Olivier Polge 2005
[kɥi:r belu'ga]
Family: oriental, powdery
Notes: mandarin, everlasting flower, patchouli, vanilla, amber, suede note, heliotrope
Vanilla suede
Period: The haute cuisine years

With a pun on the French expression "l'art et la manière," the art and manner, Guerlain instituted in 2005 its exclusive line of haute parfumerie, L'Art & la Matière, dedicated to creative Eau de Parfum reflections on raw materials. The fragrances were officially signed by various outside perfumers under supervision of Guerlain's then artistic director Sylvaine Delacourte, which was only an avowal of what already had been going on for years behind the Guerlain curtain. The first three L'Art & la Matière perfumes featured rose (Rose Barbare), angelica (Angélique Noire), and leather (Cuir Beluga). The line proposed a chicly self-conscious and architectural style that demonstratively veered off from Guerlain's rounded, epic tradition, presumably for the purpose of having a say in the growing niche market.

The niche trend in perfumery, often attributed to Serge Lutens, first arose as a backlash against commercial top notes and conventional wisdom, and as a pursuit of consumers' general interest in uniqueness, quality and minimalism. While uniqueness and quality rhymes with Guerlain, minimalism fundamentally does not, and there have been mixed reactions to the L'Art & la Matière fragrances. Some saw them as pretentious luxury more than real perfume art and too sketchy to deserve the Guerlain name, while others embraced the intention which is to let the materials and their beauty speak for themselves, without too much abstraction or adornment. The use of the name of a single select raw material with an artful adjective attached to it was burrowed from Serge Lutens too, and maybe Guerlain should have stuck to its classic, non-descriptive fantasy names instead, because some visitors to the Paris boutiques seemed disappointed to find that Rose Barbare really wasn't barbaric, Angélique Noire not black, and Cuir Beluga didn't smell like leather.

Perhaps the trio's most admired, and reportedly also most minimalist made up of just fifteen ingredients, was Cuir Beluga, combining an aloofness as cerebral as Après l'Ondée with an atmosphere of Parisian candlelight dinners. People wondered if the name meant caviar and Russian riches, but it actually refers, amusingly, to the white beluga whale, i.e., not its eventual smell but its colour and smooth, gentle appearance, because Guerlain wanted a so-called white leather, a bright feel without the smoky-bitter edge we usually associate with leather scents. Created by Olivier Polge, son of famous Chanel nose Jacques Polge, Cuir Beluga had a strikingly lean and linear formula, more salon music than symphony, and it spelled softness and comfort all the way through: mandarin, aldehyde, everlasting flower, patchouli, suede note, vanilla, amber, and heliotrope. This mandarin was of the mildest sort imaginable, freed of any tartness and given a clear, airy touch by the aldehyde.

At the heart of the composition we sensed the everlasting flower, honeyed, warm and with its herbaceous, somewhat curry and tea-like facets, at once dusty and deep, strengthened by a drop of patchouli. Then the leather, described by Guerlain as a suede note to emphasize how creamy it was, but it felt closer to chamois, the porous, squishy kind of leather used for polishing cloths and expensive gloves. It all ended in a powdery vanilla-heliotrope drydown, with a certain resemblance to what an empty chocolate box smells like.

Despite its obvious softness, Cuir Beluga proved surprisingly lingering on the skin, especially considering it didn't deploy any woody materials, like an omnipresent trace from a stealth source. The absence of tarred potency had many a nose smelling it as a gourmand rather than a leather. Nonetheless, the everlasting flower certainly set it apart.

The bottle for the L'Art & la Matière line is an oblong slender block of glass, decorated on one end with a golden metal strip with the perfume's name imprinted on it, as if it were the spine of an old leather-bound book.

  We love: the intimacy

  With a little black dress

  For a conversational tête-à-tête evening

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