La Maison Guerlain: Good scents

24 Jan 2007 by business traveller
There are much better alternatives to browsing department-store perfume counters in Paris – the city is, after all, the closest thing to the capital of perfume. Instead, pay a visit to La Maison Guerlain on the Champs-Elysées, home to the luxurious Guerlain fragrance brand. This discreet boutique, tucked among gleaming clothes shops and sandwich bars, is a historic landmark in the long-standing French love affair with le parfum. As you approach the little shop – with the Arc de Triomphe looming in the middle distance to your left and the Louvre on your right – its dark exterior oozes old-fashioned, quintessentially French charm. This has been Guerlain's flagship store since 1914, but the company's perfume-making extends back to 1828, when Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain made a scent – "Eau de Cologne Impériale" – that impressed Empress Eugénie so much she appointed him her official perfumer. The shop was renovated in 2005 in keeping with its original style, and the building is protected, so the exterior remains just the same as when it was built in 1914 by the architect Charles Mewès (who was also responsible for Paris's Hotel Ritz). A doorman opens the door for customers since it swings the "wrong" way – usually you would pull to enter and push to exit – but, as an original feature, it cannot be altered. The elegant ground-floor beauty section is decked out in Carrara marble and chandeliers, the walls lined with antique perfume bottles. The winding staircase, flecked with specks of gold, leads to the remarkable Golden Gallery. Designed to feel like the inside of a perfume bottle, the sloping walls are tiled from floor to ceiling with 350,000 tiny gold mosaic squares, which took three months to attach. The centrepiece of the first floor is a huge gold-mesh chandelier, surrounded by Guerlain's creations. You can sample the scents, and then lift the lid of a jar alongside each one. The jars contain the aromatic raw materials used to make each perfumes. When your nose becomes overwhelmed, you can inhale from a jar of coffee beans – the equivalent of sipping water to clear your palate. Guerlain's latest fragrance is Insolence (£26 for 30ml eau de toilette), which, the company's spokeswoman tells me proudly, is the first time violet has been used in the "head" note (the first fragrance to come through when you smell the scent), as it is a difficult material to work with. In the past six years, Guerlain has also begun using its oldest scents as inspiration for annual limited editions. This year's is Sous le Vent (E180), a fragrance originally released in 1933, containing notes of bergamot, lavender and tarragon. If you don't fancy the idea of 249 other people owning the same scent as you, you can create your own perfume with a unique combination of ingredients, the recipe for which will never be used again. If you plan to stay in Paris for a while or make multiple visits, you could try the full customised experience, which requires several consultations with Sylvaine Delacourte, fragrance development director. Over a few months, she will gradually coax out of you which raw materials are most closely associated with your most cherished olfactory memories and, up to six months later, you will be presented with a five-year supply of your own one-of-a-kind perfume. The experience is not cheap, at E30,000, so if budget or time is a constraint you can go for the next best thing: a made-to-measure scent, which involves choosing a perfume from the Private Collection (E20,000). This is a collection of one-off original scents that is regularly replenished by Guerlain's perfumers. After one consultation with you, Sylvaine will work out which fragrances in the collection are most likely to suit your personal tastes and select one for you. Once you have decided on a particular scent it is effectively yours; as they are one-offs, that recipe will never be made again and so it is a way of having a unique personal scent for ever. La Maison Guerlain, 68 avenues des Champs-Elysées, Paris, tel +33 1 45 62 52 57, guerlain.com
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