Jacques Guerlain 1898
Family: fougère, oriental, powdery
Powdery jasmine rice
Period: The Belle Époque years
Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone have re-created an extensive list of historic Guerlain perfumes, using the exact same ingredients as when they saw the light for the first time.
For the European bourgeoisie, the years around 1900 were a beautiful time. In France called the Belle Époque, the era saw a wealth of technological and artistic progress, and the cultural self-esteem was at its height. Through its enormous colonial empire, France learned about foreign and faraway lifestyles, whose exciting exoticism became popular themes in art, entertainment, and luxury products.
To name a perfume Tsao-Ko was without doubt an example of this, as were several exotically named Guerlain perfumes around that time. Sometimes spelled tsaoko, it's an English transliteration of the Chinese "cáoguǒ", a perennial herb related to the ginger family that grows at high altitudes in Yunnan. It's also called red cardamom, because its reddish pods have a strong earthy-smoky, camphor-like, peppery aroma slightly similar to the widely known green cardamom from India. The herb is used in spicy Sichuan-style dishes, and as an indispensable ingredient in the famous Vietnamese pho soup.
The perfume Tsao-Ko does contain cardamom, but it must be merely a pinch: cardamom and hot spices are not the first things that come to mind when dabbing on the scent. Instead, Tsao-Ko seems to be best described as a powdery fragrance. It's well known that Jacques Guerlain’s way of expressing an idea olfactively was usually nonfigurative and impressionistic — even his Muguet (1908) didn't really smell like lily of the valley. In fact it's possible that Jacques didn't know exactly what the tsao-ko spice smelled like, as he travelled very rarely and never over long distances. Deeply fascinated with the Orient, maybe he just felt inspired by its peculiar Asian name.
Smelling Tsao-Ko, we imagine Jacques Guerlain creating an accord that was his romanticized vision of the Far East: the fragrant air inside a Chinese spice shop, the subtly aromatic, powdery scent of steamed jasmine rice, the refined aesthetic of the Asian culture. The start is classical cologne as we find it in countless vintage Guerlains, with bergamot, neroli, lavender and other Provençal herbs. At the same time there's jasmine, which mixes with a floury, semi-sweet powder note. The top accord has a certain aromatic and prickling coolness that could resemble the effect of cardamom. As the freshness of the herbs fades, it gives way for an elegant balsamic drydown of sandalwood, musk, vanilla and soft spices, actually more cinnamon than cardamom.
Bottle. Tsao-Ko came in the so-called oval bottle. One of Guerlain's early standard bottles, its name derived from the fact that both the bottle and the stopper had an oval shape.
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