It’s amazing how resilient the Guerlain spirit is in the face of so much rampant marketing and capitalism. The soul of Guerlain would probably disintegrate, had it not been for the dedicated love of a small group of individuals who stalwartly continue to uphold the house’s legendary history. Therefore, it’s a great pleasure to find the story being told in a comprehensive and rigorous manner for the first time, by French historian and perfume expert Élisabeth de Feydeau. She calls her 360 page work "Le Roman des Guerlain" ("roman" is a novel in French), however it's by no means fiction, but based on family archives, mainly those collected and preserved by Sylvie Guerlain.

Feydeau traces the Guerlain family back to the 17th century to the small, secluded town of Abbeville in northern France. In that locality, the family name Guerlain was fairly common at the time, and Feydeau explains that it’s derived from the Old French word "guerle", which means something like "shabby" — not really an adjective that we associate with the prestigious Guerlain luxury brand!

Born in 1798, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain was the son of a conservative, hard-working man who successfully ran a trade of exotic spices, like nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla. It’s easy to imagine how Pierre-François-Pascal developed his passion for fragrances. At the age of nineteen, he rebelled against his father, leaving the family business with the ambition to establish an independent career in perfumery.

By then the French revolution had destroyed the livelihood of the merchants to royals and nobles, among them perfumers. Conversely, it opened up new opportunities for young entrepreneurs like Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain. After gaining important experiences as a travelling salesman for fragrance maker Jean-Baptiste Briard (who eventually went bankrupt), Pierre-François-Pascal set up his own shop in the rue de Rivoli in Paris, earning a lucrative reputation as purveyor to the French Empress Eugénie.

In the 19th century, fame and fortune couldn’t forestall ill health. Three of Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain’s six children, as well as his wife, died at a young age, and, worn out by years of hard work, he himself died at the age of sixty-six. Only two sons remained to continue the family business: Aimé and Gabriel Guerlain. His daughter, Alix, is scarcely mentioned. As Sylvaine Delacourte has pointed out, there’s a strong patriarchal attitude at Guerlain, even today, that prevents women from holding prominent positions, although she and Delphine Jelk have played a key role at Guerlain during the last decade.

Feydeau relates how the era of Aimé and Gabriel was earmarked by the Industrial Revolution, which greatly benefited both the quality and quantity of Guerlain’s production. While the chemical and synthetic products that were discovered at that time had many skeptics and critics, Aimé Guerlain embraced them as a means of making more persistent and creative perfumes. It wasn't until a new extraction method saw the light in 1873, using solvents instead of steam, which resulted in much more powerful and long-lasting flower extracts termed "absolutes", that traditional perfume making became widely seen as obsolete. The invention of machines and new technologies meant more effective and cheaper production processes, but the Guerlain brothers were very aware of keeping up an elitist brand image, defining Guerlain as "the aristocracy of perfumery", with limited distribution and high prices that only few could financially access. We see the exact same tendencies today: mainstream perfumes have never been more attainable and affordable, yet Guerlain keeps issuing costly limited editions that are out of reach of almost everyone.

Le Roman des Guerlain doesn’t reveal much that we didn’t know before — its merit is mainly to gather all the information together. However, it offers a revision of Aimé Guerlain's family circumstances that goes against earlier findings by the Osmothèque. According to the Osmothèque, the reason that Aimé didn't have any heirs and therefore left the company to his brother Gabriel and Gabriel's sons, Jacques and Pierre, was that Aimé was gay and acceded to an arranged marriage with his widowed sister-in-law. Feydeau, who doesn't say anything about Aimé's sexuality but states only that he married late in life because he was "secretive and mysterious by nature", reveals that he actually had a son and a daughter with his wife Jeanne (who wasn't his sister-in-law, but the widow of his sister-in-law's brother). Sadly though, the boy died at the age of seven, and Aimé decided to retire from the business to take care of his family.

But Feydeau's book especially contains one piece of information that shatters the world of any knowledgeable Guerlain fan: Jacques Guerlain’s very first creation was really Jicky! Feydeau suggests that Jicky (1889) was a joint creation between Aimé and his talented 15-year-old nephew, Jacques, whose extraordinary creativity likely contributed a great deal to what is now known as the world’s first modern perfume, and the inception of the Guerlinade. The genius of Jacques Guerlain is already well established, but now we learn that he’s synonymous with practically everything that has made Guerlain legendary.

Jacques Guerlain’s approach to perfumery differed from that of his ancestors. Where they had believed perfume to have hygienic and medicinal applications, to Jacques it was an entirely aesthetic product, just how we perceive it today. A child of the Belle Epoque's refined world of art and design, he thought of perfume-making as a kind of poetry. Feydeau says that back then, critics claimed products made just for pleasure to be an undesirable consequence of the rise of the bourgeoisie, but it was exactly this emerging clientele that Jacques Guerlain wanted to capture.

Feydeau’s book includes a couple of other interesting anecdotal tidbits. We learn that Jacques Guerlain’s Coque d’Or (1937) was meant not least as a response to "the costliest perfume in the world", Jean Patou’s Joy (1930), and because of its innovative bottle design, made to resemble a bow tie in cobalt blue Baccarat crystal, and gilded by hand, the price of Coque d’Or ultimately exceeded that of Joy.

We’re also told that when in 1942 Jacques Guerlain was commissioned by the Nazis to create "an original perfume to the glory of their army", he felt so outraged that he simply dug out one of his older, unreleased formulas and poured it into a plain glass bottle, now known as the "war bottle". Jacques was already devastated that his youngest son had been fatally wounded while fighting the Nazis. To further distance himself from the objectionable order, he gave it the very un-Guerlain-like name Kriss, which he changed to Dawamesk immediately after the war. The name Kriss was inspired by a type of stabbing weapon that the greatly-feared SS issued to all its members.

With the exception of Luca Turin’s articles, few texts are as dull and irritating to read as texts about perfume, filled as they are with purple prose, melodrama, excessive admiration, and lengthy digressions that lead us to think that the author has superior taste and intellect. Luckily, Feydeau has an academic's way of keeping to the point, and she limits the topics to what can deepen our understanding of the historical context. The book repeats only a few misconceptions, such as Mitsouko meaning "mystery", and Raymond Guerlain being the designer of the heart-shaped stopper bottle at a time when he was only 12 years old.

Possibly most striking to the reader is that the story more or less ends with the death of Jacques Guerlain in 1963. Everything there is to say about the Jean-Paul Guerlain era is reduced into the ten page epilog, just three percent of the entire text. Did Feydeau run out of time? Or was she influenced by Jean-Paul Guerlain being persona non grata since his unfortunate racially denigrating remarks on French television in 2010 (a subject that coincidentally the book is silent about)? On the other hand, she doesn’t spare us the details about how much the sale of Guerlain to luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1994 ignited dissension within the family. Several members openly expressed that such a sale would be a betrayal of the brand’s history and founder. During the clearing of conference rooms and offices to make room for the new owners, Sylvie Guerlain found a large number of historic documents, and she decided that she would do everything she could to retrieve and preserve the vestiges of Guerlain's past. The book ends on a hopeful note, quoting Jean-Paul Guerlain’s wish that his young grandson, Paul Guerlain, will one day become Guerlain’s next master perfumer.
(January 2017)

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