Guerlain Originals,_68_avenue_des_Champs-%C3%89lys%C3%A9es,_Paris_8e_009.JPGThe publishing mogul/poet Felix Dennis is blunt about it: “The problem with the great idea is that it concentrates the mind on the idea itself…But unless the idea is executed efficiently and with panache and originality, then it doesn’t matter how great the idea is, the enterprise will fail.”

It’s a nifty piece of wisdom, and has always struck me in regard to the grand old firm of Guerlain, whose business model for many years was less to create than to perfect.

You didn’t wear Guerlains for their startling uniqueness, because almost nothing of Guerlain’s was unique.  You wore them for the quality of the materials used and for the careful handling of  those ingredients.  Guerlain’s execution was what shone through.  The origin of the idea was not important. Caron might create, Coty certainly did, even Jean Patou from time to time produced creations, but Guerlain guerlainified, and the results were charming, very high quality, with a delicacy all their own.At least that was true for a very long time.  Sometime in the 1990s it began to change. Guerlain, which still featured Jean Paul Guerlain at the helm, began to do something it had never done before, it began to innovate.  This was in part because of the sale of the firm to LVMH in 1994.

After that new perfumers were brought in to work on different fragrances and among the many who did, was Mathilde Laurent, responsible for some of the freshest and liveliest scents to come out of the old company in a hundred years.  She worked on the first generation of Aqua Allegorias, producing the green and minty Herba Fresca, the creamy Ylang et Vanille, and the almost Victorian rose of  Rosa Magnifica, as well as her masterpiece Pamplelune, surely one of the greatest citrus fragrances ever done, and the dusky Lavande Velours which foreshadowed  her wonderful Guet Apens with a big violet note.

All of these were striking because they had something unexpected about them, something unprecedented, yet they still contained references to Guerlains of the past.  You could find a bit of Quand Vient L’Ete in Laurent’s Terracotta Voile d’Ete, a lot of Guerlainity intelligently updated in her Shalimar Light, even an enchanting iris reminiscent of Apres L’Ondee in both Lavande Velours and Meteorites, the latter being yet another scent released around 2000.

These, and not the big blockbusters – L’Instant from 2003 or Insolence, 2006 – struck me as being the way that Guerlain should have carried on into the 21st century. The blockbusters were contemporary, Maurice Roucel perfumes, very carefully composed and tested, and they sold, but there is nothing particularly Guerlian-ish about them, and the delicacy that usually marks Guerlains was nowhere evident.  These were big productions, big deals, and smelled like them, but might as well have come out of any number of perfume houses for all the distinctiveness they possessed.

The limited editions from those early years of the 21st century are another story.  Philtre d’Amour was sharp and clever and sprinted along the path of superlative Guerlain citruses, Vetiver Pour Elle was an excellent re-weaving of Vetiver leaving it as light as a flower garland, and Plus Que Jamais, an elegant re-orchestration of Jardins de Bagatelle, turning that staccato tune into a meandering piece by Ravel.  All are credited to Jean Paul Guerlain, which may be corporate shorthand for “Never mind, shoppers, it’s a Guerlain.” Even worse, none is still in production.

The Firm changed its strategy again.  Other perfumers were brought in, the Art et Matiere Line was started, and the venerable company began to return to its old ways, that is of letting the competition innovate and then executing those innovations with the customary Guerlain expertise.

But I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone if Guerlain had promoted Mathilde Laurent to in house perfumer, or even if they had hired Patricia de Nicolai, who is a Guerlain by blood?  Did both ladies hit a glass ceiling? Were there just too many new ideas? Were there irreconcilable differences?  Was Guerlain not ready for a female in house perfumer?

Who knows, but either way, judging from the brief rush of creativity that came out of the company, like a belated jet from a crumbling fountain, at the turn of the century, it may have been Guerlain’s loss.

(guerlain image via Moonik and wikipedia)


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12 thoughts on “Guerlain Originals

  1. You have some very interesting points, and Mathilde Laurent’s work for Guerlain are amongst my favourite things; Guet-Apens more than any. Your mention of Lavande Velours in the same sentence as GA makes me very curious to try this one, since it has escaped me. However, I’m not sure what would have happened had ML become headperfumer there, look at her work for Cartier, which I assume is more completely her own style than Guerlain ever was. There are some great fumes for sure, but no lush velvety orientals calling to mind her time chez Guerlain.

    1. Lavande Velours is a violet note, a long lasting one over a velvety iris/lavender with some sandalwood in the base. It had that same kind of tactile sort of richness to it that I remember from Guet Apens and later, from Attrappe Coeur, although in a simpler less opulent scent. You could wear LV in May for instance. AC was changed a little bit from Guet, but was still thickly napped, a perfume to sink your feet into!
      You’re right about the Cartier perfumes of Ms. Laurent. None of them has really hooked me. Have any of them struck you as to die for? They’re all just a bit too chemicated for me, brainy but thin. Perfume on a diet.

      1. In that case LV sounds like something I absolutely need:-) funny, I always found that the dc aroma allegoria exulting had a certain thinkness which of AC, although probably not many would think so. A dear perfume friend called it ‘brahmsian’. As for Cartiers another great perfume friend was kind to send a decant of the horse one, and I really like that one a lot. But I suppose in general I also like Brahms better than I like horses

        1. They do re-use the odd accord over there, and I never got to smell the allegoria you mention. But about LV, try a sample, as it is a lot simpler than AC and you might like it a good deal less. It seems to me that there are a few minis to be found on Ebay, not too unreasonably, if you like LV.

          Brahmsian is a nice way to describe some of those great big Guerlains, a whoosh of emotions, and then tea time. It is always tea time somewhere in those perfumes.
          I never got to the Triezieme Heure (is that the horsey one?) The others I sniffed were just not that memorable.

  2. I’m not sure why I can’t quite bring myself to *care.* Which is a terrible sort of thing to say on such a well-written post… I’m all, “Ehhhh, Guerlain. Pfffff. Make something I can’t do without, and we’ll start a relationship.” I mean, there are Guerlains I love, but the only unlike-anything-else fragrance is Apres l’Ondee, and the word on that one is that it’s been messed with, more iris and less heliotrope, and in my opinion that is exactly the Wrong Proportion For Me, so —

    I just find myself blowing Guerlain off again. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s not. The world is still spinning.

    (Gosh, I’m grouchy today.)

    1. There is a curious thing happening over at Guerlain, some of the oldies are getting a little bit less good (though some are better- Jicky for starters), Apres L’Ondee has a longer more synthetic-y dry down, BUT now they have this LE called L’Heure de Nuit (tinted blue in a blue bottle, they have this vespertine thing down cold you know) and darned if all the heliotrope I couldn’t find in the Apres hadn’t gone and migrated to this L’Heure de Nuit! Smelled this at Bergdorf’s, and hustled my scent strip home where I promptly put old L’Origan on the same strip. Yup you can smell the similarity. The L de N is sweeter in the dry down, and has much more floral and no spice compared to L’Origan. Feels like they back crossed the LB with Apres to get this, and presented the blue bouquet on top of a box of candy. Nicer than you might think, or than it has a right to be.
      If somebody from 1930 came back and smelled Apres now and then this L’Heure de Nuit I wonder which one they would pick as the real Apres? Maybe this LE.

      1. I have a friend – you know Daisy? the Queen Enabler? – who split about six bottles of L’Heure de Nuit, which promptly got christened “BLOO” in the Facebook perfumehead group I belong to. I might see if I can hit her up for a sample.

        1. And BLOO it is! You know how the SL Sarrasins is PURPLE? Well the L’Heure is definitely BLOO. Gotta go talk up my favorite Guerlain SA for a spritz or two myself.

  3. People sometimes wonder, wishfully, what would happen if Guerlain were to offer Patricia de Nicolai the top job. Well who knows – perhaps they have. And perhaps she turned it down. I rather like the thought that after (apparently) rejecting her early in her career, Guerlain might go back to her eventually, humbly, to right that wrong. And she tells them to stick the old firm where the sun does not shine. You go girl!

    I think she is better off with her own firm, in control of her own destiny and free (as much as anyone in business can be) to create as she pleases. She operates the firm on a small scale and refuses to bother with fancy bottles and a posh website. I’ve always taken that not as neglect or indifference or lack of taste, but a refusal to play the game. A rejection of corporatism and celebrity, with all the compromises and restrictions they bring, in exchange for her freedom. Why should she go back? She may be good for Guerlain, but would Guerlain be good for her?

    I greatly enjoy you blog, by the way. A lovely read, every time.

    1. You may be right about Patricia de Nicolai and her priorities. If she didn’t love perfume I don’t think she would have taken on the job at the Osmotheque, it can’t be as well compensated as being in house perfumer at Guerlain!
      Then too when she’s moonlighted- I’m thinking of Le Rivage des Syrtes and Un Coeur en Mai for MDCI, the productions were rather high quality.
      I think unquestionably she would be good for Guerlain, but why would she bother with that now?

      And thank you, but I consider myself lucky in my readers.

      1. Oh lordy – I had not realised that Patricia had done some work for MDCI – thanks for the info. Normally that is a brand I avoid because it is out of my financial reach, but I my have to check these out.

        1. The Rivage is very orangey-reminds me of her Maharanih slightly, but Un Coeur en Mai is a rose. Very lovely, rather green I think.

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