It goes without saying, I should think, that Guerlain is one of the world’s great perfume houses. They have a long and deservedly glamorous history, and they are responsible for any number of the marvels of modern perfumery. In particular, Mitsouko (1919) and Shalimar (1925) make almost every list of the perfume classics that will withstand the test of time.
So it is with great personal shame that I admit that I don’t really properly appreciate the classic, pre-1950 Guerlain fragrances. Mitsouko and Shalimar I adore in the intellectual sense at most; that is, I recognize that they are masterpieces, I like to have them on hand, and I like to put on a drop every now and then. But they don’t suit me and I don’t really wear them: they wear me. Jicky (1889), a fragrance which is frequently credited with ushering in the modern era in perfumery, I actually prefer in the Eau de Toilette over the Parfum; surely and unequivocally that marks me as a philistine in anyone’s book. I have enjoyed smelling the recent reissues from Guerlain's back catalog (Liu, Voilette de Madame and Vega) but not a one tempted me to part with my money.
I have not given up, mind you. I am young yet (or at least, I hopefully have quite a few years of smelling ahead of me) and I fully intend to grow into Mitsouko at some point. That point just hasn’t arrived yet.
All of which is a very roundabout way of introducing the one classic Guerlain that I can say that I adore without reservation: Après L’Ondée. It was created by Jacques Guerlain and launched in 1906. The notes are bergamot, neroli, aniseed, hawthorn, violet, heliotrope, iris and musk; there may also be carnation, rose, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood.
Why do I love Après L’Ondée? Well, quite simply, it doesn't smell like any of the better known heavyweight champions from Guerlain. As Luca Turin notes, "Its simplicity, its keen nostalgia, and its unadorned beauty make this an anomaly for Guerlain." (quote via Chandler Burr) Après L’Ondée is comparatively without artifice; it smells like a celebration of its components as they might be found in nature: a whisper of anise, then masses of violets soaked by rain, a sprig of hawthorn. There is a touch of pepper, perhaps from the carnation, and the iris lends a mild earthiness and a lightly powdered finish. There is vanilla, but it is restrained. It is, quite simply, lovely.
It smells simultaneously very old-fashioned (it is extraordinarily lady-like and well behaved) and very modern (in feeling it could be almost be a precursor to the Aqua Allegoria line, the modern Guerlain range that is meant to "showcase nature"). According to Susan Irvine, it is a fragrance "for brainy types" (Perfume Guide, p. 25). Trust me, I am under no illusions that that redeems my failure to adequately appreciate Mitsouko, but it is a comforting notion all the same.
While I was dithering about what to add to my collection next, Guerlain went right ahead and discontinued the parfum form of Après L’Ondée. The Eau de Toilette is still sold in France, but it is no longer exported to the US, and is an ephemeral experience in any case. If you are willing to pay for its new "hard to find" status, you can still find bottles online.
Update 10/06: Guerlain Après L’Ondée Eau de Toilette is now available at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC.
Note: image via the wonderful Parfum de Pub.