Guerlain – from vinegar towards empire, part I

“Perfume is the most intense form of memory. If a perfume stinks, it’s a disaster when she turns off the light.” – says Jean Paul Guerlain, a 75-year-old perfumer, certainly one of the most prominent and sophisticated noses of the 20th century. Having lost his vision at 16 years and encouraged by his father, he used to spend his days in a laboratory mixing and sniffing various oils and essences. Although his vision came back after a few operations, the intense teen years surrounded by scents had left a remarkable background for his future career: his first perfume for men Vétiver brought him glory already in 1959; but let’s start from the beginning.

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It was 1798 when Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain was born in Abbeville, a small town in Northern France. However, life didn’t seem to be too peaceful: Pierre couldn’t stand his tyrannical father and escaped to London to study chemistry. Some years later though Pierre decided to return to his homeland. We are in 1828, he is 30 years old now and he goes directly to Paris where in rue Rivoli 42 he opens a legendary shop called parfumeur vinaigrier (perfumer and vinegar maker).

Nobody would know that this date would be the foundation of the whole Guerlain dynasty and the start of the road to global glory. At first Pierre imports the goods to sell from England and manages to attract the wealthy class attention with unseen products. Due to his knowledge in chemistry, Pierre starts to create his own mixtures, adding plant extracts to the lotions, ointments, bear fat, Nivea cream etc, in order to produce unique smelly compositions. Meanwhile, Paris is running from one revolution to another. In 1832 the city is attacked by cholera, which lasted for 17 years and resulted in 20,000 deaths of over 500,000. The concept of hygiene is confusing: Parisians don’t seem to have a habit to wash themselves and don’t associate perfume with body odors, not to talk about individuality or seduction. It was fragrant hygiene products that meant the birth of perfumery as the world understands it now, covering the natural smell of body with an intention to be attractive to the opposite sex.
Pierre continues to create various products, now with the help of his two sons Aimé and Gabriel. Known for his strict attitude towards natural raw materials when creating perfume, Pierre hates unprofessional and fraudulent behaviour. “Always stick to simple ideas and apply them scrupulously”, he says. It takes precision, passion and of course talent to create the first chypre in the history of perfume. Paris population has reached a million by now, personal fragrance production is so successful in high society that in 1840 Pierre gets a permission to move to rue de la Paix 15, a strategically lucky and promising place which meant limitless traffic of clients – which meant the growth of Guerlain.

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Pierre chats with his customers and suggests the most suitable product for everyone. Such form of marketing, based on direct contact with the client, has remained the priority of Guerlain. The meticulous attention of Pierre towards his clients makes him stand out as the best ad hoc perfumer, so that Honoré de Balzac himself orders a custom eau de toilette. Suddenly everybody wants custom perfume. As if it wasn’t enough, La SylphideJournal des Elégances magazine orders a fragrance exclusively for its pages! Meanwhile, in the context of Paris there is The Second French Empire conducted by Napoleon III and his authoritarian politics, which seeks to restrict every public manifestation of autonomy, prohibit the teaching of philosophy in schools and control the press. Nevertheless, Paris is thriving: the strict policy of Napoleon III is balanced with endless celebrations, entertainment and growing production. The economy is booming, Parisians are constructing railways, narrow medieval streets are replaced by wide and light boulevards, the shape of the city is being reconstructed, neoclassical facades are being formed. Guizot screams Enrichissez-vous! (enrich yourselves) and positivism pushes Parisians forward in all areas. Pierre’s success is overwhelming by now: he starts to create to the Queen of England Victoria, the Queen of Spain Isabella II, the Austrian Empress Sissi, the Grand Duke Alexandrovich; and in 1853 – to Napoleon III and his wife Eugène. Pierre dedicates to her Eau de Cologne Impériale, a perfume with citrus, rosemary and cedar notes, decorated with the ornaments of bees of the Napoleonic army. As a result, Pierre earns the prestigious title of being His Majesty’s Official Perfumer which makes Guerlain products the most luxurious and the most expensive in France.

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Pierre died at the age of 66, in 30 years having put the foundation of the first perfume empire Maison Guerlain. Moreover, the death of Pierre has left to the world lipstick and kohl. Soon after his sons decide to go on with father’s business: Gabriel administrates the company and is responsible for marketing, while the elder Aimé becomes the nose.
Paris starts to get rid of modesty: perfume slowly but steadily is becoming a real habit and ritual, this time though not only to cover body secretions and unpleasant odors, but to be the mirror of the owner and to reveal the personality. Society demands individuality and identity – Guerlain brothers couldn’t ask for more.

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Aimé combats his competitors in the field of perfume with his motto “We make what we’re good at, and we sell what we make”. 1884 is the year of Fleur d’Italie with the notes of narcissus and strong herbal opening, revealing a sweet powdery base at the end. The following creation is Eau de cologne du coq known for patchouly and lavender on top and sandalwood with oakmoss in the heart. It is still possible (and a must-do for history lovers) to smell it as well as the older Eau du Cologne Impériale at Maison Guerlain in Champs-Elysees.

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Maison Guerlain was the first to compose perfume according to the pyramid structure. The top notes are the ones we smell at first but they also fade away sooner; the heart notes create the main character of the perfume and resume what it is about (from here we indicate the dominant theme, i.e. floral, chypre, spicy, aldehyde, etc). Finally, the base notes unveil only after a few hours and usually belong to amber, musk, wood, vanilla, etc. 184 years have passed and the pyramid model has not gone away. One can only admire the ingenuity and fantasy of perfumers which brought them to create masterpieces and which are often difficult if not useless to compare with loads of today’s fragrances, despite modern and comfortable laboratories being used.

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It is 1889, hundred years after the Great French Revolution, Paris is moving hastily towards the most productive and technological centre of tourism. Everyone’s preparing for The Exposition Universelle, temporary Eiffel Tower is built as the public entrance. Nobody knew yet that it will never be pulled down even if Guy de Maupassant kept threatening to walk only the streets from which he could not see the giant metal absurdity. Another useless creation that made no sense at all was presented by Guerlain: a crazy irrationality called Jicky.
Having caused much initial criticism and judgement and fully understood only after 20 years from its launch, in 1899 Jicky came out to be a real revolution. Aimé was the first perfumer to use both synthetic and natural raw materials when creating a perfume: that is why he could and should be called the godfather of modern perfumery. Jicky impudently screams to Paris – change your attitude! Dedicated to Jacques, nephew of Aimé or, according to a legend, to a young lady Aimé once met in England; Jicky is the first name for a perfume with no hint to a plant or a flower it is made of and is the first perfume that doesn’t really exist in nature. Unlike previous perfumes with basic floral compositions, Jicky calls for a different view at perfumery. Not only is the birth of Jicky a historic transition from the 19th to the 20th century, but also a bridge to the new and true perfume era. Due to his knowledge in chemistry taught by his farther Pierre, Aimé manages to catch the smell in order to recreate it from scratch. This is how he restores vanillin, coumarin extracted from the tonka bean, and by mixing these results creates a unique and unexampled scent.  With some lavender, lemon and iris added Aimé composes a miracle. The bottle becomes revolutionary as well: it looks like a pharmacy jar closed with a champagne cork. Blue label suggests that initially the target audience was masculine, as Gabriel thought after the first sniff of Jicky. The perfumers understood that it is possible to play with bottle design in order to communicate more efficiently the perfume character.
At the turn of the century a great variety of perfumes inspired by Jicky began to mushroom: such as the synthetic Chanel No. 5, Coty L’Origan, Lanvin Arpège. However, Jicky will be fully appreciated only after the arrival of the same nephew Jicky: he will replace his uncle Aimé at the end of his career. Future masterpieces of Jacques such as L’Heure Bleue, Vol de Nuit, Mitsouko will broaden audience horizons, will make women feel more familiar with unusual perfumes, which is why later they will come back to Jicky and apologise for long years of silence.

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On the top of the pyramid of Jicky there is tangerine and bergamot, in the heart we can smell cool orris and rose embraced by vetiver. Contrary to the icy opening notes, the base of Jicky warms up with leather, vanilla and amber. Such a unique combination turned Jicky into a unisex fragrance – a real diamond which is still relevant and super modern after more than hundred years. Jicky was called the favourite perfume of Brigitte Bardot, Jackie Kennedy, Anita Ekberg from La dolce vita, Roger Moore, Sean Connery: the creature of Aimé is literally the bridge to the new modern world. Bad news is that now the current formula of Jicky is not the same as it used to be, which is why compared to the original Jicky the new one seems only a sad shadow of itself. Unfortunately, the world of perfumery has experienced a huge loss when animal materials were banned. One of them is civet as well as deer or beaver musk, extracted from musk glands, which was the main key to create uniqueness, sophistication and durability of a perfume. These animalistic notes surrounded by floral and herbal notes used to be the real haute perfumery which has little if anything to do with the pale sad modern versions of perfume replaced with synthetic components.

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Nevertheless, even after alteration of the original recipe, Jicky has remained a true ode to modernism and marks the beginning of the 20th century Guerlain creations. Jicky is The Bridge; like the first bird in spring which announces the need of revolution. Maybe this is why Jicky is the smell of a new life, a gulp of fresh air, when you don’t want but must close the door and start to think differently.

…and Guerlain will prove it more than once.

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