Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 8 – Guerlain’s Mitsouko (1919)

Guerlain Mitsouko © Victor Wong
Guerlain Mitsouko © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. VIII. Synthetic Notes in Perfumery – Guerlain’s Mitsouko

A fish that was thought to have gone extinct 66 millions years ago was discovered in 1938 on a local fishing trawler. Nicknamed the “Living Fossil”, coelacanth has no close relations alive, and was thought to have evolved into roughly its current form approximately 400 million years ago. Many scientists believe that the unique characteristics of the coelacanth represent an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals like amphibians.*

That was a major discovery in the world of natural history, but my “living fossil” discovery in the perfume world was Guerlain’s Mitsouko (1919).

A perfume created almost 100 years ago and is still in production, Mitsouko is a resilient survivor in the vast sea of perfumes. I can walk into any major department store and buy a bottle of Mitsouko, and I do not need to worry too much about it getting discontinued any time soon. Perfumistas, especially die-hard Guerlain fans, regard Mitsouko as a classic, and if you meet one, they will probably yap about it. Well, I only knew about Mitsouko through reading Luca Turin’s perfume review book. When I first started exploring perfumes, I was overwhelmed by the amount of perfumes out there, had never heard of the brand Guerlain, and got obsessed with testing out Le Labo and L’Artisan Parfumeur samples, and sniffing Byredos and Tom Fords.

To be honest, I am never too crazy about Mitsouko. I think it’s an acquired taste. I remember just before smelling it the very first time, I stood in front of the Guerlain counter, looking at the French-toast-shaped bottle, and thought, “This is it. This is the legendary perfume.” I had such high expectation for it and my mind was all prepared for the most amazing scent ever, and when the scent hit my nose, I didn’t know how to react. I was stunned by something so unexpectedly non-contemporary – it’s not exactly floral, not exactly powdery, not exactly sweet, not exactly fruity, not Chanel No. 5-style aldehydic… if all the perfumery keyword words were represented by circles in a Venn diagram, Mitsouko fell right outside of the chart, not belonging to any category. (That’s because I was a newbie and didn’t know what a chypre perfume was, but again, if you ask me to show you a typical chypre now, I wouldn’t not pick Mitsouko but Estee Lauder’s Knowing.)

So getting acquainted with Ms. Mitsouko was a valuable lesson for me, as if I had got a “vintage perfume vaccination shot” – bring it on, I can love all vintage perfumes! (Hugging Lanvin’s Arpege so hard till she says let go of me.)

One interesting tidbid of information about Mitsouko that I learned from reading Roja Dove’s “The Essense of Perfumes” was its first use of Aldehyde C 14 in fine perfumery. Mitsouko is quite famous for its peachy note, and it is Aldehyde C 14 you are smelling. I haven’t seen anyone complain about it but praise it. On the Internet I have seen quite a few people who think that a perfume must smell better if natural ingredients are used instead of synthetics. I used to think that way too, but Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of my perfume Beaver, wrote in an interview** that he thinks that synthetics are very important in modern perfumery because if a perfume is all natural, the smell couldl easily turn “muddy”, and a modern fragrance needs an artificial skeleton to support it.

A lot of niche perfume companies like to emphasis the use of uncommon or hard to harvest natural ingredients and charge a hefty price, while I am sure they bring something special to the perfumes, but look at Mitsouko, a relatively simple perfume (according to Roja Dove), archieving the classic status with the use of a brave new synthetic note of the time and masterful perfumery skill.

Source:

* Coelacanth, Wikipedia

**Aroma Chemicals and the Indie Perfumer, an Interview with Chris Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes. Basenotes.net

Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue (1912)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

You have decided to immigrate to a country called Perfumesnob. At the customs, an officer checks your passport and papers, smells what you are wearing, and asks, “Do you regard L’Heure Bleue (1912) one of the best perfumes ever made?” “No way, It’s for grandma! Aventus all the way, man.”

And your fate is sealed, you have been denied entrance. What’s worse, the guard dogs have sniffed out a bottle of Insurrection Pure in your luggage. That’s right, if you want to be a Perfumesnobbian, you must like L’Huere Bleue. It’s one of the Perfumesnobbian “common values”. Because, even if you do not like L’Heure Bleue openly, you have to have an appreciation and understanding why it’s regarded as one of the greatest perfumes ever made.*

*Sources include: Youtube reviews, blogs, basenotes discussions, Luca’s book, people asking me for my opinion of L’Heure Bleue, etc, I’ve learned that L’Heure Bleue is a very important perfume to smell, if not to own.

Like great literatures, L’Heure Bleue does take time to appreciate and understand. It’s undeniably grandma, but it hits all the right spots of what makes a perfume that I love – powdery sweetness, iris, abstractness, history, and high quality ingredients.

Vigny’s Golliwogg (1919)

[On June 10, 2014, I posted some photos of my newly acquired Golliwogg perfume bottle on a Facebook perfume group. It created a fire storm of comments and subsequently the post was deleted. However, the whole thread was archived and I am putting the abridged version here. I have changed the names of the people who made comments.]

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

[On June 10, 2014, I posted some photos of my newly acquired Golliwogg perfume bottle on a Facebook perfume group. It created a fire storm of comments and subsequently the post was deleted. However, the whole thread was archived and I am putting the abridged version here. I have changed the names of the people who made comments.]

[Victor] I want to share with you my prized collection – Vigny Golliwogg Perfume (empty) and a parfum/cologne set. The children’s book illustrated character “Golliwogg” was created by Florence K. Upton in 1895. Vigny of Paris introduced the perfume in 1918. The bottle stopper features the character’s head, with seal fur hair. I acquired the bottle and set separately; I eagerly wanted to know what Golliwogg smelled like. Now I can tell you it smells quite like Chanel No. 5. For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golliwogg

[Reader Diana] Unfortunately, this historical character is complicated and many feel it contains a fair dose of cultural insensitivity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golliwogg
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