Jacques Guerlain needs no introduction. Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko–these words say it all. The fragrances created by Guerlain in the first decades of the 20th century continue influencing perfumers and fragrance lovers. The trends are still set by them, and most perfume collections have at least one Guerlain inspired creation. Born in 1874, he entered the family business run by his uncle Aimé Guerlain and before long, he established the house’s reputation for creativity and quality.
Much has been written about Jacques Guerlain’s creations, but the man himself remains in the shadows. He preferred working at the perfumer’s organ to speaking at public gatherings, and he left behind few articles and interviews. He let the perfume do the talking.
In partnership with the Osmothèque, I offer you an excerpt from The Perfumer’s Chronicle, a 1964 magazine article by Marcel Billot (a Houbigant perfumer of Chantilly fame). Billot was also the founding president of the French Society of Perfumers, and The Perfumer’s Chronicle was his regular beat. With the exception of L’Heure Bleue, all the Guerlain perfumes Billot mentions were recently reconstituted for the Osmothèque by the current Guerlain perfumer Thierry Wasser.
For other articles from the Perfumers on Perfume series, please see perfumers-on-perfume tag.
“As for Jacques Guerlain, whose recent passing we regret and who continued to create until the last moment, or to at least provide counsel, I find that we have not sufficiently spoken of his oeuvre, of that which it represented so far as influence and impulsion in grand French Perfumery, owing no doubt to the great simplicity that he gave off.
“But this does not mean that one should not discuss his work or mention a perfumer’s modest praises for his creations.
“And here are the most outstanding.
“First of all, L’Heure Bleue (1912), a remarkable perfume in which balsams such as opopanax, myrrh, incense, etc. form with sandalwood a base of oriental allure, with a floral start, lavender and orange blossom supported by a synthetic, methyl anthranilate. Shalimar (1925), a perfume of oriental style: a rebirth of the traditions of certain violent synthetics that began to appear at the time: a sort of chypre of expert, ‘noble’, animalic tinctures (musk, castoreum, ambergris, civet, etc.), heady balsams (Balsam of Peru, benzoin, etc.) as a base, coupled with the classic mixture of rose, orange, bergamot, oakmoss, and forming a character so warm, so human, that it remains inimitable. It is a model in the art of composition, as was at its time Le Parfum Idéal by Paul Parquet.
“Mitsouko (1919), a fruity chypre that is incontestably the earliest of the perfectly balanced fruity chypres, the ancestor of a modern perfume enjoying great success. Vol de Nuit (1933), a joining of the classic Guerlain quality and the modern aldehydic trend, all the while escaping the excesses of overly aldehydic perfumes.
“Sous le Vent (1933), in my opinion, at that time, was an avant-garde perfume, as it symbolizes nature. It evokes for me all the smells of a field in the morning, of a hunting day with the fragrance of the autumn foliage released at the same time as that of the humus of the neighboring forest. The impression of a gust of fresh air that hits one in the face, a somewhat sharp morning breeze, under a rather pale sun that rises amid a light brume at the edge of a wood. Certain dour souls will say, “It is hardly ‘a perfume’, but rather ‘a smell.’” What an error! It is a delicious perfume that is of our time, as it never tires. And who can say that in future years this will not be the type of perfume that is wanted to distance us from robots and the smells of the hot oil of machinery, all while avoiding the heavy atmosphere of the parlors, which now we seldom experience.
“That which is prodigious in his creations is that, all while evoking the smells of nature’s pageantry, thereby displaying an avant-garde spirit, these are nonetheless perfumes and not simply smells. This marks the genius of Jacques Guerlain. A genius who knew to be of his time while living nonetheless in keeping with tradition. From this vantage point, he defended true French Perfumery, in exemplifying good taste, the proper tone of our profession, all the while remaining modern, countering the ‘violence’ and ‘stereotypes’ of perfume. Let us be grateful to him for having so well defended true, beautiful French Perfumery. As to his genius, his simplicity hardly acknowledged it, when he would say: “Perfumery? It is a matter of patience.”
“These are the modest reflections of a perfumer who recommends the work of Jacques Guerlain, citing but several perfumes among the many others he created. Reflections born of my observations, without my seeking to obtain information from his entourage, believing to insure thereby a certain freshness to my impartial, personal impressions.
“It would have been interesting to know his way of working, to know if his formulae were long with many components, or rather very simple with few components. From the look of his creations it seems to me his formulae must have been, for the most part, rather long.”
Billot, Marcel. “La chronique du parfumeur.” Parfumerie, Cosmétique, Savons. 7.4 Apr. 1964. Print. Translated from French by Will Inrig. 29 Mar. 2014. COPYRIGHT The Osmothèque 2014.
Image: Jacques Guerlain, vintage perfume ads via the Osmothèque.
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