Family: floral, oriental
Notes: bergamot, mandarin, Bulgarian rose, Provence rose, hyacinth, peach, passion fruit, cyclamen, tonka bean, sandalwood, patchouli, balsamic notes, vanilla
Rose on fire
Period: The equality years
Nahéma is Guerlain's "big rose". It came strikingly late, considering the rose's emblematic position in the Guerlinade, and in perfumery overall. Jean-Paul Guerlain said he imagined this perfume after seeing French actress Catherine Deneuve surrounded by rosebuds in the 1968 film "Benjamin: the Diary of an Innocent Boy". (He didn't seem disturbed by the fact that she also was the face of Chanel No.5 in the 1970s.) The name Nahéma is taken from Persian queen Scheherazade's tale in "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights" about twin princesses with equal looks but contrasting personalities. The first, Mahane, was gentle and modest, she accepted life as it was, and was soon happily married. She was "the daughter of water". The second, Nahema, was "the daughter of fire", restless, headstrong and desirous. Scheherazade asked the reader: "Which of these two princesses wouldst thou have chosen?" Of course Jean-Paul Guerlain chose the fiery one as the inspiration for his perfume. As a passionate cultivator of eighty varieties of roses, the queen of all flowers and Jean-Paul Guerlain's favourite perfume ingredient ("because it possesses around a thousand different fragrances"), he decided that Nahéma should feature the rose as its key note, in the rich manner of Middle Eastern perfumes but overlaid with a French touch of sophistication.
Normally, a perfume acts like an explosion, climax right after ignition and then fadeout. Arranged in this way, a rose fragrance can become wearisome. Instead, Jean-Paul Guerlain became inspired by composer Maurice Ravel's erotically Spanish-Arabic Boléro, feeling that its incessant ostinato rhythm and its melody that builds up like a fire in a long steady crescendo, symbolized what he had in mind. "I wanted the rose to repeat its theme, again and again, a rose and a rose and a rose," related Jean-Paul Guerlain, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein's famous poem. What Jean-Paul Guerlain managed to do was to stretch the perfume's counterpoint over the entire development. For this effect, he used not only rose absolutes and essential oils in very high doses, but also the newly invented damascenones which add a potent scent of rose with a bright and burning dried-fruit sensation. He later revealed it took him nine hundred attempts to devise a satisfactory composition smelling more and more of rose as you wear it, a voluptuous, symphonic fantasy rose, fruity, citrusy, peppered, and remarkably fresh given the richness of the formula. Up top, it had a green, intoxicating hyacinth note, then tangerine, peach, and passion fruit to give a tangy nip. The base was warm and smouldering with balsams, patchouli and sandalwood.
Guerlain's spiciest perfume since L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko, Nahéma was a huge rose fragrance whose commercial success was considerably smaller, not least due to a completely inadequate ad campaign. Many found the scent "un-Guerlain" as it was maybe too powerful a rose to allow people to grasp the oriental Guerlinade undercurrent. Its poor reception pained Jean-Paul Guerlain, for Nahéma was his proudest work: "Nahéma created a rupture with the existing perfumes, and I'm all the same happy to smell some 'little brothers' in certain of my competitors' creations. I think Nahéma needs time. But a perfume's success must be immediate, because the investments are enormous," he wrote in his 2002 autobiography. Now that Nahéma has had that time, it stands as so much the more timeless, the mother of the countless fruity-floral fragrances that followed in its wake. Sadly, Guerlain has chosen to discontinue the Parfum version of Nahéma as of January 2016.
Bottle. Nahéma came in a tiny horseshoe-shaped bottle before it was housed in Robert Granai's alchemist's bottle with the pedestal and ball-shaped stopper, a perfect design way ahead of its time. The somewhat technical look was meant to communicate how elaborate and far removed from any rose cliché the perfume was, "a concentrate of rose in its pure state," as Jean-Paul Guerlain declared. This too echoed the concept of Ravel who preferred the ballet stage setting to be a factory rather than a charming tavern, in order to reflect the mechanical nature of the music. The almost invisible teardrop in the body of the Nahéma bottle symbolized pure emotion, something which Jean-Paul Guerlain always believed was the defining factor of a grand perfume (and perhaps referred to the passionate personality of Nahema, the princess). A variant of the alchemist bottle was made for the Parfum de Toilette along with metal canisters decorated with a stylized fire motif. After 1992, Granai's presentation was replaced by the quadrilobe bottle. In 2016, the EdP is transferred to the standard bee atomizer.
EdP, Parfum. Nahéma was the first Guerlain to be issued in the EdP format, back then termed Parfum de Toilette or PdT, a new product that sought to combine the weight of Parfum with the radiance of Eau de Toilette in order to meet the eighties' demand for more powerful scents. (The older classics had to wait a further few years to be reissued in this new concentration.) Nahéma EdP starts succulently oozy, from there just getting spicier and rosier by the hour. In the Parfum concentration everything is simply multiplied several times, a burning, compressed core of pink, juicy rose and spicy amber.
Reformulation. The Guerlain perfumers are generally obsessed with the quality of the raw materials they procure, and when it comes to rose, they want the Bulgarian variety, a preference handed down from Jacques Guerlain through Jean-Paul to Thierry Wasser. Jean-Paul Guerlain explains that when Bulgaria was locked into the Eastern Bloc after World War II, Bulgarian rose became unavailable, and he had to use Turkish roses, regarded as less supreme. The fall of the Communist regime around 1990 meant that Guerlain was able to get rose from Bulgaria again, and Jean-Paul Guerlain decided that all his existing formulas should be revised with this treasured essence. A layperson probably wouldn't be able to detect the difference though, given Guerlain's renowned efforts to maintain uniformity in its material blends across various harvests, the so-called "communelles".
We love: the Parfum
A sensuality as big as Shalimar, but more inviting
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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