[le dezɛ:r dɔrjɑ̃]
Saffron, rose and dark wood
Period: The recapitulation years
"There has always been a beautiful love story, an undeniable and faithful bond, between Guerlain and the Orient. Superb compositions are the prestigious proof. With the creation of Shalimar (1925), Jacques Guerlain founded the great oriental olfactory family. As rounded as a waltz, it majestically combines the sweet, opiate notes of balms, precious woods and vanilla with flowers and exotic essences to embody the opulence of faraway horizons imbued with mystery... Thierry Wasser, Guerlain's perfumer-creator, wanted to demonstrate this concept in his own way, with sumptuousness and freedom, while giving dazzling expression to the notes that make these lands an inexhaustible source of inspiration." This intriguing description is Guerlain's declaration of how it will enter unexplored territory while celebrating its time-honoured roots with a perfume trio inspired by Middle Eastern perfumery.
The last decade has seen a popularization of the Arab world's ancient scents, as reflected in Serge Lutens' successful Moroccan niche fragrances and oud attars being sold in the West. In 2007, Guerlain jumped on the bandwagon and launched two Orient-themed perfume oils, Oud Sensuel and Garden Sensuel by Randa Hammami, but they weren't very successful. According to Sylvaine Delacourte, former artistic director at Guerlain, Thierry Wasser then "took his time to immerse himself in all of the major releases specially designed for the Middle East. He went there often to interview advisers, clients, experts etc." His new perfumes were premièred at the luxury goods market in the Gulf states, but apart from the use of agarwood, called oud in Arab countries, and the fact that Wasser purposely made them smell very strong to fit the hot Dubai climate, they were only loosely connected to Middle Eastern perfumery. The style was explicitly French, and Les Déserts d'Orient soon found their way to Guerlain's own boutiques.
On the other hand, the trio — completely devoid of powder, vanilla and gourmand plush — didn't attempt to install a new Shalimar oriental. If anything, and just for the sake of discrimination, it gave us a Mitsouko, a Nahéma and a Djedi, with assertive takes on rose, resins, spices and wood, and saffron as a common denominator, more niche-like and less voluptuous than we are used to from Guerlain.
In 2014, Guerlain introduced a less expensive collection of Middle Eastern fragrances, called Les Absolus d'Orient, all based on the very powerful "boisé sec" aroma chemical. Read more
Encens Mythique d'Orient
Family: musky, aldehydic
Notes: saffron, pink pepper, aldehyde, rose, orange blossom, frankincense, ambergris, patchouli, vetiver, cedarwood, moss, musk
Perhaps the most unique of the three, Encens Mythique d’Orient combined the sombre character of vintage musk perfumes with something bright and modern. The name suggested a rendition of incense, but the key note was actually ambergris, the dried grey substance regurgitated by sperm whales. This rare material is renowned in perfumery for its soft, earthy, animalic scent, and Guerlain reportedly made use of the real thing. It seems plausible, because Encens Mythique d'Orient must be Guerlain's most animalic-smelling perfume since Jacques Guerlain passed away. The ambergris was accompanied by musk and traditional chypre notes of patchouli, vetiver and moss, but the true magic and attraction was the way musky darkness was made light and chic by adding saffron, hay-like and slightly bitter and spicy, plus aldehydes, rose, pink pepper, and orange blossom. The result was the familiar beauty of Guerlain, yet with a foreign waft that seemed to place it under distant skies. Read more about ambergris
Rose Nacrée du Désert
Family: floral, woody
Notes: rose, saffron, cardamom, turmeric, oud, cedarwood, benzoin, myrrh
Considering the important role of rose in the art of perfumery, both Western and Middle Eastern, Les Déserts d'Orient must necessarily feature a perfume centred around rose. This was Persian rose, a variety rediscovered by Thierry Wasser and described as more "savage and dark" compared to the Bulgarian one Guerlain normally employs. The start of Rose Nacrée du Désert was the most lifelike, refined rose portrait Guerlain probably has ever done, much like entering a greenhouse full of roses and soil. Fresh roses are much more serene than perfumes generally want us to think, and in that light the word "nacrée", meaning "covered with mother-of-pearl", made sense: Rose Nacrée du Désert showed just how elegant and unruffled this flower can be, as if Wasser wanted to do an aristocrat rose, with the dark natural patina of cardamom, patchouli, myrrh and oud. It also held a drop of benzoin resin, only mildly ambery. In fact, Rose Nacrée du Désert was the sole member of the trio to come anywhere near the oriental olfactory group, and also the most typically Guerlain.
Songe d’un Bois d'Été
Family: leather, woody
Notes: laurel, neroli, jasmine, saffron, patchouli, cedarwood, leather, myrrh
The Guerlain boutique staff judged Songe d'un Bois d'Été would be the least popular of the trio, given its raspy tone of wood, leather and masculinity. In all likelihood, it's for the same reasons that it on the contrary was the first to be sold out: it lacked mass appeal but discerning customers found its dry aquiline sternness interesting and very unlike anything else in the Guerlain catalogue. Its title, typical of the Guerlain idiom, was adapted from Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream", but it actually smelled more like something made for winter, at least when perceived by a European mind. Halfway between wood smoke and sweet herbal potpourri, it mixed neroli, laurel, patchouli, myrrh, and a strong dose of cedarwood, and you felt transported to a sophisticated leather version of the bygone Winter Delice, or the Christmasy New York from the Voyage line. Songe d’un Bois d'Été made an overt statement and seemed to require a particular mood to be fully enjoyed.
Les Déserts d'Orient reprise the deluxe L'Art & la Matière bottle but with a Middle Eastern touch, carrying both French and Arabic spelling of the perfumes' names. Displayed at Maison Guerlain, the latter strikes you as excitingly alien, like an exotic souvenir among comfortable Belle Époque artifacts. The bottle has a gold overlay decoration strung like a beaded curtain with minuscule Guerlain logos inserted as beads.
We love: the mix of French refinement and Middle Eastern mystique
All dark and different
The whole trio is absolutely unisex
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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