Notes: bergamot, neroli, verbena, lemon, orange, rosemary, geranium, lavender, mint, absinthe, tuberose, jasmine, rose, cinnamon, sandalwood, cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver, civet, orris, tonka bean, vanilla
Dirty lavender on sweet hay
Period: The Belle Époque years
In 1889, Paris exhibited three impressive constructions that proved the world was new, inventive and daring: the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge, and Jicky. Created for the Exposition Universelle by Aimé Guerlain, Jicky is the world's oldest perfume proper in continuous production yet still today considered by many as being one of the greatest. Now an institution, then a pioneer, it was the first of the modern "abstract" fragrances marked by contrast, depth, and notes quite alien for the time. Aimé Guerlain got the idea of dressing a traditional fresh cologne bouquet of citrus and Provençal herbs (lavender, rosemary, thyme) with three of the earliest synthetic fragrance compounds: linalool (spicy and warm rosewood odour), vanillin (vanilla odour) and coumarin (hay-almond-marzipan odour), the latter under influence of Houbigant's innovative Fougère Royale from 1882. The era of Aimé Guerlain was earmarked by the Industrial Revolution, which benefited both the quality and quantity of Guerlain’s production. While the chemical and synthetic products that were discovered at that time had many skeptics and critics, Aimé Guerlain embraced them as a means of making more persistent and creative perfumes. It wasn't until a new extraction method saw the light in 1873, using solvents instead of steam, which resulted in much more powerful and long-lasting flower extracts termed "absolutes", that traditional perfume making became widely seen as obsolete. In Jicky, Aimé Guerlain added balsamic opoponax and strong animal notes of civet and musk which joined the heavier facet of lavender and the lingering warmth of cinnamon and sandalwood. Jasmine and rose, as well as the minty-rosy geranium, finally lifted it all up and made it shine.
At a time when most perfumes bore names that were descriptive of how they smelled, Aimé Guerlain went against the tide and called it Jicky. We know that Jicky was the nickname of his nephew Jacques Guerlain, but Guerlain attaches a bittersweet love story to the naming. Jicky was the diminutive of Jacqueline, an English girl with whom Aime had fallen in love during his chemistry studies in England but could not pursue due to the disapproval of her family. Reportedly he created Jicky for the memory of his great love.
In her book, Le Roman des Guerlain, historian and perfume expert Élisabeth de Feydeau recounts that Jicky was actually not made by Aimé alone, but was a joint creation between him and his talented 15-year-old nephew, Jacques, whose extraordinary creativity likely contributed a great deal to the final result.
The perfume Jicky might seem like an elementary lavender fragrance, but on closer acquaintance it was complex, architectural, indefinable, and rich in the tiniest detail. Cool and tonic yet sweet, spontaneous yet profound, spicy but softly powdery, both innocent and animalic, it expressed a beautiful, seamless symmetry between refined lady and seductress. Of all its components, coumarin was perhaps the most interesting, due both to its historic newness in the lab and to its crucial role in Jicky's formula. Coumarin is a natural isolate found in tonka bean and in several grasses and plants. Albeit overall sweet-smelling, it has in higher concentrations a biting undertone reminiscent of bitters and petrol, or even glue. This aspect was very present in Jicky, usually striking the novice as odd before settling into a state of pleasurable dependence. The sweet, balsamic drydown of Jicky is what perfumery has termed an amber accord.
Jicky was the antidote to all prior flower-scented waters, coinciding with the beginnings of modern art where the faithful reproduction of nature gave way to impressions of light. Jicky, too, was an abstract creation that appealed to the nose on many levels, not just one, and it initiated the "emotive perfumery", a whole new attitude among perfumers who would from now on try to evoke feelings instead of copying flowers. Because it married herbs with sensual sweetness, and natural notes with synthetics, Jicky is in retrospect referred to as a "bridge scent", a link between the nineteenth century's fresh colognes and the deep oriental perfumes of the twentieth, and a sort of intermediary explanation of how Guerlain came from Eau de Cologne Impériale to Shalimar. In fact, Jicky smelled as if Eau de Cologne Impériale, with its citrus oils, lavender, verbena and rosemary, 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 was phenomenal and has been used by Guerlain ever since. All Guerlain perfumes after Jicky have followed the same basic scheme, later called the Guerlinade, of citrus, Provençal herbs, rose, jasmine, amber, powder, and musky notes.
Considering its very advanced age, it's staggering how relevant Jicky still is to perfumery, an ideal of imagination, balance, drydown technology, and grace. When Jicky first appeared, many women did not accept or understand it — the hint of "unclean" odour was unexpected back in those days, and it started the reputation of Guerlain as ambassador of French sexiness, for courtesans rather than for ladies. In fact, men were the first to appreciate Jicky, and it wasn't until 1912 that women's magazines began to sing its praises. By then, Guerlain had become known as a house of elegance. Today, Aimé Guerlain is acclaimed mainly for this single perfume whose delicious olfactory harmony, without his knowing, was to lay the ground for the influential oriental category of fragrances and be defining for the entire Guerlain style.
Bottle. Jicky originally came in the so-called square bottle, a standard bottle inspired by medicine jars. It's now sold in the quadrilobe bottle which was designed in 1908 by Aimé's brother Gabriel, initially for the perfume Rue de la Paix. The stopper of this bottle looks like a quatrefoil ("quadrilobe" in French) or a champagne cork. The green velvet box and its flowing, plant-like decoration is distinctly Art Nouveau. In the 1930s, Jicky was also sold in the cobalt-blue lantern bottle a.k.a. "the new Jicky bottle". In 2016, the EdT and EdP are transferred to the standard bee atomizer.
Parfum, EdT, EdP. Multifaceted and subtle, Jicky shows a different portrait in each of its concentrations. The Parfum, with its focus on the base notes, is smooth and deep, at moments strangely unassuming like the milky skin of a baby, at others warmly carnal as a woman's body. The EdT is much more open and zippy up top, lightheartedly emanating citrus-soaked purple lavender, herbs and tonka bean, a mixture of sweet pastry and all the smells of Southern France in the summer. If one wants an all-in-one Jicky, the choice is the EdP which has every part fully represented and given off in delectable succession, the woodier and spicier of the three.
Reformulation. Given the fact that Jicky was invented along with the automobile and the light bulb, it's no surprise it hasn't stayed exactly the same. Vintage Jicky was Guerlain's finest example of the use of sandalwood oil in a perfume, glowing and slightly earthy, and Luca Turin remembers the Jicky of his childhood as "raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately" — all those rich animal materials are no longer available to the perfumer. Jicky is now undeniably politer. A side effect of the tidying up is lower tenacity, an oft-heard complaint about today's Jicky.
It's worth seeking out an older bottle of Jicky. Thanks to the balsamic nature of the composition, Jicky is — like Shalimar — one of the few Guerlains that age very well. Read more
We love: the Parfum or PdT from the late 1980s
Cool as the flesh of children
Probably the world's first unisex perfume
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