Not that you have to choose, this is not one of those walk-the-plank propositions I see on other blogs, where the writer wants you to choose once and for all, usually between Guerlain and Chanel. And anyway, this is not so difficult- if you like more naturals and modern elegance you go with Chanel, of course, and if you like anything sensually baroque or gourmand, you go with Guerlain, right?
My question, however is a little more profound because once upon a time so many of the Guerlains were Cotys.
If you are relatively new to the world of perfume history, you may not know that back in the early twentieth century, a Corsican who had changed his name to Coty dominated the world of women’s scent. He had a blockbuster fragrance in L’Origan in 1905, and went on to have more: Emeraude in 1921, and L’Aimant (Coty’s answer to No5 ) in 1927. These were on top of his other hits, la Rose Jacqueminot in 1906, and the innovative Chypre of 1917. The onslaught of Coty appeared to be unstoppable.
However then, as now, lots of perfume companies compete by letting the competition innovate for them and then perfecting the innovation. Guerlain had been in the habit of following this business model for some time, and when Coty came along, it was soon evident that a lot of the Guerlain perfumes smelled very like their Coty competitors: Shalimar (1925) strikingly like Emeraude; Mitsouko (1919) very like Chypre; Apres L’Ondee (1906) and later, L’Heure Bleue (1912) were very like L’Origan .
Oh well, originality isn’t everything. Sales are, though, and you soon see and smell the progression.
(You can still buy the old Coty bottles, though you probably don’t want to. They are shabby, dowdy things and not nearly so nice as a new Chanel or Estée Lauder and so much less charming than those adorable Ineke packages. Even Patricia de Nicolai out-packages old Cotys. I advice you to buy nearly anything else, since old Coty perfumes smell VERY OLD LADY. Especially Chypre, that is horrible stuff and you absolutely do not want it. Seriously now, people, you don’t.)
But if despite my warnings, you persist in getting some old Coty perfumes – and I’m not talking about Truly Lace or Vanilla Fields – you will smell something rather wonderful: a perfectly tested and thought out formula. Coty was never about prestige. If ever a perfumer was a perfumer of the people, then it was Coty.
Guerlain, on the other hand, knew the power of exclusivity, the click of the closing door and the frown of the doorman, the velvet rope barring your path. Basically, no Mitsouko for you, Mac, but hey, you could always buy Chypre, even if all you were buying was a bar of hand soap.
The proof in the pudding is that the Cotys, even the venerable ones, were sold in stores that were not much more exalted than the local Five and Dimes, the Targets of yesteryear.
What are the differences? Even now the materials used for Guerlains are, to my nose, a bit more exalted. Especially if you get perfume strength, you’re dealing with pretty high quality. The Cotys are a little less exquisite than Guerlains, but Cotys, unlike Guerlains, do not differ at all between strengths. Whereas the extract of Guerlain’s Jicky stresses, say, lavender and tonka bean notes over the lemon note, the edt stresses the lemon.
Coty’s L’Aimant, on the other hand, is clearly L’Aimant no matter which strength you buy. Cotys are consistent.
Also the Guerlains will exaggerate a formula for effect. This is most obvious in creations like Apres L’Ondee. It’s clearly predicated on L’Origan (I’ve owned and worn both), but Apres is its own perfume, far more ethereal than L’Origan, which is more spicy than floral. Even Jacques Guerlain must have felt that he did not re-do L’Origan successfully, otherwise why would he have had another shot at it in 1912, in the process producing L’Heure Bleue?
Oh, I forgot, most of the Cotys are hard to find these days, and consequently difficult to test. But if all things were equal and if you could find Cotys at every Saks or Lord and Taylor’s, which would you choose?