Les Très Riches Heures

thebluehourParis

 – a review of Guerlain L’Heure Bleue

What constitutes a masterpiece? Is it a perfumer’s sleight of hand, some alchemical and supernatural coming together of time, space and essence that all conspires to elevate what is basically a blend of essences and oils in alcohol to that elevated plane of epiphany that simply arrests your attention where you stand, makes your blood run hot or cold and unlocks a moment, a memory or an emotion?

This was brought back to me last year when I received a sample of vintage Guerlains in a package from a friend and fellow perfumoholic that also included one of those celebrated 20th-century classics, namely Jacques Guerlain’s 1912 L’Heure Bleue. Alas, whether due to faulty packaging or airmail pressure changes, the L’Heure Bleue had leaked all through everything, and that package was, shall we say, redolent.

What surprised me the most was my own reaction. This was, after all, one of the Great 20th Century Perfume Masterpieces, as everyone did declare. Jacques Guerlain! La Belle Epoque! Art Nouveau encompasses many of my polymorphously perverse aesthetic preoccupations. L’Heure Bleue would surely be a Cupid’s arrow pointed straight at ‘love’.

So why did that saturated package smell of heartbreak and tears? Why did I catch myself thinking Kate was almost certainly wearing this in the lifeboat as she watched Leo go down with the Titanic?

Masterpiece, schmasterpiece.

I had never sniffed anything so utterly heart-wrenching in my life.

The package was thrown out.

Some months later however, my curiosity was piqued when Guerlain released L’Heure de Nuit as a tribute to L’Heure Bleue, and having a bit of a crush being a Thierry Wasser fan, I couldn’t let this one pass me by. I added myself to a split. I wanted to review it. (And so I shall!) Then again, I felt I couldn’t be fair unless I knew something of the original L’Heure Bleue, ‘so if you have a smidge of vintage to spare…’ 

You see, I also knew that that first impression had been very pop-culturally biased (James Cameron has a lot to answer for, let’s say), and exceedingly unfair.

The perfume fairy I can thank for this review obliged me by providing hugely generous samples of vintage L’Heure Bleue in extrait, parfum de toilette, eau de toilette and eau de cologne. If all those priceless treasures couldn’t convince me, nothing could.

At long last, somewhere between them all and their sparkling facets of Jacques Guerlain’s original concept, I, too felt many cerulean shades of something so intense, I could only express them by wearing a perfume…

You see, whether it was a far more open mind or else these four slightly different variations on a theme, somewhere between the extrait and the eau de cologne, the blockbuster scales fell from my eyes, and icebergs and penniless painters were thankfully the last things on my mind.

Twilight is an hour that has a special literary significance in Paris, when day and night are both poised on the brink, in countless tales it is the hour of assignations and dangerous liaisons, of heated moments with a secret lover before returning home for dinner en famille, for alors, we are French and take a practical view of these matters…

Legend has it that Jacques Guerlain set out to create a ‘blue’ accord to capture that magical hour of twilight, or as he famously stated:

I felt something so intense, I could only express it in a perfume.

As for me, I have rarely felt something so intense as the emotions captured in the liquid golden filigree of this perfume.

It does indeed strike me as blue, in fact it could not be any other color, or any other mood. Melancholy comes in many guises, yet there is a particular kind of deliciously indulgent melancholy that invites its own reveries on rainy Sunday afternoons as the raindrops chase each other down the windowpanes in Debussy dances, when you are reminded of the ephemeral beauty of all you love, when life itself catches you by surprise and somehow stops you in a moment – looking out the window, looking up at a blue twilit sky so distinctively, so emphatically defining the color blue, no painter could catch it, and no poet ever capture it.

Somehow by equal parts alchemy, skill and inspiration, a perfumer did just that. He took anise and heliotrope with all their airy, licorice and Marasca cherry edible charms, wrapped them around a decadent, earthy, floral curvilinear heart with asymmetrical, sinuous Art Nouveau twists and turns. Orange blossom and carnation and violet, audacious and bold, rose and powdery purple violet tinged with a well-bred, exquisitely mannered tuberose, all whispering all their impossible fairytales of other times and other manners when the heart of life beat at a different, more contemplative and less frenetic pace, when beauty itself was defined by the unusual and the audacious, and L’Heure Bleue, coming as it did at the end of an era and at a time when perfumery itself was being reinvented, is nothing if not bold.

For long moments between the heart and the drydown, walking this fragrant bridge between day and night, between daylight certainties and midnight possibilities, there is a big, powdery puff of flour. Yes, I did say…flour. Just a little acrid, just a little bitter, just a little shocking.

I shall surprise you, L’Heure Bleue seems to say, to all my bittersweet pleasures prove, to show there is far more, and far different, than even you expect.

And then. And then…

And then, some very long hours later for the extrait and the parfum de toilette, a little less for the eau de toilette and the eau de cologne, comes the grandest, greatest surprise of all.

That spectacular mille-feuilles and crème frangipane drydown that made Guerlain so famous. Marshmallow accord, says my research, but yours truly trained as a pastry chef at one time in my life and am the veteran of many, many batches of both puff pastry as well as crème frangipane, and what my nose tells me is not so much marshmallow – or even marshmallow fluff – but crème frangipane wrapped around mille-feuille puff pastry. It could very well be the heliotrope which does have marzipan associations for me, or it could be that ‘marshmallow accord’ combined with that hint of ‘farine du blé’, but whatever it is, it’s nothing more nor less than…magic. Both sweet and haunting, and absolutely unforgettable. It’s hard to understand today when gourmands are so ubiquitous, but this sweet-toothed pleasure must have been a revolution – or a revelation? – in its day.

I’ll crawl out on a limb and say it – for me, one of the things that defines a masterpiece is precisely its ability to stick in your mind and hold on tenacious in your imagination, to make you marvel at the privilege to live in a world where such art exists.

If the maxim that all art is ‘of its time’, an expression of the preoccupations of an age, then yes – L’Heure Bleue is inexorably of its time and age. It is the quintessence of an era when all of art was in a state of flux as liquid as the dizzy curves of a Mucha poster, when Picasso painted in shades of blue, when the Ballets Russes danced and Apollinaire breathed all his finest selves into his ink and life seemed rich beyond imagining and ripe with the promises of a limitless blue future – a future, we know in hindsight, that was altered forever by the horrors that awaited.

I wonder if this hindsight is the reason for that specter of melancholy that somehow infuses it, or if Jacques Guerlain wanted to capture the beautiful Muse of twilight as it flew before him, before everything changed, before time marched on, before the moment and the fleeting mood of time was lost… forever.

The very best part of my discovery of L’Heure Bleue has been the sublime privilege to test it in all its vintage variations. The extrait is, well, perfection in execution and wear, the heliotrope-anisic heartbeat apparent from the start to the finish line some very long time, later. The parfum de toilette is more focused on the spicy carnation and rose heart, the purple-tinged drydown has a more prominent orris note. The eau de toilette (another favorite permutation) has a dancing orange blossom and heliotrope pas-de-deux front and center, and a slightly sweeter drydown. The eau de cologne somehow manages to wrap off of these into a lighter, more summery version before it, too, waltzes off in the twilight. The longevity is outstanding, except, naturally, the eau de cologne.

Meanwhile, between the many testings of L’Heure Bleue, I began to develop a theory…

To humor my own curiosity, I presented my friend Ms. Hare with L’Heure Bleue in extrait and its centenary tribute one night, to test my theory that the highest expression of the perfumer’s art would be immediate and apparent to someone with no grasp of its heritage or history.

After all, I was biased – by my own history with the house of Guerlain, with my boundless appetite and curiosity for all things fragrant, by being a perfume writer most of all.

So I applied the modern homage and the vintage on different arms, and didn’t say which arm was which.

“One of these,” I told the bemused Ms. Hare, “is a masterpiece of the perfumer’s art, and considered one of the greatest perfumes ever created. Which one?”

She sniffed both arms. She wrinkled her brow and concentrated. She sniffed again. She laughed at the anticipation on my face. Thought for another long moment, and sniffed again. Then without a moment’s hesitation, she pointed to one arm.

“That one.”

That one, which was all the trés riches heures and all the many twilit hues of…L’Heure Bleue.

4 L'Heure Bleue (tangledupinlheurebleue)

Notes: Anise, bergamot, orange blossom, heliotrope, tuberose, carnation, violet, Bulgarian rose, tonka bean, orris, benzoin, vanilla, musk.

Thank you is not nearly large enough a word for Ruth the Perfume Fairy, who made this review possible in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I shall cherish these little bottles – always.

Also thanks to Helg of Perfume Shrine (where I found the presentation of L’Heure Bleue featured above) and Monsieur Guerlain, without both whose posts and encyclopedic knowledge this one could not have been written.

9 thoughts on “Les Très Riches Heures

  1. What a glorious review. I was spellbound from first to last. I agree that in the presence of a masterpiece be it a great painting or a great perfume one is indeed struck by its ability ” to make you marvel at the privilege to live in a world where such art exists.” Thank you for opening more doors for me.

  2. Sheila, I love your tribute to both L’Heure Bleue and to the twlight hour itself. There is something incredibly mysterious and magical about twilight; I love watching the first stars emerging on that incredible blue canvas — it’s something I never tire of seeing, and L’Heure Bleue really does capture it (although my favorite twilight perfume is Annick Goutal Heure Exquise).

    Changing subjects, I know you’ve mentioned on your blog before that you once trained as a pastry chef, but still it surprises me when you mention it. I don’t know why, but I get a kick out of imagining you with flour on your face, standing in front of an oven. I guess it’s because I think of you as a rocker chick, so this more domestic image is the side of you I forget about. Your twilight side, maybe. 🙂

    1. Dear Suzanne, here was the reality: A pair of baggy black-check pants of the sort worn by professional cooks, bakers etc. A serious pair of thick-soled trainers I wore nowhere else, since they were inevitably covered in flour, pastry cream, butter, sugar and other hazards. A white t-shirt, because those bakeries are h-o-t. A purple, red, black or green bandana around my head and hair. And a black-check apron from chest to knees, plastered every day with the tools of the trade. I loved that job, but in the end, the hours (which were brutal and at night) and the back-breaking physical aspects of it killed me. No pardon for short stuff like me! But it taught me so much that stays with me still! So much for the rocker chick…;) On the other hand – I do clean up nice!

      L’Heure Bleue – the perfume or the hour – haunt you, don’t they? Like twilight, like magic, like our own twilight selves…

  3. Dear Sheila
    What a truly splendid tribute to one of the very greatest of all scents.
    That crespuscular perfume that for The Dandy embodies a distant reflective sorrow.
    No one in 1912 specifically knew that the first world war was coming, or that war could be so Great and Terrible and yet the art of the dying days of the Belle Epoque, l’Heure Bleue included is replete with foreboding.
    It is prescient work of genius.
    Thank you.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Dandy – it was my pleasure and my privilege! Strange, isn’t it, to think that no one knew just how much everything would change in 1912 – or what consequences it would have…
      Thank YOU for reading!

  4. What a wonderful post and a beautiful review! One day I hope to be able to smell a vintage version (any vintage version) or L’Heure bleue. Until then, I will gladly settle for smelling vicariously through you. Thank you, Sheila!

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