Gabriel Guerlain 1890
Family: balsamic, ambery
Bare balsam
Period: The Belle Époque years

Thierry Wasser and Frédéric Sacone have re-created a large number of historic Guerlain perfumes, using the exact same ingredients as when they saw the light for the first time. Thanks to their research, we now know a great deal more about Guerlain's olfactive history and previously well-kept secrets. One of the more fascinating discoveries is that not only Pierre-Francois-Pascal, Aimé, Jacques and Jean-Paul Guerlain created perfumes, but also that Aimé’s brother (Gabriel) as well as Jacques' brother (Pierre) and son (Jean-Jacques) briefly ventured into the creative field and authored a few of the brand’s fragrances.

Among the hundreds of perfumes listed in Guerlain’s secret formula book, only one was signed by Gabriel, namely Excellence from 1890. A name like that certainly gives it something to live up to. Based almost entirely on amber and balsam, it’s likely to please most Guerlain devotees. Benzoin, Peru balsam, Tolu balsam, styrax, tonka bean—there’s nothing like amber and gum resins that can make a Guerlainophile purr. These ancient perfume materials, with their notes of cinnamon, vanilla, incense, dark chocolate, soft leather, tawny port wine and aged wood, are strongly associated with Guerlain’s oriental signature. However, Excellence contains only a fragment of the Guerlinade accord. For instance, it doesn’t have any floral notes, despite that its full name is Excellence de Fleurs Ambrées ("ambery flowers"). Selling perfumes with fanciful names isn't such a new thing.

With its rather simple composition, Excellence smells like something Aimé Guerlain could have concocted too. The simplicity probably says more about the lack of advanced raw materials at the time though, than about the skills and styles of the perfumers. It reminds us that today's so-called niche perfumery, such as Guerlain’s own L’Art & la Matière line, was born out of a wish to make very basic, "unplugged" perfumes, like back in the days when there were no aroma chemicals and no marketing departments around.

Excellence would make an excellent niche perfume, with no discernible structure of top, middle, and base notes, but just the lovely, linear scent of sweet amber and balsam.

The bottle for Excellence, a rectangular bottle with sloping shoulders and a tall neck surrounded by a hexagonal "bolt" at the base, was designed specifically for this fragrance. This was unique at that time, as most Guerlain fragrances before 1900 came in one of the standard bottles.

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