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VOILETTE DE MADAME

Jacques Guerlain 1904, reissue 2005
[vwalɛt də ma'dam]
Family: floral, powdery
Notes: bergamot, violet, geranium, verbena, orange blossom, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, clove, orris, tonka bean, oakmoss, musk
Fresh lipstick
Period: The Belle Époque years
Voilette de Madame collection

If we twist it a little, we could say that Jacques Guerlain in 1904 introduced two concepts in perfumery that wouldn’t become widely known until many decades later: the flanker and the "Femme & Homme" fragrance duo. Mouchoir de Monsieur (meaning "gentleman's handkerchief”) smelled like a variation on Jicky, while Voilette de Madame ("lady’s little veil") was made as its female counterpart. Presented in matching snail-shaped bottles, a design typical of the Art Nouveau period, together they formed a perfume set which Jacques Guerlain offered as a wedding gift to one of his friends. At the turn of the century, veils and handkerchiefs were typical signs of upper-class elegance.

"In perfume, the male of the species is always smaller than the female," Luca Turin said. However, discriminating between masculine and feminine scents is a relatively modern marketing strategy, and when we read Jacques Guerlain's handwritten scent diagrams of Voilette de Madame and Mouchoir de Monsieur, we're unable to tell which one is for her and which one is for him. Seen with today’s eyes, the description of Mouchoir de Monsieur — jasmine, rose, tuberose, civet, musk, vanilla and tonka bean — would definitely give the impression of a women’s perfume. While in the late 1980s, Mouchoir de Monsieur was brought back to the sales catalogue as an EdT (the original formula was a Parfum, just like any formula by Jacques Guerlain), Voilette de Madame remained an obscurity. In 2005, though, Guerlain reissued the snail bottle duo in a limited edition, for which an EdT version of Voilette de Madame was produced. (Due to the lower concentration, it’s relatively easier to make an EdT conform with ingredient restrictions.)

We're not doubting that Voilette de Madame was made with a young woman in mind. By its combination of violet, rose, orris and musk, on top of a classic, creamy floral bouquet of jasmine, orange blossom and ylang-ylang, it recalled the cosmetic scent of lipstick and face powder that we immediately associate with a neat and perfectly groomed lady. However, there was a certain androgynous, cologne-like freshness to it which we also found in Jacques Guerlain's earliest perfumes. The powdery violet note, so popular at the time, was there in Voilette de Madame's top accord, but mainly with its green and leafy facet. This greenness was further highlighted by bergamot, verbena, and the fresh rosy scent of geranium. The common ground of Voilette de Madame and Mouchoir de Monsieur was the mix of cologne notes and fresh rose with orange blossom and a powdery tonka bean base. By far the most freshly rose-smelling of the couple, Voilette de Madame might very well have served as a strong inspiration to Jean-Paul Guerlain when he created Habit Rouge for men and gave them the chance to be a dandy. (As a historical footnote, Guerlain recounts that Habit Rouge caused a commotion in the family firm when Jean-Paul Guerlain presented it in 1965. The board of directors thought that a men's scent so sweet and powdery was unacceptable and should not be released. We're happy it was, though.) Read about Mouchoir de Monsieur

Bottle. Voilette de Madame came in the highly artistic "snail bottle", some decorated in gold, some not. Animal figures and motifs were very much in vogue during the Art Nouveau design period, and this was the world's first perfume bottle inspired by nature or zoology.

Reformulation. Upon discovering Maison Guerlain’s re-created vintage version of Voilette de Madame, made directly from the hand-written recipe but sadly not for sale, we’re taught once again that commercial remakes of vintage perfumes often have to cut corners, not to make them cheaper but to meet today's safety norms on raw materials. Unlike the EdT reissue, Jacques Guerlain's formula for Voilette de Madame is a Parfum with rich flower absolutes and the sensuality of animal musk. The latter is completely banned in today's perfumery. Still, the reissue gave a surprisingly valid impression of what the original smelled like, although its relative lightness highlighted the feel of a Habit Rouge type dandy cologne. Read more

  We love: that Guerlain bothered to make the snail bottle one more time

  Parted lips on that powdered face

  Its marvellous fresh top will make you forgive the flowers


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