According to the Guerlain website, the eau de parfum version of Heritage – though reformulated, naturally – is still available and in production, so I am already breaking my own rules and cheating in some ways with this post. Unlike other scents we will be discussing, this one is not defunct. And yet I can never find it anywhere: the bottle has changed, along with its contents: so to all intents and purposes it might as well have hit the bucket.
At the time of its launch in 1992, Guerlain, like most perfume houses, released new creations to its roster far, far more sporadically than it does now. While the current perfumer-in-house Thierry Wasser is apparently contracted to formulate ten new perfumes a year (that’s just over a month to create a top-to-bottom successful fragrance formula : no wonder the majority of them fall by the wayside), Jean Paul Guerlain, a superior perfumer in my view, had far more time, in fairness, to get each one right: from what I remember, Guerlain could literally go three or four years without releasing anything new: wasn’t Heritage the first big release that came after Samsara in 1989?
Heritage, only the third masculine perfume for the house after Habit Rouge and Vetiver (Derby having been discontinued) was released to great fanfare and promotion at the beginning of the nineties, and Jean Paul Guerlain had clearly calibrated the blend to perfection. It was almost too perfect, though, for me personally : Heritage eau de toilette (the eau de parfum was released a few years later) was measured, classical, yet sparkling: sensual, tasteful and very gentlemanly; a clever way of introducing the the house signature Guerlinade and ambered, oriental facets – the cedary, tonka bean/ vanilla base a shimmering backdrop – to a fresher, more zinging central theme of contrasting lavender/bergamot and coriander/pepper: there is a tangibly real ‘tingle’ to the blend, from the crisp addition of petitgrain – always a strident and high pitched note – along with drops of juniper, clary sage and violet leaf, fresher and more coruscating elements that assert themselves confidently, like a sharp-suited businessman in a boardroom, over the more hidden floral elements of powdered orris; rose, carnation and geranium : all encompassing and widescreen, these immaculately contrapuntal elements coalescing into a more modern scent for Guerlain, for the time, while quite perceptibly preserving, as advertised, the grand old house’s classical ‘heritage’.
But this was what always bothered me about the fragrance. No matter how many times I smelled it (and they were many) there was something too staid, too patrician and Francophilic ‘bon gout’ about this blend, always so well-groomed and pressed and coiffeured and all the women love him. I remember a friend of a friend in London having the Heritage apres rasage, which he wore quite a lot and stated to be the best fragrance ever made, but on him, though appealing from certain angles, there was still that big, inexorable drop of boredom at the centre somehow (and he wasn’t that interesting to begin with); someone old before their time who was playing at playing by the rules.
Fast forward a few years to Japan, and we find me wandering down a street in Yokohama. It was a time when so many department stores, post-Bubble, were still operational and doing OK (and before the constant current doom and gloom about the declining population and the imminent ‘demographic catastrophe’ as the ageing population continues to age, and when the younger generation loses interest in sex .This really is a crisis, actually, as people neuter themselves in their smartphone insularity and shun physical contact, but nonetheless, I really do believe that positivity and negativity create their own self- perpetuating cycles in societies and I do wish that the media here would sometimes change the Nihon death knell tune but I digress: ) at that time, when there were enough people to shop at these places, it was still possible for me, in my lunchtime, to stray into the perfume department of some old venerable store or other and do a spot of perfume sampling. And it was at this time, that to my surprise, I espied Guerlain’s Heritage Eau De Parfum.
It seems impossible now, with niche, and ‘unisex’, and the vast expansion of gender freedoms that are happening generally, to imagine that an ‘eau de parfum’ for men was something unusual, even slightly offputtingly feminine, but for the time it most definitely was. It felt, almost, like wearing a dress. An ‘eau de parfum’ designed for men? Believe it or not there was something quite transgressive about this, a new direction, and having always quite liked certain elements of the original Heritage (ambery vanilla/tonka I am there, basically – there was just always something too scratchy and herbaceous and complicated at top), I was quite curious about trying it. Could an eau de parfum variation of the scent tilt the balance, deepen the perfume, flesh it out, warm it up (Heritage edt is strangely cold, ultimately, despite its list of ingredients): make it more me?
It could. Vintage Heritage eau de parfum is a very different beast to the original eau de toilette, which is far more lavender/bergamot based and more effervescent, cognac to the former’s light champagne. While the coniferous edge of the blend of both versions – a fir tree element that was explored more fully in the later Winter Delice from 2000 (a beautiful play on fir, frankincense and vanilla that I always wear at Christmas), here, the upper notes are encased as if in an eiderdown of amber: the classic, Shalimar-like edible skin blanket that Guerlainophiles know and love so well, but in a masculine – the oriental facets upped, with the still recognizably Heritage top and heart notes present – but very much retreating and ceding their territory. Rather than a forty eight year old family man from Lyons off to a business conference in the outskirts of Paris, suddenly we are Serge Diaghilev, in fur coat, huddled in the snow, the whisper of illicit, body-taunting ambered deliciousness making us feel self-aroused and blushing; an extra warmth that was, also, quite brilliantly provided in the heart and top notes of the perfume with a truly excellent note of heat-searing singing black pepper up top (the best pepper note I have smelled in any perfume), an addition that added spine to the blend and stopped everything from getting too namely pamby and ‘silk pyjamas’, Jean Paul Guerlain toying provocatively with what was ‘acceptable’ in a fragrance for men, yet not letting the person in question turn into a fully blown, reclining odalisque.
I have just used up my final drops of Heritage edp in writing this, and it smells just as good as I remembered. And I suppose the continuing existence of the blend, albeit reformulated, thinner, with less stamina, doesn’t entirely qualify this Guerlain classic as a ‘successful failure’ or beautiful reject, or whatever else you want to call it. Yet I have never seen it on sale, not in London, or anywhere else in England, and certainly not in Tokyo. To be sure, I asked the assistant at Guerlain the other day if they had Heritage, just to check out how the perfume was now smelling (perfect, actually, still very good quality, very taut and aqueous), and asked, by any chance, but knowing full well that they wouldn’t, if they also had the eau de parfum. No, not in Japan, sorry, no we don’t, because who, here, would wear it? Perhaps that under-the-counter bottle of the gleaming and illumined edt was there for company execs and visiting tourists (there was an acknowledgement of this in the woman’s eye as I enquired about the scent), but what man, in reality, is going to bother with an eau de parfum? Who would have need for such a thing? The fuller, more sensually intoxicating experience?