The History of Guerlain: Innovators of French Perfume
Guerlain is pretty much a household name for many people at this point. Even for non-fragrance people, their makeup line is as well-known and respected as their scented offerings. The Parisian brand is almost 200 years old at this point, and they have created some amazing fragrances that have defined perfume as we know it today.
Before we explore the history of the brand, this is recorded history according to the brand. As with all things that date back before the wakening of computer technology, it could be skewed. I am not saying that Guerlain or LVMH is lying about anything, only that I cannot validate it as truth. I am not a historian, but I am a hobbyist of sorts. I will also only be covering the perfume side of the brand and not the makeup, which they revolutionized as well. With that out of the way, let’s see where the perfume giant began…
In 828, Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain opened up a perfume shop in Paris. It wasn’t long after that that he started catering to upscale clientele, including royalty. Monsieur Guerlain was a trained chemist and doctor and used that background to make his perfumes. He was assisted by his sons, Aimé and Gabriel. It was said that Emperor Napoleon wore Eau de Cologne Impériale, and even drank it. The rumor is that he would use gallons of the stuff every day, which some have suspected that this overuse led to his death.
Upon Pierre-François’s passing in 1864, his sons took over. Gabriel took over the management side and Aimé became the perfumer. This is when the brand really took off, in my humble opinion. The creation of Eau de Cologne du Coq in 1884 was a milestone, but my personal opinion is that it started with the wondrous Jicky in 1889. Jicky was the first fragrance to use synthetic vanilla, which later became the trademark Guerlinade. As I have researched, outside of Houbigant Fougere Royale, it was the second perfume to be synthetic courmarin, which is an extract of tonka bean.
The next generation of Guerlain perfumers was handed down to Jacques Guerlain, who was the son of Gabriel. Jacques signed and sealed Mitsouko in 1919, which is still one of the most popular scents on the market, along with the beautiful Shalimar in 1925. He also crafted L’Heure Bleue, along with the steadfast fan favorite Vol de Nuit in 1933. Jacques is regarded as one of the best perfumers that ever lived, and it’s easy to see why if you have smelled his creations, even in their modern formulations.
After Jacques created his last perfume by the name of Ode in 1955, he handed the Guerlain family reigns to the last perfumer to bear his family’s name, Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul created one of my favorite perfumes of all time by the name of Vetiver in 1959. Vetivers bright and cheerful grassy tones with citruses and an earthy tobacco heart still captures the minds of even the staunchest perfume fans.
He also created Heritage in 1992, Jardins de Bagatelle in 1983, both of which are quite successful. However, his most iconic fragrance is probably Samsara from 1989, which was his boon for success and his downfall. In 1994, Guerlain was purchased by LVMH, and with no Guerlain lineage to continue the tradition, it fell to someone who did not bear the family name. Jean-Paul continued to serve as a teacher for Wasser until he made a racist remark on a French tank how in 2010 and was then terminated. With that unfortunate end, the Guerlain family had no more ties to their beloved brand.
The LVMH era began, and many fans of the brand thought that bring in other perfumers to make the formulas cheaper. I disagree with that, as the current perfumer for the brand, Thierry Wassier, has done a fantastic job at reformulating the fragrance to keep the tradition alive. His addition include multiple Shalimar flankers, the L’Homme Ideal like that features an almond note, Homme, L’Instant de Guerlain, and many others. Delphine Jelk has also assisted Mr. Wassier on many creations, as well as created her own heartthrobs with Mon Guerlain and La Petiet Robe Noire, among others.
Thierry Wassier carries the weight of a dynasty on his shoulders, and he has carried it with precision, modernity, and class. Guerlain is in safe hands with him at the helm, not that it was ever in any danger. He is not Jean-Paul or Jacques, but he has his own story and legacy to leave, along with Delphine.
Guerlain didn’t become a powerhouse overnight, even though the brand became successful fairly quickly. It took a lot of hard work and dedication to remain at the top. As a brand that continually spins out high-quality releases, it’s safe to say that the Parisian house is here to stay, even though it no longer carries a perfume with the brand’s namesake. Guerlain is simply one of the best perfume brands on the market today, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Images Credit: Guerlain official website