Mouchoir de Monsieur (Gentleman’s Handkerchief) is one of the many chapters that form the fascinating story of French perfume house Guerlain. While the house’s most significant competitors have dwindled with age or they are no longer recognisable having changed ownership many times, Guerlain is a rare case, producing perfumes that have histories spanning a period of nearly two hundred years. Before 2008, the position of House Perfumer was always occupied by a Guerlain descendant and through this careful guardianship, a family style was established, namely the eponymous Guerlinade – a secret melange of tonka bean, resins, vanilla, bergamot, orris and flower extracts. It is a signature that can be found in almost every Guerlain perfume since Jicky (1889). In addition to this, each generation of Guerlain perfumer had his own individual style and Mouchoir de Monsieur comes from the house’s Belle Epoque era. It was created in 1904 by third generation perfumer, Jacques Guerlain. Although different in terms of olfactory structure, Mouchoir de Monsieur shares a similar dreamy, pastel-tone quality found in Apres L’Ondee (1906) and L’Heure Bleue (1912), which is characteristic of the perfumer’s style before World War I. Mouchoir de Monsieur elaborates on the structure of Jicky, a perfume created by Jacques’ uncle and predecessor, Aimé Guerlain. Today this ‘fougere’ harmony of bergamot, lavender, geranium and synthetic coumarin is a major cornerstone in men’s perfumery but it was a highly novel and innovative concept for early 20th century perfumery. When Mouchoir de Monsieur was launched it was presented as the masculine counterpart to Violette de Madame. This idea of a ‘his and hers’ perfume collection was another revolutionary idea for marketing perfume at the time. The name referenced a gentleman’s handkerchief, which Parisian men would scent with cologne and present to a mademoiselle as a symbol of his affection for her. Mouchoir de Monsieur was eventually discontinued but perfume folklore tells us that Guerlain continued to produce the fragrance as a special order for King Juan Carlos of Spain and actor Jean-Claude Brialy. In the late 1980s it rejoined Guerlain’s men’s collection. These days it is still available to the public but only through a limited number of Guerlain boutiques around the world.
Jacques Guerlain’s Monchoir de Monsieur begins in a similar fashion to Jicky. There is the acidic rush offered by oils extracted from the fruit peel and flowers of citrus trees and bracing lavender top notes. It is a combination that references Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale (1830). This Eau de Cologne accord is dominated by aromatic and slightly spicy absinthe oil. The subtle aura of geranium adds a minty rose-coloured backlight to these refreshing top notes, which cruise at an amiable altitude until the fragrance makes a gracious swan dive into another realm. The descent is cushioned by jasmine and rose petals as warm spices much like Jicky’s cinnamon rise up, bringing with them woodiness – presumably cedar, sandalwood, patchouli and a touch of vetiver. What makes Mouchoir de Monsieur so attractive is its animalic charm. Powered by civet and robust, cuddly musks, which in 1904 must surely have been made from the real thing, Mouchoir de Monsieur has a glorious dry down. Although many comparisons can be made with Jicky, Mouchoir de Monsieur’s dry down is where a line of separation is most easily perceived. While Jicky’s civet is somewhat hidden behind an overdose of sandalwood, Mouchoir de Monsieur celebrates this exotic ingredient and brings civet cats and musk deer together in a cordial waltz. For me this combination of rich and complex animal notes gives Mouchoir de Monsieur the allure of a fur jacket more than a silk or cotton gentleman’s handkerchief. I know many historic perfume houses do not wish to be seen as museums so I have to applaud Guerlain for continuing to produce this relic of perfumes past. If word of its discontinuation came again, I would be stocking up by the litre.
To be honest it took me some time to get my head around Mouchoir de Monsieur and my first two attempts to appreciate it made me question what all the fuss was about. This reaction was due to several factors. The main ones being, when you find yourself inside La Maison Guerlain you gorge yourself on the contents of all the display bottles and it is an olfactory feast. The subtle nature of Mouchoir de Monsieur can easily be lost amidst the clouds of Shalimar and several other heavy hitters the house is known for. My other mistake was not allocating sufficient time with the fragrance to truly appreciate its dry down. It is a style of shopping we are all too accustomed to and modern perfume houses know this well. A lot of effort is made to ensure today’s perfumes open with olfactory fireworks and their smells are immediately appealing from the paper test strips since consumers are known to decide if a perfume is liked or disliked during these first few minutes of sampling. Often the rest of the fragrance is not given the same attention to detail and sadly, many modern perfumes dry down to become an all too familiar cut-and-paste copy of vanilla, musk and amber wood. The old way of creating perfumes (which thankfully is still practiced in many perfume houses) came with a more holistic perspective. Care and great attention was given to ensure perfumes contained interesting twists and turns as the perfume evolved on skin over the course of hours. Making a comparison with cinema, Mouchoir de Monsieur has the appeal of an old black and white movie. If you are seeing it for the first time in 2014, the plot will not surprise you because you have seen countless movies that came after it, all of which borrowed heavily from the original’s successful formula. The plot moves awkwardly slow compared to the fast-paced and special effects driven blockbusters we are now accustomed to but there is a simple beauty with the way in which it has been shot. Each scene is masterfully planned out to the nth degree. Composition, contrast, timing, everything is perfect.
Alternatives: Guerlain Jicky, Hermes Eau d’Hermes
Perfumer: Jacques Guerlain
Bottle Designer: Robert Granai
Release Date: 1904
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Aromatic fougere