Guerlain – from vinegar towards empire, part II

Part I – Guerlain – from vinegar towards empire, part I

La Belle Époque

After the peak of glory of Aimé in 1899, when he released the Eiffel tower perfume Jicky, Maison Guerlain met a new leader: it’s Aimé’s nephew Jicky himself or Jacques Guerlain. Just as Aimé and Gabriel, so the third generation – the sons of Gabriel Jacques and Pierre – had to split the duties. Pierre decided to take business administration and development exactly like his father Gabriel; while still a young teenager Jacques passed his days with his uncle Aimé in a laboratory, until becoming the official Guerlain nose in 1895.


Jacques is definitely the 20th century genius, in 60 years having given to the world the greatest masterpieces including the glorious eternal Guerlain flag Shalimar. The perfume revolution started with Jicky had to be developed by Jacques. And he did so.

His first perfume Jardin de mon curé (garden of my priest) created in 1895 and  Voila pourquoi j’aimais Rosine (that’s why I love Rosine) created five years later immediately made the French perfumers highly confused. What are these provocative names to mean? Why not to call them Rose garden or Narcissus bouquet? However Jacques kept smiling: he’s the first to have understood the philosophy of the sector. Perfume is not just perfume anymore; it’s a form of art, a synthesis of the image and of what’s inside; the harmony between the bottle, the ribbon, the name and the perfume itself. Guerlain Maison have been the first to sell a perfume and not a scent; not simply a medical bottle with some liquid but an emotion, a state of being and a personality.


In France then there was La Belle Époque which would last until the First World War. The tragedies of the 20th century would strongly highlight the contrast between the long dark and bloody period and the fascinating time of joy, prosperity, peace, excess and optimism. The rich used to go to the Opera theatre and casino; the others were left with cabarets and bistros. All you could see were rivers of absinth and wine; every night Moulin Rouge used to be overcrowded and the popularity of burlesque and can-can used to beat all records.

As if it wasn’t enough, Monmartre had its own queen, named La Goulue (the glutton). She was Louise Weber: the brightest cabaret star later put on the famous posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. La Goulue was so famous and successful that she decided to leave Moulin Rouge to strike out on her own. Unfortunately instead of having France at her feet she lost all her fans and got refused by everybody. La Goulue was so desperate she became an alcoholic and put on weight; and only somebody would later remember to have seen her back in Monmartre in 1928, selling cigarettes and peanuts at the corner.


However, Paris didn’t seem to care a bit: it was drowning in alcohol, fun and love. La Goulue was replaced by Jane Avril, the new cabaret diva. There was no time and place for sadness and sorrow. Haute couture and haute cuisine were booming: everybody used to put on colourful feathers and show off at the most expensive Maxim’s restaurant to pour champagne to the wide glasses designed following the breast shape of Marie Antoinette a century ago.



1906. It was late October when post-impressionist Paul Cézanne was working outdoors. Tiny drops of rain were falling down and after a few hours, already drenched, he decided to go home. Suddenly on the way he collapsed and stayed on the grass unconscious until some driver passing by saw him. At home a housekeeper kept massaging his hands and feet and Paul Cézanne felt recovered. The next day he decided to go back to work but immediately collapsed again and would never leave the bed from then. After a few days he died of pneumonia.

Nevertheless, France was dancing, the atmosphere was vibrating, joie de vivre kept dripping out of glasses, Pablo Picasso was having his joyful Rose Period. In 1906 Guerlain presented a new perfume – Après l’Ondée – one of the most beautiful and precious Guerlain creations. Après l’Ondée is a true impressionist painting, restoring the moment of a spring garden with rain which has already gone. Short spring rain showers are cool but fading away soon; they soak into the ground and move the flower stems. It’s an undoubtedly brilliant fragrance with extraordinary fragility and transience collected and put in one bottle by Jacques Guerlain. It invites to dance barefoot on dewy grass because the first rays of sunshine are already intruding and everything will be gone in a minute as if it had never existed. The first notes bring coolness: it’s cold water and wet stones, created with anise, bergamot and bitter almonds. But while you are trying to catch them they are already changing – the scent is getting warmer and softer. Water is evaporating, wet earth is drying, violet and iris are unfolding and get dryer and dryer to the powdery base, until all you have is only pieces of an impression, a memory of something you could never restore.


Just like France was living with the “now and here” philosophy, so did the caught impression tell us about the beauty and diziness of being. Perhaps that’s why for me Après l’Ondée is the saddest scent I’ve ever tried. It embodies some transparent sadness in a clear bottle. A heart-breaking nostalgia for something that maybe has never existed: the lovers left behind, big dreams, the memory of your dear ones making your fingers tremble. Everything seems to be real and unreal, existing and not, and even if it did, it would never happen again.


The war was coming. Jean-Paul Sartre was born who would develop the question of existence in the future, already marked by war. A few more years and Jacques would create the war predicting perfume – L‘Heure Bleue. However, it’s still too soon to worry, while everything’s booming and blooming and one can drown his sorrow in absinth.
Après l’Ondée is a perfume-painting, a merged watercolour, a fluttering skirt, a lock of hair on the eye, started and unfinished letters, never sent missings and dreamed hands; it’s a perfume for pale skin and desperate soul. 35 years later Virginia Woolf would end her life in water. It’s a heart-breaking and not a heart-repairing scent; when you still try to get up but collapse. A suicide perfume? Maybe, but doesn’t everything vanish every second and never come back?


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