The Green Green Grass of Guerlain

Sometime around 1959, Guerlain found themselves staring at a new trend, exemplified by the consumers’ love of a particularly green and herbaceous note: vetiver.

The vetiver of choice back then was Carven’s Vetiver (1957).  Dry, resinous, as chartreuse as a macaw’s tail, and growing popular, Carven’s Vetiver was a hit.

The thing was that the venerable house of Guerlain was resting, as it often did in those years of Mad Mennic peace and prosperity, cushioned by laurels piled up in the past.  There was certainly competition out there, but was it strictly necessary to roll the cannon up to the ramparts just yet?  The competition’s sails were only just beginning to be visible on the horizon.

Well, of course it was necessary.  But the older members of the Guerlain dynasty decided to let the youngest Guerlain deal with the potential breach in their commercial fortifications.  The phrase handed down with lackadaisical ease by the senior command was, “Let the little one deal with it.”

Jean Paul had been at a loose end as a teenager, afflicted by temporary blindness, and so he was taken into the business, where sight was, all things considered, the secondary sense.  After his apprenticeship, and the restoration of his vision, he was judged ready to take on a big job. This youngest Guerlain was going to fight off the piratical Carven challenge more or less on his own.

And that was the beginning of Jean Paul Guerlain’s career, properly speaking.  He knew that Carven’s Vetiver was excellent, and selling well.  One  story goes that it was outselling a Guerlain Extrait de Vetiver formula in Mexico, another, was that the house wanted the Extrait modernized.   His job was to out do the competition, purely and simply, in hand to hand combat conducted on the bottom floor of the Printemps.*

Well, few of us choose our battlefields in life.

I have looked at different lists of notes for these two Vetivers and found, shall we say, some difference of opinion.  In the end,  I trust best this list from a Haarman and Reimer Fragrance Guide (1991):

Carven Head Notes: bergamot, lemon, petit grain

Guerlain Headnotes: mandarin, clary sage, neroli and coriander

Carven Heart: vetiver, carnation, orris, sandalwood, cedar wood

Guerlain Heart: ditto, plus sage

Carven Base: amber, musk, moss, olibanum and myrrh.

Guerlain Base: oakmoss, myrrh, olibanum, leather, civet and amber.

Please notice, no tobacco listed in the Guerlain, but there is tobacco in the scent and it is recorded on Fragrantica and Basenotes along with those usual suspects, nutmeg and pepper.

I do not know if the formula changed radically, or if the pepper and nutmeg and tobacco were there from the start.  Probably they were.  The story goes that when he re-did the original Mexican Guerlain recipe, he used as inspiration the scent of his gardener – a man who smelled of tobacco and earth. It seems logical to assume that the unusual notes in Vetiver’s drydown date from its revision, and probably included the tobacco and nutmeg from that point on.

The irony was, and is still, that this battle for the hearts and minds of South American male consumers (always a more fragrance friendly group than European and N. American Men) ended by producing a classic fragrance.  There are no fewer than 273 reviews of Guerlain Vetiver on Basenotes these days.  Opinions are divided, but most posters seem to love the stuff still.

As for the undecided, reformulations aside, many of them are grappling with the generational and cultural differences that put Vetiver over the top in the first place: more tobacco use, less air conditioning.  In a world where most domestic nooks and crannies are chilled, filtered and refrigerated April to October by the likes of Carrier Inc., few individuals need to wear super refreshing scent.

Back in the day though, people liked to wear their cooling stratagems, hung like vetiver mats in India, over their sweating bodies.  The stratagem is low tech, but not ineffective. As I remarked once to one of  my father’s contemporaries, he could remember a time when there was no air conditioning in summer in the US South, but that my generation could barely imagine this.

“That’s true,” he said, and then he smiled and added – “Y’all effete.”

*(On the other hand, another story goes that their Mexican distributor wanted a reworking of an extrait de vetiver already on the market, and the timing was coincidental.)


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