogan seems to tell the truth. Among the many things we love about Guerlain, the following is crucial: Guerlain is always fashionable but never new. If you fall for one Guerlain perfume, you have practically fallen for them all; they bear a family resemblance — there is something puzzlingly familiar about a perfume by Guerlain despite it being different, something that connects it to all Guerlain perfumes across their uniqueness. This sense of coherence and deeper meaning is what gives Guerlain the soul that we love. Guerlain calls it the Guerlinade, or the Guerlain DNA.
And here we thought it all began with Jicky, that Jicky was the starting point of all things Guerlain, in particular Shalimar. Now, research by Thierry Wasser and junior perfumer Frédéric Sacone reveals that we have to dig even deeper into Guerlain history, back to the very beginning when founder Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain created Eau de Cologne Impériale (he made it in 1830 but its name and fame had to wait until 1853). We now know that Aimé Guerlain marked Eau de Cologne Impériale as one of Jicky's ingredients. Let's imagine: Aimé Guerlain mixed rose, jasmine, coumarin, vanillin and civet, it smelled delicious and utterly original, but it needed seasoning — he poured in some of his father's Eau de Cologne Impériale, and voilà! Jicky was born. It makes sense, doesn't it? Why try to invent a new citrus-aromatic accord when you already have the beautiful Eau de Cologne Impériale? (Frédéric Sacone explains that today, Jicky is not made this way at the Guerlain factory, and its formula doesn't list Eau de Cologne Impériale any longer. Instead, the recipe just specifies all the things that go into Jicky.)
Years later, Jacques Guerlain made Shalimar by pouring ethylvanillin into Jicky. (Yes, Thierry Wasser, we know very well that it probably wasn't that simple, but we just love the idea.)
And so we're able to conclude that the story of Guerlain is the story of Eau de Cologne Impériale which was poured into Jicky which was poured into Shalimar which was poured into... suffice it to say that Luca Turin smells bits of Shalimar in Guerlain's latest creation, Parfum du 68. If you're into history, continuity, relationships, building blocks, matryoshka dolls, secret drawers, recycling, genetics, and beauty, chances are that you love Guerlain. Read more
The survival of the fittest
Once upon a time there was a dream of bringing back the past. But it wasn't meant to last... As per tradition, perfume houses go about things quietly, but we have found out: Guerlain has discontinued its Vintage collection, more precisely Jacques Guerlain's two 1930s perfumes Sous le Vent and Véga. "The continuous introduction of new fragrances and cosmetics requires the selection to be renewed," explains Guerlain's PR department. "The products must always be more efficient, of better quality with the highest possible diversity. As a consequence, the weak demand of a product forces us to discontinue its fabrication."
Because a significant part of the attraction of Guerlain is its long and rich history, Guerlain lovers were delighted by the patrimonial spotlight that was turned on at Maison Guerlain's renovation in 2005. We understand completely that profit is necessary to sustain and develop any business, even a perfume house, and that Guerlain probably wouldn't be able to survive, or at least stay so magnificent, outside a strong holding company on today's competitive market. However, we regret the narrow focus on shareholders' profit which seems to favour only bestsellers and exorbitant luxury; we feel that it is very damaging to culture and beauty, the two main ingredients in perfumery, and that a grand renowned perfume house like Guerlain should boast a vintage collection that allows customers to discover and bring home a small part of French perfume history. After all, it's not for nothing that Guerlain is included in the national Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant. Read more
Jacques Guerlain's perfume Vol de Nuit (1933) is little known outside of France, and then mainly by Guerlain aficionados. The fact that it's still in the catalogue can't be due to its sales figures, but thankfully Guerlain has concluded that Vol de Nuit is sufficiently important historically to keep it going. The Vol de Nuit accord is a very distinct one, which nevertheless is difficult to categorize, mixing green, chypre, leather and oriental notes. It was typical of Jacques Guerlain not to follow formal classification, and Vol de Nuit was his most illustrative perfume in that regard.
Vol de Nuit celebrated aviation; the mastering of air carries significant importance in French culture, and with the assorted associations of odorous leather gear and gasoline, speed, height, the thrill of danger, faraway places and luxury, it's no surprise that it gave shape to a French perfume. Among many things, Vol de Nuit is remarkable for its use of a lightly aldehydic daffodil top note, together with very spicy galbanum resin, a pungent amount of oakmoss and ambergris, and castoreum tincture which smells animalic, earthy and woody. As the perfume unfolds, there's an unusual briskness similar to sea air, driftwood and herbal medicine. However, it retains the warm, sensual and powdery Guerlain signature with orris, amber and musk. Vol de Nuit is best experienced in its Parfum version.
Being one of Jacques Guerlain's least floral compositions, Vol de Nuit could work as a masculine with its spicy chypre character. It isn't easy to find a proper men's scent that captures quite the same atmosphere, but we take the risk and suggest Habit Rouge L'Extrait, a 2008 entry which adds a completely new and reworked identity to Habit Rouge as dark and serious. It features semi-gourmand levels of orange essences and benzoin, a dry cedarwood backbone and a rich, cashmere-fine patchouli with earthy facets of bitter chocolate, coffee and camphor, amplifying the part of Habit Rouge that always reminded you more of Vol de Nuit than of Shalimar. Read more about Vol de Nuit
The big gourmand
L'Heure Bleue is perfumery in the grand French manner from before the world went mad, and perhaps it's the perfume that illustrates best the cleverness and artistic skills of Jacques Guerlain. The scent is so effortlessly graceful, yet great complexity and rich materials lie underneath. The main theme is a blend of orris, orange blossom, rose, amber and musk. Jacques Guerlain worked it in such a way that it appears at once innocent and powdery, glamorous, warmly sensual, and "dusky as the cloak of twilight after which the composition was named," as Roja Dove said. L'Heure Bleue has a demure aura but at the same time it manages to fill the room entirely with its floral, gourmand fragrance. Shy, beautiful and sensual, couldn't this easily be a man's idealized image of a woman? The fact is, L'Heure Bleue is not unisex; it's probably Guerlain's most feminine scent. But, since splendour outweighs gender, any perfume loving man should own a bottle of L'Heure Bleue to at least smell it from time to time.
For a both modern and masculine interpretation of the rich and spicy gourmand style of Guerlain, we have L'Instant de Guerlain Pour Homme EdP which even shares some of L'Heure Bleue's notes: anise, jasmine, sandalwood and amber. Read more about L'Heure Bleue
Mitsouko is an acquired taste, but those who have it think of Mitsouko as Guerlain's — and maybe even perfumery's — most beautiful perfume. It's a relatively simple but highly original composition of bergamot, synthetic peach, and fungus, which gave rise to the fruity chypre classification. Its beauty lies in the fact that you can't decide whether it's dark or bright, light or heavy, fresh or musty, sweet or dry, fruity, floral or woody... In fact, Mitsouko smells so naturally and abstractly exquisite that you think it must have existed since the beginning of time, hidden somewhere until Jacques Guerlain revealed it in 1919. When he did, he said it was "the imaginary scent of a woman's skin."
Mitsouko is known for not being very womanly though, and resides among the classic perfumes most often adopted by male fragrance connoisseurs. The scent was formulated with the young Parisian garçonnes in mind, the emancipated women of the era who cut their hair short and raised their hemlines. When Jacques Guerlain later made his version of Cuir de Russie, probably the least feminine scent one can imagine (the perfume is long gone but has been re-created for Maison Guerlain's bottle museum), it proved to be really just Mitsouko with smoky birch tar added.
For the same reasons that there's no such thing as a Shalimar Pour Homme, a men's variant of Mitsouko doesn't exist; it's neither feasible nor interesting or necessary. However, if you insist on a certified men's scent that belongs to the family, try Derby. Derby, along with Parure, was Jean-Paul Guerlain's most vintage smelling fragrance, complete with aromatics, rose, jasmine, carnation, leather and classic chypre notes. Read more about Mitsouko
His and her oriental
If you love Guerlain, chances are you have a soft spot for orientals. After all, the oriental accord is what, more than anything, has shaped the pride and glory of Guerlain. It started with Jicky, continued magnificently with L'Heure Bleue, and was perfected in Shalimar. Jacques Guerlain's trick was to balance excessively sweet and cocooning materials (ethylvanillin, animal musk, orris and tonka bean) with bergamot, aromatics, and dry, smoky leather. From one angle, Shalimar is a huge fur stole, from another it's a pair of fine gloves. Steadfast Guerlain men will not shy away from wearing Guerlain's iconic oriental fragrance. The past two decades of increasing safety restrictions on scent molecules have only added to the straightness of Shalimar; today's bergamot is not as fruity and rounded as in vintage times, and modern musk is leaner and cleaner and far less voluptuously melting. (Observing the wonders Thierry Wasser has done with Mitsouko lately, we have high hopes for a restoration of Shalimar.)
When Jean-Paul Guerlain launched his Habit Rouge in 1965, it was proclaimed as the world's first oriental for men. In reality it was only the second. Jacques Guerlain's Mouchoir de Monsieur, dating back to 1904, was in its original formulation what we'd call an oriental: vanillic, musky and softly sweet. In 1965, however, Mouchoir de Monsieur was unknown and commercially unavailable.
Another myth about Habit Rouge is that it's the male version of Shalimar. You can always debate how much two things must have in common to be related, but Habit Rouge really set up its own unique world, a forest microcosm inhabited by crisp morning air, warm horse saddles, cigar smoking gentlemen, and mahogany panels. The main accord is neroli, rose and leather, in that order, with only a smidgen of vanilla, at least compared to Shalimar. Habit Rouge is the quintessence of Jean-Paul Guerlain's private passions, and of French male virtues in general, at once elegant and flirtatious; the fragrance remains esteemed among men in France. Its fresh rose and suave woody scent appeals to certain women too. Read more about Habit Rouge
The Guerlain herbs — optimism and clever chic
The vintage perfume art of Guerlain contains several elements that give it its acclaimed unisex touch, but maybe the single most characteristic feature in that regard is the consistent use of aromatics. In perfumery, aromatics are various herbal extracts that yield a fresh, citrusy, leafy, camphoric or warmly anisic or peppery top note.
Guerlain's aromatic profile goes back to the great cologne era of Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, but it was also an essential part of Aimé Guerlain's Jicky, generally seen as the world's first real perfume as we understand the term today. In fact, Jicky smells as if Eau de Cologne Impériale, with its citrus oils, verbena, rosemary and lavender, were poured into a mixture of amber and animal materials. It sounds simple, and maybe it was (we remember Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain's historic admonishment, "always stick to simple ideas and apply them scrupulously"), but the effect is phenomenal and has been used by Guerlain ever since, particularly by Jacques Guerlain. If Jacques Guerlain were a chef, aromatics would be his salt and pepper.
In retrospect, Jicky is referred to as a "bridge scent", a sort of intermediary explanation of how Guerlain came from Eau de Cologne Impériale to Shalimar. The aromatic facet is what gives each and every Guerlain fragrance, from Eau de Cologne Impériale through Jicky and L'Heure Bleue to La Petite Robe Noire, a particular tinge of universal optimism and clever chic. For a Jean-Paul Guerlain version, try his Héritage EdP from 1992, replete with Provençal herbs and tonka bean. He didn't choose the name "Héritage" for nothing. Read more about Jicky
Guerlain's fascination with green
Jacques Guerlain's Sous le Vent (1934) was one of the earliest creations to introduce green notes in fine perfumery. Its graceful, breezy accord somewhere between Provençal herbs, face powder and dry chypre, never stopped fascinating Jean-Paul Guerlain. Minus the face powder, that is; the puffy cocoon of musk was one of the few things he didn't inherit from his grandfather.
You find the inspiration in Vetiver (1959), in Eau de Guerlain (1974), and in Philtre d'Amour (1999). Vetiver was crisper and grassier, Eau de Guerlain more citrusy and with a unique caraway note, while Philtre d'Amour was actually quite close to Sous le Vent. All are among Guerlain's "intellectual" fragrances, serenely detached from gender and fashion, and we sometimes forget how wonderful they smell. We highly regret the abandonment of Philtre d'Amour a few years back; it was one of Guerlain's most charming and versatile perfumes. The recent discontinuation of Sous le Vent is an equally sad loss. For a contemporary Guerlain green, try Cologne du Parfumeur. Read more about Sous le Vent
Natural born unisex
Unisex perfumery became institutionalized with CK One in 1994. There had always been fresh colognes made with neither a woman nor a man in mind, but CK One was the first "night club" fragrance to give a shape to gender-free sexiness. Its strong, clean, aquatic accord, not too floral, not too woody, proved immensely popular.
However, connoisseurs know that unisex perfumery is really no new thing. Many of those who are familiar with the Guerlain catalogue find that especially the vintage Guerlains have a unisex aura. Jicky is known to be worn by both women and men, while Mitsouko, with its bergamot and forest-like chypre base, appeals to certain stylish men. Some Guerlainophile gentlemen like to wear Shalimar or even L’Heure Bleue and Vol de Nuit, while women adore Habit Rouge and Héritage. Maison Guerlain’s re-created vintage perfumes only confirm these unisex tendencies inside the world of Guerlain:
1. You get the impression that Jacques Guerlain wasn’t preoccupied with gender. Maybe he really wasn’t. In his time, perfume was per definition a female thing, so a perfumer was free to experiment without worrying about his creations hitting the wrong gender. You would probably think otherwise if you read the formulas of Jacques Guerlain; he always used a lot of floral notes, rose, jasmine, orange blossom, ylang-ylang and tuberose. However, he didn't follow strict olfactive classifications, and mixed herbaceous, resinous, leathery and animal materials into most of his creations. Also, the Guerlain vanillin is known to be of a special turbid quality, yielding a smoky sedimentary facet. These "masculine" perfume notes were very much in vogue during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but they were defining of the Guerlain style from an early point in time.
2. The original version of Mouchoir de Monsieur, Jacques Guerlain’s only fragrance made for a man, which was a Parfum formulation, says the same thing from the opposite angle. Maison Guerlain’s re-created Mouchoir de Monsieur, musky, vanillic, powdery, doesn’t smell one bit more virile than any Jacques Guerlain perfume. In fact, perhaps even less so than than its female counterpart, Voilette de Madame.
3. When men’s perfumery started to develop in the late 1950s, gender division also began. At Guerlain, however, all it took was to turn up the woody notes a bit and remove a few floral ones. Jean-Paul Guerlain always retained a floral aspect in his fragrances for men. Some men find them too "womanly", while some women love to wear them.
4. The gender division in perfumery has only gotten more extreme since then. That's another reason why the vintage Guerlains all appear as natural born unisex. Read more about vintage Guerlain
Jean-Paul Guerlain's floral excess
For each perfume he made, Jean-Paul Guerlain's compositions became still more insistently and excessively floral, from Chant d'Arômes and Chamade to Parure, Nahéma, Jardins de Bagatelle and Samsara. Mahora was for many the last straw, an exotic, solar oriental with heady notes of frangipani, tuberose, ylang-ylang, jasmine and sandalwood. It didn't stay in the catalogue for long, but it was later reissued under the name Mayotte as part of the Parisienne collection. Past president of the French Society of Perfumers once said that Guerlain is able to make rich products appear light and fresh, and nowadays this is what Thierry Wasser seems to aim for, infusing his florals with chic, fruity and green notes. (As regards the exotic and sunny theme, it hasn't been altogether abandoned by Guerlain. It pops up now and then with seasonal launches like Tiaré Mimosa, Lys Soleia, Limon Verde and the Terracotta scents.) Read more about Mahora
This year's Aqua Allegoria is called Limon Verde, a name suggestive of Brazilian festivity, freshness and sun. "Savour a caipirinha under the lemon trees along the Amazon River," says Guerlain, and we immediately think of Guerlain Homme with its lime, mint and rum. But, Limon Verde is quite a different matter, a green tropical fragrance completely in sync with its colourful, exotic ad campaign, and with none of the dry cedarwood of Guerlain Homme. As the name hints, Limon Verde starts off with the crisp, invigorating scent of lime, remarkably lifelike, together with a green, lush, leafy note suggestive of mint and licorice, at once sweetly warm and spicily cool. Then comes a solar heart of tropical fruit and flowers, slightly in style of long gone Voile d'Été but with the refreshing watery effect typical of the Aqua Allegoria format. At the base, we get a comfortable, lean amber accord of tonka bean and cachaça, the distilled white spirit made from sugarcane juice. Guerlain doesn't lie when saying that this emerald coloured fragrance will transport you to Christopher Columbus' Amazonian world. Read more about Aqua Allegoria
Jacques Guerlain in hindsight
Thierry Wasser's resurrection of a large number of disappeared Jacques Guerlain perfumes has given us a unique chance to explore his work, and vintage perfumery in general, in a broader perspective. What makes the new "Guerlainothèque" very special is that it stays clear of reformulations, reconstructing carefully each perfume with the original essences, tinctures and bases prescribed by Jacques Guerlain's handwritten formulas. (We are humbly aware that the task hasn't been an easy one, since many of these old ingredients aren't readily available these days.) Here are some of the things that these re-created vintages can teach us about Jacques Guerlain and his time:
1. There were no commercial constraints in the time of Jacques Guerlain. Everything he envisioned apparently came into being, and he used what resources were necessary to satisfy his formulas, only the finest and richest of raw materials, often in abundance.
2. Nothing by Jacques Guerlain beats Après l'Ondée, L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar and Vol de Nuit. He left reportedly over four hundred different perfume formulas, so we understand that some serious downsizing has been necessary over the years. The re-created vintages represent a world of true beauty, but none of them seem to be the neglected wonder we might have fantasized about.
3. Jacques Guerlain's work constantly revolved around a constellation of Provençal herbs, rose, jasmine, orange blossom, orris, leather notes, animal musk, and amber. (Amber is the balsamic, gourmand accord of vanillin, coumarin, labdanum, patchouli and gum resins that was born with Aimé Guerlain's Jicky.) There was always an anisic, powdery, leathery and animalic aura about a Jacques Guerlain perfume. The Guerlain lover would refer to it as the inimitable Guerlinade, while the devil's advocate would say that Jacques Guerlain was often repeating himself.
4. To create different styles, Jacques Guerlain turned up and down different aspects of his regular base mixture. Some of his perfumes had respectively more amber, leather or musk, some had more powder, some were more floral or herbaceous, and some had added chypre notes of dry bergamot, vetiver and oakmoss. Jacques Guerlain wasn't preoccupied with formal classification but only with what smelled good, and there was always a bit of everything in his creations. His iconic chypre Mitsouko included amber, and the equally iconic oriental, Shalimar, had leather.
5. Jacques Guerlain's work stood on the shoulders of Jicky. What really distinguished him from Aimé Guerlain was his profound use of orris and animal musk, making for an intensely powdery, cocooning and warm, sensual trail.
6. Jean-Paul Guerlain was trained by Jacques Guerlain, his grandfather, yet he also refurbished the Guerlain signature to meet his own generation's taste. The olfactive style of Jacques Guerlain was extremely dense, with rich absolutes and dark tinctures. The shift began with Jean-Paul Guerlain's fresh and joyfully floral Chant d'Arômes (1962) but was most evident in Chamade (1969) which introduced a whole new Guerlain femininity, luminous and free-spirited.
7. Online amateur reviews of vintage Guerlains are sometimes misleading, or biased at best, due to the fact that an old bottle of a discontinued perfume can never be tested against an authentic, fresh product. Often, a perfume review of a vintage is based on juice that is either reformulated or even counterfeit, or whose scent has changed more or less with age. To experience the real thing, one cannot avoid taking a trip to Paris. Read more about vintage Guerlain
Sous le Vent and Atuana — Jacques Guerlain's exotic islands
Europe's fascination with exotic places was linked to the colonial era, and peaked with the invention of air travel. The foreign world has made people dream of exciting dangers, untamed instincts and the beauty of the unknown, and it was all reflected in the arts, in nightlife entertainment, and in fashion and perfumery. Guerlain is known for its lifelong passion for faraway territories (the annals document a formula called Bouquet Indien as early as in 1834), but the Guerlain exoticism was really set in motion during Les Années Folles, with perfumes like Mitsouko, Shalimar, Djedi and Liu, and later Vol de Nuit (which was launched the same year as Air France, by the way, in 1933).
In 1934, Jacques Guerlain created Sous le Vent. He was particularly taken by green perfume notes during those years and envisioned a perfect illustrative setting in the tropical Leeward Islands (Îles Sous le Vent), a French Caribbean colony — "greener than one can imagine," as said Guerlain, quoting the Guadeloupe-born poet Saint-John Perse. Sous le Vent was one of the new "garçonne" fragrances, and Jacques Guerlain dedicated it to Josephine Baker, the very exotic cabaret dancer from St. Louis who obtained fame in Paris. Beside the typical Jacques Guerlain touch of orris, animal musk, jasmine and carnation, the perfume featured a pronouncedly fresh bouquet of Provençal herbs together with galbanum and dry chypre notes of bergamot, oakmoss, vetiver and patchouli. When Guerlain reissued Sous le Vent as EdT in 2006, it became an instant "unisex vintage hit" among Guerlain lovers.
Now that Maison Guerlain has invited us to discover a long list of old Jacques Guerlain creations, we learn that his catalogue included one more "exotic island" perfume, namely Atuana from 1952. It was inspired by Gauguin's portrait paintings from French Polynesia, and the scent interestingly has much in common with Sous le Vent. Atuana is overall not as dry, green and breezy as Sous le Vent, but it would nowadays be categorized as a masculine fougère, with herbaceous and forest-like notes of lavender, basil, patchouli, moss, vetiver and leather, along with an accord of jasmine and fresh rose.
A trip to Paris is highly recommended for those who want to know more about the Jacques Guerlain universe than what his utmost classics can tell. Read more about vintage Guerlain
Mouchoir de Monsieur, now and then
Recently, Guerlain lovers have been invited to discover what is generally considered a lost part of Guerlain’s creative history. Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone have undertaken the immense task of deciphering old formulas and tracking down raw materials that nowadays are either very rare or not allowed in commercial fragrances. The result so far is twelve re-created vintage Guerlain perfumes, to be discovered at Maison Guerlain, covering mainly the work of Jacques Guerlain. Out of his vast perfume production of 400 formulas, only the six greatest have remained in the sales catalogue, namely Mouchoir de Monsieur, Après l’Ondée, L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar and Vol de Nuit. To many Guerlain fans, these perfumes represent the core of Guerlain’s olfactive signature, the so-called Guerlinade, which was initiated by Aimé Guerlain’s Jicky. Long-time Guerlainophiles are also painfully aware of decades of compulsory reformulations and adjustments that have blurred the historical accuracy, but Maison Guerlain’s re-created oldies confirm that all of Jacques Guerlain’s perfumes were worked around the same rich mixture of leather, amber, powder and animal tinctures. The defining quality seemed merely about turning up or down the floral versus the leather aspect, and deciding whether it should be a chypre or an oriental.
Mouchoir de Monsieur always stood out as special in the Jacques Guerlain repertoire, his only masculine fragrance. It was kept a secret for many years, but after its general release in 1989, it has been known as a prototypical fougère, transforming Jicky into a gentlemen's scent by adding lots of fresh rosy geranium and puffy musk. Upon smelling Maison Guerlain’s vintage version of Mouchoir de Monsieur, however, we learn that in Jacques Guerlain’s mind it didn’t deviate much from what else he did. Like all of his works, he saw it as a Parfum, floral, ambery and animalic at its core. Up top, we get the familiar herbaceous freshness of bergamot and aromatics, but soon after follow pronounced "feminine" notes of rose and jasmine accompanied by deer musk, civet and amber. At the drydown we also sense a hint of the woody-mossy facet we know from modern Mouchoir de Monsieur, but in Jacques Guerlain's vintage Parfum formula, it succumbs to the floriental warmth and softness. This level of muskiness is simply not possible in today's masculine perfumery. It’s interesting to learn that neither Voilette de Madame nor Jicky, often seen as the female counterparts to Mouchoir de Monsieur, strike us as more feminine than vintage Mouchoir de Mouchoir. It once more confirms that deep down, gender is not a big concern chez Guerlain. Read more about Mouchoir de Monsieur
Three examples of what money can do: vintage reissues (Liu in 1994), new styles, new perfumers (Olivier Cresp's Champs-Elysées in 1996), and semi-bespoke, limited edition creations (Guerlinade in 1998).
Twenty years with LVMH
In 2014, it has been twenty years since Guerlain entered the luxury group LVMH. LVMH was formed in 1987 from the merger of Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy, and today the company has more than sixty brands in its portfolio, covering all sorts of luxury goods from wines and spirits to fashion, perfumes and jewellery. The brands function as subsidiaries but are each considered as firms with their own familial history and independent management. In 2013, LVMH’s sales mounted to 29 billion €, and its net profit continues to grow each year. Big public limited companies are generally regarded as concerned only with profit, and to many long-time Guerlain followers the sale of Guerlain to LVMH felt like the end of civilization. It has often been argued that a multinational, multi-brand company would be unable or unwilling to keep up the creative quality and integrity of such a historic, family-run perfume house. Also, the very restrictive safety norms of LVMH on perfume ingredients have been a worry.
However, Guerlain faced a hard time around 1990. None of its 1980s releases could match the success and glory of its heyday. Guerlain had begun to loose its grip on the rapidly expanding perfume market, and even on its loyal fanbase, and it struggled to find a satisfying balance between tradition, innovation and current taste. The then president of Guerlain’s supervisory board, Jean-Pierre Guerlain, argued that the future in a more and more competitive industry would be best assured within a wealthy and powerful group, and it was finally decided to hand over Guerlain to LVMH in 1994.
According to the CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, the luxury group is built on a philosophy of shared advantages, where the strongest brands help financing those that are growing. The business plan of LVMH aims to heighten the perception of luxury relating to the products it represents.
Helped by the influx of LVMH funds, Guerlain has been able to slowly restore its image as prestigious and timeless. In a world overloaded with goods and design, this kind of work is extremely costly, and for Guerlain the advantage has been the following: the development and worldwide promotion of a new olfactive style that respects both history and the diversity of contemporary trends, reissues from the vintage catalogue, semi-bespoke limited editions in deluxe presentations, entire perfume collections, two renovations of Maison Guerlain, several new boutiques, and a large-scale Shalimar film, just to name the essentials. No one knows what would have become of Guerlain without being under the LVMH umbrella.
La Petite Robe Noire Couture
The idea of putting fruit into a chypre perfume has been around since Mitsouko (1919) and praised for its beauty ever since. The reverse gesture, putting chypre into a fruity perfume, sounds just as alluring, and that is what Thierry Wasser has done with La Petite Robe Noire Couture. Since its worldwide launch in 2012, La Petite Robe Noire has been Guerlain’s absolute bestseller, the reason being not only a very successful ad campaign but also the fact that it is a gorgeous fruit-and-rose Guerlinade macaron of a fragrance, easily the best thing Guerlain has done since Insolence EdP. La Petite Robe Noire almost begged for a flanker to come out, and reworking it with a chypre accord (moss, patchouli, vetiver and extra bergamot) makes perfect sense. Of course we’re talking modern chypre (think Idylle), not Mitsouko’s spicy floor-wax chypre, but my goodness, it smells good!
For the first twenty minutes we seem to register only La Petite Robe Noire, the brilliant mix of bergamot, red fruit, rose, and licorice, yet the opening is even more sparkling than we're used to, with the tangy cool raspberry of Insolence fame. And then we get the main difference: the musky macaron, maybe too gourmand to some, doesn’t unfold as boldly as in the original, and La Petite Robe Noire Couture takes on a drier, darker and more elegant style, "an evening gown," as Thierry Wasser puts it. This Couture version will probably not convert those who didn’t like La Petite Robe Noire in the first place, but La Petite Robe Noire has met some very serious competition. Read more about La Petite Robe Noire
The pitfalls of buying vintage perfumes
Perfume enthusiasts increasingly seem to express dissatisfaction with modern perfumery. The main complaints are that it’s too commercialized and too constrained by so-called health restrictions on raw materials, leaving only room for a pale shadow of the fine art and science that perfumery once was. Consequently, the interest in vintage perfumes has increased considerably during the last few years, and so have their prices. Half a decade ago, you would be able to come home with a bottle of the discontinued Après l’Ondée perfume for 200 Euros — which would just be the starting bid today. Sadly, the heightened interest and demand has meant that more sellers of vintage perfumes now offer counterfeit products, selling what appear to be genuine bottles with fake contents. Here are the most common pitfalls when buying a vintage perfume:
1. The bottle is unsealed. Vintage perfumes are generally factory sealed with a cord, and if the cord is missing or has been broken, it’s not unlikely that the original contents have been been replaced or diluted.
2. Even a sealed bottle can have counterfeit contents. Some sellers are able to track down separate seal cords, and even name labels, and then put them onto original bottles filled with counterfeit contents. Look out for cords, labels or liquid looking newer than what the bottle is described as, or a seeming age mismatch between cord, label and liquid.
3. It’s not rare to find factory sealed bottles that are actually dummy bottles with coloured alcohol meant for shop display. Most dummy bottles have the stopper glued into the bottleneck. While bottles with true perfume always bear a small factory batch code sticker (made of either paper or clear plastic) under their bottoms, dummy bottles do not, so watch for a missing bottom sticker. Also, dummy bottles don’t have logo and company printed boxes, so look out for the perfume box missing. Some dummies have the word "dummy" or "factice" inscribed on the bottom, but not all do.
4. Apart from amending the bottle's contents, some sellers inflate the price by describing the bottle as a Baccarat crystal bottle, when it's actually simple glass. Look for the etched Baccarat stamp on the bottom. Beside the stamp, a Baccarat bottle also carries a number that corresponds to a number etched into the end of the bottle stopper. This practice is due to the fact that the bottle neck and stopper are individually ground to ensure a hermetic fit (that said, crystal bottles tend to suffer more from evaporation than glass bottles with plastic covered stopper ends).
It should be noted that vintage perfumes sold from esteemed auction houses, where objects are evaluated by an expert, are less likely to be counterfeit than those found on internet sites or flea markets.
(January 2014, photos from eBay for illustrative purpose only)
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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