One could draw a comparison between the recent Canadian federal elections and Parisian cosmetics behemoth Guerlain, for in both a young, good-looking fellow won the coveted position of Prime Minister and Master In-House Perfumer, respectively, over the more qualified, highly logical opposition – but I digress. Below he is talking about L’Homme Idéal, sounding a fair bit like political propaganda. Ladies and gents, meet the current Mr. Guerlain.
I am talking, of course, about the 2010 appointment of Swiss perfumer Thierry Wasser over Patricia de Nicolaï, the niece of the last Guerlain family member to hold the position. Her uncle Jean-Paul Guerlain was the fourth and final in a line of talented perfumers that completely revolutionized the way we experience fine fragrance, before his ill-fated termination.
The house of Guerlain was founded in 1828, a small store at 42, rue de Rivoli. Pierre-François Guerlain created scents for not only French social elites, but also royalty at home and abroad. Upon his death sons Aimé and Gabriel took over the business, and so forth with third generation sons Jacques and Pierre until Jean-Paul’s eventual dethronement.
However, the trouble for Guerlain started even before the fateful day that Jean-Paul uttered a truly hideous racist comment on national French television. In 1994 Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, better known as luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, purchased Guerlain from the family, and in 2011 they furthered their ownership by buying over half of Djedi, the company that owns the rest of the historic brand. With his reins taken from him, Jean-Paul retired in 2002, remaining only an adviser, and as many loyal clients feared, this brought the traditional in-house creative process to a grinding halt in the early 2000’s.
As mainstream perfumery took over under new management, classics like Jacques Guerlain’s Shalimar ($72.99, FragranceNet.com*) from 1925 were tempered with and released as questionable flankers like Shalimar Light – an insulting move for such a respectable, heavy perfume adored by millions (later replaced by Eau de Shalimar – $50.99, FragranceNet.com*). The Aqua Allegoria line, introduced in the end of the 90’s and expanded as recently as this year, became a lower-end drugstore collection that retails for significantly less (approximately $70) than orthodox Guerlains (a recently reworked Parfum du 68 is going for 9,500 €, but typically a 100 ml bottle in department stores is anywhere in the $100-150 range). For a while it looked like all the incredible family history and every personal touch that made the Guerlain bottles so coveted and precious, was lost forever.
As discussed, Wasser was not the clear choice for returning things to the way they used to be. Before he received the official title he had won only two briefs for Guerlain while working at Firmenich: 2007’s Iris Ganache and Quand Vient la Pluie. For comparison, Maurice Roucel of German flavor and fragrance manufacturer Symrise had four Guerlain juices and two candles under his belt by 2005, not to mention the incredibly popular DKNY Be Delicious ($49.99, FragranceNet.com*) and Hermès’ 24 Faubourg ($137.99, FragranceNet.com*). And still, everyone watched with bated breath to see what he would do with his newfound powers. After all, it was highly unlike LVMH to butcher an established brand – they’re more in the business of growing than killing off.
Indeed, a year later there were seven new releases with Thierry’s stamp on them, ranging from his first two forays into the aforementioned Aqua Allegoria range, a new version of his 2008 Guerlain Homme ($53.99, FragranceNet.com*) and 2009 Idylle ($71.99, FragranceNet.com*), a brand new La Cologne Du Parfumeur, a bitter addition to the L’Art et la Matière line, and a bold take on Shalimar called Ode a la Vanille. Today his creations number at approximately 80+, and he is lovingly referred to as Jean-Paul’s “spiritual son.” He is certainly not related by blood (unlike another likely candidate), but since his appointment Thierry has shown respect to the brand and it appears for now to be safe in his hands. I can only advise him to stay off the French airwaves as much as possible.
Shalimar has been the house’s bread and butter for the last 90 years, one of the rare breed of fragrances that stands the test of time and then some. Legend has it that Jacques had dropped a vial of vanillin, the primary component of vanilla bean extract, into a bottle of Jicky ($92.99, FragranceNet.com*), the world’s oldest continuously-produced perfume, and what came out was Shalimar – voila! Whether or not the discovery had been an accident or a planned experiment remains a mystery, but one thing is for sure: people loved what came out! The scent, traditionally marketed to women, grew to be associated with love as big as Emperor Shah Jahan’s for his lover, for whom he built the Taj Mahal. Indeed, the 17 hand-crafted bottles of its 90th Anniversary Edition feature a 22.5-carat gold branch upon which two lovebirds sit. Today the face of the advertisements is Russian model Natalia Vodianova.
And yet, a fragrance with such heritage must stand on its own – no marketing campaign, no matter how grand and expensive, can keep a bottle on shelves very long if it is not worth smelling. And indeed, Shalimar is not worth smelling – it is worth living. The refined glass, leather tassel and amber juice give way to an intoxicating aroma as deep as time itself. Shalimar is unique in that unlike so many other juices it ages incredibly well, losing a bit of its effervescent citrusy top notes but turning into a bit of a beautiful acidic number that almost hints at the aldehydes of parfum days long gone. Shalimar opens with what can be a repulsive civet note, an ingredient that was extraordinarily popular in the past but is no longer so. It smoothly blends muted leather with smoky, incense-rich vanilla, forming a rather masculine aroma of mystery and warmth. It is perhaps ironic to call this a skin scent given its tremendous projection, but it sinks so well onto the bare skin of a warm body that it is like it is not even there. Absolutely glorious, the emotions captured here are seduction, timelessness, and numbness. Like bodiless floating in deep thought, or the comfort of entering a warm bed on the cool night.
I encourage you to experience Guerlain for yourself and learn all about this intriguing brand’s history of prestige and scandal. Other pieces to check out from the collection are the lush fruity bomb of La Petite Robe Noire ($85.99, FragranceNet.com*) the sleepy EDT ($72.99, FragranceNet.com*) of the former, and the cherry and almond L’Homme Idéal Cologne. You can find all of the Guerlain line, including makeup and skincare, for up to 75% off at FragranceNet.com.
*Prices true at time of writing.
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