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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Guerlain L’Heure Bleue: It’s the Parfum, Stupid

By Donna

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

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Blogger Ari Weinberg said...

Oh wow, your Nordstrom sounds very different than my Nordstrom! The only Guerlain we have is Shalimar EDT. I have always longed to smell L'Heure Bleue and your gorgeous review is only making it worse!

1:08 AM EST  
Blogger Tama said...

Bal a Versailles always made me think of l'Heure Bleue somehow - nice to know I'm not alone in that. I have been resisting smelling this in parfum because I have a big bottle of edp go get through, but I may have to succumb soon. My first grown-up perfume purchase was l'Heure Bleue (edp, I'm sure), and one of the only early-life fragrances I have been able to return to. She's a fickle one, but wonderful. I think I'll spray some on for bedtime...

2:58 AM EST  
Anonymous SignatureScent said...

Hmm - that's interesting. I really really try to like Guerlain, but just can't. I will keep my eyes open for the EdP versions as maybe that could make all the difference.

5:12 AM EST  
Blogger Louise said...

Lovely post!

I love my modern LhB in parfum, but it pales in comparison to the older juice. From the new, the heliotrope smells a tad smurfish, while my older bottle is the truest, lovliest anise wonder I've ever met. Sadly, the bottle is turning, and I'll only be left with memories of this wonder.

5:28 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

I'm grinning happily at your ecstasy !
I LOVE it when you fall hard...:0

What can I add ?
Enjoy your bliss....

6:35 AM EST  
Blogger Mals86 said...

I have some modern L'HB parfum, and it's lovely but does not clutch at my heart. I do like it much, much more in the heat - it blooms. The edt was Medicine Cabinet of Hell on me, utterly unwearable. I do find that parfum matters with the classic Guerlains (too bad I can't get hold of Mitsouko in parfum! I might learn to like it). "Maniacal laughter, followed by sobbing" - well, yes.

I don't suppose you tried L'HB next to L'Origan? I think I may do a Celebrity Death Match with the two soon, just to see what happens...

9:44 AM EST  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Ooh... I love L'Heure Bleue. I didn't even realize that it had an anise note in it - it must be the only scent with anise in it that doesn't make me run screaming.

I've been afraid to try the reformulated parfum - especially after what I hear was done to Vol de Nuit (I don't know for sure because I'm afraid to smell the reformulation). Next time I'm in Neiman Marcus, I'll have to check it out - they almost always have the parfum testers out, they just kind of hide them in a corner.

12:45 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely article for a lovely scent. One of my favourites, and a bit overlooked next to Mitsouko, I think. Thank you.

1:07 PM EST  
Blogger elle said...

I think the edt versions of the pre 70s Guerlains (Carons as well) should have different names. Completely different to my nose. Don't care for any of them except for Mitsouko, which I find appealing across the board. Adore L'Heure Bleue parfum. I've heard that one of the new Grossmiths is rather similar to it and another is reminiscent of Mitsouko. Am tapping my fingers, impatiently waiting for samples of them to arrive from TPC. Super hopeful about them!

8:07 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a lovely review! I love L'Heure Bleue perfum, it was my first huge expense when I was 16, and every word in your description is true. I just got a sample of the EDT, and it's a shadow of its former shadow.
I'll wait for the perfume or I'll go without. Congratulations for not pocketing that perfume tester. You gets lots of karma points for that.

9:57 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Ari, I am very lucky that my local store has a department manager who really loves perfume. What a concept!

12:23 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Tama, I recommend trying the parfum even if you don't buy, it's an experience!

12:25 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

SignatureScent, for me the Guerlains just get better the stronger they get. There was a time I did not understand them, but they finally took pity on me and showed me how to appreciate them. Some of them were never meant for life as an EDT.

12:27 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Louise. Now I really want to try an older bottle; if the current parfum is this good, the vintage must be stupendous. So sorry your bottle is turning, I guess you had better wear it while you can!

12:29 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Chaya, resistance was futile.... :-D

12:30 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Mals86, I want Mitsy in Parfum too. I also want a personal chef and a Bugatti, but none of them seem to be showing up.

I have not tried LHB next to vintage L'Origan, but that's a great idea! I am trying to think of what else I might have in Parfum that could stand up to it.

12:33 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Cynthia, isn't it surprising when you find out what in some of these old perfumes? They are so baroque and complex, something like anise is hardly recognizable! Nothing literal about it, but if it were made today it probably would be.

12:38 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you, Anonymous! I do think it's a bit underrated. I don't see many raves for it.

12:40 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Elle, I heard about the Grossmiths, so great that they are resurrecting their classics, I can't wait to try some of them!

12:41 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you, Quinn. I want to go back in time and try the perfume I smelled when I was much younger.

It was tempting - such a tiny bottle... it looked like it needed a good home. I will just have to visit often. ;-)

12:44 AM EST  
Anonymous Marian said...

Your beautiful and evocative description encapsulates precisely the images of L’Heure Bleue that attract me. You can imagine my disappointment when Jason, of BG fame, said he didn’t think it worked for me. My identification with the woman “leaning against the window” was too strong for me to take his advice not to purchase it. I bought a bottle and have never regretted it. Thank you for painting such beautiful pictures, Donna. I know they will add to my pleasure every time I wear it.

10:03 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you very much for your kind words, Marian - I am so happy that you followed your heart on this perfume!

10:08 PM EST  
Blogger EricBrandon said...

I got that TPC Guerlain parfum sampler that included Mitsouko (I lost that vial after the first two tests but I couldn't see the justification behind the HUGE price difference for the parfum and the EDP), Vol de Nuit, Apres L'Ondee, Shalimar, and L'Heure Bleue. I fell hard for everything save the Apres L'Ondee (thank God! o...o; ) but I have to admit, L'Heure Bleue is not the first parfum decant I'll be getting. I've already got the Shalimar (and it's getting here, here being Houston with it's 9-month summers) coming in, though. Just in time for summer!

Glad to see that something finally clicked for you! I always like it when that happens, though, jeez, more money just flew out the window. ;3

11:12 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Eric, now I want to retry ALL the Guerlains in Parfum. That could get me in $ome real trouble though!

12:36 AM EST  
Blogger EricBrandon said...

It's dangerous territory, for sure. xP

1:23 AM EST  
Anonymous Kristina Light Blue said...

Awwww!!! I love that parfum XP Very nice choice,


7:35 AM EST  
Anonymous parfum said...

Don't apply perfume behind your ears, as it will be easy for it to mix with the secretions of your skin and form a strange smell.

6:18 AM EST  
Blogger Maureen Grace said...


6:18 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I change perfumes every few decades. After years of uncomplicated JOY and before that Ombre Rose, I fell upon L'Heure Vleu and I am in love. The top notes invigorate me and the base notes sooth me and make me feel that I am floating on a cloud made of soft vanilla. I may never change scents again.

9:17 PM EDT  

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