The Arc de Triomphe is not the only cherished landmark on the magnificent Champs-Elysees. No.68 avenue des Champs-Elysees has, for generations, been a celebrated address for Parisians; an exquisitely elegant listed building which is a mecca for admirers of fine fragrance and lovers of luxury beauty products and treatments. This, you see, is the location of La Maison Guerlain, the oldest existing beauty house, which is currently celebrating its 185th anniversary.
For almost two centuries, Guerlain has been synonymous with the ideals of French beauty and allure. And it has retained its position as one of the leading perfume, cosmetics and skincare brands in the world without having the image of a fashion brand to bolster its identity. Unlike Chanel, Givenchy and Dior, Guerlain didn’t begin life as a couture house which diversified into beauty; it has been all about beauty – and, in particular, fragrance – from day one.
The founder of this French institution was Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain, who was born in Picardy in 1798, during the final days of the revolution. His father was a spice merchant and pewter potter, but it was as a sales assistant in the perfume house Briard that the young Guerlain found employment when he left home at the age of 19. This first job involved demonstrating and selling cosmetic products (precursors to today’s blushers, lipsticks and foundations), and this apprenticeship continued in two further beauty companies before he left for three years to study botany, chemistry and soap-making in England, then a hotbed for research in the fields of perfume, beauty products and toiletries.
In 1828, when he was only 30 years of age, Guerlain opened his first boutique, at 42 rue de Rivoli, the arcade-lined street at the very heart of Paris. The site was shared with the Hotel Meurice, then a favourite of the British upper classes. Guerlain began his business by importing fashionable products from Britain, but he was soon developing his own, original formulas for toilet waters, soaps, creams, pomades, perfume oils and perfumed essences for handkerchiefs. These were very popular with the British aristocracy, not least Queen Victoria for whom the perfume Bouquet de la Reine Victoria was created.
Before long, the Guerlain boutique was the “in” place and no fashionable Parisienne’s dressing table was complete without a jar of Creme a la Fraise (Strawberry Creme) to lighten the complexion or Creme de Perse (Persian Creme) to soften the hands. Her maquillage would also have included one of Guerlain’s innovative lip tints – Liquid Rose Extract, which was sold from the mid-19th century until 1958; Roselip, a solid lip colour in a porcelain pot, or, from the 1870s, the world’s first lipstick in a tube – Ne m’oubliez pas (Don’t Forget Me).
By the time the Guerlain boutique had relocated to the rue de la Paix in the 1840s, royal commissions were beginning to flood in and Pierre-Francois-Pascal’s fragrances were all the rage in many of the European courts.
One of Guerlain’s greatest coups was being appointed official perfumer to the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, in 1853. He had impressed the empress with the zesty Eau de Cologne Imperiale which he had made specially for her. Legend has it that it gave her unhoped-for relief from the migraines that troubled her. The cologne is still sold today, and in the same distinctive bee-embossed bottle (the bee being a reference to the imperial coat of arms).
The founder of the house of Guerlain died in 1864 and his eldest son Aime took over as the firm’s perfumer. He continued in his father’s pioneering footsteps, creating, in 1889, the perfume which is generally credited with ushering in the age of modern perfumery. Jicky broke ground by blending synthetic materials with natural ingredients. Its fresh top notes of lavender, bergamot and rosemary, its spicy heart and creamy, warm base (which is where the new synthetic vanilla made its impact) were different to anything that had gone before and it was men who tended to buy it in its early years.
FROM THE CREATION of Jicky onwards, the history of Guerlain is also the history of modern perfumery. Aime’s nephew, Jacques, was responsible for almost 400 scents, among them an incredible succession of legendary fragrances regarded as wonders of the perfume world. These included the fresh yet heady L’Heure Bleue (1912), Mitsouko (1919), which is one of the most celebrated and influential early examples of the chypre genre, and Shalimar (1925), the exotic perfume which sired the entire oriental family of fragrances.
Jacques’s grandson, Jean-Paul, who retired in 2002, continued the Guerlain tradition of innovation with such gems as the archetypal fresh, green scent Chamade (1969), which was the first perfume to make use of blackcurrant buds, and the sensuous oriental Samsara (1989).
Like its home city of Paris, Guerlain treats its heritage with the greatest of respect. With its Art Deco counters and original marble walls, the ground floor boutique on the Champas-Elysees has changed little in the 94 years since it opened and the third floor spa is as discreet and luxurious as when it began catering to Parisiennes’ “soins de beaute” in 1938.
But, since 2005, no visit to 68 avenue des Champs-Elysees would be complete without a trip up the luminous, gold-tiled stairway to the revamped first floor where the very contemporary Espace Parfum offers the chance to explore just about the entire back catalogue of Guerlain greatest hits as well as such current chart-toppers as La Petite Robe Noire, Idylle and Insolence – and even, for true perfume obsessives, the opportunity to have your own signature scent created just for you. If luxury is timeless, Guerlain will have no trouble notching up another 185 years.