Family: chypre, fruity
Notes: bergamot, peach, jasmine, Provence rose, lilac, pepper, cinnamon, orris, oakmoss, labdanum, patchouli, ambergris, vetiver, wood, musk, amber
Period: The orientalist years
Mitsouko was the first successful chypre fragrance after Chypre de Coty from 1917. The latter had amazed perfumers and customers alike with its radical way of presenting flowers as severely trim and almost un-floral, employing dry, "masculine" notes like bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli, vetiver, labdanum and wood. It was a break with femininity as romantic. Coty's novel creature was perhaps too bare and unsweetened for Jacques Guerlain who, or so says the myth, subjected it to the Guerlain treatment and came up with Mitsouko's famous accord two years later. However, some chroniclers suggest evidence that he had been working on the accord for several years before Coty's 1917 introduction, and much of it was already there in Parfum des Champs-Elysées (1904).
Mitsouko demonstrated one of the very first uses of synthetic peach aroma — the aldehyde C14 — in a perfume, which harmonized the pitchy chypre base with a bright, velvety fruitiness. Add to that first what had become Jacques Guerlain's trademark touch, lots of orris, that brandied lipstick note half flower, half root, then jasmine, delicate Provence rose, lilac, cinnamon, pepper and a soupçon of vanilla, and you get something concurrently earthy, luminous, mellow, spicy, and soft. "The imaginary scent of a woman's skin," said Jacques Guerlain. A seemingly unworkable combination of sunny peaches and black compost, it was a phenomenal scent, balanced at some precise point between pharmaceutics and Viennese pastries, at once so unfamiliar and self-evident as if it had existed forever and just waited for an ingenious expert to excavate it from deep archaeological layers. These same qualities could be said about L'Heure Bleue too, but Mitsouko was utterly different from L'Heure Bleue's sweet, powdery serenity. Its androgyny spoke directly to the new daring garçonnes like an adieu to the Belle Époque and its picturesque florals. At least as strange as it is sensual, as peculiar as it is pretty, both bad-tempered and beautiful, the scent feels to some even disquieting, or at least an acquired taste, sometimes likened to floor wax. Fans, on the other hand, will go through fire and water for their wondrous "Mitsy". Perfume pundit Luca Turin, one of its biggest admirers, calls it nothing less than "the best perfume ever." Exemplary for its short, simple and refined formula, Mitsouko is still today recognized as the quintessential chypre, although technically it's not a true chypre, but a fruity chypre. "The composition of Mitsouko is very concise, which is also true for Nahéma," explained Jean-Paul Guerlain. "Each of them holds twelve materials. It's not the number of ingredients that makes the value of a perfume."
The name was borrowed from the heroine Mitsouko in Claude Farrère's novel "La Bataille" about the love affair between a British naval officer and the wife of a Japanese admiral during the Russo-Japanese War. Like so many Europeans in the colonial era, Jacques Guerlain was enthralled by the mystique of the Far East, or at least the French vision of it, and he wanted to repay Farrère for having mentioned Jicky in his book "Fumée d'Opium". The author was during his lifetime much honoured for novels set in such exotic locations as Istanbul, Saigon, and Nagasaki, but now little known outside the Guerlain fan base. Although Mitsouko is one of Guerlain's best-selling fragrances in Japan, there's nothing Japanese about it, not even its name. Common perfume lore wants us to believe that Mitsouko means "mystery". However intriguing this may sound, it's erroneous. Mitsuko is a typical Japanese girl's name signifying approximately "bright child", and because the phonetic u-sound is spelled "ou" in French, Farrère put it as "Mitsouko". Too bad, really: we have just learned to perceive Mitsouko as "mysterious", on account of its high level of abstraction.
Bottle. Due to a bottle shortage after the war, Guerlain reused L'Heure Bleue's design for Mitsouko, the so-called heart-shaped stopper bottle. Taken together, the two identical bottles are said to mark the beginning and end of World War I respectively, like a pair of bookends. On a side note, the annals recount how Jacques Guerlain fought at the front from where he returned with an injured eye.
Parfum, EdT, EdP. Mitsouko's fragrance varies considerably in its different concentrate formats. If Mitsouko were a fine French wine, the Parfum would equal a straight-backed dry Pauillac, the EdT a young Alsace Riesling, and the EdP an oaked Chardonnay. One of Guerlain's most tenacious fragrances, Mitsouko Parfum stays close to the skin, not opening with the EdT's hesperidic shimmer, and it develops slowly and meticulously with a focus on the deeper notes, a lingering smoulder of distilled underground roots, petrolic citrus, jasmine-rose, aromatic resins, and spices. In principle, the EdT looks into the same substance but is much more transparent, jumping from vivid neroli and crisp peach to dulcet orris and wood, with an almost metallic floral middle. Mitsouko the serious was never meant to be loud, but the 1980s demanded point-blank stuff. With a little help from modern chemistry, namely the hedione molecule isolated from jasmine, the Parfum de Toilette (PdT, now called EdP) from 1987 managed to add power without compromising on seriousness. The idea of the PdT format was to combine the richness of a Parfum with the radiation of an EdT, and Mitsouko PdT emphasized all layers of citrus, fruit, coarsely ground pepper, a full-on jasmine and rose heart, and robust patchouli and oakmoss, arranged and dosed to smell simultaneously ablaze and mouldy. Still, some find that Mitsouko's unique coalescence of depth and subtlety is by far found best in the Parfum.
Reformulation. Since its conception in 1919, the inner life of Mitsouko has puzzled many a perfume lover, proving to be as difficult to get hold of as the scent itself. From decade to decade, Mitsouko has never smelled exactly the same, and even bottles of the same vintage can vary slightly in fragrance. Some bottles smell mossy-dusty and resinous, others seem powdery, some have an abysmal velvet texture, others are medicinally absinthal and spicy. Some smell like candied fruit and overripe jasmine, some appear pine-smoked and leathery. Part of the variance is no doubt caused by ageing and oxidation of the juice. Among all the Guerlain perfumes, Mitsouko is perhaps the one that ages least gracefully. Like any chypre composition, it doesn't withstand the ravages of time, oxygen, light and heat; if kept for too long, the fragrance tends to turn stale and acrid. Mitsouko's body and soul is comprised of bergamot, whose scent will simply fade with age, and therefore, without the invigorating odour of fresh bergamot, old bottles often smell strangely flat and lifeless. The first fifteen minutes can be promising, but as the bergamot has weakened, it soon dissipates, leaving a large void in the scent. Mitsouko doesn't have an oriental composition's high level of balsamic base notes to compensate, so all we may smell then is dusty moss and soured herbs and flowers. Of course the harm of ageing is a continuum from the deterioration of only the most transitory top notes, to spoiled all the way through. Read more about perfume ageing
Nevertheless, it can't be denied that Mitsouko has been reformulated more than once during its existence, a subject heavily debated and feared among its loyal followers. Reformulations are a fact of life that occurs to agree with new IFRA decrees and changes in the supply of raw materials.
The most drastic reworking concerned IFRA restrictions on some of the very crucial ingredients in Mitsouko: oakmoss, musk, and bergamot. Let's look at these one by one. Raw bergamot oil, with its complex facets of sweet mandarin, petroleum and dark earth, is a keynote in the scent of Mitsouko. Sadly, the material is photosensitive and can leave rashes and blemishes on the skin when exposed to sunlight. Chemically purified, IFRA-safe bergamot smells quite one-dimensional in comparison. Next, oakmoss, the barky, damp, animalic lichen note so defining of the chypre character, gives a natural softness to any composition, like a deep breath of sea fog, penetrating and warmly grey. By contrast, oakmoss substitutes often smell sharp and yeasty. And finally musk, a standard Jacques Guerlain ingredient. He used musk in all of his perfumes, as it adds fluidity, warmth, puffiness, and a rich, melting sensation to the entire composition. The white musk used in perfumery today smells completely different, with a clean, dry and cold effect.
Governed by strict, bureaucratic safety norms, the entire Guerlain universe actually seems impossible, but since Guerlain without Mitsouko is even more impossible, a reformulation was mandatory. Afterwards, Mitsouko suddenly felt flatter, drier and simpler. "It still smells great," concluded the otherwise fastidious Luca Turin, clearly breathing a sigh of relief, and sure, you couldn't mistake it for anything but Mitsouko, at least when smelled from a distance. But Guerlain fans were furious, and it didn't end until Thierry Wasser announced that he had finally, after a long, painstaking search, been able to source a new kind of oakmoss extract freed of the specific molecules prohibited by IFRA. "Robertet makes some oakmoss and tree moss without any of the nasty, naturally occurring molecules. 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," Thierry Wasser explains. "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."
Thierry Wasser also revealed that he had been doing improvements on several other materials, notably bergamot and musk. In 2013, he moreover completely reformulated the EdP version of Mitsouko, which he thought wasn't on a par with the Parfum and EdT. Guerlain has three different formulas for Mitsouko Parfum, EdT and EdP. Mitsouko EdP received Olfactorama's Prix du Patrimoine Olfactif for best reformulation of 2013. Wasser's efforts paid off, restoring Mitsouko almost to its former glory, rounded and rich.
By the end of 2015, the Parfum and EdP versions of Mitsouko and L'Heure Bleue 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 Mitsouko, 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 Mitsouko and L'Heure Bleue 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 Mitsouko and L'Heure Bleue, Jacques Guerlain's most classic of his classics, seems inconceivable.
An unintended effect of the change may be that Mitsouko, 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 Mitsouko!
So, what are the tell-tales of which formulation you've got? Of course, the connoisseur can always smell to tell, but she would want to know what's inside the bottle without breaking its cord seal. In Mitsouko's case, that's about as complex as rocket science and requires a detective's skills. For three reasons. 1) The reformulations were not in sync with modifications of packaging design or any other visual signs. 2) Guerlain doesn't replace one formulation with a new one until existing stock of bottles or barrels has been depleted. This means that reformulations of the various scent concentrations, EdP, EdT and Parfum, were not launched, or even batch-coded, at the same time. 3) The trickiest reason is that reformulations seem to have happened little by little. Some bottles smell like a half-and-half mixture of old and new, while others have no trace of the old left. It's possible that piecemeal mutation is a deliberate act to make reformulations appear less obvious. Read more
Variations. To have a frivolous flanker capitalize on Mitsouko, grande œuvre d'art from perfumery's golden age, always seemed unthinkable, so when news broke in 2009 that it was finally going to happen, it spelled trouble. Guerlain had probably foreseen this so it was limited to the Japanese market. Jean-Paul Guerlain wanted to mark Mitsouko's 90th birthday with a one-off "Fleur de Lotus" edition, and he humbly abstained from changing much in his grandfather's old masterpiece except to incorporate a tender spring flower note, tailored to East Asia's taste for everything mild and light. The few Western Mitsouko aficionados allowed to smell it had to admit the water-green lotus was a lovely, even if not trailblazing, companion to the legendary autumnal formula.
We love: the latest reformulation, Parfum or EdP
When you are dressed to the nines but want to maintain the intellectual atmosphere
An indispensable chypre, wear it for its uncompromising and ambiguous beauty
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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