Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain (1798-1864), founder of the Guerlain dynasty, began his career when he was 19 years old as a perfume and cosmetics sales representative for other houses, both English and French. Originally from the Somme in the Picardy region of northern France, where his father ran a spice and pewter pot trade, he travelled often and learned the importance of product and packaging excellence, customer care and the mechanisms of the export market. "Fame is fleeting, only reputation lasts," he concluded. By this he meant that one should not rest on one's laurels, but constantly seek perfection and refinement. During his studies of chemistry and alchemy in England, he had learned soap fabrication and distillation of flowers, and he now wanted to use his skills to make superior French products, confident that in 1828 the time was right. He established a small factory facility near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and, on the ground floor of the deluxe hotel Le Meurice, which was owned by his uncle, he opened up a shop on the rue de Rivoli. The location was advantageous: this hotel was a favourite with upper-class English visitors who even nicknamed it "City of London", and the travel guides recommended it as being "the most commodious in Paris and particularly adapted for the Englishman". At that time the English were reputed to be the best perfumers in the world, and Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain wanted this to change.
From his shop, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain sold imported soaps and vinegars from the principal English houses, but at the same time he started a manufacture of soaps, creams, lotions and pomades. He also began experimenting with scented colognes, such as Eau de Cologne Supérieure, Eau de Cologne Royale, and in 1830 Eau de Cologne Impériale, a crisp, refreshing scent of citrus notes and Provençal herbs. At that time, perfume chemistry was very basic, offering only simple and fragile extracts from herbs, flowers and citrus fruits. The Guerlain annals describe Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain as a conservative, principled, hard-working man, rigorously insisting on high standards both in terms of raw materials, composition and presentation. "Make good products, never compromise on quality," he admonished his successors. "As for the rest, stick to simple ideas and apply them scrupulously." When his products were rejected by a big Parisian department store in 1842, he decided to control the sale of his wares himself.
Upon presenting his Eau de Cologne Impériale as a wedding gift for Napoléon III and his bride Eugénie in 1853, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain received a diploma for being the official perfumer to her Majesty. This appointment opened the doors to the royal courts, and he soon became a renowned perfumer throughout Europe.
Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain's most important: Eau de Cologne Impériale (1830), Eau de Miel (1828), Eau de Cologne Russe (1850), Parfum de France (1840), Pois de Senteur (1840).
Man of breeding. This double portrait of Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain and his wife Louise was presumably painted around 1840, just after he opened a shop on the prestigious rue de la Paix. His wife died very young in 1841. The couple wore elegant but discreet clothes, typical of the well-to-do bourgeoisie. The "hand-held-in" was a common stance for men of breeding.
Aimé Guerlain (1834-1910), started creating perfumes in 1864. He had spent his youth studying in England, far away from his family. When his father died he was called back to Paris to take over as perfumer. Aimé Guerlain had a true artistic bent, and invented the world's first "abstract" or "emotive" perfume, i.e. a perfume not attempting to faithfully copy the scent of a flower but instead to evoke feelings. He named it Jicky after his 15-year-old nephew, Jacques "Jicky" Guerlain, to whom he later left the title of perfumer. The herbal-balsamic accord of Jicky left its trace in almost every subsequent Guerlain perfume.
Only two of Aimé Guerlain's perfumes have survived the passing of time and tastes, namely Jicky and Eau de Cologne du Coq. Yet Thierry Wasser's reconstruction of some of his forgotten fragrances demonstrates that there is nothing antiquated or dull about his style, marked by the remarkable modernity and freshness we already know from Jicky. His olfactive expression was rather subtle though, at least compared to the dense, opulent perfumes of his successor Jacques Guerlain. Aimé Guerlain really wasn't to blame, as he didn't have the powerful aroma chemicals at his disposal that perfumery later on acquired and utilised. Read more about Aimé Guerlain
Aimé Guerlain's most important: Belle France (1892), Bouquet de l'Exposition (1867), Eau de Cologne du Coq (1894), Eau de Cologne Hégémonienne (1890), Excellence (1890), Fleur d'Italie (1884), Iris Blanc (1889), Jicky (1889), Pao Rosa (1877), Parfum Impérial Russe (1880), Rococo à la Parisienne (1887), Skine (1885).
Jacques Guerlain (1874-1963), nephew of Aimé Guerlain, was creator of abstract, enigmatic perfumes like Après l'Ondée, L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar and Vol de Nuit. He had a remarkable dedication and self-discipline, finishing his first perfume, Ambre, when he was just sixteen years old. Four years later, in 1894, he entered the family business. From there, it's estimated that some four hundred perfumes left his hands, which makes him the most prolific of the Guerlain perfumers. Many of his scents were variations and modifications of each other, or perfumes made by special order for high-society personalities, and most long forgotten. Jacques Guerlain wasn't a socialite and lived only for his hobbies, which were perfume, opera, Impressionist art, horse-racing and gardening. Constantly on the lookout for new ideas, he fed his imagination with everything around him and drawing from the arts: music, literature and painting. Whenever scientists came up with a novel aroma chemical, Jacques Guerlain would immediately go on to experiment with it in new perfume formulas. His son Jean-Jacques, who himself briefly ventured into the creative field with the two floral perfumes Guerlilas and Guerlarose, describes how Jacques usually composed his perfumes in his living room when he came home in the evening, as he found the air in the factory too suffused with fragrance to allow anything else to be smelled. On the other hand, he enjoyed smoking cigars, which gave him time to think while he slowly and carefully inhaled the scent of each of his many perfume blotter strips.
In his time, there was no such thing as a marketing department or an advertising campaign, and perfumery didn't have the commercial constraints and controlled output as it does today. Jacques Guerlain was granted authority to work as an artist or scientist would do, with free reign to follow his instincts and make his discoveries. Almost everything he made was swiftly offered for sale, and he reacted with correspondingly little regret when his less successful fragrances were abandoned. "Natural selection" has narrowed the classic Guerlain catalogue down to seven of his most unique perfumes, which stand as all the more unforgettable, having earned him a reputation of being obsessed with completeness, polish and detail, constantly striving to improve on both his own and other perfumers' work. His signature was the consistent use of Provençal herbs, rich flower absolutes, orris, amber, leather and musk. He was still composing fragrances to a great age and devoted the latter years of his life to training his grandson, Jean-Paul. "Unfortunately for me, I no longer create perfumes for other than old ladies," 80-year-old Jacques Guerlain told his young grandson when he was about to relinquish his position as nose to the next generation. Read more about Jacques Guerlain
In 1905, at thirty-one, Jacques Guerlain married Andrée Bouffet, a Protestant from Lille. For the fair-skinned wife he adored, he created the romantic perfume Après l'Ondée. Nicknaming her Lily, she became his lifelong muse. L'Heure Bleue especially, is known as Lily's signature perfume. Here Lily Guerlain, wearing a golden Delphos gown, is photographed in the couple's Parisian apartment in 1950, five years before Jacques created his final perfume, Ode.
Jacques Guerlain's most important: Après l'Ondée (1906), Atuana (1952), Bon Vieux Temps (1902), Bouquet de Faunes (1922), Cachet Jaune (1937), Candide Effluve (1922), Coque d'Or (1937), Djedi (1926), Eau de Fleurs de Cédrat (1920), Fleur de Feu (1948), Fleur Qui Meurt (1901), Fol Arôme (1912), Guerlarose (1934), Guerlilas (1930), Guerlinade (1924), Le Jardin de Mon Curé (1895), Jasmiralda (1917), Kadine (1911), L'Heure Bleue (1912), Liu (1929), Mitsouko (1919), Mouchoir de Monsieur (1904), Muguet (1908), Ode (1955), Parfum des Champs-Elysées (1904), Quand Vient l'Été (1910), Shalimar (1925), Sillage (1907), Sous le Vent (1934), Véga (1936), Voilà Pourquoi J'Aimais Rosine (1900), Voilette de Madame (1904), Vol de Nuit (1933).
Obituary for Jacques Guerlain in a 1963 issue of L'Officiel de la Mode. "A few years back, Jacques Guerlain had passed on the 'dynastic' torch, his secrets, and his philosophy to his sons, grandsons and nephews, all Guerlains, Jean-Jacques, Marcel, Jean-Paul, Raymond, Jean-Pierre. Thus, from generation to generation, without interruption in 136 years, the Maison maintains its unrivalled renown, showing to the whole world the prestige of French perfumery, which, by the way, has just been adorned with a new flower, Chant d'Arômes, a perfume created by the current Guerlain generation."
Undercover Guerlain noses. While researching the vast vintage Guerlain catalogue, Thierry Wasser was able to reveal that historically, the olfactive creativity of the Guerlain family was not restricted entirely to the appointed master noses, Aimé and Jacques Guerlain. Aimé's brother, Gabriel Guerlain, signed the formula for the amber fragrance Excellence (1890), and Jacques' brother, Pierre Guerlain, was the man behind Rue de la Paix (1908). Also, Jacques' son and eventually the father of Jean-Paul, Jean-Jacques Guerlain, composed the two floral fragrances Guerlilas (1930) and Guerlarose (1934). Finally, Raymond's brother, Jean-Pierre Guerlain, who worked as the brand's manager, created the perfume Loin de Tout (1933), although it's uncertain if his fragrance was ever commercialized.
Jean-Paul Guerlain (born 1937) introduced a very vibrant and bold style to the Guerlain repertoire. As his signature, he replaced his grandfather's musky, powdery palette with more straightforward and luscious portraits of nature's scents. He's particularly renowned as a master of the drydown and for his way of fuelling flowers and wood with various zesty blends of acidulous fruits and citrus oils, often reaching ambrosial heights in his compositions. Like Jacques Guerlain, he didn't hesitate to utilize new aroma chemicals to expand the capacity of nature: hedione and sulfox for the amazing fruity-floral crispness in Chamade, damascenones to push Nahéma's insistent rose, and polysantol which both lifts and deepens the Samsara sandalwood. "This is the difference between a grand perfume and one that only lasts a year: emotion. Inside the elevator that brings a man in love to his girlfriend, he must be touched by the trail of her perfume," he has said. His autobiography, "Les Routes de Mes Parfums," recounts olfactory memories from his childhood, like the constant cloud of Cachet Jaune in his mother's bathroom, her delectable strawberry pies, and the perfume Sous le Vent which haunted him with reveries of ships and faraway islands. He learned perfumery the hard way, first as unskilled worker at the factory in Courbevoie, later as trainee at the side of his mentor and grandfather, Jacques Guerlain.
As a child, Jean-Paul hadn't planned on becoming a perfumer, his elder brother Patrick having been potentially chosen to carry on the family tradition. But over the years, the young Jean-Paul's eyesight deteriorated considerably and his grandfather Jacques decided to take him under his wing and initiate him into the world of perfumes. At age eighteen, a decisive proof of his talent was sealed when he passed the test of imitating the aroma of daffodils for the perfume Vol de Nuit. It won him the title of master perfumer ahead of his older brother, a title traditionally reserved for the firstborn son in the Guerlain order of succession. His first perfume, Ode, was a joint creation with his grandfather, highlighting the two's favourite materials, jasmine and rose.
Jean-Paul Guerlain retired in 2002 as the last Guerlain descendant within the company, his son having chosen law as a profession. "I've created forty-three known perfumes," he said at his retirement, "but this number doesn't represent all of my creations, as I've kept a whole notebook of formulas that will never see the light of day." He continued to work for a few years as a consultant for the brand, and visited the factory once a week to work on his own creations. His role implied no power to make decisions, but the retired Jean-Paul Guerlain was promoted as an ambassador of the Guerlain spirit.
Jean-Paul Guerlain's most important: Arsène Lupin (2010), Chamade (1969), Chant d'Arômes (1962), Coriolan (1998, re-released as L'Âme d'un Héros), Derby (1985), Eau de Guerlain (1974), Guerlinade (1998, new version), Habit Rouge (1965), Héritage (1992), Jardins de Bagatelle (1983), Mahora (2000, re-released as Mayotte), Metallica (2000, re-released as Metalys), Nahéma (1979), Parure (1975), Philtre d'Amour (1999), Plus Que Jamais Guerlain (2005), Samsara (1989), Spiritueuse Double Vanille (2007), Voile d'Été (2000, re-released as Quand Vient l'Été), Vetiver (1959), Vetiver Pour Elle (2004).
A young Jean-Paul Guerlain, working as an apprentice at the Courbevoie factory under the supervision of his teacher and grandfather, Jacques Guerlain.
Jean-Paul Guerlain photographed in the lab in 1965, the year Habit Rouge was launched. The little boy is his son, Stéphane, who didn't pursue his father's profession but instead became a lawyer. Therefore, there was no Guerlain family member to take over as master perfumer when Jean-Paul Guerlain retired in 2002.
Jean-Paul Guerlain accompanying his parents, Jean-Jacques and Nelly Guerlain, to the launch party for Samsara in 1989. Jean-Paul Guerlain once said that he created Parure (1975) for his mother, who loved jewellery, out of childhood memories of her elegance. The word "parure" refers to the matching set of a necklace and earrings adorning women on formal occasions.
Before Parure, Nelly Guerlain's signature fragrance was the unreleased Parfum version of Cachet Jaune, created by her father-in-law Jacques Guerlain the same year Jean-Paul was born, in 1937. "Cachet Jaune was the scent of Jean-Paul Guerlain's childhood," Thierry Wasser recounts. "His parents were often out, and the trail of his mother's perfume after she had put him to bed and kissed him goodnight was a big comfort to him." Thierry Wasser has re-created both Parure and Cachet Jaune Parfum, available to experience at Maison Guerlain's vintage perfume workshops.
Jean-Paul Guerlain is often seen as the brand's last "real artist", because the concept of marketing briefs and panel tests was introduced towards the end of his career. Samsara (1989) was Guerlain's first perfume to be derived from a marketing brief. Being an old-school perfumer, emotional, cultured, a bon vivant, and, "like any artist, slightly choleric," as Guerlain's former artistic director Sylvaine Delacourte put it, he has often declared his dismay about marketing. When an interviewer asked him what he felt about panel tests, he replied, "I like that for laundry detergent brands. Not for perfumery." Historically, the resistance to commercial temptations has been an inherited attitude chez Guerlain. "Guerlain perfumes are still reassuringly unknown," was the catchphrase of an American 1970s ad. However, from Samsara onwards, marketing targets have become a chief motivating force in Guerlain's creativity. Jean-Paul Guerlain's role was reduced to being part of a team when Sylvaine Delacourte became the brand's fragrance evaluator. Héritage (1992) was her first fragrance project with Jean-Paul Guerlain, and after the LVMH takeover she invited other perfumers to become part of the team, like Olivia Giacobetti to make Petit Guerlain. In 1996, for the first time Guerlain's marketing department chose an external perfumer's prototype (Olivier Cresp's Champs-Elysées) over that of Jean-Paul Guerlain's. Subsequently, perfumer Mathilde Laurent created several successful fragrances for Guerlain.
Jean-Paul Guerlain misses the days when creation was not dependent on administrative, budgetary and marketing restraints. "My grandfather, my uncle, my father were never preoccupied with the price of making a perfume. It allowed for much more freedom and we made much better things." The profession has changed considerably according to him, because in his time each reputable house had its own perfumer who entered the work in much the same way one enters a religion. "He lived his life there. Today, perfumers walk around with a lot of formulas which they swap, and I think this has drained every creative effort. All the perfumes in the world are now made by five houses, by talented perfumers, but who don't have the time to work. Creating takes time. You don't make a perfume in three months." (Guerlain now makes approximately one every month.)
The book "Parfums d'Amour" (2010) was Jean-Paul Guerlain's diary about the love affairs and passions that inspired some of his perfumes. "This book was born from a desire to share with you the creative Guerlain philosophy which prefers the human relationship to market analyses," his preface explained. Shortly after the publication, an unfortunate remark with racist connotations, made on French television, forced Jean-Paul Guerlain to give up any connection with the Guerlain company.
In 2014, he was raised to the rank of Commander of the Order of the Star of Comoros by prince Fahmi Saïd Ibrahim for his investment in the archipelago of the Comoros. "The Comoros are big suppliers of raw materials such as frangipani, orange, vanilla. In Mayotte, I had one extraction factory alembics to extract vanilla and ylang-ylang," Jean-Paul Guerlain said.
79-year-old Jean-Paul Guerlain has announced a comeback as a perfume creator, under a new brand named My Exclusive Collection. His first fragrances will be released in 2017. "There is a certain amount of continuity in the signature, however these new fragrances are resolutely modern and original," says Jean-Paul Guerlain. "I wanted to surprise those who followed me for over 40 years, when I was creating perfumes for Guerlain," he adds. “The difference is that the Guerlain house is moving toward more emphasis on marketing, rather than on creativity."
Luxury is something pretty and discreet. 70-year-old Jean-Paul Guerlain talked in 2007 to Comité Français du Parfum. He tells us here why he was the one to create Guerlain's Vetiver. He also reminds us that "luxury is something pretty and discreet. Luxury must not be something brash."
When Jean-Paul Guerlain closed the curtain on an era with his retirement in 2002, Guerlain was left without an in-house perfume creator, and the brand became a melting pot of various external perfumers, coordinated by Sylvaine Delacourte who devised the fragrance briefs. She had by then risen through the ranks to bear the official title of Guerlain's artistic director. "I am what you call a nose," she proclaimed in 2005, and she would often talk about the creations that ensued — L’Instant de Guerlain, Insolence, Cologne du 68, L’Instant Magic, the L’Art & la Matière and Les Elixirs Charnels fragrances, Mon Précieux Nectar, and La Petite Robe Noire — as entirely her own.
From the top, left to right on this photo: Sylvaine Delacourte, Olivier Cresp, Maurice Roucel, Béatrice Piquet, Randa Hammami, Francis Kurkdjian, Sophie Labbé, Olivier Polge, Daniela Andrier, Annick Ménardo, Delphine Jelk and Thierry Wasser. Note the preponderance of women in this group, which is quite a break with the Guerlain tradition of having only men as perfumers. Sylvaine Delacourte says she would have liked to suggest a woman as Guerlain's next master perfumer, but as she wasn't allowed to, she chose Thierry Wasser. However, Guerlain has kept Delphine Jelk as Thierry Wasser's co-perfumer.
When Thierry Wasser entered as Guerlain's in-house perfumer, a confusion about who actually directed whom ensued. Today, Guerlain seems to have openly and completely dismantled the traditional idea of the perfumer as a solo artist, which characterized especially Jacques Guerlain's way of working, stating that the company's olfactive output isn’t attributable to one man’s genius, but to the joint forces of a large, unstructured team of people with various professional backgrounds. Sylvaine Delacourte has said that "a brief can come from the girls in the marketing, from me, from Thierry. No one has the monopoly."
Thierry Wasser (born 1961) was named exclusive perfumer for Guerlain as of June 2008 — the first person ever outside the Guerlain family to be installed in this position. Thierry Wasser was earlier under the fragrance firms Firmenich and Givaudan, when he worked on Iris Ganache and Quand Vient la Pluie for Guerlain. Guerlain's chief executive officer Laurent Boillot assured that Jean-Paul Guerlain, consultant to Guerlain's creations and raw materials, would continue "guiding Guerlain and its new perfumer to ensure the timeless Guerlain signature that is known all over the world since 1828". As well as a mentor and perfume authority, Jean-Paul Guerlain's role has also been much like a father figure to Thierry Wasser who lost his father when he was a child. "Since I found a dad, at almost fifty, I got my childhood back," he confessed in a BBC interview. "To be back in a loving, respecting, admiring relationship is fascinating, and makes me young also. It's very weird. But it's nevertheless how I feel."
Thierry Wasser has carried on Jean-Paul Guerlain's passion for sourcing and selecting high-grade raw materials from around the world, and he has distinguished himself by his affection for leafy greens, wood, praline, orange blossom, and the Bulgarian rose. Compared to his mentor Jean-Paul Guerlain, who liked contrast, vibrancy and colour, Wasser searches for a lighter touch with subtle nuances and fine details, and the common denominator of his Guerlain fragrances so far is a smooth, delicate and very comfortable finish. At the same time, he demonstrates a deep passion for the Guerlain patrimony, constantly trying to keep up the house's classic perfumes despite increasing restrictions on raw materials. Also, he has re-created a large selection of vintage Guerlain perfumes to be discovered at Maison Guerlain's perfume workshops.
To create fragrances, Thierry Wasser is assisted by noses Delphine Jelk and Frédéric Sacone. "There are three noses now at Guerlain," Sylvaine Delacourte has explained, "because Thierry is working a lot. He is developing a lot. We develop about ten perfumes a year, plus the bespoke perfumes, plus the perfumes for the creams and the makeup. So, it's a lot of work. Thierry creates fragrances, plus he has to travel to buy raw materials, and he does the PR, he is the face of Guerlain. He can't do everything, it's not possible." Sylvaine Delacourte launched her own fragrance brand in 2016, declaring that she will not be involved in fragrance development at Guerlain any more.
In 2014, Thierry Wasser was raised to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour, a French order established by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize excellence in contributing to society. The order is the highest decoration in France. The motivation for awarding Thierry Wasser was described as follows: 1) For defending the use of natural raw materials against the European Commission. 2) For contributing to France's worldwide fame through the know-how of Guerlain's perfume art. 3) For helping local communities in foreign countries to develop production of raw materials.
The next generation. BBC followed Guerlain around the time when Thierry Wasser worked on Shalimar Parfum Initial — and suddenly found himself alone on the Guerlain throne.
Disorder in the Guerlain order of succession. While it was the French revolution that triggered the decline of absolute monarchies, the idea of a father at the head of the table with his first-born son next to him, is forever French. In that respect, the Guerlain family is quintessentially French, known as hardworking and conservative, and governed by a patriarchal, almost monarchical system of succession.
Guerlain annals recount that the eldest son inherited the title as master perfumer, while his younger brother managed the company. In reality, however, this law of succession only worked once, namely when Aimé Guerlain (born in 1834) became the second Guerlain perfumer after his father, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain who founded the business. Aimé Guerlain’s younger brother, Gabriel, became the manager. There is one known perfume by Gabriel, though, namely Excellence (1890).
The established line of succession fell apart when Aimé Guerlain’s nephew, Jacques, took over as the third Guerlain perfumer. It was Jacques' older brother Pierre who ended up in the managing role. We can only speculate that Pierre Guerlain simply didn’t posses the talent to be the nose, although he is credited for one Guerlain perfume, namely Rue de la Paix (1908).
The same thing happened with Jacques Guerlain’s successor. According to the rule, it should have been Patrick Guerlain (born 1932), but it was his brother Jean-Paul, five years his junior, who proved to have the right talent.
Jean-Paul Guerlain’s son didn’t wish to be a perfumer, but chose law instead. Patricia de Nicolaï, being the great-granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and Jean-Paul Guerlain’s niece, could have been the fifth Guerlain perfumer, but when the post of nose was vacant she had established her own independent perfume brand. It is unknown if the patriarchy would have considered a woman worthy anyway. When in 2008 Thierry Wasser was named master perfumer for Guerlain, it was the end of 180 years of one family's rule of Guerlain’s savoir-faire.
As a side note, Jean-Paul Guerlain has told us that his grandson Paul Guerlain, who is currently studying perfumery, shows promising talent as a perfumer. So maybe one day we will see another Guerlain descendant as the creator of Guerlain perfumes.
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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