The Thousandth Cut

There is a quote from the American writer Robert Breault which goes like this, “So often the end of a love affair is death by a thousand cuts, so often its survival is life by a thousand stitches.” I was reminded of this as I received the latest release from Guerlain, Neroli Outrenoir. I have spent every day since I received it looking for something which reminded me why I love Guerlain. I fear it is the thousandth cut.

Guerlain was the first perfume brand I ever knew; because my mother exclusively wore Mitsouko and Shalimar. The bottles were staples on her vanity. I have a hard time wearing either perfume myself because they are so ingrained as what my mother smelled like.

As I began to appreciate perfume I sought out Guerlain and discovered Vetiver and Habit Rouge. I could easily have followed my mother’s lead and happily used those two for the rest of my life. Except the genie was well out of the bottle and there were other brands to explore. I was never going to be a two bottle kind of guy.

Which was great because it made more room for all of the other Guerlain fragrances out there to find a home; which they have. Part of my founding Colognoisseur was the opportunity to write about those earlier perfumes from this Grand Maison de Parfum.

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Except that brings us to the present day. In the last ten years Guerlain has released 154 perfumes. Some of them are re-issues of older perfumes. Some of them are re-packaging of a perfume with a different name as La Petite Robe Noire 2 turned into Mademoiselle Guerlain. Way too many of them are flankers of the great pillars of the brand. Rarely are there standout perfumes which would stand up to what had come previously.

I have to say when I did the search and saw this roster of mediocrity over this short time span my heart sank. Right in front of my face was the cynical belief that the brand was all-important.

Even so within those 154 there were some which managed to remind me of what Guerlain means to me. Habit Rouge Sport is one of the very few flankers of any brand of which I own a bottle. Arsene Lupin Voyou is another exploration of spices, woods, and rose which Guerlain does so well. Two years ago Terracotta Le Parfum actually called forth the echoes of greatness. It was certainly the best of the last ten years.

Guerlain has been not on a downward spiral but a holding pattern at 20,000 feet. Circling endlessly right in the middle. Seemingly afraid to soar. Churning out massive amounts of product all meant to be bought by that consumer dazzled by the name over the perfume.

Which brings me to Neroli Outrenoir. If there has been any spark of the Guerlain ingenuity it has flared up most often in the Exclusives collection of which this is a part of. In a year which has seem some brilliant neroli perfumes released Neroli Outrenoir is not one of them. It is as if they were trying but it goes all wrong in the heart as the smoky black tea upsets the balance as it crushes the neroli. Myrrh does little to save this. I so wanted to like this I wanted to believe it was going to be the beginning of something new. Instead it was the thousandth cut.

I am hopeful that somewhere in the future the beginning of the thousand stitches to bring it back to life is forthcoming.

Mark Behnke

Guerlain 101- Five to Get You Started

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I’ve now reached the point in this series when it is time to take on the Grand Maisons of perfumery. First up is Guerlain. This is going to be difficult because these are iconic brands with well-known best sellers. I’ve been wrestling with my thought process on how to pick five from a perfume brand which spans nearly a century. Shalimar and Mitsouko have been the standard bearers for Guerlain ever since their debut. The more I think of those particular perfumes they aren’t where I would send someone to start. Here are the five Guerlain releases I think provide the best introduction to the line.

We start with the very first release from Guerlain, Jicky. Created in 1889 by Aime Guerlain it is one of the seminal perfumes of the modern perfume era. M. Guerlain elaborated on the embryonic fougere architecture by expanding the florals in the heart. The base also is a bit of a nod to the future as Jacques Guerlain will take this base accord and eventually evolve it into the trademark Guerlinade which is the fingerprint which runs through the brand.

It would be eighty years later when Jean-Paul Guerlain would create a crisp green perfume called Chamade. It is mainly a hyacinth, jasmine and sandalwood construct. M. Guerlain takes these very powerful notes and in the eau de toilette concentration turns them into something which crackles with floral energy without shocking the senses.

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Four years prior to Chamade Jean-Paul Guerlain created one of the greatest masculine fragrances of all time, Habit Rouge. It was my first exposure to a very spicy perfume which comes after a brilliantly balanced citrus mélange on top. Cedar, patchouli, amber, vanilla, and leather finish this as fantastically as it started. This is one of those perfumes which never fails to make me feel dressed up even in jeans and a t-shirt.

Just after the turn of the 21st century perfumers who did not carry the surname of Guerlain were asked to create for the brand. In 2006 perfumer Annick Menardo composed one of the most transparent incense perfumes on the market, Bois D’Armenie. Based on Papier D’Armenie which is scented paper burned to add fragrance to a room. Bois D’Armenie sets its incense atop guaiac wood, benzoin, copahu balm. This is so light but at the same time so complex. It is the perfume I use to get people who have a resistance to the brand, because their mother wore one of the perfumes, to give it a try. Like the Mad Hatter this turns many into believers.

If Bois D’Armenie doesn’t pique an interest in Guerlain I pull out my secret weapon, Spiriteuse Double Vanille. Composed by Jean-Paul Guerlain it is a rich boozy vanilla which is like a warm drink on a cold night. It is my ultimate comfort scent. Way too many of my scarves still carry the smell of Spiriteuse Double Vanille.

Guerlain is a Grand Maison and even these five could be followed up by another five or ten or fifteen. The point of this series is to give you a foothold to start your exploration. If you start with these five I promise you will start one of the great perfume experiences there is to be had as you explore Guerlain deeper.

Disclosure: This review based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Get Off My Lawn!

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Change; for such a small word it has such a large effect. For most, we dislike change we want the things we like to stay the same. Our view of perfume brands is no different. There are times when I wonder if I am falling into the trap of resisting all change just because I don’t want to give it a chance. Am I the old man wearing vintage perfume standing on the porch telling these modern compositions to get off my lawn? Of course, I’d like to envision myself as the antithesis of that always looking for new experiences the past be damned. It has been an interesting week to consider whether that is true or not.

Earlier this week in his regular column for Style.com Arabia called “Message in a Bottle” perfume writer and reviewer Luca Turin wrote of Guerlain in his review of the new Aqua Allegoria Teazzura, “These days, Guerlain fragrances are more like seventeenth century concertos of average caliber, commissioned by the dozen for delivery a month hence. Much like baroque concertos, they are intended to perpetuate a house style, to serve as background music to frivolous conversation as opposed to devoted silence, to develop foot-tapping tunes in an unambitious way, and generally to be pleasantly unobtrusive.” I don’t on the whole disagree with that statement but are we wanting something that no longer exists? The “house style” is still recognizable we just liked the previous version. Do I want the grand perfume houses to stay true to the past? Or do I want innovation? Which by necessity means hewing to modern trends and customers?

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The second event this week was my review of the new Serge Lutens Le Religieuse. I am on record for not appreciating the new aesthetic Serge Lutens has imposed on the newest releases. I have publicly wished for a return to the past. I woke up this morning to a passionately worded e-mail from a reader who actively disliked the past releases I adore and conversely owns all of the new ones. She thinks Le Religieuse is as good as it gets when it comes to Serge Lutens. After an exchange of a few e-mails I started to wonder if I am so reluctant to let go of the past I can’t embrace this new direction. There were many who told me if I gave L’Orpheline more of a chance I would come to see its charms. I did wear it some more but I found nothing to enjoy. I said in that review that I just think that for this current phase of Serge Lutens perfumes I am not their audience.

I admire both perfumers a lot. I think Thierry Wasser has done a creditable job steering Guerlain through the last few years. I think Christopher Sheldrake is the perfect facilitator of M. Lutens’ visions. I don’t think it is lack of skill or desire. I don’t think these are perfumes without an audience. I think I am not that audience and that brings me back to my metaphorical porch waving my cane. All artistic endeavors should not seek to please everyone they should try to please a specific audience. There are plenty of other perfumes out there which do thrill me and they come from venerable brands as well as precocious independents. I still believe there is a future Guerlain and Serge Lutens which will challenge me and thrill me. At that point I’ll put down my cane and go join the kids on my lawn.

Mark Behnke