Guerlain Vanillas

Decadent Vanilla

Decadent Vanilla

You can’t wear Guerlain without wearing vanilla.  It’s not even worth making the experiment because Guerlain equals vanilla, and there is no version of vanilla that Guerlain hasn’t whipped up, baked up, brewed up or macerated in just about endless variations during its nearly two hundred year history.*

First a disclaimer, I’m not a vanilliac.  But I like the note .  When I was younger I was sure I didn’t, and avoided Guerlains, but time passes you get older and wiser, and one day-you like vanilla.

Shalimar/Jicky Vanilla is the first one you get to know. This is the paradigmatic Guerlain vanilla, the one nearly everyone learns to love.  Vanilla pulls a neat trick off here, you don’t really realize that this fragrance is all about vanilla until fairly late in the evaporation.  At first you think Shalimar is bergamot lemon cream pie, and the vanilla in that creamy center allows Shalimar to pull off its flip flop like a flapjack into a buttery amber perfume.   You don’t quite smell the vanilla flip coming but once it’s under way, you often find that the vanilla’s  the best part of the fragrance.

Shalimar Ode a la Vanille

Shalimar Ode a la Vanille

One way to understand Shalimar is to wear Emeraude its Coty predecessor.  Emeraude is just a tad less vanillic than Shalimar, slightly greener, lemon plays a smaller part in the recipe, but the similarity is pronounced and probably due to the fact that when Francois Coty  entered the perfume business he was bowled over by Jicky.  Emeraude is his homage to the classic, and Shalimar is Jacques Guerlain’s  subsequent reclamation of the formula.

Jacques had to do something. His wife was wearing Emeraude (according to in house Coty records!) That would never do. Shalimar was his answering salvo and effort to reclaim lost Guerlain market share.  Still regarded as the premiere vanilla perfume, Shalimar presents you with a dessert cart of vanillas: astringent tonka bean vanilla,   benzoin which smells like the herbal bitters of vanilla, plus that unforgettable creamy vanilla, and a slightly animalic vanillan mated to civet which many wearers notice in the heart, and which may have prompted Ernest Beaux’s famous remark that when he made a vanilla perfume he got creme brulee, and when Jacques Guerlain did, he got Shalimar.  You smell a  variety of vanilla confections here, but no other firm has ever done such delicate pastry chef work inspired by one little black pod.

But Guerlain also does vanilla as cocktail, and this is where you get the inebriated vanilla of Spirituese Double Vanille where the sugar-vanilla combination is a deep fermented one you’ve encountered at bars, namely rum.

Rum Cocktail

Rum Cocktail

When I first sniffed SDV, I had read Luca Turin’s pan of it in his guide and was hesitant, but I think he misunderstood the point of the scent.  This one was not about the pastry shop but about the bottle. There is no  citrus opening in SDV, just a straight dive into the rum barrel,  a little cedar wood, some barely discernible rose and ylang-ylang, and then vanilla, vanilla, more vanilla and benzoin.  It’s so intense that sometimes I wonder if the smell alone can get you a bit tipsy, but anyway, to call SDV a gourmand perfume is beside the point, Spiritueuse is vanilla for dipsomaniacs.

From these descriptions you might conclude that Guerlain never learned to handle vanilla with finesse.  For the record you’re wrong there. Guerlain is also the home of Terracotta Voile d’Ete, sometimes also called No25 or Quand Vient l’Ete, a beautiful floral vanilla with a tingling carnation curdling its cream.  The now discontinued Plus Que Jamais, has Guerlain assembling artificial flowers spun from tobacco scented caramel until you hold a shiny, fragile, gold bouquet under your nose, and finally there’s the downright ascetic Bois d’Armenie.

Vanilla in extract from Williams Sonoma

Vanilla in extract from Williams Sonoma

This is-if you’ll forgive my analogy- the Vix Vapo rub of vanillas.  That is to say that the perfume is not in the least gourmand and does not list vanilla among the ingredients.  But it’s a Guerlain and what are the odds right?  The effect of the beginning (and for my money the end of the fragrance too) is this incense and vanilla essence duet. Bois has the same sinus clearing effect on me as smelling vanilla straight out of  freshly cracked bottle of extract. I can’t call the scent sensuous, and this is a vanilla that is definitely not  about indulgence, much more Bois d’Armenie’s concerned with the confessional.

Maybe this is the way to live with your Guerlain vanillas: Voile d’Ete on Monday, Shalimar  Light on Tuesday, Plus Que Jamais on Wednesday, Tonka Imperiale on Thusday, Shalimar on Friday, Spiritueuse Double Vanille on Saturday, and Sunday…Bois d’Armenie of course.  You may be penitent but that doesn’t mean you won’t do it all again next week!

* Of course I’ve missed oodles of vanillas from Guerlain here. Please share your favorites!

Love- But Not at First Sniff

James Macneil Whistler

James Macneil Whistler

Some of my very favorite and most enduring loves in the perfume world began with serious dislike.  You might almost call some of those encounters Beatrice and Benedict  run ins*, and even though smelling a perfume is a great deal less complex than a human friendship-or feud- there were times when I really felt as if I was the last person to know my own likes and dislikes.

The converse may also be true.  You may love  a perfume from the very first time you encounter it, but my experience is that such easy affairs seldom involve the heart, and wind up being boring in the end.  I want, not drama exactly, but twists and turns that indicate a little complexity in a formula.  I don’t want to guess every move a fragrance is going to make long before it makes one. Continue reading

Warm Fuzzies: Narciso and Guerlain Eau de Cashmere

Marshmallow Fluff

Marshmallow Fluff

Not so long ago I was writing about influential perfumes and one of the two names which landed on the top of the pile was Narciso For Her.  The whole floral woody musk genre probably dates back to that perfume.  Anyway, the musk and flowers and a little bit of wood recipe has proven so popular that nowadays several releases a year fall into the fuzzily soft fabric (or fabric softener) of the fwm.  Everyone likes this plush toy formula, well everyone who does not require a little backbone in a perfume. Put it this way, floral woody musks are proof that in the perfume world the invertebrates can survive and thrive- even proliferate.

Of course the Narciso people could not let a success like Narciso For her go without progeny.  There have been several scents by now, all in the beautifully designed minimalist bottles that the brand is justly famous for, modern, streamlined and an ornament to any vanity though the contents are Fluff. Continue reading

A Ring of Roses

White Rose Collage of English Roses from the blog French Essence

White Rose Collage of English Roses from the blog French Essence

As time goes on and you find that you are indeed an incurable perfumista (or perfumister) you find the notes you love.  Some people can’t live without iris, and others love patchouli, and others again have a thing for Iso Super E, but in my case,  the indispensable note is a rose.

Last post I was complaining about fall and how hard I find it is to squeeze myself and my outsized craving for florals into a season that is usually about gourmands, woods, ambers and leathers, well, there is always the strategy of the rose.  I can retire behind a huge bouquet of them whenever I am perplexed, and generally do. Continue reading

The Transitional Perfume

ChrysanthemumEvery year fall rolls around and every year I lose step with everyone else in the perfume world. It seems as though the majority of people like to check their cool weather wardrobes and plan ahead happily for the ambers, orientals, gourmands, and woody scents they will shortly be dabbing and spritzing. There is a rush to find the Bois des Isles, the Ambre Sultans and for the bolder sexier sorts, their animalics and leathers. You get a sense of busy bustle as folks find their old friends again, and then there’s always a flood of new releases hoping to gain a little traction in the scent market before the holidays. In short, there is a lot to choose from, probably more than at any other time of the year. Continue reading

An Explosion of Brands

 John Singer Sargent  Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

John Singer Sargent
Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

Believe it or not this happened once before.  You may think that nothing like the multiplication of perfume niche companies has ever been seen in the history of scent sales but back in the early twentieth century something very like this happened.

Frankly I’ve long since lost count of the number of new niche fragrance houses that have debuted in the last three years or so.  Some of them will survive of course, and many will not, but back in the teens and twenties the world of perfume was similarly flooded. Continue reading

Why Don’t You…Wear Diana Vreeland?

Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland

Her name was pronounced Dee-Ahn, never Die- Ann.  People who worked with her rapidly found that out.  Not that Diana was affected, she was simply, completely, utterly, and unapologetically, inner directed.  This may be a  euphemism for being eccentric, but the line between genius and madness is notoriously thin, and eccentrics frequently straddle it.

Diana Vreeland Parfums is the attempt to commercialize the reputation of the late editrix of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  Perfume seems an odd choice for that task since I don’t remember any statement from Mrs. Vreeland on perfume, except for a lone endorsement of Glamour. Clothes and shoes I should have thought, were more her sphere. Continue reading

Contemporary Heliotrope

Heliotrope in bloom photo my own

Heliotrope in bloom
photo my own

Heliotrope is one of those floral notes in perfume that everyone thinks is old fashioned-that is if they even know what heliotrope is in the first place.  So heliotrope is that delightful annual that blooms in dark purple or sometimes white flowers and produces a delicate fragrance. Some say heliotrope smells  of almonds and others of vanilla, still others liken the perfume to a freshly baked cherry pie.  That was one of the popular names for the flower back in the 1880s in fact.

In case  you’ve never smelled heliotrope one of the best places to begin to encounter the note is Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue 1912.  The other place is Guerlain’s Apres L’Ondee 1906.  Both are re-interpretations of   Francois Coty’s L’Origan 1904, which used a heliotrope base (among five others).  All of these fragrances have made it into what you might call fragrant pop culture.  Never smelled them?  Try one and if you’ve never met the scent before chances are you’ll smell talcum powder. Continue reading

The Phlox of August

A border of Summer Phlox

A border of Summer Phlox

World War I started a hundred years ago this month. In retrospect it makes me cringe when I think of all the golden afternoons of August in Flanders being shattered by shellfire and drifting clouds of mustard gas.

Even this unfortunate anniversary does not spoil the month for me.  August strikes me as being one of the very best times to smell things in gardens and one of the best smells of the August garden is phlox. I should make myself clear and point out that I’m discussing Summer Phlox or Phlox paniculata to give the plant its right name.

If you garden with perennials you know this plant well because it conveniently blooms in August when so many other perennials have shut up shop for the season, and all you are left with is annuals. Continue reading

Old Fashioned Flowers + New Treatments = Modern Perfumes?

The Hemisphere, Valencia

The Hemisphere, Valencia

So many flowers fall out of the repertoire of perfumery. The number of flowers that are not used always surprises me, outside of such perennials as gardenia, jasmine and tuberose practically every other flower I can think of has fallen out of favor during my years smelling perfume.

These days the hardest to find are lilacs, although Lilac Faith was released last year, part of the Aerin line at Estee Lauder, Carnation, and Heliotrope are little used except as moderators in some fragrances, others: Mignonette, Stock, Nicotiana, Wall Flowers, Primroses, Dame’s Rocket, and Phlox, as well as all sorts of other garden inhabitants never make the grade for contemporary fragrances. Continue reading