La Maison Guerlain: Perfumery and Museum

Houseof_guerlain

Entering the gilded interior of the Guerlain flagship boutique at 68, Avenue des Champs-Elysées one already feels the vivid contrast between the cold, grey Paris in winter and the sparkling Second Empire décor of the ground level. Yet, it is only by ascending the stairs that the contrast is brought to a climax. Spiral staircase, its dark wood sprinkled with golden squares, opens into a cavernous hall with rounded walls covered with spectacular gold mosaic. Unlike the more traditionally decorated ground level, it is at once retro and baroque, modern and futuristic—a luxurious setting befitting the fragrances and a self-help venue for a no-nonsense shopper, a rather curious juxtaposition. Created by a famous interior designer Andrée Putnam who is responsible for some of the most prominent fashion boutiques, La Maison Guerlain can rightly be listed among the haute perfumeries of Paris. If there ever existed the Guerlain perfume museum, 68, Champs-Elysées is the one.

La_maison_guerlain_1Large room with a chandelier which opens up into the boutique downstairs contains a circular table where most of Guerlain classics and moderns are arranged in three rows, the highest for the extraits de parfum and the lowest for the EdTs. Moreover, the mirrored wall contains shelves filled with the bestselling Guerlain fragrances, which include Vetiver, L’Instant and Mitsouko, among others. All aspects of the layout ensure easy and unassisted sampling, which one can do for hours. …

2_reissues Indeed, it is the only place where all of the Guerlain extraits de parfum can be sampled, including ethereally beautiful Chant d’Arômes. Reissued recently in the extrait de parfum, it is a gorgeous, floral chypre, resembling the original Chant d’Arômes formula more than the version that was available previously. The first time I visit the boutique I do not linger near the table for long, because the temptation to cover my wrists with Nahéma and Mitsouko would have prevented me to explore the rest of the fragrances. Thus, I begin with the limited editions of Le Mouchoir de Monsieur and La Voilette de Madame originally created in 1904 and presented in Baccarat “escargot” bottles. Le Mouchoir de Monsieur, once produced exclusively for French actor Jean-Claude Brialy, is a warm, elegant fougère, while La Voilette de Madame is an iris, ylang ylang, narcissus and violet composition, foiled in warm powdery sweetness of incense and sandalwood. While it starts out light and delicate, the subsequent developments result in a narcotic, opulent floral.

Olfactorium_400 Guerlain portfolio including discontinued compositions is comprised of around 300 fragrances, and the House has plans to relaunch some of the most outstanding classics. The current edition is Véga (1936), a bold floral aldehydic fragrance that weaves ylang ylang, jasmine and iris through the warm woody base. The next year’s release is slated to be Sous Le Vent (1934), a fragrance considered to be one of the greenest chypres, and indeed it is green and vibrant, its galbanum top notes shimmering like a handful of emeralds. One of the walls in the boutique includes a set of boxes which look suspiciously like microwave ovens, the association underscored by the interiors lighting up when the doors are opened. I admit that it felt strange leaning inside these contraptions, and this is a procedure I had to repeat several times, since the fragrances are very lightly diffused and the fact that the air in the boutique is filled with all sorts of competing aromas certainly does not help. The efforts were eventually crowned with success. Kadine (1911) is an ambery floral fragrance. Cachet Juane (1937) turned out to be a favorite after Sous Le Vent for its spicy woody character made glowing by orange. Finally, Ode (1955) greeted me with the honeyed floral bouquet reminiscent of Jean Patou Joy.

Baby_guerlain Les Parisiennes collection is another set of reissues that are now presented in bee bottles. It is comprised of Metalys, a beautiful ambery carnation, Attrape Coeur, a vision of vanilla and amber liqueur drizzled over iris, Quand Vient l’Eté (formerly Voile d’Eté), a warm lily and woods composition, Philtre d’Amour, a sheer floral chypre, Guerlinade, a lilac and ambery vanilla blend, Purple Fantasy, the least interesting of the lot, a fruity-floral with notes of passionfruit and coconut and Liu, a floral aldehydic in the style of Chanel No.5. While I was already familiar with most of the fragrances from Les Parisienne collection, my favorite rediscovery turned out to be Derby, a green leather chypre with iris and incense covering its dark base.

Imperial_fountains Moving past the circular table, the mysterious wall niches with long-lost Guerlains and the linen and wheat redolent Baby Guerlain fragrances created by Olivia Giacobetti, one enters a room where the attention is immediately caught by the golden liquid moving through the slender glass tubes. The Imperial Fountains, as the arrangement is known, are intended for refilling the bee bottles—a breathtaking assortment of which is displayed on the wall adjacent to the Fountains—with any of four choices, Shalimar, Samsara, L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko.

3_frags L’Art et la Matiere fragrances commissioned by the House of Guerlain from outside perfumers take up their own space, with the bottles arranged under perfumed fans. Angélique Noire by Danièle Andrier, Cuir Béluga by Olivier Polge and Rose Barbare by Fracis Kurkdjian are well-made, sophisticated compositions that are not as daring as one might imagine them to be, probably because the perfumers were working within the Guerlain tradition and indeed some compositions seem a bit constrained by it. Nevertheless, the fragrances have an elegant and refined aura, whether it is the dark red rose folded over the chypre base and sweetened with honey as in Rose Barbare, the leather facet of Shalimar veiled in creamy vanilla as in Cuir Béluga, or the caramelized spicy woodiness of vanilla and angelica in Angélique Noire. Alongside L’Art et la Matiere, one finds Plus Que Jamais Guerlain, a fragrance by Jean-Paul Guerlain that emphasizes the gourmand elements of the Guerlinade accord, however instead of abstraction, one discovers a fairly realistic toffee note hiding under the ylang ylang top laced with soft aldehydes.

Walking through the boutique and catching glimpses of various vintage bottles and beautiful flacons ready to bear one’s engraving of choice, one comes upon a corner devoted to home fragrances. Bois des Indes, sandalwood and sweet spices, Boudoir Venetiens, roses and woods, Contes Tahitiens, white tropical blossoms, Hiver en Russie, spicy leather are available as room sprays, candles, incense sticks and soaps. The hallway turns and opens up into the makeup and cosmetic section decorated with portraits of Guerlain perfumers, from Pierre-François-Pascal to Jean-Paul Guerlain.

The 68, Champs Elysées boutique first opened its doors in 1914 and the renovation marks a new chapter in the history of the house that was established in 1828 in order to sell soaps and blend fragrances for customers. Since then Guerlain has grown tremendously producing a number of excellent fragrances as well as those that can be classified as perfume legends, such as Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko. What the future holds for Guerlain is the question that only time will answer, however stepping inside the new flagship store one gets an impression that it might be bright indeed. And one can only hope it be so.

For more photos from the boutique, please see the interactive presentation from Guerlain website. Any of the products from La Maison Guerlain can be ordered without any hassles by calling 33 145 62 52 57. If you are worried about speaking in French, ask for Francoise.

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35 Comments

  • MC: Thanks for this comprehensive review of the Guerlain mothership, Victoria. It has quickly become a must-see on any Paris tour for scent fans, and your guide demonstrates why!

    Of the new and re-releases, I liked Derby and Vega best, though I am very keen to try Sous le Vent. I’m a green fan too.

    By the way, did you see the new Malle boutique on Mont Thabor? I haven’t been in but I peered through a gap in the frosted glass in the window and it looks impressive. Intriguingly, the message on the door reads “For consultations, call 01….” Perhaps FM is now planning “Live” versions of the famous online perfume questionnaire? December 23, 2005 at 4:46am Reply

  • Kathy114: Dear V,

    You have such a gift for words, and your decription made me feel like I was at La Maison in my imagination. It sounds like a wonderful place to visit.

    I have just recently sampled Attrape Coeur, and I am a definite fan of its rich woody iris. There are so many fragrances in your article that sound interesting to me such as Vega, Angeligue Noire, and Quand Vient L’Ete (I love lilies).

    Thank you for such an interesting and evocative article. December 23, 2005 at 7:43am Reply

  • Anya: Thank you for sharing a truly beautiful, iconic sensory experience. It must have been a jolt to leave the fragrant, golden environment to return to the harsh winter streets, but your camera and words helped the visit live on inside you, and now us, we are living it vicariously. December 23, 2005 at 7:54am Reply

  • Laura: So evocative, V, I immediately felt as though I were back in the boutique. And I could just see you there, sniffing in your elegant way ;D. I’m curious if you see ANY difference between Quand Vient l’Ete and the Voile scent. I’m thinking my Voile bottle must have turned, because it smelled nothing like Quand when I tried it at the boutique. And remember I told you the SA said that someone else was the nose for the Baby Guerlains? I feel bad that I was misled. What did you think of the scents (the babies, I mean)? December 23, 2005 at 8:04am Reply

  • Marina: This is such a wonderful account, it’s like I’ve been there myself, thank you, V!

    I did not realise that Purple Fantasy is part of Les Parisiennes collection. It can be found so very cheap online that I thought was very unsuccessful and discontinued. Passionfruit and coconut, that sounds too fruity-sweet.

    And the very last thing, do you know if the new boutique opening in NY will carry things like Attrape-Coeur, etc.? 🙂 Thank you!! December 23, 2005 at 9:04am Reply

  • annE: Dear V,
    Thank you for your wonderfully evocative review of the glories of Guerlain. It was nice to escape ordinary existence for a few minutes! I will most certainly refer to this article again, especially if I am ever lucky enough to re-visit Paris.
    Joyeux Noel! December 23, 2005 at 9:36am Reply

  • linda: What a terrific article! I feel as if I am walking through the boutique with you. It must have been quite an experience. Thank you for sharing, V. December 23, 2005 at 10:09am Reply

  • linda: I forgot to ask you if the SAs speak English because my French is not that good. Or is there a person I should ask for? I would like to order a bottle of Cuir Beluga. December 23, 2005 at 10:12am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Mike, it is a very interesting place, and it definitely should be on the itinerary for any perfume lover.

    Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to stop by the FM boutique, even though I caught a glimpse of it and thought that it is much more interesting than the original store.

    Have you been to the TDC boutique Rue Chabanais? I was curious to see tall glasses used to for smelling perfumes. Curious how various companies are now moving away from the traditional scentstrip approach. December 23, 2005 at 12:16pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kathy, thank you. I am glad that I was able to recreate the atmosphere of the boutique. It is certainly fascinating. Vega and Angeligue Noire are among my favourite fragrances, and I highly recommend sampling them. Quand Vient L’Ete is a lovely fragrance, although to be perfectly honest, Voile d’Ete is not that different and it can be obtained for $19 from various discount stores. December 23, 2005 at 12:19pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Anya, I have not been able to see and smell everything on the first visit, but I made a point of returning a few more times. Glad that you enjoyed reading the article. I wish the internet allowed for some type of interactive smelling though. December 23, 2005 at 12:21pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Laura, I loved that nobody bothers you while you smell the fragrances, and it was indeed the best part. The large circular is like a very luxurious fragrance bar. I find that Voile d’Ete is sharper, while Quand Vient l’Ete is creamier. Granted, it is much nicer, but Voile d’Ete is not that radically different that I would go for Quand Vient l’Ete instead. Of course, I am not the biggest fan of either version. It is pleasant, but not necessary for me. December 23, 2005 at 12:24pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: M, I am glad to hear this! It was such a fun visit (or rather several of them). I had to return to take the photos, although unfortunately a few did not come out focused, so I could not use them.

    Purple Fantasy is rather uninspiring. I would not say that it is overly sweet, but rather it is not memorable. As someone commented once, it is one of the non-artistic Guerlains (ie, trying to be appealing to as many people as possible). I remember buying a bottle for $19 at TJMaxx and regretting it. The purple bottle was lovely though.

    I hear that the new boutique is going to have all of the Les Parisiennes, so we shall see. I know that many people want them. December 23, 2005 at 12:28pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: A, it is my pleasure! I hope that you will get a chance to experience it yourself. I also cannot wait to see the new NYC boutique that is located inside Bergdorf Goodman. Of course, I would wish for the House to open its stand alone store in NYC at some point. December 23, 2005 at 12:29pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Linda, I am very happy to hear this. I wanted to share as much of the visit as possible. It is a wonderful store. December 23, 2005 at 12:30pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, any of the SAs speak English, but I have had great experience with Francoise, who was very helpful and kind during my visit. She speaks perfect English and is very trustworthy. December 23, 2005 at 12:31pm Reply

  • Prince Barry: A truly marvelous review R. I imagined myself to be stood in the boutique whilst reading your words.

    I actually own Derby and Mouchoir de Monsieur. My Derby is from a few years ago and is running very low. The Mouchoir de Monsieur is fairley recent owing to the fact that it’s available to order from any Guerlain counter in the UK, although I did get mine from Harrods. December 23, 2005 at 12:59pm Reply

  • mreenymo: Damn!!! (Oops!…Am I allowed to be myself here?)

    Let’s cut to the chase: Which two fragrances were your absolute favorites, and did you make any purchases?

    Okay, you don’t have to answer the latter, but I have to have a more in-depth description(s) of the former. :):)

    I am on vacation right now, darling, so you might not “see” as much of me here as you usually do until after January 3rd.

    Love and hugs to you, and the Merriest of Christmases, V!

    I am truly blessed to know you. December 23, 2005 at 1:06pm Reply

  • Kathy114: V,

    I’m going to check out Voile d’Ete right now!

    Thanks 🙂

    Merry Christmas! December 23, 2005 at 1:48pm Reply

  • Prince Barry: I put R instead of V. It’s been the Christmas party from the office today, probably had too much..LOL. December 23, 2005 at 1:53pm Reply

  • Tara: What a lovely visit! I walked through the boutique with you imagining it all as I read it. I fell for Angelique Noire and Quand Vient l’Ete, although I only purchased the former. Plan to buy the second when I return next month. Must sniff Derby! December 23, 2005 at 3:32pm Reply

  • cait: I like the part about easy unassisted sampling. I am definitely not one who likes the fawning or icy assistance of SAs. Though, the girls at IUNX are swell.
    Now I’m dying to go to Paris again. Help! Thanks for the great review. December 23, 2005 at 4:15pm Reply

  • Robin: Thank you for this lovely post, V — it is like an early Christmas present! Now I am hankering after Derby. December 23, 2005 at 6:16pm Reply

  • Evan: V, thanks for the tour of Maison Guerlain, and the photographs! It’s nice to see the interiors without enduring the Guerlain site’s Flash layout and soundtrack. I like the fact that the first interior is classic Second Empire which then gives way to the futuristic interiors, sort of reminds me of the interiors in the Jupiter segment of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ( http://evanizer.com/stuff/beyond_the_infinite.jpg ). I’m glad they chose to retain some of the flavor of their past.

    What a great experience it must be to smell all those classics! I’m not a jet setter by any means, the last time I was in Paris was 1993, but this certainly makes me want to book a cabin on the next boat over. I’ve been a little disappointed with Guerlain lately, as I think they’ve been releasing too many “just good enough” fragrances too quickly. Based on the list I’ve been compiling (based upon several other such lists and sources) of all of Guerlain perfumes, they have released (or re-orchestrated or re-rereleased or made variations on) about 54 perfumes since 1995. To contrast that, they released c. 74 perfumes between 1900 and 1995. I kind of wish they would slow down just a little, but that doesn’t seem to be the way of the perfumery industry at the moment.

    How great it is that they are reviving some of their extinct perfumes! I especially liked the limited editions of them in the original packaging but their price is frightening (perfume is a luxury! Grumble, grumble). I’d like to smell the revived Liu, and can’t wait for Sous Le Vent. I wonder how closely they are following original formulae? People seem happy with the results, so perhaps very closely. I’ve smelled vintage Mouchoir de Monsieur and Kadine (what did you think of that one?) and would love to get Derby as well.

    About the pipes of perfume, my suspicion is that the amber liquid in the clear pipes is just for show and not actually perfume (that would be about 10 million dollars worth if it were). It seems that the actual perfume comes through the opaque pipes from somewhere above- have any thoughts about the mechanics of this? Whatever the case, I’d have to really fight the urge to put my head under the Mitsouko spout and turn it on. And how beautiful is that shelf full of the bee bottles?

    Thanks again for this great tour for the benefit of us infrequent travelers!

    By the way, if anyone is interested, I put my list of Guerlain creations on my site as a rich text file (open in a text editor or Word), since I’m worried that I might be incorrect in my calculations of their output. If someone more knowledgable has any corrections, I’d be happy to hear them. I hope you don’t mind my linking to this here, V.

    http://evanizer.com/stuff/Guerlain_perfumes.rtf December 23, 2005 at 7:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Barry, I also have Derby and Mouchoir de Monsieur (the original), and I am very much enjoying them. The new Derby has a brighter top note, and I actually think it is better, because it gives a wonderful segue into the heart and then the chypre base. Mouchoir de Monsieur seems a bit fresher too. I see it every now and then from various online stores for about 50 pounds. Better than 800 euros for the current edition. December 23, 2005 at 11:32pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, you are always allowed to be yourself. In fact, that is required! 🙂

    Ok, what are my two favourites? From Guerlain in general: Mitsouko and Apres L’Ondee. From the new reissues: Attrape Coeur and Angelique Noire. From vintage: Vega and Derby (and Chant D’Aromes parfum.)

    Thank you for your wonderful holiday wishes! I hope that the new year will be great in all respects for you. December 23, 2005 at 11:35pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kathy, Merry Christmas! Voile d’Ete is easily obtained from various online stores, and it is a nice lily fragrance. December 23, 2005 at 11:36pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Barry, no worries! Hope that the party was fun. December 23, 2005 at 11:37pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tara, Derby was such a great discovery, especially since I love leather and green chypre fragrances. I regret not purchasing a bottle, however one must exercise restraint every now and then. Try the new Chant d’Aromes parfum when you visit, because it is truly beautiful. December 23, 2005 at 11:39pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Cait, my pleasure! I also love the easy manner in which the sampling takes place. One just walks through the boutique without being bothered at all. I wish more stores were like this. December 23, 2005 at 11:40pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, I am very happy that you enjoyed it. I found myself very captivated by Derby. A sweet SA said that she could not imagine me wearing it, because it smells like someone who just walked out of the woods (I suppose that I do not look the part, for better or worse), but I thought that it was a wonderful and wearable composition. December 23, 2005 at 11:44pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, I wish I could smell Kadine on the skin or at least paper. It was nice, but rather faint, therefore I could not grasp the general character of a floral (iris?) with soft amber. The layout is lovely, but the execution of these olfactoriums leaves me wishing for another option.

    I think that Guerlain definitely has a number of “crowd pleasers,” which is to be expected in the times when the rate of new releases is getting higher and higher. Despite all allegations about reformulations and such I find that the House has created some of my favourite fragrances and I cannot turn my back on it. Of course, even before the recent Oakmoss Scandal, many of Guerlain fragrances have been reformulated a number of times. Mitsouko has a brighter peach note than it did in the past. Shalimar has a softer bergamot note. This cannot be avoided, because the materials evolve and so do regulations. I only hope that reformulations will respect the traditions.

    I am also wondering if the pipes are filled with just coloured liquid. If it were perfume, wouldn’t be it ruined by the constant exposure to light? I desperately want a bee bottle filled with any of the four choices. That wall is just breathtaking.

    Thank you very much for the link! The list is fascinating, and aren’t some of those names great? December 23, 2005 at 11:52pm Reply

  • linda: Thank you. I will give Francoise a call then. I don’t want to embrassing myself with my French. 🙂 December 24, 2005 at 6:18pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Great! Please let me know when you will receive your package. December 24, 2005 at 6:28pm Reply

  • kibbe neal fitzpatrick: The tour through Guerlain’s flagship boutique at 68, Avenue des Champs-Elysées was conducted with affection and brought back to me the happiest of memories. I worked right there for three years from 1958 to 1960. I was at the time the only foreigner working for Guerlain. Mrs. Guerlain and I became friends when I was her English teacher. She then introduced me to her husband who took me on. I think I benefited from Mrs. Guerlain’s deep attachment to America and things American. Those were the days! In those years Paris was gray and the smell of gauloises was in the air everywhere, but it was a feast for all of us, to use Hemingway’s term. This is being written in October, 2011, and only this month I have made the most extraordinary discovery about a relative of mine who also worked in the cosmetic business in those post-war years. My father’s mother’s brother was a certain E.Virgil Neal who created a cosmetic company called Tokalon. He lived in a grand château in Nice, but his company had none of the prestige of Guerlain. October 19, 2011 at 12:03pm Reply

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