My interest in Guerlain began in 2000 when I discovered Vetiver, although it wasn’t love at first sight. Looking at the bottles I could tell the brand was ‘old’ and in this stage of my life I was looking forward to the future and only interested in things that took me there. Although I liked perfume my interest went no further than heading to a department store to walk the perfume area and sample fragrances, a great way to pass time when you are a university student on a student budget. I distinctly remember discovering the Guerlain counter. It was small and understated. The bottles’ sculpted silhouettes were exotic and foreign in comparison to the sleek modern lines of the CK, Boss and Armani packaging I was accustomed to. With time I have come to appreciate the historic importance of a brand like Guerlain. The deeper I went the more I fell in love with their story and a line of fragrances that lead instead of follow, the way the we appreciate perfume. This month I visited their Maison on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees where I was able to learn more about the brand, which began almost two hundred years ago.
As I walked away from this experience I felt I had gotten to know Paris a little better. I realised this experience was as informative and emotive as any tour Paris has to offer from it’s repertoire of tourism gems. To explore each of their historic perfumes gives you insight into the minds and hearts of Parisians who have lived within the city’s famous arrondissements. Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain opened his doors to the world in 1828. The young perfumer began creating a number of colognes that were sold along side imported English soaps and vinegars. In his early years he experienced growing success. A success that shot to stardom following his appointment by Empress Eugenie as the Purveyor of Perfumes to Her Majesty in 1853. Guerlain’s gift to the young queen was Eau de Cologne Imperiale, a scent the queen is said to have rubbed on her temples to ease her migraines.
By 1914 Guerlain began trading from their current address on the Champs-Elysees. Architect, Charles Mewes designed the building that is now protected as an historic site. At this time the Champs-Elysees was still largely undeveloped with much of the surrounding land used for horticulture. Guerlain had gardens just beyond the Arc de Triomphe, which cultivated roses used for their precious oils. At the turn of the century Guerlain soaps were highly regarded. The sapoceti were made from whale fat (obviously no longer used) and scented with Guerlain’s various perfumes. Under the stairwell of the ground floor you will see a grid of silver smithed trays that housed the various sapoceti sold from the Maison.
Also on the ground level are a series of antique bottles spanning the company’s history. Each example shows the evolution of design with works in crystal and glass. Discussing the brand’s long line of historic fragrances inevitably leads to a conversation of Jicky. Created by Aime Guerlain, the son of Pierre-Francois-Pascal in 1889, Jicky is considered by many perfume historians to be the first perfume that was conceptual instead of a combination of ingredients made to replicate a flower or other raw material. Jicky was the story of Aime’s love for an English woman he met as a student. She accepted his proposal for marriage but her parents did not consent. Aime returned to Paris from England broken-hearted. He died at the age of 55 and never married. While Fougere Royale (1882) was the first perfume to use synthetic materials Jicky is often discussed for its use of coumarin, an aromachemical derived from natural origins and found in high concentrations in tonka bean. Its powdery vanillic odour is one of the brands key signatures that are referred to by Guerlain as The Guerlinade. It is this signature or DNA that is impressed upon the house’s many creations. At the time of Jicky’s launch the perfume was given a cold reception by Parisians. High society was wearing eau de cologne and women thought Jicky’s carnal civet note was far too suggestive. Some men dared to wear the unusual scent. It took women years to appreciate Aime’s creation which became hugely popular during the roaring twenties when women traded in their crinoline dresses and perhaps under the spell of Coco Chanel, began to be more adventurous in their fashion and perfume choices. Apres L’Ondee is another of the house’s classics. Created in 1906 by third generation perfumer, Jaques Guerlain during the Belle Epoque era, Apres L’Ondee is an impressionistic vision of the scent of air following a rain shower. L’Heure Bleue was another impressionistic composition created by Jacques in 1912. A plush accord of florals, musk and spices L’Heure Bleue references the hour of dusk on clear summer evenings when the light takes on a blue hue. Jacques incorporated aldehydes into his composition over a decade before they found their way into Ernest Beaux’s mammoth Chanel No 5. While L’Heure Bleue has a more feminine appeal it is Mistouko that I enjoy most from this era of Guerlain history. Considering both L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko were created on either side of World War I, both fragrances must sum up the atmosphere of life in Paris during their time. The romanticism of L’Heure Bleue has changed and a more sombre mood is seen in the post-war Mitsouko. The lavish floral notes have been stripped back to a simple structure, said to reference Coty’s Le Chypre from 1917. Jacques’ interpretation moves away from the leathery tobacco accord in preference of a composition that revolves around the classic chypre style of oakmoss and patchouli with an innovative addition of aldehyde C14, commonly used to create a peach note. This classic scent is hailed as one of the greatest perfumes ever created and is referred to affectionately by the Guerlain house as the “Pride of Guerlain”. Mitsouko is also a love story based on a fictional character of French author, Claude Farrere.
Moving upstairs to the mezzanine the Guerlain collection expands to its full capacity. Shalimar bottles line the walls. An exclusive gesture that has since ceased was for clients to visit the Maison to refill their Shalimar bottles from the glass tubes that pumped the scent directly to the client. Although this is no longer possible the remaining glass tubes are a nice reminder and had me thinking as to which scent I would choose if it was possible to plumb my apartment with a favourite perfume.
Overlooking the Champs-Elysees is Guerlain’s L’Art et la Matiere line. Launched in 2005 under the artistic direction of Sylvaine Delacourte, she selected a range of perfume noses, each creating an eau de parfum that reflects a particular raw ingredient. The raw materials themselves are also on display to allow visitors to sample them in their unprocessed form. Previously the Maison hosted an exhibition of vanilla pods from around the world, demonstrating the diversity of the scent that is a key ingredient for Guerlain. Some varieties are sweet, others musky, another is smokey.
The Maison has an educative approach. Staff are generous to share the company’s rich history with visitors. Raw materials such as orris root, precious woods and spices are available to sample giving a better understanding of perfume composition. Another of the interactive animations within the Maison is a series of small booths. Each booth contains a range of scented objects that recreate the mood of a classic Guerlain scent. The booth door contains a short poem that upon opening triggers an electronic mechanism to release the scent you can experience by putting your head into the space. My favourite was Vega, a scent Jacques Guerlain dedicated to Josephine Baker in 1933 as Paris opened its arms to Jazz music.
Of the masculines in the collection, Arsene Lupin Dandy and Voyou are rumoured to be the final fragrances Jean-Paul Guerlain will create following his retirement. In 2008 Thierry Wasser was appointed in-house perfumer for Guerlain becoming the first non-family member to take on this title. Venturing into the corners of the Maison you begin to discover its many hidden treasures. One such treasure is a small leather trunk housing eighteen of Guerlain’s iconic scents. This is one of the remaining 204 that were made in 2008 as a celebration of 180 years.
Another discovery is truly a work of art. Last year the house collaborated with Louis Vuitton’s Creative Director of Fine Jewellery, Lorenz Baumer to create a numbered edition of forty-six bottles cut from Baccarat crystal. These bottles are shaped like a honeybee, the original emblem used to present Eau de Cologne Imperiale to Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. The bee was the Napoleonic symbol of efficiency and productivity and the beehive bottles subsequently used by Guerlain are one of the brand icons. The content is an eau de parfum, 245ml. Perfumer Thierry Wasser wanted to create a fragrance that viewed a garden from a bee’s perspective. The juice contains notes of summer flowers: mimosa, orange blossom, jasmine and of course an essential note of honey. More than a foot tall this would have made a nice souvenir of my visit however I was unable to locate 12500 euro in my wallet to pay for it.
In terms of other luxuries reserved for a select few, Guerlain also offer a variety of customisation services. Their bespoke consultations take place in a private room off the first floor. Clients are presented with an extensive range of accords and single notes that assist the bespoke perfumer in her consultation to identify the client’s desires and preferences for their own signature Guerlain perfume. The consultation and creation process can take up to a year and while I prefer not to talk about prices the fee of up to 60 000 euro a creation is truly exceptional. I was recently conversing with a colleague who defined luxury as “that moment when emotion overtakes reason”. If I ever had such a moment, this would be it…. Perhaps another day!
For those less able to indulge, Guerlain also offer a range of personalisation services such as initialled bottles of your favourite fragrance in either plain of gilded bee bottles. Another hidden luxury is the beauty spa above the boutique. Scaling the stairs the spa opens out into a corridor with rooms that run off it, each named after a Guerlain fragrance. French architect and interior designer Andree Putman oversaw the renovation of the historic building. Within the waiting room opaque partitions create the notion of light and openness whilst still providing a level of privacy. Clients relax and enjoy this space before being taken to a private room for treatments.
Whilst the boutique chandelier is a new addition, in the spa, many of the original fittings and light fixtures have been restored. Returning to the ground level it has been two hours well spent. I did come here with a shopping agenda and I leave with a bottle of Chamade Pour Homme. Originally launched in 1999 as half of a limited Valentine’s Day set called Les Coeurs de Chamade, it was the masculine half of the feminine Chamade, created in 1969. Guerlain have relaunched it as part of Les Pariennes, a line of archival perfumes available in a limited number of Guerlain point-of-sale around the world. There is a lot to smell and experience at the Guerlain Maison and I strongly recommend reserving some time to explore the earlier works created by the house. Not many perfume houses can say they have a history like Guerlain and experiencing it in the place where much of their history was forged was today, my personal luxury.
68 Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris.