“Thomas AKA The Candy Perfume Boy takes you on a journey around the fragrance world with ‘The Escentual A-Z of Fragrance’ a fun and fragrant ride that gives you all you need to know – the notes, the brands and the perfumers – to become a true fragrance addict/nerd”
When planning my A-Z of Fragrance there was no doubt in my mind that the ‘G’ could only be assigned to the house of Guerlain. The only problem being that there is just so much to say about this most important fragrance house that it is hard for any ‘Guide to’ to truly represent all that is Guerlain and do it justice – but justice is what the house deserves and what I aim to offer with this guide.
If you are not familiar with Guerlain then firstly – shame on you – and secondly what are you waiting for? One cannot call oneself a true perfume nerd or fragrance addict until they have at least explored the classic, so as a service to you I present you with my guide to the only ‘G’ that counts – Guerlain.
The house of Guerlain was founded by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain in 1828 as a purveyor of cosmetic products and eau de colognes, the most famous of which is Eau de Cologne Impériale – a typically fresh and hesperidic cologne that was liked so much by the Empress Eugénie she chose to appoint Guerlain with a warrant to produce for the royal house.
Following this royal warrant (and a number of others) Guerlain continued to gain popularity with his Eau de Colognes, gaining a number of Royal fans, but it wasn’t until after his death when his son Aimė took the reigns did the future of the house of Guerlain appear to change forever.
1889 was a year that brought the world two greats – the Eiffel Tower and Guerlain’s Jicky. Hailed as the very first abstract perfume (meaning that it didn’t intend to smell of a particular flower or essence) Jicky changed the face of perfumery by mixing a classic lavender Fougère with a synthetic material called vanillin.
Laying somewhere comfortably the bracing and the delicious Jicky was created by Aimė Guerlain and reportedly named for a girl he fell in love with whilst studying in England. As romantic as the back-story is the fragrance doesn’t entirely follow suit, opting to break ground rather than hearts with its steadily animalic blend of lavender, civet and vanilla – there’s a reason why this one is such a classic!
The Jacques Guerlain Era
Guerlain’s third generation perfumer (and Aimė’s nephew) – Jacques Guerlain – is perhaps the most famous and deservedly so, he did after all single-handedly create some of the house’s most beautiful and classic compositions and will easily go down as one of the greatest perfumers of all time.
One of Jacques Guerlain’s first compositions was a watercolour expression of a countryside walk in the rain entitled Après L’Ondée (After the Rain). Après L’Ondée is important for two reasons; firstly – it is a painfully pretty painting of violet, iris and mimosa with an airy anisic edge; and secondly – it formed the classic accord for which many other Guerlain’s (L’Heure Bleue, Insolence & La Petite Robe Noire to name a few) would take inspiration from.
L’Heure Bleue followed Après L’Ondée 6 years later in 1912 and is often seen by many as an incredibly melancholic perfume, Jacques Guerlain himself spoke of the intense emotion conveyed by the perfume, saying of its insipriation; “I felt something so intense, I could only express it in a perfume.”
Taking its name from ‘The Blue Hour’ when “the sun disappears beneath the horizon and the sky is painted with night’s velvet” L’Heure Bleue takes the anisic feel of Après L’Ondée and folds it into a delicious, velvet pastry of iris, orange blossom, carnation and vanilla that hints at both the sky and the earth.
Jacques Guerlain took a different tack with his next classic, 1919’s Mitsouko – a perfume that took significant cues from Coty’s Chypre released two years earlier. Named for the heroine in the novel ‘La Bataille, Mitsouko is an autumnal chypre with strong peachy accents and an aloof air that celebrates the more austere, stone-faced elements of a woman’s soul.
Looking at Jacques Guerlain’s wrap sheet – Après L’Ondée, L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko – one could be forgiven for thinking that it would be impossible for the perfumer to outdo his past compositions but the truth is that it wasn’t until 1925 that Jacques launched his magnum opus and what was to become Guerlain’s flagship perfume – Shalimar.
Shalimar is a perfume inspired by one of the world’s greatest romances. Named after the Shalimar gardens in Lahore, in which the emperor Shãh Jahãn would walk with his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, Shalimar is a hedonistic exploration of orientalism with a French twist.
Following slightly in Jicky’s shoes, Shalimar’s central core is a wonderful explosion of delicious, smoky vanillin. Bergamot in the top notes brightens the vanilla whilst heavy balsams, powder and animalic notes cast shadows and the whole thing smells richly exotic and edible.
Shalimar is the olfactory representation of the roaring twenties – it’s a scent that defined a decade and it’s hard to wear it and not think of jazz, flapper girls, booze and raucous nights out on the streets of Paris.
One of Jacques Guerlain’s final compositions was 1933’s Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). Like Mitsouko before it, Vol de Nuit took inspiration from a novel – namely the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novel of the same name – and is a perfume that showcases the familiar powder and balsamic warmth of Guerlain’s that preceded it, however adding the bitter green of galbanum to give a more chypre effect to the house’s usual oriental style.
The Jean-Paul Guerlain Era
Jean-Paul Guerlain had big boots to fill when he took over from his grandfather Jacques and luckily for him he had the talent and passion to do so, albeit in a very different and refreshing style that would set the house of Guerlain on an entirely new fragrant path in the years to follow, starting with Vetiver in 1959.
Vetiver was not only Jean Paul’s very first creation for the house but it could also be considered as Guerlain’s first widely successful masculine fragrance. Centred on the rooty, earthy and sometimes anisic grass of the same name Vetiver is a refreshing and handsome fragrance awash with ginger, spice and tobacco to awaken the liveliness of its central accord of green vetiver. Even to this day Vetiver is seen as the go-to reference fragrance of its genre and when you’ve smelled a billion vetiver fragrances (as I have) it’s easy to say that none can truly compare to this giant of masculine perfumery.
Jean-Paul was able to match the masculine success of Vetiver with Habit Rouge in 1965 and whilst they may have shared their successes the two fragrances could not have been further a part in style, with Habit Rouge – an ode to oriental leather inspired by fox hunting jackets – often being referred to as the masculine counterpart to Shalimar.
Unsurprisingly Jean-Paul’s feminines have managed to be just as mighty, if not more so than his masculines. His two stand-out feminine compositions are Chamade & Nahéma, the former being a heady and rich blend of flowers and blackcurrant buds akin to the scent of pollen rubbed between one’s fingers, and the latter being a Technicolor rose pieced together by spice and peach that evokes the spirit of 1001 nights. Both however, are essays in style and diffusion with Chamade appearing as the playful daytime companion to Nahéma’s exotic seductress.
The most divisive of Jean-Paul Guerlain’s perfumes is easily 1989’s Samsara. Coming a whole 100 years after the magic of Jicky, Samsara was Guerlain’s answer to the loud and proud ‘80s scents such as Poison, Opium, Chloe (Original) and Giorgio Beverly Hills, that filled the department stores (and airspace) during the decade of excess.
Samsara may have been created to keep up with the big hits of the ‘80s and to allow Guerlain to increase interest in their ageing house but it is far from a cop out and is in every sense a ‘Guerlain’. The main players within the perfume are jasmine and sandalwood – the jasmine offers up a heady cocktail of plastic white flowers whilst the sandalwood gives a creamy, delicious base of spiced woods and vanilla – together they both create the loudest, most ostentatious Guerlain to date.
Love it or hate it, Samsara is an important fragrance as it was the first time that the house had created a perfume from a marketing brief as well as extending the offer of creating a Guerlain perfume to external perfumers. Samsara marks a shift within Guerlain, and the industry for that matter, where the old habits died out to make way for the era of marketing and mass-perfume – it seems only fitting that its name is Sanskrit for the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
During his time as Chief Nose Jean-Paul Guerlain also created other venerable offerings such as; Eau de Guerlain, Jardins de Bagatelle, Chant d’Arômes, Héritage and many, many others before retiring from the house in 2002, leaving no direct heir to the Guerlain dynasty.
The Next Generation & Thierry Wasser – The Outsider
After joining the LVMH group (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) in 1994 and following Jean-Paul Guerlain’s decision to take a back seat in 2002, the house of Guerlain went through a transitionary period of ups and downs where outside perfumers were invited in to create the house’s main pillar perfumes whilst Jean-Paul continued to create some of the more exclusive offerings.
Within this phase the house launched respectable perfumes such as L’Instant de Guerlain and L’Instant de Guerlain Pour Homme, both of which are very well done but not the most memorable of compositions. It was until 2006’s Insolence that Guerlain appeared to be truly getting its head back in to the game.
Insolence was created by perfumer Maurice Roucel (Hermès 24 Faubourg, DKNY Be Delicious, Gucci Envy & L’Instant de Guerlain) and is a contemporary remix of both Après L’Ondée and L’Heure Bleue, taking the sweet parma violets of Après, the iris powder of L’Heure and mixing both with delicious red berries and hair spray. The result is a perfume that is as badly behaved as it is loud – a strikingly modern feminine that looks back at the past, taking the best and adding something entirely new and exciting.
In 2008 Guerlain ended their period of limbo by installing perfumer Thierry Wasser (Dior Addict, Diesel Fuel for Life Pour Homme & Pour Femme) as nose in residence. Being the first non-Guerlain at the helm of this venerable perfume house is no mean feat but within his first five years of tenure Wasser has embraced the challenge with open arms, successfully cherishing and protecting the past whilst welcoming in the new.
His first two compositions for the house were met with varied critical response. Idylle, the first feminine, felt like a step-away from the heady compositions of Guerlain’s past with its garden of dew soaked roses and misty white flowers whilst Homme, a spray-on mojito (and specifically its flanker Homme L’Eau Boisée), respected the bracing green quality of Guerlain’s famous Vetiver. In truth, both are fine offerings that serve as worthy introductions to those who may have not had the pleasure of exploring the house’s extensive back catalogue quite yet.
Wasser’s most risky move however, came in 2011 in the form of Shalimar Parfum Initial – a modern re-interpretation of the house’s flagship fragrance – Shalimar. Most perfumers would have wept in fear at the idea of fiddling with Shalimar to create a ‘youthful’ version, after all the original is so esteemed it begs the question as to whether it needed tinkering with at all, but not Wasser, he stepped up to the plate and delivered something really quite remarkable – an on trend Shalimar dyed blush pink and served in a heartbreakingly gorgeous bottle
Shalimar Parfum Initial is more than just a pinkified Shalimar, it is an intelligent reconstruction that remains faithful to the DNA of the original. Parfum Initial keeps the balsamic, vanilla-soaked base of Shalimar but amps up the carrot-like quality of the iris and tops it all off with bright, sparkling fruit. Wearing Parfum Initial is like slipping in to a warm fur coat, or wrapping oneself up in a silk scarf – luxury at its finest.
Guerlain’s latest offering is an ode to the most important of fashion items – the little black dress. Originally created in 2009 as a boutique exclusive by perfumer Delphine Jelk the stroke-of-genius named La Petite Robe Noire (I bet Chanel were kicking themselves for not patenting that name) was re-jigged for a mainstream launch by Thierry Wasser in 2012.
Wasser’s La Petite Robe Noire takes the dark black liquorice and cherry notes of the boutique version and livens it all up with raspberry fizz and a stronger heart of rose. The smoked black tea of the base is more subdued and the whole thing feels decidedly more playful and fancy-free as a result and coupled with excellent marketing and Eau de Toilette & Extrait versions it has all been a huge recipe for success.
Today Guerlain continues to release unique and beautiful perfumes but perhaps with more variety and range than in times-gone-by. As well as the mainstream offerings and the department store lines such as the nature-inspired Aqua Allegoria’s (Pamplelune and Lys Soleia are the two worth checking out here) there are a number of boutique exclusive lines such as L’Art et la Matière, Les Parisiennes and Les Déserts d’Orient that can only be found in Guerlain boutiques or high-end department stores – there really is a Guerlain for everyone.
The world of perfume would not be the same without Guerlain – their perfumes are responsible for the joy and romances of many a woman and man – and all perfume lovers should offer their gratitude to the world’s greatest perfume house and the perfumers who made it so. Here’s to Pierre-François-Pascal, Aimė, Jacques, Jean-Paul and Thierry – we salute you!