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.

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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.

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 Jicky (1889)

Guerlain Jicky EDP. © Victor Wong
Guerlain Jicky EDP. © Victor Wong

Just before we entered the Ming Dynasty Tombs in Beijing, the tour guide told us what had happened shortly after the archeologists opened the tomb door: they saw many scrolls of calligraphy and painting hanging on the walls liked a gallery, all beautifully preserved. They immediately brought cameras in the room to take pictures of the artwork, but little did they know that the strength of the flashlights, together with the fresh air that rushed into the once zip-locked chambers, had caused instantaneous disintegration of the artwork – scrolls started splitting into halves and the ink writings and artworks had all irreversibly faded away. Real or not, I didn’t investigate further.

But I associate the lasting power of Guerlain’s Jicky (1889) on my skin to the quick disintegration of the artwork in the tomb. Jicky is beautiful, but in my case, once it is exposed to light and air, it’s almost gone. I know, the juice in my bottle is eau de toilette, and it was probably made in the 1990, not 1890, but the scent couldn’t last more than half an hour on my skin. May be I should get the parfum?

Depending on your mood, experiencing Jicky is like checking out a fancy old pocket watch; do you look at it to get the time (vivid lavender, lemon and civet boo-boo), or do you actually want to admire the craftsmanship of the watch from 1889 (sensual and classic base notes including tonka beans, spices, sandalwood)?

I personally find Jicky, Shalimar and Habit Rogue all share similarities. If Jicky lasts longer on my skin, it would be my favorite of the three because of the dirtiness of the musks.

On the Internet you can read a lot of information on Jicky, like how it initiated the creation of “abstract perfumery” as opposed to “figurative perfumery”, it’s the oldest perfume in continuous existence since 1889, and why Aimé Guerlain picked the name Jicky… Regardless, it’s almost astonishing to find Jicky still smelling modern, simple yet sophisticated.

Guerlain’s L’Instant de Guerlain pour Homme Eau Extreme (2005)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

To me, the olfactory journey of L’Instant de Guerlain Eau Extreme (2005) is like watching a cloudy aquarium slowly turn crystal clear. The opening is bitter, unpleasant and chalky; if I were judge Simon Cowell on the Guerlain Got Talent show, I would press the button to open the trap door under its feet in less than three seconds. But of course, other judges see much more than what meets the eye (particularly the bottle design looks like Borat wearing a black thong) – as the top notes fade away, a well balanced triad of notes (not too sweet gourmand/resins, masculine woods and florals) takes over, making it a very decent and humble (may be sexy?) scent.

To my understanding, L’Instant de Guerlain Eau Extreme (LIDGE) is not available in the States (correct me if I am wrong) and a lot of people who won’t settle for a regular version are looking for one. The Toronto Guerlain flagship store for all the unfathomable reasons carries it, making me feel very privileged. (If you live in Toronto, you know how few niche brands the city carries.) One day I was at the Guerlain store and a sales lady gave me some info on which perfumes were going to be discontinued. She told me that LIDGE was going to receive a new bottle design (because it sold unexpectedly well), so if I wanted one, I should get it now. At the cashier, another saleslady told me that someone in the States just ordered 50 bottles of LIDGE, so I really should get two bottles before it got sold out. (Frankly, I think the Toronto Guerlain is not generating too much sales. I hope it is not the case.) I only bought one, because at that time I was still dubious about this scent.

Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Imperiale (1860)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

You are at a gas station convenience store, and you want to get a Twinkie cake snack. Instead of getting the freshest one on the shelf, you ask the cashier if they carry any that were made 15 years ago. You enthusiastically describe what the old packaging looks like and talk about how good the old recipe is, but as expected, he compassionately tells you that they don’t have any. He says he actually believes that the new one tastes as good as the ones made in the old days. You are not convinced and not giving up and drive around town hopping in and out from one store to another, and just when you are about to scream “why!?”, you find a very old store that has a bunch of 20-year-old Twinkies hidden in the back room. The manager tells you that each one costs $100 and you don’t even show a hint of shock on your face. You immediately buy two (one as a back up), and take a bite. It tastes a bit spoiled, but “really amazing”.

Do you find this ridiculous? No? Good. Never mind. I want to thank a group member for telling me that my local perfume store has stocked some Guerlain “treasures”. He pointed out that any Guerlain perfumes that come in a shiny gold box (as opposed to the current ones that are matte-bronze) have vintage formulations and are much sought after. Today I revisited that store and spotted a 250ml bottle of Eau de Cologne Imperiale in a “shiny gold box”. The price was good, and as a bonus, the cologne came in the famous Guerlain bee bottle. The sales told me she had never seen a Guerlain bee bottle before (!) and it looked very pretty. She took a sniff from the sample bottle and said, “hmm, it smells like 4711 cologne.” (10 times cheaper) I said, “Come on, it’s one of the best lime colognes!” (It’s true! I guess…)

Guerlain’s Philtre d’Amour (2000)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

The Untold Story Behind Guerlain’s “Love Potion”*

Jean-Paul Guerlain, the nose of some very notable Guerlain perfumes such as Vetiver, Nahema and Chamade, created Philtre d’Amour (Love Potion) in 2000, at the age of 63, just two years shy of retiring. Rumour has it that when he was creating Philtre d’Amour he had a serious “nose-block”. He felt that his chypre floral was missing something, although it already smelled very accomplished – it had patchouli, myrrh, jasmine and neroli, just to name a few of the sensual ingredients that he had used. What he also had at that time was a rather severe cold, literally a nose-block, and he had to rely on Ricola cough drops to sooth his sore throat.

A few weeks had passed and he was feeling much better. Little did he realize that he had fallen in love with that yummy candy Ricola. He couldn’t stop popping those candies in his mouth and he accidentally dropped one into the vial that contained his work-in-progress perfume. The candy immediately dissolved, and just when he was about to toss his work away, he took a sniff and voila! A perfected perfume with the addition of lemon verbena and citrus flavour. Totally delicious! What better name could he give to this new creation but “Love Potion”?

*Completely fictional.