Wednesday, June 20

L'Heure Bleue (Guerlain) - historic perfume review



This year we celebrate one hundred years of pure magic - L'Heure Bleue, the masterpiece of Jacques Guerlain, the most important perfumer of the XXth century with Ernest Beaux.
100 years ago Balkans were the hottest subject in Paris, the Balkan wars of course, but also the curiosity for a world that was totally unknown, full with mysteries, dark stories and amazing decorative elements. Folk art, music, dances, fashion, everything came from the East. Fashion designers took the embroideries like Paul Poiret after a fashion tour in Eastern Europe. Coty became a different person after his first trip in northern Moscow (through South Balkans, Romania would play a capital role in the story of his Empire) and the support he received from Rallet, who supplied the company with capital, distribution, know-how and ... formulae. The most fashionable place in the East was Livadia, the new magnificent summer palace has been recently inaugurated by the Tsar on Black Sea coast, while Peles Castle was the marvel of the Carpathian Mountains. Other less known "trends" came from trips perfumers made with the Orient Express when they discovered a world wild, archaic and scented. But Jacques Guerlain brought the most precious things from a trip he made in Eastern Europe. He brought Kadine, the captive beauty from Istanbul and the idea for the ultimate masterpiece, L'Heure Bleue. He brought also Bulgarian rose oil whose production started at the time when he made Le Jardin de Mon Curé, a quality superior to anything else known in Paris.
Like most of creations imagined by Jacques Guerlain, often with a double meaning and rich poetic connotation, the 1912 masterpiece is both "l'heure bleue" (the blue hour) and "fleur bleue" (the blue flower). It is the perfume of the blue flower during the blue hour, something which has little to do with impressionist paintings and more with the ideals of Goethe, Romanticism and the European folklore, all set in a magic context. Impressionism was Aimé, not Jacques. In Eastern Europe, Jacques Guerlan had a special sensorial experience, something which is unique, archaic and mysterious. Back to Paris he set the wonderful experience and theme in his own universe using for his poetic quest an inspiration previously found in one of his earliest perfumes.
With L'Heure Bleue, Jacques Guerlain develops the four stages of a true masterpiece: the magic moment, the divine inspiration, the aesthetic ideal, the nature reinvented.

1) the magic moment
"L'heure bleue" refers to a special moment of the year which takes place between June 20 and June 24, between the June solstice and the birthday of St. John the Baptist (whose relics are now in Bulgaria). The night before 24 is known as Sânziene in Romanian popular tradition where the oldest European traditions and myths have been preserved. The Romanian source is found in his personal history at the turn of the century, a Guerlain theme I revealed ten years ago. This unique moment in Nature has several meanings - those days the plants have their best odors and magic properties, aromatic and scented plants are traditionally harvested and girls place flowers under their pillow to dream their future lover. All these ancient agricultural traditions are infused with odors and have a very special and highly scented dimension. When aromatic plants are harvested during the blue hour which starts on June 20 but most specifically the night of Sânziene, they have something unique. Cosânzeana is in Romanian folklore the name of the most beautiful girl while the name "sânzeana" is the mixture between saint and fairy. The most beautiful maidens in the village dress in white and spend all day searching for and picking the flowers known as Galium verum they use to create floral crowns they wear upon returning during the blue hour when they turn into fairies dancing in circle. Heavens open during the blue hour and magic events are commonly reported in Carpathian Mountains in places known as forbidden forests. It is because of the plants with a unique chemical profile.

2) the magic plant
One of the herbs used in l'Heure bleue is related to a scented plant know as "Sânziene", the traditional magic plant used in European folklore. Sânziana is a herb similar to "herbe de la saint jean", it has a strong golden color, but the original highly scented type is found only in Carpathian mountains. It is the magic herb par excellence, used against evil spirits and for love spells. There is however a notable difference, the real plant has not been extracted yet for the perfume industry, what you have in l'Heure Bleue is something similar. True Sânziana flowers found in wild forests smells like a mixture of hay, wild thyme and immortelle, with accents of artemisia, chamomile and lavender absolute. "Herbe de la Saint Jean" is also a magic tradition in France, a sorcerer's herb harvested June 23. However, there are many botanic plants known under this name in France, harvested during the blue hour or in the morning with the dew. Only one is the true inspiration of Jacques Guerlain when he discovered the magic scent of a scented floral crown. The "secret" of L'Heure Bleue and one of its original aspects is the aromatic bouquet which crowns the perfume in the most unusual setting. This is the magic scented floral crown of Sânziene discovered one summer during a special trip.

3) the ideal of the blue flower
The blue flower, the Romantic flower par excellence with deep spiritual connotations from Ancient Egypt to Nepal, represents for Jacques Guerlain a flower archetype and one of the earliest attempts into pure abstraction set inside a natural theme. The literary symbol of the blue flower appears as a symbol in the work of the German author Novalis where it symbolizes the joining of human with nature and the spirit, the understanding of Nature - the ideal of Jacques Guerlain. The symbol of the blue flower is at the heart of Romanticism, it is also the ultimate inspiration, the metaphysical striving for the infinite which characterizes the art of Jacques Guerlain. The idea expressed also by Goethe is based on earliest poetic studies concerning the primordial archetypal plant and the Linnaeus system, a flowering plant from which all plant forms might emerge he formulated during his visit of Palermo gardens in 1787. In Italy, Goethe searched for the archetypal plant trying to find the original flower.
The theme of the ideal flower set into an ideal perfume was first experimented by Paul Parquet, the great perfumer from Houbigant who based his perfume on a discovery he made in Bulgaria. He was from the same generation with Jacques Guerlain. The project of Paul Parquet was to construct an ideal form of perfume, a pure abstraction inside the perfume structures which were developed in the past 200 years in France. Jacques Guerlain took the notion of ideal to the most profound level - Nature.   He constructs the blue scent as the Nature would do and for this the study of the correlation between color and fragrance was crucial.
Jacques Guerlain was the Leonardo da Vinci of perfume - meticulous, precise, highly innovative and deeply mysterious. He invented and perfected everything. The portrait of the ideal blue flower is realized through poetic representation. The Blue Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis), a flower who started a real craze among connoisseurs since late XIXth century, is the equivalent of a metaphysical perfume. The flower itself, hard to find in Europe 100 years ago when "poppy" was a major perfume trend, has not a strong characteristic perfume. Forbidden scents like meconopsis were also a part of Jacques's intimate agenda. In order to portray the ideal flower, Jacques Guerlain painted everything in blue, taking inspiration from plants with a particular blue flower. The essence of the ideal blue flower is something found in flowers with a blue to deep purple color. He designed the blue note using the scents of the blue sweet pea, blue heliotrope, blue hyacinth, violet and blue orris. L'heure bleue is one of the most complex examples of the 8th art because everything in the perfume is the result of imagination. Because no real blue flower extract was available in 1912 he imagined the scents of each accord based on olfaction. Blue sweet pea plays a central role inside L'Heure Bleue, it was also a type of flower very popular and highly scented one century ago when horticulturists created highly scented types. A specific blue cultivar was the most scented true blue flower he could use as an inspiration for his poetic representation and understanding what a blue odor might be in Nature.

4) the blue scent
The predominant, but not exclusive, colors of bee flowers are blue, yellow and ultraviolet. Blue is the perfect counterpart of the golden Guerlain bee symbol, but blue scented flowers are not quite usual in the vegetal kingdom and their odor is rather delicate for the human nose. If Nature has developed a strong pigment to attract pollinators there was no particular need for a strong and sophisticated scent chemistry. There are not so many blue flowers with a strong and characteristic type of perfume. Blue flowers like the Himalayan blue poppy or the Egyptian blue lotus have a particular symbolic connotation. They are ideal flowers, flowers representing the quest for infinity. When they have a very delicate smell it is to suggest that their real perfume is beyond the visible world.
One of the candidates for the blue flower of Novalis and Goethe is a variety of sweet pea. They were first domesticated by a monk named Father Cupani, who found them growing wild in Sicily and the original mention of the plant was in 1696 in his book - Horthus Catholicus. They were one of the flowers Goethe might have discovered in Palermo when he discussed the notion of variety in plants. Sweet peas were the plant of choice for the breeding experiments by Czech monk Gregor Mendel on which the entire modern science of genetics is based and this allowed Henry Eckford the great variety of cultivars, sweet pea sensation which started after 1888 when he developed an impressive number of cultivars with amazing colors and sweetly scented flowers. There were more than 250 types in 1901.
The Divine in Blue - Giovanni Boldini

The choice Jacques Guerlain made for the blue sweet pea as his central theme inside l'Heure Bleue is also personal. 200 years after the Italian monk domesticated and mentioned these sweet scented flowers, Jacques Guerlain signed his perfume - Le Jardin de Mon Curé - when he entered in contact with monastic scents and histories. Sweet peas were common around churches and in 1912 a blue variety of Lathyrus, highly scented and highly decorative, was available and it was the inspiration source behind the floral accord with sweet rose-honeyed heliotrope-hyacinth undertones. Unlike l'Origan, where Coty used a base which reproduces the scent of orange flowers, the orange flower is just an ingredient in l'Heure bleue. Jacques Guerlain used a specific molecule for a very different purpose - contrast. Like in a real painting if you want to emphasize the blue, you add something orange - for L'Heure Bleue, the pictorial concept, a very successful technique in perfume design and easy to learn, meant using a strong orange contrast brought by the ultimate molecule of the orange flower note. For the brain, orange flower (fleur d'oranger) smells orange because every time you smell and recognize its odor you "say" orange (and not néroli). The orange flowers are white but the symbol the brain retains is the fruit, its shape and its color - "the odor is what you see".
L'Heure Bleue contains a particular honey note, specially chosen by Jacques Guerlain. First, sweet peas have a delicate sweet honey note, but a "blue flower" perfume cannot be designed without honey knowing that blue is one of the main colors perceived by bees. Honey note is quintessential in this perfume formula because Jacques Guerlain did not base his masterpieces on scent only. True perfumes have to be designed with the true understanding of nature and life where the scent is only a fraction in the general equation. A precursor of l'Heure Bleue in terms of symbol, theme and odor was Azurea (Piver), launched a decade earlier in Paris, another forgotten masterpiece of the 8th Art.
Jacques Guerlain achieves in L'heure bleue the poetic representation of the ideal blue flower set in the magic context of June solstice, the three days when the gates of heaven open during an archaic festival celebrated with a floral crown made of Sânziene.
Another archaic theme, also from South Eastern Europe, is the love potion prepared precisely at this moment during an ancestral ritual. It is known in the West through "A Midsummer night's dream" by William Shakespeare, but its origin and floral period correspond to old Thracia. Both rituals trace back their roots in Antiquity and are related to other less known properties of several scented plants. which could be considered entheogens (entheos = animated with deity + genesis), sacramental plants used in initiation rituals and mysteries. 100 years ago, the flower associated with Shakespeare's opus was considered to be a type of purple pansy. The scent of this Viola tricolor, very woody, was poetically reproduced by perfumers starting with 1890's and in L'Heure Bleue is a very distinct accord created around a molecule produced at that time by Chuit Naef. This floral universe is present in an ornamental interpretation at the entrance of a Guerlain "house". One should remember that none of these flowers is just a metaphor. Euphoric states, love and desire correspond to many chemical marvels of Nature accessible to the expert perfumer's nose, but for the modern man, unable to protect the beauty of Nature and its endangered species, it is better they remain a poetical fiction in a forbidden forest.

Lophophore, the magic bird of Nepal

One century ago, Paris was (re)discovering the ancient roots of folklore and history. L'Heure Bleue was the magic of a summer before the Rite of Spring (1913, Diaghilev) exploring the secret scents of nature when heavens open during the blue hour. The bottle becomes the magic calyx protecting the scented corolla. The stopper of L'Heure Bleue is a heart because Sânziene is a pagan festival of love in the wild Carpathian Mountains. The label is round like the crown of Sânziene flowers and the dance performed at blue hour in the forbidden forest. The curly design on the label and on the bottle is also reminiscent of the Sweet pea flowers.
The magic crown of the fairy, represented by the original aromatic bouquet, is associated with the sweet pea note, a plant with a monastic past and often found across churches (Le Jardin de Mon Curé and the painting used for the perfume ads). This way, the meaning of "Sânziana", both saint and fairy, is recreated in a poetic way by Jacques Guerlain in order to express his ideal - the quest of the blue flower during the three magic nights which start in 2012 on June 20, the summer solstice.
Blue poppy or Meconopsis - in bloom in Nepal. 

The Himalayan blue poppy, was described for the first time in 1886 by L'abbé Jean-Marie Delavay who brought to Paris several small seeds after a visit in Tibet. Jacques was 12 years old, he lived in the new family house with a Renaissance angel decoration near the door and windows with a small green dragon. We'll never know if these flowers bloomed in Delavay's garden, Le jardin de mon curé, because the first specimen brought to Europe officially belongs to Frederick Markham Bailey in 1912, the year when L'Heure Bleue was launched. For this reason, the plant is now known as Meconopsis baileyi. Bailey was a British intelligence officer and he was born in Lahore, the place who would inspire later Shalimar (Jacques Guerlain). Jean Marie Delavay was a great botanist who assembled one of the largest botanic collections in Paris Natural History Museum, most notably the Yunnan collection. It is a place where I go every spring. The blue poppy is used in traditional Tibetan medicine and one member of the Meconopsis family contains powerful molecules acting as psychedelic drugs, but its chemistry has not been enough explored. The blue flower or blue poppy from "Shambala" was an ideal flower in 1912 like Goethe's inaccessible flower, but the imagination of the perfumer knows no space limits when the emotion of sacred flowers and sacred rituals are recreated through poetry.
When Heaven's forbidden doors open every year for three days on June 20, the calyx of the most beautiful flowers reveal the corolla of Nature's marvels - the divine jewels of ideal Beauty. Heaven's sent - the Perfume.


Nefertoum
the Blue God of perfumes with a lotus
(the theme of a rare perfume signed Ernest Beaux, the same period)






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