Guerlain’s Nahema (1979)

Guerlain Nahema Extrait (30ml)
Guerlain Nahema Extrait (30ml)

If you have watched enough TV commercials, you probably remember Disney telling everyone that their classic animation on DVDs like Dumbo or Bambi are going to the “vault” and you will never be able to buy them again…until the Blu-ray versions come out. I think Guerlain employs a similar tactic for their less popular perfumes – they discontinue them, but a decade later they re-release them with some fancier packaging. Of course the problem is, can you wait a decade?

Recently they rang the alarm bell again and the newest victim is Nahema extrait. I never imagined they would do such thing, for I see Nahema one of the last remaining pillars of their great classics (Mitsouko, Shalimar, Jicky, L’Huere Bleue, Chamade, Vol de Nuit & Nahema)I am not a huge fan of modern Guerlain, to be honest, but I plan to collect their classic extraits, for their bottles are beautiful and Luca Turin praised them like they are the epitome of classic French perfumes.

I had already acquired a bottle of Vol de Nuit extrait, and I planned to get Chamade next, but the news destroyed my plan. Guerlain’s extraits have always been so damn expensive, when I paid for my bottle of Nahema extrait at the Guerlain boutique, I absurdly requested a big sample of Nahema extrait because I didn’t want to open mine (completely nuts and illogical, I know). And The salesperson actually found that very understandable, and she prepared a 5ml decant for me.

I love Nahema. It’s an uncontaminated jammy rose perfume made in the 80s before the oud pigeons immigrated from the Middle East and started pooping oud droppings in every rose-based perfumes. (You realize I recently said I loved Ex Idolo’s 33, a rose/oud perfume right? I am just being an ass here.) What’s so strange about Nahema is that it also smells strangely synthetic to me, but in a good way, like blue colour slushies and grape sodas. The opening is fresh, green and peachy, and shortly after you see a forklift without a hand brake crashing towards you like in the movie The Omen, and it hits the rose jam shelving units behind you and you are covered with rose and passion fruit jams like Winnie the Pooh. Nahema has some massive and ambiguous florals, almost nose-shriveling sweetness, and an unforgivingly heavy-handed rich base with vetiver and resinous and vanillary peru balsam. You can either smile or take a shower, but not both at the same time.

Ironically, Guerlain discontinues Nahema extrait because it has too much real rose and that makes it non-IFRA compliant. I’ve always thought that the rose in Nahema is synthetic, but oh well, good to know.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976)

 Van Cleef & Arpels' First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong
Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong

In a hospital ward, a bunch of sick kids are lying in bed. The days are long and boring, and the pain and moaning are real. The sun is shining bright and cheery everywhere but the hospital rooms, and the hateful fluorescent lights on the ceiling are always on.

Seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, a notable and elegant woman, dressed in white, not known to the kids, walks into their room. She has moist, gentle eyes and a kind, discreet smile. She says a bunch of encouraging words to each kid and leaves. Perhaps the most memorable thing about that woman is the scent that she wears and how it follows her around. It’s comforting, powdery, beautiful, floral, and tender, just like her. She is wearing Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976).

That’s my impression of First and my vision of who would wear it very well. It’s so beautiful and approachable, yet so elegantly distant. Fruits, flowers, ambers, aldehydes and musks all converge into a prism and exits as a glowing white aura. Who would wear it nicely? The cute Starbucks barista who serves you coffee? Not too sure. The female coworker who is beautiful and plays hard-to-get and toys with people’s hearts? No. Maybe Princess Diana? Just a thought.

I also find the title of the perfume interesting. What does it really mean? Yes, it’s Van Cleef’s first perfume for women, but does it imply there will be many more to come? Or that it should be your first perfume? Or first in class? The name also reminds me of the video game “Final Fantasy” from 1987. The Japanese videogame maker had used up all their capital and thought that the game they had just finished would be their last video game, so they sarcastically named it Final Fantasy. It turned out to be a mega-hit and many sequels followed.

Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (1933, Extrait 2015)

Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong
Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong

There’s a Chinese idiom “Like a cow munching a peony bush”, sarcastically describing someone who is unable to see or appreciate art and beauty. Unfortunately, I think I am that cow when it comes to Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (Night Flight).

Vol de Nuit extrait was one of the few perfumes that I knew I had to get for my perfume collection just because of the bottle. A simple flat square bottle that perfectly captures the essence of the graphic design of one of my favorite art movements – Art Deco, with rays of a sunburst emitting from the center of the bottle (in this case, it’s supposed to represent the propeller of an aeroplane), paired with a shiny gold title plate featuring the iconic fat and chunky san-serif style font.

The scent, now I must say, does not speak to me like how it speaks to high-profile reviewer Luca Turin and many others. Luca wrote he used Vol de Nuit to “recalibrate” his olfactory apparatus to obtain a full-scale quality reading and used Creed’s Love in White to get a reliable zero. Who wouldn’t be tempted to smell a scent that could kick the balls of some Creed scents so high up in the sky?

Vol de Nuit extrait (not the EDT/EDP) to me is essentially a dark balsamic oriental scent. It smells like a lot vintage Lanvin perfumes that I own but with less character. (An image of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall comes to mind.) It also smells very much like a Chinese incense joss stick, borderline smoky and it’s not easy to tell what’s exactly in it. I think that’s why it’s marvelous to some people – it’s ambiguous, mysterious, with ingredients perfectly blended like the interlocking jigsaw pieces of a Escher illustration, so balanced that I don’t know what the heck I am smelling. It smells rich and very importantly, classically vintage. That’s actually the most exciting thing to learn about Vol de Nuit – I have read that in recent years Guerlain have been trying their best to replicate their classic perfumes and they claim that the new batches are very faithful to the original. (So much so that people complain that they don’t smell like the reformulated versions that they own.) If my brand-new Vol de Nuit extrait has every notes in tact and smells like the vintage perfumes from the 30s to 50s that I have been collecting, that means they haven’t deteriorated too badly! Vol de Nuit perhaps is the granddaddy of balsamic oriental perfumes like the top node of a perfume evolution tree.

Boucheron’s Boucheron (Extrait, 1988)

Boucheron Extrait © Victor Wong
Boucheron Extrait © Victor Wong

My friend calls himself the “microwave oven expert” – give him any food, particularly leftover dishes, he can tell you exactly how much time each needs to be reheated to perfection. Chicken? 1:55. Pasta? 3:10. Frozen soup from the freezer? 18 minutes. “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.” And sure he is. I wish I have similar skill, not of setting the timer on the microwave, but the exact number of sprays of any perfume that would make me satisfied throughout the day while other people around me happy, meaning I am not killing anyone with a fume cloud. (Seriously, a first-world problem.)

So I’ve learned that wearing parfum/extrait is a good alternative if you worry about wearing too much. You apply them by dabbing the stopper on your neck and pulse points, and they are less diffusive and last longer (debatable). Sounds like a good solution, but I am too lazy and clumsy to dab, dab, dab. I simply decant them to a little sprayer bottle and spritz it on my neck generously – repeating the same mistake of over-applying, but this time with parfum, not EDP, making it worse.

I have only started paying attention to parfum or extrait recently, not because of their quality, but simply I have run out of desktop space. I have too many 100ml bottles and I know there is no stopping. I used to worry about finishing my favorite EDP/EDT perfumes too soon but I had realized that it’s an unfounded worry as I couldn’t even finish a 10ml bottle of decant in two years. (I will have a long and lonely time selling my perfumes on eBay before I go to a senior home.) Parfum/extrait usually comes in a cute 15 mL or 7.5 mL bottle, although it doesn’t sound there’s much, but it’s enough, trust me.

Boucheron parfum – where to start? I’ve been warned. I know it’s a beautiful floral monster – jasmine, tuberose, ylang, orris, lily of the valley, on and on… Wear it and hope no one can smell you is like wearing a Halloween costume not on Halloween and hope no one can see you. But I wasn’t prepared to smell this kind of floral – it’s so realistic and beautiful, but somehow you could tell the scent is all synthetic. I have been to some upscale malls where they put really expensive, full-bloom perfect flowers in giant urns that I thought no way they were real. And they were real, because in the middle of that giant bouquet, one flower had turned brown. And there were malls where they put synthetic flowers and trees in planters that looked imperfect, which I thought were real from faraway, and as I walked by them and touched them, it’s fake. Boucheron stays on my skin for a long time probably the ingredients are synthetics, and synthetic flowers don’t wither. Glorious.

Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps (1948)

Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps Vintage Flacon © Victor Wong
Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps Vintage Flacon © Victor Wong

For people who study or collect vintage perfumes, it’s almost impossible to miss the famous two-dove flacon bottle that houses Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps (The Air of Spring). Released in 1948 after World War II, it was a huge hit and became Nina Ricci’s most famous perfume. Nina Ricci has never ceased the production of L’Air du Temps (although continuously being reformulated) and this perfume can be found everywhere perfumes are sold.

Now I cut to the chase: L’Air du Temps sucks. Well, I am just referring to the modern version. Actually, when I first smelled it in a department store, I thought it smelled good. I was very tempted to buy a bottle, but I didn’t. Many months later I bought a mini 30ml version in a local drugstore at a discounted price. (Man, that bottle was so flimsy and cheap looking.) I have spent some good time smelling the perfume and come to this conclusion: I can tell this perfume used to smell wonderful but now it isn’t because of the cheap and synthetic ingredients that they used. The feeling is similar to eating cakes made with synthetic vanilla and fake jam (I eat that all the time when coworkers leave the company); you know how they could be better if you have eaten cakes made with real buttah and good ingredients.

So I started hunting for a vintage version of L’Air de Temps on eBay. Actually, it was no challenge at all because they were so popular. I found one that was sealed and never seen the light. As expected, the difference between vintage and reformulation is huge. But what I didn’t expect was that they smelled like two different perfumes, not one with better ingredients. The modern version does fit the title “The Air of Spring”; it’s floral and light and full of aldehyde, but it’s so pale and bleached like a poster that has been tormented by the sun for years, most of the colors are gone, all you see are images of pale yellow and cyan. The vintage version on the other hand is a full-color classic chypre with focus on carnation and spice (particularly cloves), so much so that it almost smells metallic. The perfume should be named “The Air of Fall” or “The Grandmother of Opium”. Sadly, I am not a big fan of both versions. If the modern version uses higher quality ingredients, I will choose to wear it.

I recently talked to a local perfume shop owner and she complained that the evergreen perfumes no longer sell as well as the previous years. Her conclusion, “People who are loyal to those classics are mostly seniors, maybe they are now dead.” It’s sad that perfume companies choose to serve water downed version of their waning products instead of keeping the quality that brought them riches. Or May be they are doing a service to the retirees that don’t have much to spend but still want to wear their favorites? I don’t know.

Jean-Charles Brosseau’s Ombre Rose Eau de Parfum (1981)

Jean-Charles Brosseau Ombre Rose © Victor Wong
Jean-Charles Brosseau Ombre Rose © Victor Wong

I want to kiss Ombre Rose in her face, but if I do, my lips and hair will be all covered with powder.

A few months ago I was talking to my hairdresser about discontinued perfumes, and she told me that she had missed only one perfume, and it’s called Ombre Rose Cologne. She was delighted that I could help her get a bottle, but she reminded me, “I want the cologne, not the perfume. Perfume is too strong.” I said, “hmm, I can try, but you know it’s discontinued, it might be expensive.” She replied, “I don’t care. I have to have it. They were in discount bins many years ago but I didn’t bother to get a few, and now they are no where to be found.”

It turned out that Ombre Rose Cologne wasn’t expensive at all. ($55 Canadian dollars/100ml.) However, my hairdresser wasn’t too pleased. “They have changed the formula! It wasn’t like this 30 years ago! I remember it was stronger!”

Ombre Rose was released in 1981. If I had smelled it when it launched, I probably would be kneeling before her sucking up her rose-petal infused powder sprinkled everywhere on the throne room floor. I have a feeling that Ombre Rose was a very influential perfume and a lot of perfumes had tried to copy it, and that’s why when I first smelled Ombre Rose, I thought it wasn’t very original. (It probably “inspired” Bond No, 9’s Washington Square) In fact, the exact opposite probably is true; Ombre Rose is the mother of all powdery rose perfume post-1980.

I also need to mention how crazy heavy the “rose part” of this perfume is. Cinnamon, tonka bean, honey, iris, vanilla, cedar, patchouli, geranium, yang, all super heavy hitter, it’s as ridiculous as a telephone booth stuffed with twenty people in a British comedy.

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