There are watershed years in practically every field, and in perfumery, 1912 was the year of grace. It is one hundred years since Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs, and Caron’s Narcisse Noir were introduced, amazingly, all three are with us up to the present day. They are all classics and are all, in their various ways, ground breaking.
It’s hard to conceive of a time when fragrances weren’t launched with the outsized caution and undersized budgets of our own era, and yet those pre-war years were the time of Francois Coty’s rise, and his competitors were responding to the market dominating successes of La Rose Jacqueminot (1904) and L’Origan (1905), especially the latter. On the strength of these blockbusters, Coty built a factory complex outside of Paris capable of producing thousands of bottles a day, and he was in the process of conquering overseas markets as well.
What to do? Gas chromatography hadn’t been invented, perfumers had to decode rival fragrances on their own, and craft competitive perfumes simply in order to stay current with market tastes and trends. At Guerlain, the answer rested not only on a meticulous retro-engineering of L’Origan – any other perfumer might have left it at that – but also, on creating a version that gave the original idea greater refinement.
Guerlain’s first response was a delicate, spicy oriental/ floral with heliotropin used to give it an evocative grace. Just as L’Origan was supposed to recall the Corsican chaparral, Apres was the reconstruction of a hedgerow somewhere in rural France after a passing shower. It was released in 1906 and has been in production ever since, but it is frequently remarked upon as a fragrance that breaks ranks with other Guerlains. It doesn’t really seem “like a Guerlain”.
The reason for this lack of cohesion was probably the haste with which the House had to create a competitor to L’Origan. Time lost was market share conceded, and so the perfume that wasn’t exactly in step with the rest of the Guerlain line, which in those days included Jicky (1889) and Mouchoir de Monsieur(1904) and Voilette de Madame (1904) and Voila Pourquoi J’Aimais Rosine (1900) had to make jostling room for a wan atmospheric scent that didn’t reference any of its colleagues. In fact what it did reference in its neurasthenic core, were the herbal notes of its true predecessor, L’Origan.
It probably wasn’t close enough to L’Origan to make a dent in the other scent’s sales. What Guerlain required was a real contender.
At this point, one can’t help speculating that Jacques Guerlain didn’t really like L’Origan. He may have felt that it was altogether too heady, too intrusive, and too overstated. What he produced eventually was almost equally expansive, but had elegance, and naturally, also a guerlinade, the brand identifying trail that had been missing in Apres L’Ondee. Compare the notes of Apres: violet, bergamot, cassie, neroli, carnation, ylang-ylang , iris, rose, jasmine, mimosa, vetiver ,sandalwood, vanilla, musk, amber ,heliotrope with those of L’Heure: bergamot, lemon, coriander, neroli, rose, iris, heliotrope, jasmine, ylang-ylang, orchid, vanilla, sandalwood, musk, vetiver, benzoin. It’s become much more of an oriental, although the basic idea, you can see, is the same. What had been understated and light now came on much more authoritatively, and had much more of a spicy, powdery, pervasive presence.
To this day, plenty of people do not care for L”Heure Bleue. Romantic as the descriptions are, the reality of this fragrance is this iris/orange blossom/amber accord which is both very lasting and heavy rather than ethereal. On some skins the florals and vanilla in combination with the heliotropin and benzoin can come across as rubbery or even plasticene, whereas on the lucky majority the scent coalesces into an iris, orange blossom, powder blend of great refinement.
It has pulled this trick for almost 100 years and is still, many say, the most immediately recognizable of the classic Guerlain formulae, having survived the process of modernization almost intact. Its dry-down is its great glory, lasting for 24 hours or longer, and is completely distinctive. No other perfume has ever succeeded in replicating L’Heure Bleue. There have been so many variants on it, everything from Patricia de Nicolai’s Sacrebleu to Guerlain’s own Iris Ganache that you might be excused for thinking it must have been equaled at some point in its history, but the record still supports L’Heure’s achievement as world champ, still undefeated in the field of anise scented rose and iris bouquets. It smells like Marianne- that is, if Marianne had a scent.