Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain 1830
[o də kɔlɔɲ ɛ̃per'jal]
Family: citrus, aromatic
Notes: bergamot, neroli, verbena, lemon, orange, rosemary, lavender, cedarwood, tonka bean
Crisp citrus
Period: The imperial years

An important part of Guerlain's appeal is the brand's long history, and its association with all the best and brightest historical figures throughout. Perhaps the most prominent example is the fragrance that made Guerlain famous, Eau de Cologne Impériale; created for an empress, and kept in constant production for more than 160 years. Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, young perfumer and vinegar merchant, opened his first shop in 1828 on the ground floor of the deluxe Parisian hotel Le Meurice, located on the rue de Rivoli and owned by his uncle. 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, an opinion Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain aspired to change.

Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain sold imported soaps and vinegars from the principal English houses alongside his own beauty products and Eaux de Cologne — fragrances that suited people's taste for freshness and subtlety, such as Eau de Cologne Supérieure, Eau de Cologne Royale, etc. According to the Guerlain family records, in 1830 he composed what was to become Eau de Cologne Impériale, a crisp, uplifting scent of citrus notes and Provençal herbs. Whether he sold the scent immediately or not is unclear, but in 1853 it was presented to the French emperor Napoléon III and his wife Eugénie as a wedding gift, for use as a tonic as well as a perfume, and as natural relief for the Empress' migraines. The Empress liked it so much that she appointed Guerlain purveyor to the Imperial Court and sanctioned the use of the name "Eau de Cologne Impériale." It has long been a common practice for royals and nobles to lend their names to perfumers’ work (and more often than not doing so would result in a ready supply for their own use, free of charge). For a business owner like Guerlain, having a queen, emperor or princess associated with a product was the equivalent of a movie star being featured in a modern ad campaign — it lent a glamour and credibility to the company that could not be matched. Guerlain eventually received credentials from the Queen of Belgium, the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales, but their proudest achievement was the warrant from France's own imperial ruler. Eau de Cologne Impériale had become the celebrity fragrance of its day, and French perfumes could finally be considered the best in the world.

Eau de Cologne Impériale is inextricably linked with the bee bottle, Guerlain's most famous bottle (except perhaps for Shalimar), and one of the brand's most cherished symbols. When Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain decided to present the Emperor and Empress with Impériale as a gift, he knew the scent had to be properly dressed, so to speak. Guerlain commissioned glassmaker Pochet & du Courval to produce a bottle in the Empire style, which took its name from the rule of the Emperor Napoléon I in the First French Empire. Replete with classical influences like Corinthian columns, heraldic eagles and toga-like drapery, the Empire style was designed to evoke the splendour of ancient Rome — appropriate for Napoléon I, who presented himself as a modern-day Caesar.

Aside from its general Empire style, the bee bottle features two other important references to Napoleon I. First, the bottle was modelled after the top of the Vendôme Column, a monument Napoléon erected on the place Vendôme in Paris, featuring a giant statue of himself atop a dome-shaped peak, the peak covered with overlapping bronze plates. Second, the sides of the bottle were embossed with bees, an ancient French symbol of royalty adopted by Napoleon I, still in use at the time. This reverence for the Bonaparte family dynasty no doubt endeared Guerlain to Napoléon III, whose entire reign was characterized by attempts to live up to (if not best) his famous uncle.

Since 1853, the bee bottle has been sold in different sizes, shapes and interpretations, and has contained countless Guerlain perfumes. In fact, any Guerlain fragrance can be ordered in the bee bottle. The first bee-bottle themed atomizer released by the house appeared in the 1960s, again holding Eau de Cologne Impériale. In 1992, a new bee atomizer design was introduced for the Eaux Fraîches, as well as for a few scents that were no longer as commercially successful, like Chant d'Arômes and Parure. In 2016, Guerlain created controversy when it announced that it was retiring almost all of its individual feminine atomizer designs, and replacing them with the bee atomizer, thereby making the brand's oldest design very nearly its only design.

The deep, long-lasting scent of raw bergamot oil isn't available in IFRA-safe perfumery, but Eau de Cologne Impériale smells as sparkling, dry and nostalgically herbal as it ever did.

  We love: that the old colognes are still being produced, despite their lightness and simplicity

  Fleeting freshness

  Citrus and herbs know no gender

Co-written with Kentington Rogers.

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