La Maison Guerlain: Perfumery and Museum
Entering the gilded interior of the Guerlain flagship boutique at 68, Avenue des Champs-Elysées one already feels the vivid contrast between the cold, grey Paris in winter and the sparkling Second Empire décor of the ground level. Yet, it is only by ascending the stairs that the contrast is brought to a climax. Spiral staircase, its dark wood sprinkled with golden squares, opens into a cavernous hall with rounded walls covered with spectacular gold mosaic. Unlike the more traditionally decorated ground level, it is at once retro and baroque, modern and futuristic—a luxurious setting befitting the fragrances and a self-help venue for a no-nonsense shopper, a rather curious juxtaposition. Created by a famous interior designer Andrée Putnam who is responsible for some of the most prominent fashion boutiques, La Maison Guerlain can rightly be listed among the haute perfumeries of Paris. If there ever existed the Guerlain perfume museum, 68, Champs-Elysées is the one.
Large room with a chandelier which opens up into the boutique downstairs contains a circular table where most of Guerlain classics and moderns are arranged in three rows, the highest for the extraits de parfum and the lowest for the EdTs. Moreover, the mirrored wall contains shelves filled with the bestselling Guerlain fragrances, which include Vetiver, L’Instant and Mitsouko, among others. All aspects of the layout ensure easy and unassisted sampling, which one can do for hours. ...
Indeed, it is the only place where all of the Guerlain extraits de parfum can be sampled, including ethereally beautiful Chant d'Arômes. Reissued recently in the extrait de parfum, it is a gorgeous, floral chypre, resembling the original Chant d'Arômes formula more than the version that was available previously. The first time I visit the boutique I do not linger near the table for long, because the temptation to cover my wrists with Nahéma and Mitsouko would have prevented me to explore the rest of the fragrances. Thus, I begin with the limited editions of Le Mouchoir de Monsieur and La Voilette de Madame originally created in 1904 and presented in Baccarat “escargot” bottles. Le Mouchoir de Monsieur, once produced exclusively for French actor Jean-Claude Brialy, is a warm, elegant fougère, while La Voilette de Madame is an iris, ylang ylang, narcissus and violet composition, foiled in warm powdery sweetness of incense and sandalwood. While it starts out light and delicate, the subsequent developments result in a narcotic, opulent floral.
Guerlain portfolio including discontinued compositions is comprised of around 300 fragrances, and the House has plans to relaunch some of the most outstanding classics. The current edition is Véga (1936), a bold floral aldehydic fragrance that weaves ylang ylang, jasmine and iris through the warm woody base. The next year’s release is slated to be Sous Le Vent (1934), a fragrance considered to be one of the greenest chypres, and indeed it is green and vibrant, its galbanum top notes shimmering like a handful of emeralds. One of the walls in the boutique includes a set of boxes which look suspiciously like microwave ovens, the association underscored by the interiors lighting up when the doors are opened. I admit that it felt strange leaning inside these contraptions, and this is a procedure I had to repeat several times, since the fragrances are very lightly diffused and the fact that the air in the boutique is filled with all sorts of competing aromas certainly does not help. The efforts were eventually crowned with success. Kadine (1911) is an ambery floral fragrance. Cachet Juane (1937) turned out to be a favourite after Sous Le Vent for its spicy woody character made glowing by orange. Finally, Ode (1955) greeted me with the honeyed floral bouquet reminiscent of Jean Patou Joy.
Les Parisiennes collection is another set of reissues that are now presented in bee bottles. It is comprised of Metalys, a beautiful ambery carnation, Attrape Coeur, a vision of vanilla and amber liqueur drizzled over iris, Quand Vient l'Eté (formerly Voile d’Eté), a warm lily and woods composition, Philtre d'Amour, a sheer floral chypre, Guerlinade, a lilac and ambery vanilla blend, Purple Fantasy, the least interesting of the lot, a fruity-floral with notes of passionfruit and coconut and Liu, a floral aldehydic in the style of Chanel No.5. While I was already familiar with most of the fragrances from Les Parisienne collection, my favourite rediscovery turned out to be Derby, a green leather chypre with iris and incense covering its dark base.
Moving past the circular table, the mysterious wall niches with long-lost Guerlains and the linen and wheat redolent Baby Guerlain fragrances created by Olivia Giacobetti, one enters a room where the attention is immediately caught by the golden liquid moving through the slender glass tubes. The Imperial Fountains, as the arrangement is known, are intended for refilling the bee bottles—a breathtaking assortment of which is displayed on the wall adjacent to the Fountains—with any of four choices, Shalimar, Samsara, L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko.
L'Art et la Matiere fragrances commissioned by the House of Guerlain from outside perfumers take up their own space, with the bottles arranged under perfumed fans. Angélique Noire by Danièle Andrier, Cuir Béluga by Olivier Polge and Rose Barbare by Fracis Kurkdjian are well-made, sophisticated compositions that are not as daring as one might imagine them to be, probably because the perfumers were working within the Guerlain tradition and indeed some compositions seem a bit constrained by it. Nevertheless, the fragrances have an elegant and refined aura, whether it is the dark red rose folded over the chypre base and sweetened with honey as in Rose Barbare, the leather facet of Shalimar veiled in creamy vanilla as in Cuir Béluga, or the caramelized spicy woodiness of vanilla and angelica in Angélique Noire. Alongside L'Art et la Matiere, one finds Plus Que Jamais Guerlain, a fragrance by Jean-Paul Guerlain that emphasizes the gourmand elements of the Guerlinade accord, however instead of abstraction, one discovers a fairly realistic toffee note hiding under the ylang ylang top laced with soft aldehydes.
Walking through the boutique and catching glimpses of various vintage bottles and beautiful flacons ready to bear one’s engraving of choice, one comes upon a corner devoted to home fragrances. Bois des Indes, sandalwood and sweet spices, Boudoir Venetiens, roses and woods, Contes Tahitiens, white tropical blossoms, Hiver en Russie, spicy leather are available as room sprays, candles, incense sticks and soaps. The hallway turns and opens up into the makeup and cosmetic section decorated with portraits of Guerlain perfumers, from Pierre-François-Pascal to Jean-Paul Guerlain.
The 68, Champs Elysées boutique first opened its doors in 1914 and the renovation marks a new chapter in the history of the house that was established in 1828 in order to sell soaps and blend fragrances for customers. Since then Guerlain has grown tremendously producing a number of excellent fragrances as well as those that can be classified as perfume legends, such as Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko. What the future holds for Guerlain is the question that only time will answer, however stepping inside the new flagship store one gets an impression that it might be bright indeed. And one can only hope it be so.
For more photos from the boutique, please see the interactive presentation from Guerlain website. Any of the products from La Maison Guerlain can be ordered without any hassles by calling 33 145 62 52 57. If you are worried about speaking in French, ask for Francoise.