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.
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.
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.
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!