Suzanne's Perfume Journal

February 18, 2011:

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Vintage Guerlain Vetiver: Machismo in a Bottle

Recently I got to peer into the vault. The Vintage Perfume Vault: a stunningly beautiful repository of words, images and vintage fragrances—the real and online domain of Californian-based blogger and perfume collector extraordinaire, Amelia. A few weeks ago, Amelia offered me the opportunity to sample some of her treasures, including a rare sample of what she has labeled Guerlain Vetiver ancien. Amelia believes that the bottle she has pre-dates the 1959 launch of the iconic Guerlain fragrance by more than a few decades, thus her appendage of the term ancien. Since there’s nothing more irresistible to me than a perfume mystery, after I received her sample I spent a fair amount of time searching the Internet, trying to find any clue that would help date her bottle. After comparing Amelia’s photo and bottle description with a photo of the 1959 “Quadrilobe flacon” of Guerlain Vetiver I found at another site, I see similarities that lead me to believe her bottle might actually be from the ’50s. But as there are glaring differences, too, it’s probably unwise for me to venture an opinion—especially when what matters most is the perfume. And let me tell you, this perfume is one very leonine scent! A vetiver so sure and absolute in its identity, I’m simply going to refer to it as vintage Guerlain Vetiver from here on out.

Though the words “ferocious” and “austere” might seem at odds with one another, hopefully you’ll know what I mean when I say there’s a ferocious austerity about vintage Vetiver. Its greenness is bracing and medicinal, as well as arid and astringent—and nothing in its formula softens that astringency as it dries down on my skin, which is why I greatly admire it but don’t adore it the way I adore, for instance, the equally brut Caron Yatagan. Unlike Yatagan, whose smokier notes temper the acrid greens—their ashen qualities acting almost like a base that brings Yatagan into perfect olfactory pH-balance to my nose—vintage Guerlain Vetiver doesn’t accommodate such a buffer. Though I’m sure others would disagree, in my opinion vintage Vetiver is even more masculine than Yatagan: it's a fragrance that revels in being not only taut and muscular and straight-forwardly unembellished, but also unapologetically acerbic.

Wearing vintage Vetiver makes me feel as if I’m in the presence of a very machismo figure: a man who is compelling and charismatic, if not emotionally accessible. Within half an hour after becoming acquainted with it, two words came to mind—Lion King—and I wasn’t thinking of the Disney movie with the nauseating Elton John music, but rather a lion in the form of a man. The stark greenness of the scent, coupled with its arid notes—the smell of tobacco leaf cured with dark rum—brings the Serengeti into view, as well as a man striding across it with a rifle, 1930s safari gear, and an entourage of native men serving as guides and gun carriers who love this “man’s man,” this fearless white hunter who loves nothing better than to be out in the bush hunting the big game with them. Yes, you guessed it: for me, vintage Guerlain Vetiver is the very whiff of Ernest Hemingway: swashbuckling yet composed; expansive in aim, but as tightly focused and tightly wound as any predator. Whether stalking game animals or the words that would become his next story, Hemingway favored an economy of moves and ammunition—and the formulation for vintage Guerlain Vetiver strikes me as similarly motivated.

Tangy green at its start—the kind of green that spells promise and glimmers like the long grasses of the savannah after the rains have come—the top-notes stage of this fragrance is all about lemony vetiver and piquant coriander. However, in short order the fragrance turns medicinal and serious, thanks to what smells like a good dose of clary sage, and for more than a few minutes I am reminded of herbal tinctures and essential oils. This is not a criticism: it actually lends a ‘gone Native’ character to the fragrance with its green-medicine smell. From here on out, Guerlain Vetiver only gets more serious, lean, and firmly focused; the withering effects of cedar and tobacco leaf don’t overtake the green notes but does desiccate them in a way that makes them smell more muscular. As mentioned previously, I think I smell a hint of dark rum accompanying the tobacco leaf—an effect, perhaps, of the tonka bean in Vetiver’s base notes—but it’s not at all prominent, just something that adds more depth. Alas, this attractive tobacco-rum undercurrent is not enough to overcome the acrid edge to the fragrance that makes Guerlain Vetiver more than a trifle difficult for me. I’m not certain what causes this acridness, but my suspicion is cedar—a note that can easily sour in certain fragrances (though in general, in cushier fragrances, it’s a note I get on with quite well.)

In the end, the way I feel about Guerlain Vetiver is the way I feel about Ernest Hemingway (who, I should make clear here, never had an affiliation with this fragrance as far as I know, but simply is the figure who embodies the scent in my vivid imagination): I am fascinated by the warrior adventurer he was in real life (read his Wiki bio and see how many accidents, diseases, and plane crashes he survived) and an admirer of his tersely honest and hard-bodied prose. But admiration does not always equate with love, and ultimately I require a bit more reassuring softness and tenderness in my men, my literary heroes, and my masculine perfumes.

Photo of Ernest Hemingway on Safari in Africa in 1937 is from The Independent (