Can Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5 Tell the Future?

Over the past few months I’ve been having a lot of conversations about where the perfume industry goes after this current pandemic is resolved. Thankfully, I had a place to look for some answers. It has been said, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The book Perfume Legends II by Michael Edwards gives me some clues from the past to think about the future.

Michael Edwards (Photo by Gary Heery)

Perfume Legends II is ostensibly a book about the greatest French feminine perfumes. It covers the story of modern perfumery from 1882’s Fougere Royale through to 2010’s Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady. One of the unique aspects of the book is how author Mr. Edwards presents each entry through the words of the creators. Over the past 30 years he has interviewed the creators, perfumers and designers behind each legend. When those responsible for creation are no longer living, his research uncovered their words from interviews and press statements. Each chapter covers the creative process behind the perfume and the bottle. There is plenty to enjoy if you just focus on the juice and the flacon. What struck me as I have read through the book is how it is also a societal history of the beauty industry. I looked toward the book to reveal what happened the last time the world was affected by a pandemic.

That was in 1918 with the onset of the Spanish Flu. It was at its peak during the fall of that year. When I turn to the subsequent years in Perfume Legends II, I find two of the most iconic perfumes of all time; Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5.

Mitsouko was released in 1919. Jacques Guerlain had been working on the Guerlain version of a chypre for seven years. In these early days of modern perfumery women wore mostly floral based perfumes. Mitsouko was going to provide them with an alternative. In this chapter it chronicles one of the first changes in the social status of women. 1918 also saw the end of World War I. Women had been stepping into traditionally masculine roles. This was why they weren’t looking for flowers anymore. They wanted a perfume with the same confidence they had found in themselves. Mitsouko was waiting for them.

It is too early to know what changes are happening with social roles in the current situation. Mitsouko tells us there is likely a perfume waiting to embrace that change.

One of the women who embraced the change back then was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The longest chapter in Perfume Legends II tells the story of the woman, her fashion sense, and her perfume. The book tells how in the summer of 1920 while summering in Cannes with her friends Misia and Josep Maria Sert she got the idea for a perfume. Mr. Edwards has revealed this story for the first time. It displays the forward thinking of Coco for which she is lauded.

The perfumer behind No. 5, Ernest Beaux, was also a man recovering his life. He had made perfume prior to the war and the pandemic. Afterward he would pick up the pieces of what remained. There is a popular myth that the creation of No. 5 was a mistake born out of pique. Anyone who reads the section on his process will realize something quite different. No. 5 is one of the great pieces of perfume architecture with each piece meticulously placed. Mr. Edwards lays out each step of the process. M. Beaux left nothing to chance.

By the time he was ready to show it to Mlle. Chanel she immediately knew what she had. She also realized that the perfume was the star and asked for a simple bottle to contain it. Throughout the book the stories of the bottles contain some of the most interesting views on the times they were created. Coco wanted No. 5 to stand on its own in the now iconic bottle known the world over.

No. 5 would be the beginning of one of the great perfume collections of our time. It is not hard to think there is a creative mind out there now considering their first move into the fragrance world. It is not hard to believe there is a perfumer out there with some new ideas. Once this pandemic comes to an end maybe they will find each other and create something which rhymes with the past.

Perfume Legends II is full of the rhythms of the history of modern perfumery.

Disclosure: I was compensated by the publisher for this.

Mark Behnke

That Unattainable Object of Desire: Guerlain Djedi- Jacques Guerlain’s Dry Leather


Even the great perfume houses have their versions of unicorns. When it comes to Guerlain that rarest of rarities is 1926’s Djedi. Everything about Djedi is an outlier to the rest of Guerlain. Even so it is one of Jacques Guerlain’s greatest perfumes because it breaks most of the “rules” perfumes from Guerlain follow.

guerlain djedi


I think all artists want to try and move out of their comfort zone and test their vision. In what is purely conjecture on my part during the mid-1920’s many of the perfume houses were releasing leather fragrances, Chanel Cuir de Russie would be the standard bearer. I wonder if M. Guerlain also wanted his brand to also have its own leather. Up until that point in time Guerlain had not done a leather-based fragrance. M. Guerlain chose to construct Djedi on a vetiver core over which the animalic elements would be attached. For whatever the creative reasons Djedi is one of the driest leather chypres I have ever tried. It is that dryness which sets it apart. You can almost envision a perfume order which asks M. Guerlain to make me a dry leather straight, no Guerlinade. Which is precisely what he does.

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Djedi opens on an aldehyde and muguet opening. The first time I smelled Djedi the sample had lost all of the aldehydes. In more recent tests I have been fortunate to try more well-preserved samples and the aldehydes suffuse the muguet with their sparkly brilliance. Even with these really good versions I can only imagine what a fresh bottle of Djedi must have smelled like with the aldehydes full of life. What I can smell tells me M. Guerlain wanted a ray of light on top before going very dark. I have mentioned how dry Djedi is and it starts right with the muguet which sometimes can have a bit of a dewy quality, not here. Any hint of watery has been excised. It gives the early going almost the feel of a sprig of muguet left in a desiccation jar to be dried. Next up was a huge application of civet which feels like an untamed thing stalking through my consciousness. This is what makes real civet so prized as it imparts a decadent filth to Djedi. Vetiver comes in and this is the driest vetiver you will encounter. The civet is given some counterbalancing floralcy courtesy of jamine, orris, and rose. They are shoved into a corner by the vetiver and civet and they peek though at odd moments like they are trying to make a hasty getaway. The leather accord in the base was made up of oakmoss, musk, and amber. Unlike most of the leathers of the day M. Guerlain eschewed using birch tar and his leather accord reaches an arid austerity because of it. For the great majority of the time Djedi is firmly placed in leather territory.

Djedi has 14-16 hour longevity and prodigious sillage.

Djedi was only produced in the 1920’s and except for a 1,000 bottle limited edition released on its 70th anniversary in 1996 that is all there is. Finding a bottle is complicated by the beautiful Art Deco bottle designed by Baccarat’s Georges Chevalier. The complication is for those who care only about the bottle and not the liquid inside this is also one of their unicorns. One of my most tragic stories is of being locked in a bidding war with someone who coveted the bottle and I was too slow to contact the winner and found out she had poured the contents down the drain. It is all of this which makes it so difficult to find a bottle.

If you ever have a chance to wear a drop or two do not pass it by you will find a perfume from Guerlain which feels very unlike the rest of the collection.

Disclosure: this review was based on multiple samples of Djedi I have acquired over the years from kind fellow perfume lovers.

Mark Behnke