Few fragrance brands still produce scents which first bewitched women – and men – in the 19th century. And only a handful maintain and nurture relationships with the farmers around the world who produce their exquisite ingredients, ensuring they can be traced from field to flacon – the precious rose, orange blossom, patchouli and petitgrain, which continue to seduce admirers everywhere with their exceptional, evocative fragrant charms.
One of the only true heritage brands in the world, the fabulous story of Guerlain dates back to 1828 when Pierre-François Guerlain opened the first Guerlain boutique on Paris’s Rue de Rivoli, selling vinegars, scented soaps and cosmetic products, including the gloriously named “Bloom of Roses” for lips. Le tout Paris soon swooned for Guerlain’s charms.
Appointed His Majesty’s Official Perfumer to Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugénie, the gifted Guerlain later received other royal commissions, from Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and Queen Isabella II of Spain. If you want a hint of what Napoleon III smelled like, splash on some Eau de Cologne Impériale, which remains in the Guerlain collection today, still decorated with the emperor’s bee emblem. It’s still the most delicious way to refresh the senses on a hot or stressful day, with its uplifting citrus notes.
First and foremost a chemist, Pierre-François established Guerlain’s reputation for innovation twinned with indulgence: the first lipstick, bronzer, face powder and moisturiser can all be attributed to this pioneering beauty brand.
From the start, sensoriality and sensuality were at the heart of everything Guerlain created: fabulous fragrances, velvety textures, luxe packaging, and an innate understanding of the sheer pleasure that a beauty and fragrance ritual can introduce into our busy daily lives.
Guerlain fuses tradition with modernity, luxury with sustainability and pleasure with social responsibility
But while its traditions and heritage may be firmly rooted in the past, Guerlain – under the so-stylish umbrella of LVMH – actually couldn’t have its finger more firmly on the pulse or perhaps the pulse-point of the contemporary corporate world and its growing concerns about sustainability.
With a $50-million ISO 14001-standard (the highest achievable rating) state-of-the-art production site soon to be opened on the edge of Paris, Guerlain is embracing eco-responsibility and social responsibility, too.
As their perfumer Thierry Wasser, only the first non-Guerlain family member to take on that role in a firm that is almost two centuries old, said at a Selfridges Beauty Project event for perfumistas: “Sustainability is vital in our industry. It is important because we need to source ingredients in a way that is respectful to the planet and to farmers, protecting biodiversity. But sustainability has another meaning for a brand; being able to source the quality ingredients ensures the sustainability of our business, too.” After all, without those precious materials there might be no Guerlain.
The commitment isn’t just about ingredients. In 2012, 60 per cent of Guerlain’s transportation was by sea, up from 53 per cent in 2011, with future goals in place. An electric car is to be used for deliveries between headquarters and Paris shops, and an increasingly wide range of beauty products, from lipsticks to skincare, will be refillable. Because with packaging as divinely decadent as Guerlain’s Orchidée Impériale skincare range, for instance, it surely deserves a longer life. Even advertising materials are being looked at with a fresh eye. An advertising canvas for Guerlain’s global bestselling La Petite Robe Noire was transformed into a chic “It-bag”, sold to benefit Guerlain’s Support Fund.
One of only a handful of perfume houses with its own perfumer, the artisan tradition, laid down by successive generations of gifted Guerlains – Aimé, Jacques and, most recently, Jean-Paul – endure. Bottles containing the timeless creations confected by Jacques Guerlain in the early decades of the 20th century, for instance – L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko and Shalimar, with their pulsing sensuality and unrivalled elegance – are still hand-finished today by the dames de tables, who hand-tie and hand-brush the ribbons with absolute tender loving care. Training takes from six to twelve months in the “just-so” placement of gold labels or the art of producing the exquisite face-powder “pearls” contained in boxes of Guerlain violet-scented Météorites.
And the commitment to sourcing of raw materials, for which Thierry Wasser is also responsible, remains the highest priority, not least for the precious “Guerlainade” – the secret formula which pulses at the heart of every Guerlain creation, delivering its so-recognisable signature on the skin.
A good chunk of Wasser’s year is spent crisscrossing the globe, in fact, checking out the harvest of rose oil in Bulgaria, the neroli (orange blossom) from Tunisia, bergamot from Calabria and, a project close to Guerlain’s own heart, the vetiver from a sustainable initiative in Tamil Nadu.
There, Wasser has overseen the establishment and development of vetiver farming, helping educate the farmers to produce this earthily-scented grass, which offers surprising “eco-benefits”, as well as income. Vetiver flourishes in hostile areas where other crops may fail, surviving on very little water, and limits soil erosion. When dried and processed, vetiver “tethers” so many Guerlain creations through its woody sensuality.
The sensory pleasure delivered by the fragrances – dozens of them remain in Guerlain’s extensive portfolio, from treasures such as Jicky through to the contemporary floral bouquet Idylle – is echoed in every product. Everything has a scent, even mascara; while there’s nothing that says “maman’s handbag” like the violet-and-rose fragrance of a glamorous Guerlain lipstick.
In a world in which there’s too much to do in too little time, opening a Guerlain compact or spritzing on one of Guerlain’s sublime perfumes is a moment to stop and smell, quite literally, life’s roses.
Most recently, Guerlain has given its flagship store at 68 Champs-Élysées a stunning makeover for the 21st century, creating the largest beauty retail space devoted to a single brand – surely the most glamorous beauty-shopping destination anywhere in the world.
The boutique has long been a Mecca for young Parisiennes seeking their first perfume, the prelude to a life-long love affair with Guerlain, in so many cases. But today, alongside the fragrances, skincare and make-up, there are new reasons to beat a well-trodden path to La Maison de Guerlain’s ornate portico front door.
To discover Guerlain’s newly launched accessories, perhaps, including fans, which were synonymous with fragrance in years gone by, and scented gloves, reviving the tradition of the perfumer-glovemakers, who dominated France’s perfume trade by infusing carefully crafted, butter-soft leather with Mitsouko and La Petite Robe Noire.
If your senses start to flag, there is now somewhere to sit and enjoy a pastry and tea, which may be perfume-inspired – an echo of Shalimar, perhaps, or L’Heure Bleu – in superstar chef Guy Martin’s luxurious Restaurant 68.
In shimmering shades of gold and bronze, with its intricate parquet floor and dazzling yet so-flattering lighting, the interior of 68 Champs-Élysées is completely contemporary, while nodding respectfully at the heritage of this iconic fragrance and beauty house. It’s an Aladdin’s cave devoted to making everyone of us feel prettier, pampered and exquisitely fragrant.
As with everything Guerlain touches, La Maison fuses tradition with modernity, luxury with sustainability and pleasure with social responsibility.
Surely, nobody in the world of French beauty does it more beautifully.