Guerlain Vanillas

Decadent Vanilla

Decadent Vanilla

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.

Shalimar Ode a la Vanille

Shalimar Ode a la Vanille

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.

Rum Cocktail

Rum Cocktail

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.

Vanilla in extract from Williams Sonoma

Vanilla in extract from Williams Sonoma

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!

An Explosion of Brands

 John Singer Sargent  Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

John Singer Sargent
Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

Believe it or not this happened once before.  You may think that nothing like the multiplication of perfume niche companies has ever been seen in the history of scent sales but back in the early twentieth century something very like this happened.

Frankly I’ve long since lost count of the number of new niche fragrance houses that have debuted in the last three years or so.  Some of them will survive of course, and many will not, but back in the teens and twenties the world of perfume was similarly flooded. Continue reading

Why Don’t You…Wear Diana Vreeland?

Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland

Her name was pronounced Dee-Ahn, never Die- Ann.  People who worked with her rapidly found that out.  Not that Diana was affected, she was simply, completely, utterly, and unapologetically, inner directed.  This may be a  euphemism for being eccentric, but the line between genius and madness is notoriously thin, and eccentrics frequently straddle it.

Diana Vreeland Parfums is the attempt to commercialize the reputation of the late editrix of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.  Perfume seems an odd choice for that task since I don’t remember any statement from Mrs. Vreeland on perfume, except for a lone endorsement of Glamour. Clothes and shoes I should have thought, were more her sphere. Continue reading

Spritzing with the Enemy

Audrey Volk  The Mother profiled in Shocked

Audrey Volk
The Mother profiled in Shocked

You may be familiar with Hal Vaughan’s book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.  The book came out in 2012 and caused some flutter as mention of Coco’s wartime activities inevitably does.  The fact of Coco’s affair with Von Dincklage, and her attempt to emphasize her larger amount of “Aryan” blood to oust the Wertheimers from Parfums Chanel is all pretty easy to discover.  However, having a spouse who writes non-fiction history makes you sensitive to primary material, plus I have always wondered if we know some of Coco’s war activities, how much did people know during the forties? Continue reading

Bare Skin Scents

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara

Maybe this is an ooh la la sort of question, but I wonder what are the best fragrances for nudity?  Now I realize that the answer is going to vary a good deal because the subject of skin and what works on the skin also varies considerably from one person to another, but factoring that in, which are the very best scents for nothing at all? Continue reading

Dries Van Noten

Grinling Gibbon Carving

Grinling Gibbons  Carving

Some years ago sandalwood was nowhere to be found.  The white sandalwood that I remembered from my childhood was produced by too few trees in India, and as a result, Indian authorities  shut down production for some time.

In the interim, you got imitations of sandalwood, Mcqueen’s Kingdom for instance, a fragrance that was a flop with the market, but not at all bad as a sandalwood mock-up.  Worse, far worse, to my mind was what happened to perfumes that were constructed around sandalwood.  Bois des Isles one year  smelled of Santalum spicatum though really the scent was thrown off by this kind of substitution, but what was a fashion house to do?  There was no Santalum album to be had.  Chanel merely made the best of a bad business. Continue reading

Salty Melons and Married Love: Le Parfum de Therese



People remember the late Edmond Roudnitska for different reasons. Myself I remember his book about perfume, the first serious one I ever read on the subject. In it he made a plea for perfume to be considered an art form, maybe not a major art, but an art all the same. I’m not sure what I made of that at the time I read the book in the nineties, but I am sure that a number of Roudnitska compositions struck me as being quite artful. Continue reading

Lemon-y but Lovely: New Citrus Florals



Right now colognes seem to be out of favor with the market. This always surprises me since colognes seem like such a wonderful option for many people. They’re often largely natural, they’re light, they offend very few, and yet look at Andy Tauer trying to get the Cologne du Maghreb into circulation. Apparently, that’s an uphill battle. Continue reading

Bubbles in the Soap Dish: Cruel Gardenia, Caline, Fleur de Rocailles

Cold Cream Camay

Cold Cream Camay

Most of us are very clean.   I’ve never met anyone interested in perfume who was not something of a clean freak.  Maybe we don’t take three baths a day a la Tom Ford but we are very fussy about hygiene.  So why do most of us just not like soap in our perfume?

Possibly the note seems old fashioned to us now.  Back at the turn of the century though J Lo did have that hit of hers Glow.  The whole idea there was freshness and something similar happened with Narciso Rodriguez’ Essence. I thought that the scents were nice enough and had the advantage of wearability in public places.  However, both were modern soaps, and understated. Continue reading

The American Smell?

New York skylineIs there such a thing? I’d say not although there definitely are city smells.  In my extended family we refer to the New York smell, which is made up of car exhaust, uncollected garbage and yes a tiny touch of urine.  And before anyone says “How awful!” let me point out that members of the same family get nostalgic for this scent and have to go into the city just to huff.  True fact.

Charleston SC seems to have a pleasanter smell, with the exhaust cut by a bit of horse manure and flowers.  I quite like it.  Montreal always smells of frost and grit to me, Philadelphia has some frying oil in the air somewhere, Chicago has got that frost and grit thing going on plus some smell tossed up by railroad tracks and stockyards.  The  universal smell of North American cities  seems to be predicated on carbon monoxide.  I’m not certain that anyone has succeeded in bottling it.

New York BridgesNeil Morris has City Rain and Gotham which is supposed to smell a bit like New York but I don’t know if he captured that distinctive fragrance or not.

What does your locality smell like? If it’s anywhere in the US, tomorrow it’ll probably smell of barbecue. Happy Fourth of July!