Review: Guerlain Vol de Nuit — 5.0 points

During the golden age of aviation, the general sentiment was one of exploration, adventure, and fascination with the unexplored. This is because these could be made possible by the advent of aviation. Such sentiments pervaded the air of the time, and therefore, when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the novel Vol de Nuit or ‘Night Flight’ in 1931 based on his experience as an aviator, it became an international best-seller. Its tale of a courageous pilot braving the night storm and plunging himself into an unknown fate whilst his dear wife awaited the grave news moved many.

As perfumery caught on this l’air du temps, perfumer Jacques Guerlainhimself a friend of Saint-Exupérycomposed Vol de Nuit (Guerlain, 1933) in honour of the pioneering aviator. The resplendent composition of green, floral, woody, and animalic elements was most avant-garde, and did not lend itself to any immediately recognisable category.

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The extrait de parfum that I acquired in 2015 opens with a snap of bitter-green galbanum and wonderfully tart bergamot. The latter recalls the fine tartness of Jicky (Guerlain, 1889) in the top.  More importantly, I like the way the galbanum is intertwined with bergamot, creating a temperamental green character that is, at once, fierce and gentle. From then on, Vol de Nuit begins its descent into the bottomless pit.

The dark green ripples of jonquille absolute bridge the green top with their deep mellow touch. Then, I smell what is effectively a Guerlinade accord. It is a soft oriental powder revolving around jasmine, orange blossom, orris, vanilla, and tonka bean. Throughout, the powerful leathery and animalic note of castoreum is present and becomes more evident as the composition develops. Its animalic allure maintain the gravity of the composition. The dry down is a combination of resins, amber, and a light touch of oakmoss. Much later, it smells of resinous woods.

My impression of Vol de Nuit in the extrait de parfum is that it is a dense and most beautiful atramentum. I must admit, though, that I had a hard time at first because of the castoreum funk and the fierce and dark green notes of galbanum and jonquille. But a few times of wearing it changed my mind. This is because a composition like Vol de Nuit demands patience. It takes time to play out the sublime depth of the notes.

Vol de Nuit is all about the depth of night, but neither is the familiar contrast of cool and warm notes missing. There is plenty in the fresh green top versus the animalic warm base. Jacques Guerlain brought disparate elements together, despite their strong and seemingly irreconcilable differences. There are the greens of galbanum and jonquille, the floral-oriental and the feral impertinence of castoreum and resinous notes. The heterogeneity of Vol de Nuit is what gives the anticipation and the excitement of charting an unknown territory. That is why I admire and covet Vol de Nuit. It feels like raw instinct as one plunges into the abyss.

More than eight decades later and stripped of some of its animalic tinctures and oakmoss, it is still daring, bold, and certainly one of a kind.

Source: guerlain.fr

Review: Guerlain Mouchoir de Monsieur — 4.0 points

Named for the bygone fashion of men sporting their scented batiste handkerchiefs, the composition goes by the name of Mouchoir de Monsieur (Guerlain, 1904)handkerchief of the gentleman. It was created by perfumer Jacques Guerlain well over a decade after Jicky (Guerlain, 1889). Yet, both fragrances share an uncanny resemblance, and one can see the interesting development and twist that Jacques Guerlain did to Jicky, its iconic fougère predecessor by his uncle Aimé Guerlain.

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The lavender at the centre of its fougére accord reminds me of Jicky, and it is similarly dressed up with plenty of citrus, a bit of herbs, some fresh flowers, and a warm sweet base. The juxtaposition between cool and warm notes is also there. But this time, it is the floral accent and fulsome civet that set the tone for the fougère accord in Mouchoir de Monsieur.

The fresh aromatic facet of lavender is enhanced by the brilliance of its top notes: bergamot, neroli, and lemon verbena. These form the cool refreshing eau de cologne accord, and I can imagine gentlemen of those days dousing their batiste handkerchiefs with the concoction.

Contrary to Jicky in which the floral note of its lavender is left as such, Mouchoir de Monsieur embellishes the dainty purple florets with a bit of jasmine. Dollops of civet impart a mellow depth, much like a creamy dark chocolate ganache. It feels very dandy and polished.

The composition segues into a warm sweet powder combining orris, vanilla, tonka bean, and musks with the floral embellishments. Compared to the rudimentary accord in Jicky, the famed Guerlinade is more recognisable here with its floral, powdery, praline sweetness. Its warm vanillic base is fully enveloped by the sensual civet cream, much like the warmth of ermine robes. Mouchoir de Monsieur ends as a faintly floral powder with sweet animalic puffs of civet that stay close to skin for five hours; it does slightly better on fabric.

Mouchoir de Monsieur might be a derivative of Jicky, but that does not necessarily mean that it is any less interesting. In fact, I see it as an experiment of Jacques Guerlain to develop a unique character in the house style. Just like Jicky, the cool hesperidic and agrestic notes contrast sharply with the redolent vanillic fond. It is a beautiful duel. However, the floral inflection and redolent civet are where Mouchoir de Monsieur diverges from its forebear and flaunts its dandy appeal. And, I should think of its memorable character as a glimpse of the La Belle Époque opulence.

Source: guerlain.fr, Sotheby’s

Mapping The Classic Chypres

Whilst making a study of the classic chypres, I realised that they borrowed from one another in more ways than I could have perceived from sniffing alone. However, the results were anything but copies. By determination and strokes of ingenuity, their creators produced very original and creative compositions. In order to see the big picture of how each composition was inspired or influenced by the others, I drew the diagram of these timeless compositions whose traditional chypre structure dotted the landscape of perfumery.

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Chypre de Coty ( Coty, 1917) consolidated the structure of chypre family. Two years later, Jacques Guerlain appropriated the structure for the ripe peach skin and Guerlinade of Mitsouko (Guerlain, 1919). This ripe peach was later put at the fore by Edmond Roudnitska in Femme (Rochas, 1942).

Inspired by Chypre de Coty, Jean Carles used the classical structural materials in Ma Griffe (Carven, 1946) and built the composition with bases, which are bold accords based on synthetic and natural ingredients. This gave Ma Griffe a strong structure and an exceedingly complex quality. He would later apply this technique to Miss Dior (1947) with a  nod to the galbanum of Vent Vert (Pierre Balmain, 1945) by Germaine Cellier. Even though I do not see Vent Vert as a chypre, I put it there because Miss Dior was indubitably influenced by it.

And, although its inspiration involves the leather accord based on isobutyl quinoline, Bandit (Robert Piguet, 1944), also by Germaine Cellier, still clearly screams of chypre. This brutal combination of leather and chypre was reworked by Bernard Chant in Cabochard (Grès, 1959) to make it more accessible with a floral emphasis and softer character. He would go on to establish this leather chypre accord in masculine perfumes with Aramis (1965) that retains some of the softness of Cabochard, but darkens its leather. I almost forgot to include another noteworthy creation, but thanks to Robert who mentioned  Azurée (Estée Lauder, 1969). Possibly by Bernard Chant as well, it  bears striking similarity to Aramis and Cabochard. And, of course, Bernard Chant was creative with Aromatics Elixir (Clinique, 1971), dosing the patchouli and floral notes whilst reducing the animalic touch to simply the castoreum puffs. Aromatics Elixir, thus, sets itself uniquely between a chypre and an oriental.

Charles Hard Townes, in his Nobel prize speech, commented, ‘Scientists do, as we have heard, stand on the shoulders of giants from the past’ — I could not agree more.