Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Behind you is an acre planted thickly with pink roses. It’s the end of an August day, and the sun is setting in tones of apricot fading to purple as it bleeds into the sky. Now add a full orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love”. What you get is grand, passionate, lush, and faintly cartoonish. In other words, you get Guerlain Nahéma.
Jean-Paul Guerlain created Nahéma in 1979. The Guerlain website gives it a top note of hyacinth; a heart of ylang ylang, rose, and peach; and a base of vanilla, tonka bean, and wood. Osmoz builds on this description and gives Nahéma top notes of bergamot, mandarin, and rose; a heart of rose, peach, cyclamen, and lily; and a base of vanilla, sandalwood, vetiver, and benzoin. The simplest description of Nahéma would be rose — big, rich, oil pastel dark pink and peach rose — and peaches so ripe they fall from the tree. When Nahéma wears down many hours later, its sandalwood shows a little, but the rose and peaches never die out entirely.
As a friend who is a recent convert says, Nahéma goes on like a silk robe. We’re talking thick silk charmeuse, too, not the cheap stuff. It also has robust sillage. Many rose perfumes are wonderful for a day at the office, but to me Nahéma is best saved for the evening when you can balance it with matte lipstick, night air, and neon lights. Nahéma is wonderful on the skin, but I’d guess it would be equally wonderful smelled the next morning on the cocktail dress you left on the floor.
For all this glorious rose, Luca Turin in Perfumes: The Guide says the word in the perfume industry is that Nahéma’s formula doesn’t contain any actual rose. Strangely, this makes sense. Nahéma is less garden rose than it is the Hollywood ideal of a rose. It’s Marilyn Monroe in full Technicolor. Its genius is that, like Marilyn Monroe, it isn’t the Stepford starlet. Rather, Nahéma the starlet might drink a little too much champagne and need to keep an eye on her diet. She barely stays on the right side of ridiculous but is all the more endearing for it.
In Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel, Edwin T. Morris says “Its [Guerlain's] Nahéma is generally considered too avant-garde for the American market”. Although in 1980 Guerlain spent nearly a third of its advertising budget on Nahéma, it didn’t sell well in the United States. There’s nothing particularly edgy about Nahéma, especially compared to perfume coming out of Serge Lutens, Etat Libre d’Orange and Parfumerie Générale these days, but the American public was not yet broken in by the mammoth orientals of the early 1980s and may not have been ready for a scent as outgoing and passionate as Nahéma.
Even if you aren’t normally a fan of rose fragrances, I hope you’ll try Nahéma if you get the chance. Think of it as a “conceptual” rose. I don’t think you’ll find it a “granny” rose. Nahéma may not turn out not to be the perfume for you, but smelling it is like eating a perfectly ripe fig or sleeping in a 1930s bias-cut nightgown — something we should all do at least once if we’re lucky enough to have the chance.
Note: image via Images de Parfums.