Perfume Godfather Luca Turin famously hates this scintillating floral gem, alongside two other thumbs-down Guerlain creations that received the terse, Turinian shortshrift: the prim and proper Champs Elysées (1996), and the tropical, big-boobs-on-a-beach, slug-all-ya-tropicalia-in-a-sweet-wooden-vat-and-and-mix-it-all-up Mahora (2000), all of which I personally like. The man may be a perfume expert and at times a very brilliant writer, but you sometimes do wonder what’s wrong with his nose (L’Instant and Insolence over these three? I think not).
Anyway, for me, Jardins De Bagatelle – a sharp, swooning, French flower fantasia/ cedarwood musk from 1983, has always been a delight. It has perhaps the best sillage I know in all perfumery, leaving a beguiling, feminine and intriguing trail in its wake that makes you want to stand up and follow the wearer to her source. Up close and at first, the picture can admittedly be less harmonious – the sheer, plosive, almost metallic, thrust of flower notes, all (synthetic?) gardenia, tuberose, violet, orchid, ylang ylang and jasmine – shiny and shimmering, fountainous as the Tuileries and heady as a self-absorbed love affair in Paris- enough to bring on a stroke in the most phobically inclined of flower haters. I get that. This perfume is certainly not subtle. Unlike, say, a vintage Ricci, whose watercolour floral bouqets are all about delicacy, prettiness and balance, Bagatelle is a frivolous, nose-painting renegade with absolutely no regard for those around her. She wants to smell lovely and delicious and arresting, and she wants to smell like that now.
The more lingering appeal of Jean Paul Guerlain’s most florid and exuberant creation, though, lies in its more deep-seated fusion with musk (the central pillar of the perfume’s construction along with an adventurously large amount of cedarwood and vetiver), a drier, and more sober accord that clings to the spiralling hysteria of the flowers and gives them all a dose of much needed reality. The perfume thus sings its spring-joyous song in its own inimitable voice (there is nothing else that smells like Jardins De Bagatelle – I find it totally unique), while simultaneously grounding itself in the woody and sensual musk notes that soften the perfume and give it its compelling, womanly, allure.
Back in the days before the internet, the perfume fora and the vast deterioration of quality in the perfume industry generally, before the flankers and the limited editions and the bi-monthly new releases; before Les Matières and the Acqua Allegorias, Les Parisiennes and Les Elixirs Charnels ( I could go on), Guerlain had a far smaller, but still faithfully curated, and quality-controlled collection of perfumes that had brilliantly stood the test of time – at least for those who really knew and appreciated good perfume. There was the exquisite quintet of unperishable beauty created by Jean Paul’s father Jacques: L’Heure Bleue, Apres L’Ondée, Mitsuko, Vol De Nuit and Shalimar– masterpieces of mystery and olfactory poetry whose sheer inventiveness and artistry have made them treasured and loved by perfumists to this very day. There were the citruses – Eau De Coq, Eau De Guerlain, Eau De Cologne Impériale, and the Citrus Dirties – Mouchoir De Monsieur, Jicky. There were the masculine, velveted debonairs : Habit Rouge and Vetiver, and the moody, reticent Parure. But aside Nahéma, a gorgeous rose-peach confection, the hyacinth heartbreaker Chamade (one of my favourite perfumes of all time) and the delightful Chant D’Arômes – a mossy, floral chypre that is also lovely this time of year, there was nothing really bright, floral or even modern in the Guerlain contemporary lineup by the eighties. To remain relevant, or at least current in the more extroverted and colourful climes of that incorrigible decade, the house had to try and remedy this. And although the perfume was most certainly a very new departure for Guerlain – luminous, aggressive, and almost painfully iridescent, rather than the aesthetic failure that Luca Turin makes it out to be, Jardins De Bagatelle, so sweet and full of energy, so new, was an intuitive and very inventive volte face for the house by Jean Paul Guerlain that was, in my view, very clever.
My friend Emma wears Jardins De Bagatelle and it is her signature. It smells utterly fantastic on her, the musk and the flowers somehow subdued, yet with always enough confidence to let the perfume’s notes sing unhindered. In essence this perfume is Emma – they are a natural match and it brings out the best in her. Jardins De Bagatelle also smells quite marvellous on my mother, whose skin was just born to wear jasmine: again, that sillage – so appealing to my senses – just lingers in every room that either of these women have been in: not in a cloying, or intrusive, manner – just resting on corners of the air like a sly, floral fingerprint of their identity.
Seemingly relegated to obscurity in the Guerlain current line up – the original, glass-angular, very eighties oblong flacon now replaced with the generic bee-bottle, Jardins De Bagatelle is perhaps not as fashionable as it once might have been, if it ever actually was (did Jean Paul Guerlain’s efforts to bring some power zazz into the hallowed Guerlain halls actually work commercially? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps Brielle, who used to work at Guerlain, can enlighten us). But whether it was, or was not a ‘success’, to me personally, in its sheer vivacity, its volupté, its unrepressed, full-bloomed and light-filled buoyancy, for me, Jardins De Bagatelle – the finest kind of floral anomaly – will forever remain an annual, bright, and always very uplifting, pleasure.