Thursday, 29 May 2014

Guerlain - notes by Sally Blake

Les Parisiennes - a collection of re-editions of some of Guerlain's finest moments,
packaged up in their famous 'Bee' bottles
In one of his Master Classes, the great French cellist Paul Tortelier was attempting to convince his students that J. S. Bach’s 5th unaccompanied cello sonata symbolised the Creation of Man. With awesome emphasis, he drew his bow across the strings and proclaimed: “First, the Prophet! YOU MUST NOT! Then comes the thunder! (BOOM) Then, the lightning (CRASH), then the darkness...” Eyes blazing, eyebrows raised, he lowered his voice and continued: “Slowly, hesitantly, emerging from the sea...”

Overcome, he stopped and leaned forward, nostrils flaring: “The sea! It is the sea!” He breathed rapturously. “I can smell the salt!”

Turning again to the class, he demanded: “Can you not smell the salt?”

Totally mesmerised, his class sat, turned to stone. It did not seem that any one of them could smell the salt, even though one of them was also French, but he was extremely nervous and Tortelier was not only French, he was seen to be French.

Only a Frenchman could smell salt in a cello sonata. This is why the French dominate the perfume world.

Only France could have produced Paul Tortelier, and only a Frenchman could have named a perfume: Voila! Pourquoi J’amais Rosine!

Naturally, it was a Guerlain.

The Perfumes

Jicky – 1889
The one that started it all: Jicky

1889 was the year of the Great Universal Exhibition in Paris and the completion of the Eiffel Tower.

It was the year that Paul Gauguin painted his “Yellow Christ” and Henri de Toulouse de Lautrec painted “Au Bal de la Galette”; - it was also the year that the tormented Vincent van Gogh gave up the struggle and took his own life.

It was one year before the massacre of the Sioux tribe at Wounded Knee, and the year that Jean Cocteau was born. Whether by intent or coincidence, from early manhood until the day he died, Cocteau always wore Jicky.

With this scent, a pet-name for Jacques, Aime Guerlain created what was to prove the most beloved of all the Guerlain fragrances. Not perhaps the most famous, maybe not even the most stylish, but certainly the most fond.

Après L’Ondée - 1906
Guerlain’s sublime evocation of a rain-drenched summer garden came into being in the year which saw the deaths of both Ibsen and Cézanne.

It was the year of the San Francisco earthquake, and the year after earthquakes of another kind; when Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, and Freud his Theory of Sexuality.

Utrillo painted Paris seen from the Place Saint-Pierre, and Roualt painted the “Girl with a Mirror”. Meanwhile, Edvard Munch designed costumes for a production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, and Galsworthy published the first instalment of “The Forsyte Saga”.

In America, the Barrymores ruled the stage, Isadora Duncan had begun her dance, and if George M. Cohan was under the impression he would own Broadway forever, someone by the name of Florenz Ziegfeld was rehearsing his first Follies.

Après L’Ondée is not a scent for simpletons of either sex: deceptively innocent, extraordinarily subtle [and powdery], it will creep up behind you and bind you in silken threads so tight that you won’t even be able to open your mouth to cry help.

Vague Souvenir – 1912
Composition unknown
Surely one of the most evocative, tantalising names ever to grace a label, Vague Souvenir. What? One wonders. A memory? Of whom? Of where? Of what?

Was it just a momentary recollection, never fully recalled? A sad romance? A memory of childhood? Lost innocence?

One has this image: a self-assured woman, comfortably situated, well-dressed, elegant, serene. A delightful home, a charming husband and family. A busy and fulfilling social life. No worries, no fears, but perhaps regrets? Possibly...

Suddenly, into this total security and serenity something strikes a chord in her memory. Doors, long closed in her conscious mind, open briefly then close again. But for one fleeting moment, something she had forgotten, or tried to forget, has touched her again. Perhaps a man. More than probably.

Successful in his chosen field, respected by his colleagues, enjoying and enjoyed by a wide circle of friends, charming wife, delightful children, lovely home... stops off at the tobacconist on his way to the office, and a wisp of something in the air transports him in one split second to another time, another place, and to someone in particular who once meant so much...

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
To the door we never opened
Into the rose garden...

Perhaps those unbearably touching lines from Eliot are the key to Vague Souvenir, surely the saddest, most bittersweet name ever given to a perfume.

L’Heure Bleu – 1912
Cloves/Carnation/Woody Violet
1912 saw the Balkan Wars and the death of Strindberg. Picasso and Braque were presenting their first paper collages, Chagall painted “The Cattle Dealer”, Schönberg presented “Pierrot Lunaire”, and Anatole France was writing “Les Dieux ont Soif”.

The rage of Paris was “Le Grand Meaulnes”, the first and last book by a young man named Alain Fournier, destined to be killed in the Great War looming ahead.

With a certain synchronicity, Guerlain produced L’Heure Bleue which is to perfume what “Le Grand Meaulnes” is to literature: haunting, elusive, mysterious and eternal: the one destined to produce the other. Like many great men with nothing to prove and a nose for the divine, L’Heure Bleue was reputed to be favoured by Sir Laurence Olivier, whilst his wife, the equally divine Vivien Leigh, stayed true to Caron’s Bellodgia. A truly fragrant if doomed couple surely.

The most luxurious ocean liner ever built, the “unsinkable” Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage to New York with almost total loss of life, symbolising a way of life soon to disappear forever, with the world trembling on the brink of the most terrible war thus far experienced.

[The following musing on the Titanic was found on a separate sheet under the heading “L’Heure Bleue”]

On the floor of the ocean, the ballrooms are silent, the weeds wave, and the fishes swim between the marble pillars in green twilight, startling their own reflections in the mirrors.

In the restaurants, the damask tablecloths have fallen into lace, the crystal clouded, the porcelain dimmed. The ice-buckets have grown barnacles, and on the floor, the unopened champagne rolls gently, chilled and maturing beyond all expectation.

On the sun decks, pages of “Le Grand Meaulnes” dissolve with parasols under rugs, and on the dressing tables, bottles of L’Heure Bleue crust into still-life with the tarnished silver-backed hair brushes and hand-mirrors.

Mitsoukou – 1919
1919 saw the end of the War to end all Wars and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hope once again triumphed over experience and set up the League of Nations. August Renoir survived the war, only to die at the end of it.

Dada groups formed in Cologne and Berlin, and the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar.

Meanwhile, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes staged “La Boutique Fantasque, Man Ray produced “Jazz”, Erik Satie produced “Socrates”, and Picasso designed the costumes for [productions of] “Le Tricorne” and “Pulcinella”.

Amadeo Modigliani’s daughter was born to a father with less than a year to live, her mother would wait only slightly longer before throwing herself of a Paris roof.

In America, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and Prohibition (of the sale of alcohol) became reality, bringing with it the birth of the bootlegger and the Speakeasy, and ensuring the future fortunes of Al Capone and his crew, whilst in India, a former attorney, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was preparing to launch his programme of Civil Disobedience against the British Raj.

1919 also saw the creation of two of the most outstanding and enduring perfumes in the history of perfumery: Mitsouko by the master, Jacques Guerlain, and Tabac Blond by Ernest Daltroff for Caron – but more of that in another chapter.

Diaghilev, who had originally favoured another Guerlain scent, L’Heure Bleu, immediate switched his allegiance to Mitsouko, which has been identified with him ever since. Defying analysis, you can sniff and search as much as you like, you will never pinpoint its elusive soul. Redolent, as so many perfumes of that time, of the Ballet Russes. Once, when wearing it, a taxi-driver refused my fare. “Not after how you’ve made my cab smell, love!” He said.

“Ah,” sighed my Parisien friend, Madeleine; “he was a poet...”

Shalimar – 1925

Sally Blake
The famous bottle with its Ceylon sapphire coloured glass stopper was designed by Raymond Guerlain in the same year that the Cloche hat came into fashion, Ravel wrote “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”, Mondrian presented “The New Forms” and Thomas Mann published “The Magic Mountain”.

Emma Blake
In the popular HBO television series, “The Sopranos”, Shalimar is “Uncle Junior” Corrado Soprano’s weapon of choice when launching any assault on any new lady. She will be sent a bottle of the stuff, usually with an invitation to Atlantic City. The invitation may not always be accepted, but none of his “goomaras” has ever sent the bottle back. Such is the enduring power of this scent.

Habanita – 1921 (Molinard)
No, I know it’s not a Guerlain, it was in fact created by Molinard, but if Shalimar is the scent of the lady, then we are supposed to assume that Habanita is the scent of the “Cocotte”, and it not only deserves special mention, but an Access All Areas pass into the Guerlain chapter...

Habanita is simply one of the most loved fragrances of all time. If, to smell like a high-class chocolatier-cum-patisserie, warm, cuddly, and as appetizing as vanilla, is to smell like a “cocotte”, then can this really be so bad? Patchouli features, as it does in any good “cocotte’s” perfume, along with something like the smell of burning joss-sticks (of the best and most expensive kind of course).

There seems to be a little conflicting wisdom as to the true year of Habanita’s launch. My mother originally claimed 1934, yet The Perfume Handbook asserts 1924.

Neither, it was in fact 1921. The confusion arises from the fact it has been presented in several different flacons, the most famous being ‘Beauty’ by René Lalique et Cie, a black crystal bottle with a sculptured frieze of caryatids, but aso in a flacon named ‘Diamond’ made by Cristalleries de Baccarat in 1934

Liu – 1933
Powdery Jasmine

Named after the tragic character of the Chinese slave girl who sacrifices herself for love in Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, Guerlain produced Liu in a Baccarat flacon of deepest amethyst crystal in an “Odéon” box of black and gold.

Appropriately enough, the same year saw the Long March in China, Lorca wrote “Blood Wedding” (Bodas de Sangre), Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented The New Deal to his fellow Americans, and Prohibition ended.

Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and his Nazi Party immediately put an end to the “decadent” activities of the Bauhaus.

General notes found in a folder:

An extremely penetrating, sweet and troubling perfume, very taking, very tempting, but not perhaps of the utterly disoignified good tast which is the final word of a great perfume. Coty’s Antique Amber and Idylle approach nearer Jacqueminot Rose was also a great sale.

“American women visit the establishment on the Faubourg S. Honoré just below the British Embassy for the historic associations. In front of the old.....
...........Hopper who, he says, earned him $80,000 last year.”

“Zina was chatting with the Master about ‘chemical odours’. The Perfume Princess knows perfectly that there is practically no ‘natural’ violet and that the most delicious product requires a mixture of aniline (coal tar) violet, and the violet drawn from what she said was Iris.

“Violet, the old true violet,” said the ‘Older’ Guerlain, “costs $2,600 a kilo...”

It was possible for him to be deceived by the raw material merchants.
“We buy flower essences from Grasse and Bulgaria.” Said Jacques.

“Undoubtedly there is some little... manipulation, I am convinced that no Bulgarian has ever brought to Paris the tiniest phial of perfect pure rose essense, but there is a limit to their little tricks.”

He mentioned various tests by which the perfumers protect themselves; polarisation of light, the evaporation test, and above all, the trained ‘Nose’.

A pure and simple coal tar perfume could not be foisted on a first class perfumer as a real flower essence. I know the Guerlain sons, Jacques and Pierre, spend whole afternoons personally taking the musk from the pouches, handling the rose ambergris, inspecting strips of Spanish leather, and arrivals of exotic woods. The Guerlain’s Sillage, a refined and lasting man’s perfume of the $3 series, has a basis of oriental odorous wood, growing in a certain limited district, discovered by their grandfather. Its importation is a secret. M. Guerlain Pére has frequently been heard to say that when the wood of that little district is used up, there will be no more Sillage.

“Mere names of perfumes give you no idea - You must smell them.”

For example, as many manufacturers, so there are as many different Chypres. Indeed, there is ideally no such perfume, Walter Scott mentions it, and in Houbigant’s Quintessences of 1775 – there is a Cipris. Guerlain has a Cyprisine. “Chypre” was a very successful mixture of Atkinson’s many years ago, and as he did not protect the name in France, all the perfumers took it, each making his own according to fancy. The Guerlain Chypre de Paris – I heard this in conversation from one of the sons (Guerlain), and not at all for publication – is a sum total of perfume value, distinction, strength, lasting qualities, which it would be practical......

.... customer. This invention of ‘personal’ odours is an expensive summit of the perfume craze. I shall not touch it because the true perfume amateur, as the Princess says, ‘is not content with one odour, five or ten’. She may have favourites, but is always seeing something new’. The ‘personal’ perfume is merely the mark of the vain woman, many attempt it, cheaply, by mixing. They make messes.

We stood in the famous shop on the Rue de la Paix. It also if of historic interest, by reason of the distinguished personages who have been among the clients of the firm. King Edward VII when Prince of Wales, was a regular customer. On the firm’s books appear the names of Queen Alexandra, the Queen of the Belgians, Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and all the Grand Dukes. The Guerlains moved in about the year 1840 from a shop in the Hôtel Meurice, which had opened in 1828. Shortly, they will remove to the Avenue des Champs Elysees, while Côty opens his first retail shop in the Rue de la Paix.

They were talking about names.

“One must know what one wants.” Said the Perfume Princess. “Do you like a musked perfume? None of the great houses have been able to make a refined modern essence based on musk, but they are musked. If you do not like it, you might regret to tumble on Ai-Loë or Bon Vieux Temps, both strongly musked.”

“I like all perfumes,” continued fair Zina, “but if I had to make a choice, I’d take Kadine, and Rue De La Paix, and perhaps Purple Lilac

Kadine is an Iris, but so fragrant and lasting, so arranged and dressed up, that it seems a Queen of Odours.

Rue de la Paix is softly sweet, restful, nothing pungent, but haunting and even makes a crave. Both cost $5 the smallest bottle, of scarcely 70 grammes liquid...


Zina would appear to have been Mlle Zinda Brozia, the so-called Perfume Princess of Paris, and the quotes attributed to her to have come from an article in the The Times Democrat of New Orleans, Sunday, March 9, 1913.

Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs - 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts was originally planned for 1915, so, having been designed some 10 years earlier, none of the pavilions were exactly ‘le dernier cri’.

Britain’s contribution was miniscule; America and Germany - home of the vastly influential and far-reaching Bauhaus – not represented at all.

The Eiffel Tower dominated the whole with a neon-lit advertisement for Citroën blazing down one side.

The main attraction was Cocteau’s barge, an extension of his nightclub: “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” moored on the quayside.

In a desperate and doomed attempt to turn public taste away from Chanel’s stark modernity back to the more comfortable realms of OTT, Paul Poiret had no fewer than three barges designed by Dufy; “Amour” – a nightclub and restaurant, “Delices” – a theatre, and “Orgue” for objets d’art.

One gets the definite impression that time has lent gloss to what seems to have been a distinctly tacky affair; not unlike the ridiculous Festival of Britain in 1951, and like all such events, far better to imagine than to have experienced.

Still, Raymond Guerlain did use it as an excuse to design the most famous scent bottle in the world for their superb Shalimar, so it can’t all have been bad.

Sally Blake
Date unknown