Jacques Guerlain 1933, EdC 1963
[vɔl də nɥi]
Family: oriental, chypre
Notes: bergamot, galbanum, petitgrain, jasmine, daffodil, spices, sandalwood, orris, vanilla, amber, oakmoss, benzoin, musk, ambergris, castoreum
Forests and furs
Period: The flight years
Vol de Nuit collection

Jacques Guerlain's perfume Vol de Nuit was launched in 1933, the same year as Air France — not as unexpected a link as it might at first appear. Vol de Nuit means "night flight" which was also the name of a novel from 1931 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a famous writer and pilot during the war, and personal friend of Jacques Guerlain. The book was based on Saint-Exupéry's experience as an airmail pilot and director of the Aeroposta Argentina Company and tells the story about Fabien who was lost one night while flying through a storm. Saint-Exupéry was himself killed in action over France in 1944 and his body was never recovered. The perfume Vol de Nuit was a celebration of flight and the invention of the aeroplane, this revolutionary form of travel which for many years was unavailable to the masses. Aviation, the mastering of air, carries significant importance in French culture, and with its assorted associations of odorous leather gear and gasoline, speed, height, the thrill of danger, faraway places and luxury, it's no surprise that it became the basis for a French perfume. (Caron's En Avion from 1932 was another prominent example.)

Jacques Guerlain managed to get all of the aforementioned atmospheric touches into Vol de Nuit, one of his woodiest and least floral perfumes, reflecting beautifully both the serious 1930s and, in a more lyrical sense, the dark theme of loss and separation of Saint-Exupéry's novel. Vol de Nuit is the only survivor of Jacques Guerlain's post-Shalimar perfumes. We're happy it survived, as it represents what happened in perfumery, and in fashion in general, after the Wall Street crash put a definitive end to the Roaring Twenties. Women's style in the 1930s was more conservative than that of the optimistic 1920s. The decade saw a return to a less flamboyant look, with tight silhouettes, firmly fitted bras and longer skirts. While Paris was still the capital of fashion, Hollywood film stars had a major influence on women’s tastes. The severe, introverted aura of Greta Garbo magnetized everyone: the trousers, turtleneck sweater and broad-shouldered trench coat, the false eyelashes, and the assertive facial expression.

Most of what Jacques Guerlain made from Vol de Nuit onwards could have been a Greta Garbo fragrance, really. He significantly downsized the floriental opulence, and turned instead to herbal, leathery, floral and animal notes. Vol de Nuit is renowned as the first perfume to incorporate the fiercely green, woody-resinous odour of galbanum. By using daffodil absolute, at once floral, earthy and licorice-like, and an abundance of galbanum plant resin, together with sandalwood, oakmoss, ambergris, leathery castoreum, and a little aldehyde, Jacques Guerlain got an unusual and virile briskness similar to pungent sea air, driftwood, and herbal medicine. However, Vol de Nuit was also one of Jacques Guerlain’s skillful balancing acts, retaining a warm balsamic-powdery backbone of orris, benzoin, vanilla, and cinnamon, with a touch of the cocoa effect that he also produced in Parfum des Champs-Elysées (1904).

Like L'Heure Bleue, Vol de Nuit was scarce on introductory top notes, so we're in the middle of its woody world the moment it is let out of its bottle. Classified as an oriental chypre, in-between the two categories, Vol de Nuit is, to quote Luca Turin, "by Guerlain standards a somewhat shapeless perfume, lacking a legible structure. But it gives me the pleasure, the tickle of anticipation, the feeling of unobstructed space and pinpoint clarity I get when I settle into my seat at an orchestral concert and hear the players practising." According to Jean-Paul Guerlain, "Vol de Nuit is one of the house's grandest perfumes, which didn't have the success that it probably deserved."

Bottle. The bottle's design, the first to blend glass and metal in pure Art Deco style, imitates whirling propeller blades underneath a square brass lid, representative of the thirties' fascination with the triumph of mechanics. (A somehow complex reflection, as the novel's moral was the inferiority of technology to human feeling.) The nameplate made up of two circular lines could easily be the propeller's driving belt. The black and white box features an animal hide print alluding to Europe's budding dreams of flying to exotic destinations and spotting a zebra while on safari. In 2016, the EdT is transferred to the standard bee atomizer.

Parfum, EdT. The two are almost different scents altogether. The Parfum is woody-earthy and dark like the inside of an old mahogany closet. Deeply balsamic and with the musky warmth of animal fur, it is extremely tenacious, growing stronger and more resinous by the hour. In comparison, the EdT is fleeting and just lightly powdery.

Reformulation. Thank goodness Guerlain has found it paramount to keep this historic gem flying despite both little popularity outside of France and the ongoing oakmoss battle. But, if anything, it's the lack of animal tinctures, banned for obvious ethical reasons, that could threaten the existence of Vol de Nuit. All things considered, it's amazing how faithful modern Vol de Nuit is to its older spirit, richly resinous and ambery and with a long-lasting glow of sandalwood and oakmoss. Thierry Wasser explains that "a couple of adjustments have been made to the daffodil used in it. Jacques Guerlain created it in 1933 and it used a daffodil absolute from the Auvergne. In the 1950s, there was a horrible winter there one year and all the daffodil bulbs were killed. So Jean-Paul Guerlain made a substitute for the daffodil and that's what was used in Vol de Nuit since that time. But two or three years ago, there was a molecule in that substitute which came under scrutiny. Another problem. So I decided to go back to the original with daffodil absolute from the Auvergne, but otherwise I haven't done anything. So it's now a little bit different, but only because it's gone back to Jacques' original."

Variations. Vol de Nuit is much too rarefied to ever justify a flanker, but in 2007 Guerlain had an airport shop release called Vol de Nuit Evasion. It fitted the airport setting but the name was misleading, the fragrance being an EdT version of Attrape Cœur. Anyhow, Vol de Nuit Evasion smelled wonderful.

  We love: that daffodil absolute has been brought back

  Worn with full evening dress, or just a black turtleneck

  Just to be reminded of what a blessing perfumery is

Some images courtesy of

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