The Last Century
La Belle Époque was coming to the end – the war was close. It was 1912 when Jacques Guerlain released L’Heure Bleue – The Blue Hour.
While creating L’Heure Bleue Jacques had in mind Paris at dusk, the short hour when blue twilight covers the city and lingers over it. This is also a symbolic suspicion of the World War I, it’s like an announcement of the dark and desperate future. The mood of L’Heure Bleue is somehow similar to the impressionistic masterpiece Après l’Ondée. However, L’Heure Bleue is more melancholy, it doesn’t strike with coolness but is rather soft and more powdery. The first sniff brings an impression of medical bandages, a strange feeling of a drugstore. On the other hand, simultaneously comes another side bringing a realistic perception of a tart, fresh yeast and almonds.
Despite confectionery notes, L’Heure Bleue remains cool and mysterious and doesn’t get too sweet to recall nauseous oily oriental flowers. It seems that the scent is always about to change, to reveal and to betray itself, but it never does: it stays gracious and heavily light, and all you can imagine is walking down the street in the evening while painful cold air is hitting your face but you are thinking about something so deeply that you don’t feel it at all. Not only is L’Heure Bleue the eternal love of mine: among its fans we find Catherine Deneuve, Julia Roberts and Elizabeth II. This is the perfume you don’t want others to have. It’s like your inner voice – something so close and intimate yet so painful and silent that there’s no need to talk.
L’Heure Bleue leads the Guerlain Wartime Big Three lineup. In 1919 Jacques presented Mitsouko, inspired by the then popular novel “La Bataille”. It was based on a love story of a Japanese wife and a British officer during the war of 1905 between Russia and Japan. The perfume Mitsouko is the first to associate sexuality with the Japanese culture. Despite the fact that the Western world was used to see Japan as the largest market of minimalist ozone perfume, the Japanese adore Mitsouko more than any other Guerlain perfume. The fact is, the erotic chypre of Mitsouko is intellectual. It has nothing to do with the typical woman picture perceived by a typical Western man. Such a shallow perception always tends to be too sweet and too straightforward, thus leaving no time for more sophisticated games.
Guerlain unofficially dedicate L’Heure Bleue for blondes and Mitsouko for brunettes. Strangely enough, you can clearly see the first one worn by Catherine Deneuve and Marlene Dietrich, while Mitsouko stole the heart of Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, the fake blond Jean Harlow and even Charlie Chaplin. The bottle design of L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko is identical, featuring the same upside down heart shaped stopper. One perfume was released before the war, the second after the war; however, the same design communicates the same expectation, the same trembling future and the same suspicion of another tragedy. The character of Mitsouko is different: it’s sharper, more intense and reveals peach, oakmoss and amber. Nevertheless, Mitsouko and L’Heure Bleue remain like two wartime sisters – one is more romantic and quiet, another is fierce and warlike, still relevant, perhaps wearing a leather jacket and walking on gravel with a cigarette in her mouth.
The perfumer Ernest Beaux described Jacques Guerlain in these words: “When I use vanilla, I get crème caramel. When Jacques uses vanilla, he gets Shalimar“. Shalimar was created in 1921 and re-released in 1925 in a Baccarat bottle. Shalimar was the third wartime sister, inspired by the wonderful story of Taj Mahal built for Mumtaz Mahal. It is said that the idea of Shalimar was born when Jacques put a handful of vanilla in a bottle of Jicky! Indeed, Shalimar combines vanillin and coumarin of Jicky with opopanax and labdanum. Shalimar was the first perfume to start a new confectionery perfume era which also stood for the Orient and their way of living. The modern perception of the Eastern world wouldn’t surely include passion, heavy eye make-up and exotic dancing. However, this is what the Orient was to people at the beginning of the 20th century; and it was embodied by Shalimar. The Roaring Twenties atmosphere is beautifully restored in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris”: if it had to have a scent, it would undoubtedly be Shalimar. Intense rose combined with jasmin, vanillin softness and animalistic base notes compound such a deep and powerful fragrance that, according to the perfume expert Roja Dove, it was said that a lady never does those three things: dance the tango, smoke cigarettes and wear Shalimar. Nevertheless, not only has this bold and revolutionary perfume become the flagship fragrance of Guerlain, but it’s been the national pride of France since then. Shalimar was the favourite perfume of Rita Hayworth, nowadays Gina Lollobrigida, Meryl Streep and Leatitia Casta are just a few among thousands of fans. Such fact proves that womanhood always wins, no matter if before, during or after war.
The Roaring Twenties in Paris must have been fascinating. The post-war women kept getting more emancipated, jazz was everywhere as well as smoking cigarettes and wearing short dresses with bare legs; André Breton introduced surrealism, Art Déco was booming; the new rich were springing up due to the post-war inflation; everybody went shopping at Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou and Coco Chanel…Nobody could tell though that those were the last years of joie de vivre and the world would face the 1929 financial crisis.
There is no doubt though that there is no crisis for Maison Guerlain. The company was stable in Jacques’ hands and, as if it wasn’t enough, the empire kept expanding. Shalimar was already being sold in the North American market; Guerlain opened the third store in Paris in 1933 and five years later – Institut de beauté in Elysian Fields.
1930 was the year of the beautiful aldehydic Liu, brought back to the Christmas 2012 make-up edition. Then Vol de Nuit came out, inspired by the novel of Antoine Saint Exupery. It’s a gorgeous flat bottle with a relief of a golden moving aircraft propeller. Vol de Nuit is the scent of a cold sky with a hint of wood, adored and popularized by Marlene Dietrich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Carla Bruni.
The Guerlain factory was destroyed by bombardments during the World War II. However, they built a new one already in 1947 and also opened the forth boutique in Paris. Jacques finished his career with Ode and in 1955 passed the company to his nephew Jean-Paul Guerlain, who was able to recognize 3000 scents at the age of 17! He soon proved the mastery and genius of his family by creating Vétiver. Released in 1959 it has been one of the best vetiver fragrances ever, appreciated both by men and women. During the Cold War Jean-Paul developed the make-up line and could simultaneously count the increasing number of fans and boutiques. A few decades later Guerlain launched another perfume for men – Habit Rouge – a classic citrus, leathery and woody cocktail. In a couple of decades Jean-Paul managed to compose such characteristic perfumes as the sharp herbal Chamade, the intense rose Nahéma, the famous mimosa based Champs-Elysées and the highly Parisian Jardins de Bagatelle, which seemed stolen directly from the Marie Antoinette’s boudoir.
Exactly 100 years had passed after the Eiffel Tower perfume Jicky. In 1989 Jean-Paul created his last masterpiece before selling the company to LVMH. Samsara. The first perfume – concept which had to be launched in the market with a huge advertising campaign and even bigger costs. Samsara is cycle of life, of birth and rebirth. More precisely – a scary emptiness and meaninglessness; carnal joy, births, deaths, tears, words, sins, hopes and expectations. Everything that Siddharta saw and thought about under the tree; an illusion, a karmic chain, a damned circle you have to escape from to reach nirvana. Samsara – this is the name Jean-Paul embodied the whole Guerlain cycle of life and then sold it to the biggest luxury goods world group. It is said that the fans of Guerlain split in two while talking about Samsara: those who love Shalimar and those who love Samsara. You can’t be both. Truth is, I still can’t wear the heavy and suffocating Shalimar, whereas Samsara was my first and eternal love, which followed me at school through many fears and dreams and which still reminds me of those who were close and who could have been closer. A beautifully cold scent which usually causes a love-hate reaction but which you want to sniff again and again. Samsara is at its very best when it’s cold outside. It makes the butterflies move in your stomach. It’s dramatic and bold and (fortunately) it has never been popular among those who usually prefer sweet pink fruity mixtures. However, every woman should try it, especially when it’s cool outside. Most of the Guerlain creations unfold wonderfully in the rain, fog, frost or the blue hour…
Since LVMH bought the company, the old tradition of Maison Guerlain has completely changed. Soon the market was filled with pinky violet eau de toilette and often too commercial limited editions. This is why the true Guerlain fans tend to look back for the past century – especially when the choice is so numerous. Behind every Guerlain bottle there is a different muse, a different story, a different era. Thus, it makes Guerlain not simply a perfume house but rather the most authentic mirror of society and lifestyle: it’s a way to learn about what people used to live for, what they used to read and what they used to believe in. It’s an olfactory book of history which makes daily perfume wearing a rather philosophical concept.
Sometimes it is better to rely on a trusted basis because if they have survived the war, we are going to get through it as well.