A Violet Tsunami


– A review of Guerlain Insolence eau de parfum

On my way to purgatory/school every morning, the train passes through a series of beechwoods that line a deep river valley – the ‘deepest’ (we’re not talking a gorge here) in Denmark. And every morning, I keep my eyes peeled for the sheltered, south-facing spots beneath the trees and under the bracken, a telltale patch of tiny, round, emerald leaves. From what I’ve seen, it won’t be long before one of my personal favorite things about Spring arrives – the tiny, unassuming and deeply fragrant wood violet.

Pity the poor violet. Already, I’ve written unassuming. One hundred and twenty years ago, violet was arguably one of the most popular soliflores, adored by dandies and debutantes, grandes dames and ingénues alike, for its innocence, its lack of assumption, its sweet, green floralcy, and if not the violet, then its leaves, exuding grass and haricot vert, both flower and leaf containing the promise and the deliverance of spring.

I’ve loved violet for a long, long time, ever since a wax sample of Bois de Violette landed on my desk and for all its autumnal woody swags and flourishes, it brought me back in an instant to the beechwood floor and a tiny, purple-white bloom.

Violets and roses share common notes, and in combination give us the impression of expensive lipstick. Later, the heartbreaking violet note in another Lutens/Sheldrake creation, De Profundis, came along to blow my proboscis to smithereens, and yet another passionate violet-tinged love affair began, before I was gifted with a vintage mini of one of the greatest and grandest of them all, Germaine Cellier’s Jolie Madame for Balmain, which not only brought back indelible childhood memories of my mother’s perfume and the fur coat it saturated, but just about did the adult perfume writer mein, for being so perfectly rounded, delineated and composed.

You may have Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée at the top of your purple passions (I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it), but for me, Jolie Madame is at the very top of my own as one of the three Last Words On Violet(s).

It may be that to your mind, violets skew feminine or girly. Not so. Oriza L. Legrands Violettes de Czar is a very elegant, nostalgic and highly refined masculine, broad-shouldered violet that all but twirls its metaphorical Edwardian moustache, and if modern violet is your jam, I recommend Mona di Orio’s staggering Violette Fumée, an easily unisex, surprising twist on everything we thought we knew and not a few things we didn’t – about violets.

We have Italian violets in Borsari’s Violetta di Parma, and the sugary, sweeter violets of Toulouse in Berdues’ violet perfumes.

To the extent they have any common denominator, it’s that these violets – all of them justifiably famous violets – tread lightly on the ground. These are not insistent violets so much as insistently – and consistently – great violets, each with their own qualities, profiles and personalities.

Then came Insolence. If it came with an epithet, I could call it the Beast (of a) Violet.

Insolence, created in 2006 in a collaboration with the great Maurice Roucel and Sylvaine Delacourte at Guerlain, began life as an eau de toilette, and went on to encompass seven different flankers, one of which is the bottle now sitting on my desk in its dark purple bottle – the eau de parfum.

The eau de toilette – despite all our wailing that Guerlains no longer have any longevity (debatable) whatsoever – was a raspberry-violet-orange blossom bombshell with jaw-dropping sillage, created like most Guerlains these days for the ‘modern young woman’, but no ‘modern young woman’ – I personally know fifteen below twenty-five who fit the bill – would ever dare to be quite so … audacious in these perfume-phobic times. They’re all about blending in, whereas I am far past caring, and by Golly, if I want to be audacious, then audacious it is, and let them think what they may.

That attitude may be why I finally pulled the trigger at an online discounter last fall and bought a bottle of the eau de parfum in the ‘dirty dishes’ Serge Mansau bottle, and to hell with all consequences.

The first surprise was Ms Hare, who heard herself saying: “But this is good!” Later that same day, when I confronted the Dude with it, the second surprise was his reaction: “That smells delightful!”

Delightful? Seriously? Have I become so accustomed to perfumery avant-garde that I’m shocked when my immediate surroundings actually like my perfume?

Well … yes. Because it took me – a perfume writer these eight years and counting – not a little time before Icame around to Insolence. It was a bit like your first trip to the beach after an endless winter. You know the water will be cold, so you take in the ocean one toe at a time before diving in. For a long time, I took in Insolence one teeny spray at a time for fear my neighbor, the check-out girl, my study group, my teachers, the canteen ladies and my entire class of teachers-to-be would complain.


An inappropriate TL; DR way to describe Insolence compared to the rest of the Guerlains would be this:

Imagine Après l’Ondée has had her heart broken –again. One fatal night, she downs an entire bottle of 180-proof methyl ionone in her despair, and calls up her BF Tonka Imperiale, who drops everything and comes running over, all friendly concern, TLC and one forlorn, secret hope. And that was a whole bottle of 180-proof methyl ionone. Nine months later, Insolence arrives as a souvenir.

Accurate or not, this is not how perfume writers are made.

Insolence starts her life with a fog horn of an opening. I do mean – fog horn. Violet – this one is emphatically not shy, not unassuming, not, in short, anything like any violet tropes you might think you know, but loud AND proud – is hitting up the town with her friends raspberry and orange blossom, and this night of all nights, they’re all more than a little … tipsy. By the time iris and tonka bean arrive to chaperone them home, violet is still dancing on the tables to hoots and acclamation singing Piaf as she does into the table lamp, raspberry and orange blossom have long disappeared with two highly disreputable gentlemen, and everyone wakes up with a hangover the next day.

The iris adds deep, powdery facets, but we’re nowhere near baby powder territory here, this is a hard-to-obtain-even-in-Parisian-pharmacies face powder, which makes me suspect a smidge or two of damask rose deep within those purple depths. Some long, long time later, that violet is still in party mode, dancing her pas-de-deux with tonka bean, somehow becoming more true to her sweet, woody origins.

If Insolence contains any Guerlainade, I’d be hard-pressed to detect it, but being a Guerlain, crème patisserie always underpins the whole. It’s sweet, but not quite cloying, not quite over the top, not quite entirely… vulgar. It walks a line between extreme sophistication (I’ll get back to that) and outright brash vulgarity, but lucky for us, never dives all the way in.

Which brings me to my other main peeve.

Whoever among the marketing department of Guerlain came up with ‘modern young woman’ (because screw les femmes d’un certain age) should be shot on sight – or sniff. Just as I’d never recommend L’Heure Bleue to an ingénue, I hesitate to recommend Insolence to anyone below the age of twenty-five. It takes a kind of audacity to wear only achievable by age, and a degree of sophistication obtainable only by experience to appreciate. So I’ll go with ‘modern woman’, and ingénues need not apply. One way and another, I came around to Insolence, for all I wanted to loathe it. It’s precisely that tightrope between sophisticated and vulgar I so admire – and precisely why I think it’s brilliant. That too, is not something I’ve had to say about any newish Guerlain in a very long time.

A word of caution. If the eau de toilette was a bombshell, the eau de parfum is a violet H-BOMB. Meaning a little goes a l-o-n-g, long and LONG way. Three sprays have been known to last a full 16+ hours, something I’ve only experienced with certain extraits, most Tauers and all Amouages. The violet remains from topnotes to base notes, and that’s another first. Don’t wear this to a fancy dinner, darlings. Or if you do, apply lightly. Bring a decant. You can always apply more before hitting up that club, where you’re known by another name.

The Violet Tsunami. Take care it doesn’t sweep you, too, far, far away.

Notes for Insolence eau de parfum (from Fragrantica):Red berries, violet, iris, African orange flower, sandalwood, tonka bean, woody notes.

Insolence was originally created by Maurice Roucel and Sylvaine Delacourte for Guerlain in 2008. Available at perfume discounters, but be aware of the bottle – all previous Guerlain eaux de parfums in bottles of separate design are since 2017 sold in the “bee” bottles. I own the purple “stacked dirty dishes” edition shown below. Comments on Fragantica claim Insolence has since been reformulated and is now weaker and less tenacious.


A Kiss in the Gardens of Love


–       a review of Guerlain’s Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar

Dear M. Wasser,

We really can’t go on meeting like this. You in your elevated stratosphere at the venerable Maison Guerlain, and I, one lone perfume writer in the void you likely are not even aware of, even as I’ve applied my suspect prose to some of your works and on occasion been less than charitable in my estimations.

If you’re bracing yourself for the next barrage of mellifluous dressing down, I regret to disappoint you. This will not be one of those reviews, because as you are surely aware, s*** happens.

And in this instance, one of the greatest and grandest and most celebrated perfumes of the 20th century, an ode to love, to a garden or two, to a starry-eyed Moghul emperor and his dearly beloved, and to the perfume that somehow managed to wrap all of it up in one sumptuous embrace and sear itself into the memories of millions of women who wore it and the men who adored it…


It pains me a great deal to say this, yet say it I must – much as I appreciate its splendor, its opulence on anyone who isn’t me, its sheer operatic scale of influence and scope, I am no acolyte at the temple of Shalimar.

You see, M. Wasser, Shalimar has one fatal, Freudian flaw.

My mother wore Shalimar. In fact, it was her favorite Guerlain, which is the very reason I can never, ever wear it.

For as all daughters must, I, too defined myself in my mother’s despite, and on that long-ago May day at Guerlain on the Champs Élysées, when all of its wonders were mine for the taking and it was time to choose my own manner of fragrant explication, I chose not Shalimar but Jicky. Life had yet its pleasures proved, and I was nowhere grown-up enough for this Grande Madame. I would have felt like a four-year-old dressing up in Maman’s hat and high heels, only to hear her laugh at my audacity.

No matter.

Nevertheless, I remembered watching you in the BBC documentary ‘Perfume’, and how you were given the unenviable task of rejuvenating this Grande Madame for a younger clientele, saw your trepidation at messing with a masterpiece, and who could blame you?

Stuck in my nowhere corner of northwestern Europe, Shalimar Parfum Initial was alas nowhere available until this past fall, when I encountered it in a Florentine department store, only to find myself bemused to discover that perhaps my own issues with Maman had made me more than a little biased for no good reason at all.

Because I adored it even if I am no longer young in the slightest. It stuck in my mind like all the best fragrant stories do, with a tantalizing ellipsis that implied… to be continued.

As it will, I can assure you.

One day, as friends with a common passion do, one dear perfume friend sent me a sample of your 2012 release, the euphoniously and impossibly named Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar, made to commemorate an exceptional harvest of Sambava vanilla, and whatever hesitations I might have had in my own biased history with La Grande Madame were swept away in an instant by a deliciously decadent vanilla cloud of… oh, be still, my beating heart!

I know it well. Your deft touch of decadent gourmandise has undone me before in the now sadly discontinued Iris Ganache, and Jean Paul Guerlain’s sumptuous Spiritueuse Double Vanille is one of my own exalted vanilla thrillers.

No doubt as Jacques Guerlain certainly intuited and Jean Paul was well aware, you surely know that vanilla has a rather unique effect on the human mind – it elevates our perception of all our other senses, whether tasted or inhaled.

You see where this is going.

Once upon a time not so long ago, I trained as a pastry chef, and came to know that not all vanillas are created equal. The flirty floral dolce far niente of Tahitian vanilla, the no less floral, earthier Mexican vanilla, which was used in this year’s Ode à la Vanille and that grande dame of them all, Bourbon Madagascar vanilla with so many woozy, boozy, woody, deliriously rich symphonies of aroma it’s almost an insult to call it mere ‘vanilla’.

So here we have your tribute to an exceptional harvest from Madagascar’s northeastern Vanilla Coast, a Sambava vanilla dancing in tandem with a reorchestrated Shalimar – less leathery and animalic than its grandmother, and yet, one thing about it really makes my sweet tooth ache.

The name. What was the marketing department thinking, apart from humiliating non-French speakers at Guerlain counters and having a good laugh at their expense? For quite a few people, French is quite bad enough, thank you. So for the purposes of this review and to distinguish it from its illustrious ancestor, I shall call it Shalemur.

And although I would not necessarily label Shalemur ‘cute’, it is certainly at least as fluffy as any lemur.

Certain elements of both your own Iris Ganache as well as Shalimar are immediately apparent – its seamlessly constructed iris-y bouquet de fleurs (jasmine and rose, so they tell me) but the dark, earthy iris heart dancing its own delirious tango with cedar and patchouli is only too happy to bring in the bright Malagasy sunshine for the journey too, the bergamot, the mandarin and the lemon adding their own macaron de citron laugh, but front and center finds this… vanilla. Warm, enveloping, sweet yet not sugary in the slightest, it’s the kind of megawatt superstar vanilla other vanillas aspire to be when they grow up. I’ve been hard-pressed to tease apart the many elements of Shalemur, because basically, who the heck cares when it’s this good? The perfume writer bangs her head against her keyboard in frustration, whereas the woman floats away on a fluffy cloud of iris, cedar and that dangerous, erotically charged vanilla, cooking up her dangerous, vanilla-charged dreams and the rest be damned.

Hours upon hours of them, and it’s all your fault, M. Wasser. Much, much later, Shalemur becomes woodier and darker, with incense overtones, opoponax hints and tonka bean shadings and it’s a marvel I have any intellectual capacity to think at all by now.

It boils down to an old Moghal love poem in perfume:

If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this,

it is this.

Ring-tailed Lemur Love

Lemurs do it, too. This insidiously lovely, decadent, delirious ode to vanilla is a stolen kiss in the Garden of Love.

Whoever knew it could be found…on the way to Madagascar?

Yours most sincerely,

The Alembicated Genie

Notes for Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar: Mandarin, bergamot, lemon, cedar, iris, patchouli, jasmine, vetiver, rose, leather, sandalwood, opoponax, musk, civet, Sambava vanilla, incense and tonka bean

So far as I’ve been able to determine, Shalemur is becoming nearly impossible to find. But if you do, let me know!

With profound thanks to Ruth and to Maggie.

Photos: From the Shalimar Bagh gardens of Srinagar. And two lemurs of Madagascar.

Perfectly Lovely

351jardin-du-luxembourg-paris-41607 – a review of Guerlain L’Heure de Nuit

Dear M. Wasser,

For all your indubitable charms, I suspect you do not have such an enviable job as we perfume writers with our twisted imaginations think. When I sniffed one of your latest creations, launched last year under a great deal of fanfare in a centennial year of very great importance, I remember I thought how difficult it must be to wrestle creatively with all the late, great and haunting ghosts of all the eminences fragrants Mssrs. Guerlain who came before you, to carry their work forward into a new era and new times and that relentless chase for new customers, new challenges, new perfumes.

Don’t get me wrong. You are yourself a rock star perfumer who counts many, many perfumes as your creations, not a few of which I own myself and am inordinately proud to waft behind me in my own quotidian and not at all glamorous life.

I’ve also got a bit of a crush, but don’t hold that against me…

So I understand something about your creative predicament. It’s a filthy job in a sordid business, but someone’s got to do it – bring the glories of Maison Guerlain into the twenty-first century, that is.

I’ve read – not having tried it, since it’s at least as scarce as real orris concrete in my part of the world – you pulled off that intimidating challenge with admirable èlan when you modernized one of the greatest Guerlains of all time, Shalimar, and called it Parfum Initial. I’ve read great things about it. I’m sure it’s good. With any luck, I might get to try it some day.

Then, Marketing socked it to you with this one. A modernization of another of the Great, the Grand, that unquestionable twentieth-century towering masterpiece that is L’Heure Bleue in time for its centenary celebration.

I felt your pain. Really, I did. That had to hurt. It must have felt a bit like recreating the Mona Lisa – in acrylic paint. On cardboard. With a palette of no more than ten colors, in this IFRA-compliant age.

Well, I can almost hear them whisper down the hall, let’s face the facts people…L’Heure Bleue is unquestionably titanic. It’s also difficult, demanding, strange, melancholy, musty, musky, and a tad…their whispers grow even more sotto voce, as if the ghost of Jacques Guerlain might appear at any moment in broad daylight in those hallowed halls at Levallois-Perret to smite them dead for emoting such heresy…démodée. But it is L’Heure Bleue.

Noblesse oblige, after all.

guerlain l'heure de nuit perfume exclusive

Alors. A stunningly beautiful presentation, that goes without saying. With an equally stunning price tag. Limited distribution of course, since everyone wants what is difficult to obtain. We’ll launch it in the Les Parisiennes collection, for that prerequisite je ne sais quoi touch that always heads like a Cruise missile straight for the most superheated spot on their Visas.

I wonder, though. Did you sigh heavily as you dragged out Jacques Guerlain’s original notebook and wonder why you thought this was a good idea? I wouldn’t blame you.

En avant. The juice. Did you fail at your mission, did you pull all the alchemical rabbits out of your hat, were you thrown over the intimidating fence of all that history and heritage?

Noblesse oblige. Of course you didn’t. This is why you’re Thierry Wasser and why this humble D-list perfume writer is writing about it.

L’Heure de Nuit (I’ll be getting back to that name) wears its history right on its lovely face, with a modern orange blossom twist, and what’s not to love about orange blossom? Those cherry-tinged, anisic, bitter-almond, sparkling facets of heliotrope and violet are all present and accounted for as indeed they must be in an homage, before the orange blossom boogies in on the scene with her friends iris, jasmine and a tinge of rose, but really, the heliotrope, iris and the orange blossom are the stars of the show, with all their charisma intact.

L’Heure de Nuit is nothing if not charming. Orange blossom gets me every time. And iris. I’m really big on iris. Iris adds a bit of the original’s timbre and depth to the blend with its sober restraint, and heaven knows it’s not at all easy to restrain an exuberant orange blossom once she’s in the mood for mischief and gangs up with jasmine and rose.

At the heart, I can begin to see where this is going. As a centennial tribute, you have somehow managed to pull off a coup d’état, as if to say this is a younger and far less serious age demanding a far less somber perfume. L’Heure de Nuit is far flirtier and not a little flightier, and therein lies the problem. It seems to mistake one-liners and quips for the erudite wit and intelligence of the original, and at this point, I’m feeling a bit… peeved.

M. Wasser, don’t get me wrong. It is indeed intelligent, but somewhere in my bottle, I hear a blonde – in several senses of the word – giggle. As if you had somehow managed to find a girl – my sorrow to say, L’Heure de Nuit is indeed a girl, as opposed to a woman – just smart enough to pick pointers on how to appear brainy without the tedium of actually having to bother with the real thing.

I’ll grant you this – you took that astonishing magical whiff of flour in the original and turned it into patisserie powder puff, essence absolute of dried, ground almond meringues. Less the staggering gateau Napoleon of the original – so fattening – and more one perfectly made, melt-in-your-mouth Ladurée macaron, just to say you’ve indulged…a little. A Barbie pink macaron, I should add.

At this point, I’m not so much peeved as thoroughly disappointed. If the maxim holds true that a perfume’s greatness to a large extent is determined in its drydown – which is but one of my own criteria – then here’s where you were thrown off that horse.

The original drydown of L’Heure Bleue is nothing short of haunting. Unforgettable. You simply can’t get it out of your mind. This is what men will remember the morning after, this is what they will associate with you, this is why they’ll grab the pillow you slept with when no one is looking and what they’ll bury their noses to catch, this is what will drive them to distraction for days…and nights. That drydown is why they’ll call you. Trust me. I know.

Yet this babe is gone in four hours, leaving nothing behind but a flat, rather one-dimensional impression of laundry detergent white musk – and not much else. A memory? Of course…something along the lines of ‘last night’s blonde’. Who looked an awful lot like last week’s, if blondes happen to be your thing.

L’Heure de Nuit is younger, brighter, much fresher and lighter than the original. In the same manner no woman of my age can possibly compete with the physical loveliness of youth, for one simple reason: we know too much of the world, its whims and wiles and ways.

In that sense, you succeeded – again. It’s perfectly lovely. The problem is, it doesn’t have much else than that light, that bright, that youth to recommend it. No experience, not enough depth or substance. Only a sugar daddy’s Visa so she can actually afford to buy it at that price.

Now, about that name. Please do attack whoever cooked up the name with an oversized bottle of castoreum tincture. There is nothing in the slightest ‘midnight’ or ‘nighttime’ about this heure. Like all the prettiest, youngest blondes, she blooms best in daylight.

And in daylight, she’s perfectly lovely.


The Alembicated Genie.

Notes: Heliotrope, violet, orange blossom, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, white musk.

With thanks to Ruth. Without whom.

Photo of L’Heure de Nuit via a favorite inspiration, The Non Blonde

Les Très Riches Heures


 – 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.

S*** Happens


– a review of Guerlain’s Encens Mythique d’Orient

Dear M. Wasser,

Before I incriminate myself to such an alarming degree, I’d like to start by declaring myself an empahtic fan of your work, especially your astonishing work continuing the great heritage of Guerlain. Guerlain and all its perfumed wonders have a special place in my heart – for one, the very first perfume I ever chose for myself was a Guerlain – Jicky extrait, quite an audacious choice for an ingénue fourteen-year-old.

I fell for your own inarguable talents far too many years later thanks to a friend and distinguished perfume blogger named Carrie, who knew just what buttons to push in order to get me to invest my paltry fortune in a family – gourmands – I had formerly overlooked if not derided, and also to part with an exorbitant amount of money for a perfume I had never sniffed, and that was Iris Ganache. It was a purchase I have never had cause to regret unless to bewail its discontinuation.

So understand this pains me a great deal – more than you know. In my over two years as a perfume writer of ill repute and less esteem, I have broadened my horizons and expanded my limits to a degree never imagined before I began this perilous and ruinous descent into the odiferous maelstrom that is…perfume.

You could argue that I am perhaps a philistine, that I have no appreciation or knowledge of the terrors or delights of perfume artistry. To which I counter with the many exemplars in my cabinet from a diabolical competitor based in the Palais Royal. I rest my case.

In being one of your countless admirers, it follows that my devotion is such I’m prepared to forgive you a great deal and always give your work a second, or third, or even seventh chance as the occasion merits. Therefore, any new release from the house of Guerlain is cause for great anticipation if not excitement – a new Guerlain! How will dear Thierry Wasser astonish us now?

Such was my eager train of thought when yet another and seemingly unattainable series was released to much edification on Planet Perfume, and although my acquisition of these marvels was delayed by other factors known as “real” and “life”, eventually, Fortune deemed it timely that I, too – buried nose-deep in the Perfume Empty Quarter of Europe – should have the opportunity to sniff and to wonder at these new creations by your hand.

Lo and behold – the peerless majesty invoked in the collection known as ‘Les Deserts d’Orient’, and the one that called to me louder than any lonely djinn in a water gourd – Encens Mythique d’Orient.

I’m quite aware of the challenges inherent in a trio marketed towards an audience with somewhat different fragrant sensibilities than we milquetoast, spineless strawberry blondes languishing in the dimmest, bleakest outreaches of Northern Europe’s left armpit. I’m no stranger to ouds, mukhallats or attars, nor even to those heinous, screechy jasmines which ostracize you so deftly from all polite society. But I have a definite weakness for the many wonders of frankincense, whether Omani, Somali or Indian, so when a full set of Les Deserts arrived thanks to an enterprising friend, I wasted no breath and less time to head straight for the eponymous mythical incense of the Orient.

M. Wasser – my kudos to you. It begins in such a glorious fashion, all gold-embroidered damask and a slithering, silver-smoky undercurrent of L’Animale Fatale…less frank about the frankincense unless as an ideal of what incense could be. I regret to say I am transported…not to some elevated passage of the Rubai’yat or that eloquent turn of phrase Rumi was justly celebrated for, but rather…to one of those licentious, nay – salacious descriptions that run rampant throughout Sheikh Nefzaoui’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ which so delighted Sir Richard Burton and so dismayed the Victorian mind. I am neither deterred or dismayed – my own disposition is many thousands of leagues removed from the Victorian.

Then, some time later, you do shock me. For after that glorious, gold damask opening comes…not visions of the chic of Arabie, not the romance of a limitless desert sky nor even the sensuous secrets revealed by a hakim to an all-too willing pupil…but something so utterly unnerving, my words fail to quite convey the degree or extent of my dismay.

As I stated above, I’m no stranger to shock. But to quote the amusing American idiom…


For what follows is best described by the image below:


Yes. Wet dog. Not just any dog, but a hunting hound abandoned for hours in the driving, icy rain as its fellows bounded on with the horses elsewhere while it located a scent trail far more to its liking than any fox could muster.

To be fair, this sorry canine comes with an impeccable pedigree and a hundred generations of perfect temperament and training at the least. This is no mere back-alley dog. This is a Guerlain dog, and so more refined, more elegantly delineated than lesser-esteemed hounds, nevertheless, a wet dog is a wet dog, and a wet, cold and hungry dog – as surely this poor, unfortunate creature must be – is the sorriest, wettest, most miserable and thoroughly wretched creature of all.

At this juncture, I despairingly consult my notes as well as other, far more discerning noses of other, far more refined perfume bloggers, and all to no avail – the wet and wretched creature remains perched in the air above my skin with its reproachful brown eyes and its distressing, apologetic stance, and this irritates me no end.

You see, M. Wasser, I am a dedicated lover of cats – indeed, I’m owned by two – and by this time, more peeved than you can possibly imagine that this conjuration of a very luxurious perfume orchestrated by your magical hands and nose has incurred some cataclysmic shift in my perceptions, and with a creature I could appreciate quite fondly had the circumstances been rather better. Say, in real life, bounding through the meadows throwing sticks to catch, not wafting out of an opulently decorated and very hard to obtain perfume bottle, never mind perched on my wrist, dripping its melancholy, well-bred raindrops all over a priceless Ikea rug.

I refused to believe the obvious. It couldn’t be you. It had by necessity to be me, and my own pathetic limited, unsophisticated nose playing its tricks and practical jokes on my mind. So I gave it seven more tries on seven other nights that grew longer as time passed.

Now, I had eight wet dogs dripping all over the carpet. My cats…well, I’m sure you can imagine the unfortunate consequences. I had to draw the only conclusion I could. It wasn’t me. It was you.

Or else it was simply that this milquetoast wan exemplar of Scandinavian design not in flat packaging  and ‘d’un certain age’ didn’t have the pedigree, the breeding, the politesse to appreciate either the perfume – or that sorry dog in the bottle.

So I shall do my best to perservere as well as I can – through the remainder of Les Deserts d’Orient. I shall forgive you – for now. I shall even forgive you to such an extent, the friend who sent me this doomed dog has tempted me with something blue, brand-new and altogether more to my liking, and yes, M. Wasser, you made this one, too.

As for this malodorous endurance test, I shall attempt my own worst impersonation of the Gallic shrug you so excel at, and quote your own august self – again, with yet another fitting American term of opprobrium tinged with a little black humor unrelated to any the dogs might have brought in…

Shit happens.

Yours sincerely,

Tarleisio, the Alembicated Genie

Notes for Encens Mythique d’Orient: Aldehydes, neroli, moss, saffron, Persian rose, ambergris, musk and frankincense

The Les Deserts d’ Orient line is available from the Guerlain flagship store in Paris, the Place Vendôme Haute Parfumerie, Harrods and Selfridges in London, and in many locations throughout the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

With thanks to that perfumed friend – and an apology to the ghost of Edith Wharton.

Image of wet dog: Alex Romanov.