It was a lonely winter. Everything around me was changing. Every facet of being, every way of living, every manner of thinking. And I did what I normally do in the face of emotional turmoil – I ran, all the way to Rattvik, a tiny hamlet in Sweden, the country of my childhood. There, sitting in absolute silence on a pier that stretches half-a-mile into choppy waters, I was enveloped by the most bewitching “blue hour” – the lustrous sky turning every shade of blue, from chalky turquoise to cobalt as the rain began to fall. I took refuge in a little wooden shed perched at the edge of the pier and it was here, in this melancholic solitude, that I finally found peace. Days later, I was back home, getting married under a very different kind of evening sky – one that was “happy” with dusky pinks and golden oranges – but to me, the defining moment of my life was that abandoned pier in the Northern hemisphere, under whose twilight hour everything came together.
A few months later, I was telling my story to a colleague at the French Marie Claire and she brought out a bevelled crystal bottle. It was Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue and one whiff transported me back to that turbulent winter night. Cool and somber, this was not for Cinderella dancing in glittering shoes with the handsome prince. It was for Catherine as she waited for Heathcliff on the wild, wind-farmed moors, the rain lashing her face and freedom competing with passion. It spoke to my shadowy side: the one that leaves behind cozy winter fires to wander the frozen streets in an unknown city as the mind sorts out its deepest thoughts.
And that’s what I like about this grand fragrance – the fact that it says it’s all right to be uncertain, to be vulnerable, to not know exactly where the journey will take you. Most perfumes are too determinedly – sometimes cloyingly – optimistic. The tales they tell are of confidence, conquest and becoming the centre of the ballroom. But sometimes, I just want to step aside and walk the unrestrained moors, enjoying the starry night and wondering what the future holds. To me, L’Heure Bleue is “quiet”, not sad – in an ephemeral world, it has the audacity to remind us that nothing is eternal.
Many of my friends find L’Heure to be melancholy. Invariably, these are women who love the daytime, the sun, the warmth. I, on the other hand, like the world best between dusk and dawn. Too many sunny days wear me out and strip life of romance. Twilight has been my favourite time of the day since I was a child… if only it lasted longer.
And it is these fleeting moments of enchantment and mystery… the ‘witching hour between daylight and darkness when the doors of heaven open, magical events take place in forbidden forests and everyone looks a little more beautiful… that bewitched Jacques Guerlain a century back, as he walked along the Seine in Paris. “I felt something so intense,” he said, “I could only express it in a perfume.” And that’s what he did: created a fragrance whose flickering, emotionally charged notes echo the Impressionists he so admired.
But that’s not the whole story: composed two years before the outbreak of World War I, L’Heure Bleue also brought home the sweetness of a romantic, pre-war Paris, before darkness descended upon the city. In fact, the French expression l’heure bleue refers to Paris immediately prior to the war, which brings me to the second aspect of this perfume – L’Heure Bleue is a story within a story within a story. Sweet, soft and spicy all at the same time, it maintains a beautifully fragile balance, just as the ‘blue hour’ holds together the waning of day’s hopes and the beginning of night’s ambiguity.
Despite the history of melancholy, it opens on a chord of bright notes – the sweetness of orange blossom, rose, violet and neroli offset by the spicy sharpness of carnation, bergamot and aniseed. But its not all light and softness – the flowers are awash with cool shadows and this is where the melancholy romance begins.
As it progresses, L’Heure Bleue moves effortlessly from florals to pastries, developing a musky balsamic plushness that’s replete with tonka beans and soft leather. It’s like strolling along the Seine, losing yourself to Paris, when an old world apothecary entices with a whiff of dusky candies and freshly baked almond croissants. You take a seat, indulge in the buttery vanilla flavours and then move on… the sun has dipped below the horizon, the bridges look ghostly in the twilight and the innocent tuberose has been replaced by a temptingly dangerous siren. It’s at this crossroad between the day and the night that you long to have someone by your side… someone to share the magic, someone to spend the night.
The centenary brings two editions, both highly limited
Today, echoes of L’Heure Bleue can be seen in several Guerlain creations like Insolence and Tonka Impériale. The coming month marks its 100th anniversary and it’s only fitting that Guerlain celebrates the centenary of this grand classic with a reinterpretation by Thierry Wasser. Under his leadership, the legendary scent is illuminated with freshness and modernity: the white musk mingles with iris, heliotrope blends with orange blossom to make it more marshmallow-like, and powdery accents hover over the gourmand notes like a veil. However, overall it’s still the same fragrance. And somehow, it all works. Again.
First, there is a a box set featuring a bottle of the regular Parfum along with three new interpretations that symbolise morning, midday and midnight. In the morning, L’Aurore (the Eau de Toilette) is heavily loaded with top notes for freshness. At the stroke of noon, Le Zénith (Eau de Parfum) is made memorable with a confection of orange blossom, iris, vanilla and licorice. Finally, at dusk, Le Crépuscule (Extrait de Parfum) reveals the perfume’s soul and its disturbing secrets, transforming into a smoky-sweet gourmand, with the spicy, velvety flowers taking centrestage. The bottles (30 ml each) come in a blue velvet box decorated with silver pearl embroidery by Lesage Atelier de Broderie and the coffret is priced at 3000 €.
Want a more exquisite collectable? Look for the (490 ml) midnight blue crystal bottle that’s blown, cut, polished and engraved by the artisanal hands at Baccarat, then adorned with violets crafted from molten glass crystal ciselé in 24-carat gold by Gripoix. The effect is of an ornament that twinkles in the dark, showing off the perfumer’s muse: the sky during night-time. The price? 11000 € with the violets; 6500 € without them.
What about you? Have you ever used perfume to celebrate a special occasion or get through a difficult time? Which one would you choose?