Family: floral, oriental
Notes: anise, bergamot, orange blossom, heliotrope, tuberose, carnation, violet, jasmine, Bulgarian rose, tonka bean, orris, benzoin, vanilla, musk
Period: The Belle Époque years
L'Heure Bleue collection
Very descriptive of its alluring pastry scent, heliotrope is also called "cherry pie plant". Jacques Guerlain used the scent of this flower, beside violet and orris, in several of his early twentieth century perfumes, each a variation of the same powdery confection theme. Of these, the innovative floral-oriental L'Heure Bleue from 1912, influenced by François Coty's spicy-sweet L'Origan and his own Après l'Ondée, has become a truly distinctive classic, created in tribute to the impressionist paintings its perfumer avidly collected. The name L'Heure Bleue (meaning "the blue hour") was a reference to the special hour at dusk on hushed, cloudless summer evenings when the light seems warmly blue and soft, the noise of the world is muted, and the smell of flowers reaches its peak.
The fragrance is particularly admired for its olfactive transcription of a flickering, diffuse and emotionally charged sensation, the Impressionists' speciality. According to the Guerlain annals, Jacques Guerlain wanted to capture the entrancing Parisian ambiance he found during his evening walks along the Seine. "I felt something so intense," he reportedly said, "I could only express it in a perfume." One sees why it became his wife Lily's lifelong signature scent. Composed two years before the outbreak of World War I, L'Heure Bleue also evokes the sweetness of a romantic prewar Paris, before darkness descended upon the city. To create this romantic feeling, Jacques Guerlain eagerly experimented with cutting-edge technology, all the modern synthetics that opened the perfumer's way to new levels of abstraction and depth, and L'Heure Bleue was the first Guerlain perfume, if not the first perfume altogether, to incorporate aldehydes, a subliminal amount to lift the natural notes.
Albeit much akin to Après l'Ondée in its soft-focus almond core, L'Heure Bleue was less bright, much intenser, and full of contrasts. If Après l'Ondée simulated a watercolour, then L'Heure Bleue was an oil on canvas with body and gloss. "Jacques Guerlain dosed musk and Bulgarian rose," Guerlain's 150th anniversary book said about L'Heure Bleue, "and tempered their accords, a bit too fiery, by the calmer beauty of orris and heliotrope to which he added the scent of humid earth." It had sweet flowers of narcotic and "nocturnal" natures, stretched out between the spicy medicinal glow of anise, carnation and orange blossom, and a musky balsamic plushness, reminiscent of hazelnut ganache and glove leather, that both enhanced Jicky's gourmand base and anticipated the sensual oriental accord of Shalimar. Smelled up close, it had the same delightful effect as marshmallow and a Moroccan spice market, marrying the honeyed sunniness of orange blossom with the aroma of baked sugar, almonds and clove — the accord of orange blossom and benzoin-vanilla, termed the "marshmallow" accord by Sylvaine Delacourte, is one of Guerlain's most addictive inventions. Smelled from a distance, L'Heure Bleue left a remarkable, agelessly glamorous trail by its wearer, at once very feminine and very forceful.
Because L'Heure Bleue is so pronouncedly powdery, it is today primarily celebrated as a nostalgic perfume, probably explaining why most people think it exudes melancholy. What Jacques Guerlain meant to express, though, was a sense of serene happiness, represented by the magical stillness of the twilight hour. Indeed, there was something arrestingly hypnotic and dreamy about L'Heure Bleue's floral tableau. Being one of Guerlain's crown jewels, L'Heure Bleue has left traces in several contemporary fragrances like Insolence, Iris Ganache, Quand Vient la Pluie and Mon Précieux Nectar. The 100th anniversary of L'Heure Bleue in 2012 was celebrated with a reinterpretation by Thierry Wasser, an EdP named L'Heure de Nuit.
As a historical footnote, Thierry Wasser recounts how Jacques, at the age of forty, was called to join the army to fight in the war. While serving he was wounded in the eye, and so returned home. Once back in Paris, he began to send small presents to the battlefront to heighten the morale of the French soldiers. These parcels contained warm clothes, canned food, and a bottle of L'Heure Bleue that should provide a bit of female compassion to the dismal trenches.
Bottle. L'Heure Bleue's bottle, called the heart-shaped stopper bottle, is one of Guerlain's most symbolic and enduring presentations. Influenced by the prominent Art Nouveau design movement which celebrated nature's sinuous forms, the bottle featured flowing lines and curvilinear shoulders. As such, the bottle conveyed the angelic grace of the prewar times, even though it was reused for Mitsouko after the war. For many years, the designer and executer of the bottle, Baccarat glassworks, catalogued it as the "gendarme hat bottle" because the stopper appeared to resemble a French policeman's hat, but the official inspiration is that of a heart, very suggestive of the Belle Époque's refined romanticism and optimism. The perfume box had chinoiserie-style drawings of various farming motifs, like sowing, harvesting and fishing, portraying the artisan's love of nature's produce. The spray version of the heart-shaped stopper bottle came out in 1995 and has since then been used for a number of different scents in limited editions. Unlike the quadrilobe bottle, however, the heart-shaped stopper bottle was never considered a standard bottle.
Guerlain has given new life to the venerable L'Heure Bleue bottle as the bottle of La Petite Robe Noire (which, by the way, had its international début exactly one hundred years after L'Heure Bleue).
Parfum, EdT, EdP. The L'Heure Bleue Parfum is the most delicious, magnetizing thing ever to come out of the Guerlain patisserie. It's infinitely spicy-sweet and velvety with the rich flowers evolving only slowly, sedately, and muffled by orris and cushiony balsam and musk all along, literally a gourmand. Less so is the EdP whose spicy carnation strikes sooner. The EdT is a study in the wonders of orange blossom, simultaneously candied and fresh.
Reformulation. Until recently, L'Heure Bleue had suffered surprisingly little from reformulation. Newer batches were not as rich, sparkling and rounded, but Thierry Wasser revealed that he would be doing improvements on several materials, notably bergamot and musk, aiming at a more enveloping feel that more closely resembles the original spirit of L'Heure Bleue.
By the end of 2015, the Parfum and EdP versions of L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko were suspended from production and sale, as Guerlain had encountered a problem with one of their shared ingredients. After being reformulated, the fragrances returned to shops in August 2016. When the suspension was announced, Guerlain explained that while olfactive variations from year to year in raw materials are normal, the lab had detected a change that was too radical to justify further sale of L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko. As a consequence, the brand decided to suspend the production of these fragrances for several months, while Thierry Wasser "puts all his talent and passion into readjusting the formulas of L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko.”
Thierry Wasser has taught us that suppliers of raw materials changing their products is just as frequent a reason to reformulate or discontinue a Guerlain fragrance as are IFRA restrictions. Most of Guerlain's old formulas contain ingredients that can be difficult to obtain nowadays.
From the fact that Guerlain chose to downright suspend the fragrances for months, we can deduce three things: 1) the ingredient in question played a significant role in the compositions, 2) there exists no readily available substitute for this ingredient, i.e. it wasn’t a natural, 3) there's a limit to how much Guerlain wants to compromise on its olfactive patrimony.
Straight from the bottle, whatever is missing or has been substituted is remarkably well camouflaged. You can't mistake this fragrance for anything but L'Heure Bleue, and possibly no one would have paid attention to anything being different if we hadn’t been notified. On the other hand, in perfumery, the devil is in the drydown, where something does appear slightly changed. The overall impression is of a brighter, lighter and softer fragrance, somewhat flatter and less diffusive, and with less density and power in the base.
If we were to guess about what kind of ingredient the whole thing is about, we'd say some leathery material that made L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko glow with smoky, resinous heat for hours on end and gave them their unique balance between pharmaceutics and Viennese pastries. Thierry Wasser evidently did the best he could to heal the integrity of these fragrances, and we're very grateful that Guerlain didn't choose the other alternative, namely to discontinue them altogether. Guerlain without L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko, Jacques Guerlain's most classic of his classics, seems inconceivable.
An unintended effect of the change may be that L'Heure Bleue, with its lighter feel, is now more palatable to the general public. Tastes have changed since Jacques Guerlain was around, and today only a small group of perfume aficionados prefer scents that are “dark”, “smoky” or “vintage”. Let’s hope for a bright new future for L'Heure Bleue!
We love: an old bottle of Parfum, L'Heure Bleue matures wonderfully
Worn with your most expensive clothes
A gourmand's escapism
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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