I have another Guerlain story to share. Recently I sallied forth to my local Nordstrom store in search of the latest releases, as I do quite regularly. The selection is good and the staff will cheerfully whip up a sample for you, unlike the Macy’s down the street, where the business plan is apparently to not do anything that might encourage a shopper to actually buy something. I browsed through some of the new fragrances, and then I turned to the wall where the old standbys are kept. There were only two Guerlains out, but the bottles looked really small, and I could not tell by the plain, blocky shapes which ones they were. I moved closer, and I was pleased to see that they were Jicky and L’ Heure Bleue. Then I saw the small print on the bottles just below the names.
It said Parfum. And they were testers.
Unable to believe my good luck, I grabbed a couple of paper strips and sprayed away, then I did the same to both arms, not caring how I might smell to my fellow bus riders on the way home. (Besides, they were both Guerlains; they wouldn’t clash.)
I had never tried either of these in anything but Eau de Toilette as far as I could recall, and certainly never in Parfum, and what a revelation! Jicky worked on me as it never had before, and something about it reminded me very much of my precious little bottle of vintage Caron Nuit de Noel extrait that was thrown in with a bargain basement online auction purchase. I would just love to smell the parfum strength of Jicky on a man. But that’s another story, and it was L’ Heure Bleue that really blew my mind this time. It would appear that the Guerlains agree with me the most when they are in Parfum concentration. All I need now is a bigger bank account and I can have all of them, haha! (Sound of maniacal laughter ensues, followed by heartfelt sobbing.)
L’ Heure Bleue has always been one of the few Guerlains that I found approachable, or at least partially understandable, back in the days when my only firsthand knowledge of fine fragrance came from clandestine sniffs at department store cosmetics counters ruled by stern ladies in black dresses and an inch of pancake makeup highlighted by perfect circles of bright rouge. I found it to be soft and a more than a bit melancholy, and I loved the magazine ads for it, with their evocative imagery of impossibly lovely twilight realms. Looking at those images I just wanted to step into that world and be lost, free from all care and worry. Dusk has been my favorite time of day since I was a small child and it remains so today. If only it lasted longer.
Never having experienced the Parfum version of this scent before, I can’t really say if reformulation has taken its toll or not. Since it’s an Oriental like Shalimar and not a Chypre like Mitsouko, there is no oakmoss to be rationed and the other main ingredients are not completely restricted yet, and so I believe that this is still mostly untouched by the cold, dead hand of IFRA. (This perfume is one of Guerlain’s untouchable icons in which a change in formula would be noticed by the loyal customers immediately, and not in a good way.) In any case, it’s a wonder. At first it was so serious and almost smoky that it seemed like a masculine scent. What passes for “sweet” in a classic Guerlain, the deep and syrupy secret Guerlinade vanilla accord, is as dark as it is sweet, more like molasses than caramel in this 1912 masterpiece by the great Jacques Guerlain. Somber and almost stern in this concentration, it evokes for me the image of a woman leaning against a window looking at out at an approaching thunderstorm, the clouds darkening the sky in a simulacrum of nightfall as lightning flashes across the sky. She is worried, almost frantic, looking for someone, a child perhaps, who is out there somewhere trying to beat the storm home. It is immediately clear that my beloved Bal à Versailles owes a great deal to the heritage of L’ Heure Bleue as well. Only instead of dancing merrily in the grand ballroom and flirting outrageously with the courtiers, L’ Heure Bleue is wrapped in a heavy velvet cloak and standing on a parapet, the wind lashing her face, the music below only a distant echo. The soft and comforting L’ Heure Bleue I had found in the lighter concentration had become something else entirely in parfum form, a monumental and somewhat intimidating beauty whose gentle melancholy had turned into a drowning sorrow.
After a long time, the mood softens as the powdery florals peek out and assert themselves. The sweet anise and iris give a lift to the composition, which still never loses a certain seriousness all the way to the end. In this perfume, carnation loses its innocence entirely and turns into a deep-voiced Gypsy fortuneteller, and rose is not a lilting Rose de Mai but a tempting siren painted in the blood red of glowing embers. Never was vanilla so much in opposition to a gourmand sensibility as in this and other Guerlain classics. Its character reminds me of the pineapple note in Jean Patou’s masterful Colony; such a fruit never really existed, but it is still the very heart of everything a pineapple should be, as syrupy and twisted and inedible and dangerous as it is. The Guerlinade vanilla is most definitely not anyone’s dessert, but rather an intoxicating mélange of sensations that locks on to whatever other elements are in the perfume, and in doing so it creates an unmatched alchemy as it melds with the florals and spices. Unlike the ephemeral twilight of its name, it persists a long time on the skin and will endure as an all-time classic fragrance. Now that I have tried it the way it should be smelled, I hope that is a very long time.
Image credit: New Moon by American artist Maxfield Parrish, via artinthepicture.com