Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guerlain Vol de Nuit: fragrance review and history

Roja Dove likes to narrate the tale of an American customer who came into a British shop opulently dressed in mink and diamons when Vol de Nuit was not available in Britain, and upon being offered by the sales assistant to try something else, she quipped "Honey, I didn't get where I got today wearing anything but Vol de Nuit and I am not changing for no-one!" Such is the emphatic loyalty Vol de Nuit produces in its admirers ~dame Diana Rigg, Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Streisand among them. I can very well understand why, because I have been securely caught in its web myself. Its haunting, powdery, almost skin-like quietude accounts for a rather sweet fragrance that caresses the senses much like the moody bass and saxophone in a smooth jazz piece. It is seductive despite itself ~in contrast to the calculating wiles of Shalimar~ peppered with the noble juxtaposition that a pressed shirt decorated with an art-deco jewel would evoke.

Guerlain followed their tradition of using evocative names inspired by famous personalities or stories (Eau Impériale for Empress Eugenie, Eau du Coq for French actor Coquelin of Syrano fame, Shalimar for the imperial gardens of Lahore, Mitsouko after Claude Farrere's protagonist in "La Bataille"; and much later Liù after Puccini's heroine in "Turandot" and Chamade after Sagan's novel). They chose "Vol de Nuit"/ Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, chief pilot of Aéropostale, French continent-to-continent mail operations company, and a combat pilot in World War I. Saint-Exupéry also wrote "Courier Sud"(Southern Mail) and "Terre des Hommes"(Wind, Sand and Stars) but was immortalised via the classic allegory "The Little Prince". A close friend of Jacques Guerlain, famous for his romantic conquests and very much read at the time, he disappeared in a reconnaissance flight during World War II (1944). His fate, eerily similar to Fabien's, the newly-wed protagonist of "Night Flight", a pilot on the airmail plane from Patagonia to Buenos Aires who is caught in a cyclone and dies while his wife Simone anxiously awaits signal atop the control tower, is shrouded in romantic mystery. Thus, two years after the publication of the novel, in 1933, Jacques Guerlain launched his fragrance by the same name.

The fragrance Vol de Nuit, inspired by the brave early days of aviation, much like En Avion by Caron, or alternatively the ocean-liner named Normandie by Patou, they all coincided with the at once fascinating and perilous exploration of uncharted territories, exotically comparable to our contemporary exploration of the galaxy. And yet despite everything Vol de Nuit compared with En Avion or even Normandie is tamer than its whirwind name would suggest but none the less magisterial for it. Technically a woody oriental, yet with its pronounced opening green note it totters between an oriental and a chypre. Which is understandable if one considers that it was the first fragrance to make overuse of galbanum, thus influencing classics to follow such as Germain Cellier's Vent Vert, Paul Vacher's Miss Dior and Guy Robert's Chanel No.19. The other characteristic element in Vol de Nuit is jonquil absolute. The initial green rush of those two notes along with spice (a delectable touch of cinnamon, perhaps deriving from benzoin) follows a swift diminuendo into delicate flowers similar to those that appear as if pressed between the pages of a stranger's antique journal in the heart of Chant d'Aromes. The ambience of that floral hug is softly-spoken, refined and gentle ceding to a haunting drydown of woody musky nuances, with the characteristic ambery-vanilla-orris-coumarin sweetness that comprises the tradition of Guerlain (the Guerlinade). The original composition contained costus oil, but today that ingredient is restricted, therefore synthetic approximations by IFF are used. That powdery, discreetly smoky phase resembles the quiet plush of Habit Rouge (the masculine version of Shalimar ) laced with the slight wistfulness over a wise advice that you just didn't follow...

Notes for Guerlain Vol de Nuit:
Top: orange, bergamot, lemon, mandarin, petitgrain, galbanum, sage, aldehydes
Heart: violet, rosewood, palmarosa, jasmine, jonquil/daffodil, pimento
Base: Vanilla, benzoin, Peru balsam, musk, cedarwood, orris, tonka bean, oakmoss, agarwood, sandalwood, vetiver, ambergris, castoreum.

Originally the Vol de Nuit flacon was designed with a front that represented an airplane's propeller at the time when Air France was born and air-travel held the lure of adventure. The name is cut out of a circle of gold metal suggesting the propeller belt. The outer box was conceived to look zebra-stripped to denote the fascination with exotic travelling and Africa, the wild continent.

Later on the flacon followed the almost vase-shape of other Guerlain scents. In the '80s and '90s a refill was made in plain glass for the classic gold Habit de Fete canisters. The parfum circulates in the squat short flacon with the quadrilobe stopper that still holds Jicky and Nahéma in extrait de parfum. The French Air Force Collge orders bottles of Vol de Nuit to be emblazoned with their emblem so that their cadets can offer as gifts when officially visiting abroad. There even was a talc product aromatized with Vol de Nuit which I hope I could come across one day.

The parfum concentration in Vol de Nuit is eminently nobler, yet the Eau de Toilette especially in vintage versions is very satisfactory and rich. It is incidentally one of the Guerlain fragrances where the newer batches have not the pillaged air other thoughroughbreds have suffered, although it lasts somewhat shorter, perhaps because under LVMH supervision all the animalics have been replaced with synthesized versions to comply with current ethical concerns (as is the case in all Guerlain fragrances).
NB: Not to be confused with the recent introduction of Vol de Nuit Evasion (2007) which is in fact an eau de toilette concentration of Guerlain's Guet Apens/ Attrape Coeur (more on which subsequently).

Vol de Nuit is available from Guerlain counters although not all of them carry it and if they do it might be tucked back behind the countertop. Ask for it!

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Guerlain series.

Pics through euart, ebay, parfum de pub.


  1. Anonymous18:17

    One of the bottles pictured (second to last pic in the post) is labelled "Sous le Vent", although the bottle face still has the propeller look. What's the story?

  2. Good catch! Thanks!
    I thought I was uploading the VdN bottle, but obviously I didn't...(must remedy). It probably means that there was a SLV bottle similar to the VDN one, as that scent also stood for an exotic locale.

  3. Dear Helg,

    Good post as usual. VdN is, strangely enough, featured in the high-end department stores where I live...(don't ask me why!) I remember visiting one of the Guerlain counters several weeks ago the SAs were like, "No, we don't have L'Heure Bleue...but you care for Vol de Nuit?" (Apparantly men like using it as well.)

    By the way...the circlet from the original VdN bottle is now featured in the L'Instant pillars--as you know I had a chance to talk to the Guerlain representatives and that's what they told me.


  4. Every time I pass the Guerlain counter at KaDeWe I spray Vol de Nuit on one wrist and Jicky on the other, but I have still not decided which one I like better.

  5. Rappleyea00:34

    I missed reading last night with family arriving, etc., but caught up tonight. Ironically, Vol de Nuit (extrait) was my Thanksgiving Day scent! I've worn the EDT since high school, but only recently discovered the extrait - what a revelation! Guerlain seems to be my house of choice as the Guerlainade seems to hold the fragrance on my fair, dry skin.

    I've really enjoyed your Guerlain series - beautiful writing!

  6. VDN is very romantic isn't it, I wish air flight was still as glamourous as it was when this was made.

    I must have read on your perfume and celebs page that Diana Rigg wore this. When I saw her out and about in London I remember firstly she looks ridiculously good for her age and secondly thinking not only does she look so chic she must smell so chic!

  7. This is my Mums fav. I love it too.
    Diana Rigg - oh I loved her as Emma Peel in the Avengers.
    I wanted to be Emma Peel when I was a teen. Tough and sexy! LOL

  8. A,

    thank you for saying so.
    Yes, I understand that VdN is available and certainly it's been distributed rather widely compared to other scents, yet it is an erratic thing with no rhyme or reason: other stores have it, others don't. I can see men wearing it with panache! ;-)

    Thanks for the information. I seem to recall some recent limited edition bottles just out that combine elements from several Guerlain scents of the past (the heart stopper with the Shalimar -I think_ style label, that sort of thing....). Guerlain has been known to recycle designs and packaging to showcase their illustrious history, so it doesn't strike me as unusual.

  9. L,

    they're both excellent, that's why! (myself I vastly prefer Jicky in extrait, though)

  10. R,

    thank you for your very kind compliment and what a lovely choice for Thanksgiving! It's amazing that you wore this to high-school!
    I came rather late to VdN (and thankfully the extrait was simultaneously dicovered), mainly because there was no stock where I am for years on end. I knew other Guerlains well, but this one came in my adult life. (and how richer it is thanks to that)

  11. K,

    it has a peculiar romanticism thanks to the story attached: I believe Guerlain has created such a mythos as to make us dream with their perfumes. It shows especially in comparison with some on which they haven't paid as lavinsh an attention on ~more on which later on ;-)

    Diana Riggs looks particularly dignified in and for her age, doesn't she: noble, smart, regal, a true star. :-)

  12. M,

    your whole family (OK with one exception, lol!) is very discerning when it comes to perfume, I see!! :-)) What a beautiful choice for your mum...

    I can't find fault with your teenager dream of being Emma Peel. ~clever play on words, isn't it: M{en}appeal...

  13. Rappleyea13:38

    In those days without perfume boards and blogs calling it "sophisticated" and "classic", etc., who knew?!? For me, it was simply a less sweet Shalimar, which many of my friends wore and was just too sweet for me. LOL - now that version would be considered vintage! I suppose I was picking up on the Guerlainade as to the similarity.

  14. LisaCarol21:47

    Dear E,
    You're so right about Guerlain being able to create great stories around their scents; when reading your excellent text I find myself thinking "wow, I really have to give this one another try" even if I know I will find it too sweet. But still, I love the imagry behind!

  15. Dear Donna, an excellent point!!
    I can well see your reasoning and it makes total sense :-))

  16. Dear K,

    so happy to see you!! How have your been doing?
    Thank you so much for saying so, you flatter me. I think "zee storee" is half their success! They're masters at this kind of thing, aren't they? ;-)
    Do give it another try: I think it performs well in colder weather, although it can be worn all year round.

  17. "...seductive despite itself"--what an apt description. You really capture the way this scent "travels," E, which is the thing I love about it. It changes from moment to moment, but never in a way that is jarring.

    Vol de Nuit used to be available here but has recently disappeared. I'm glad to hear it's still easily procured elsewhere, since I've never gotten around to buyinging a bottle. It's definitely on my wish list.

  18. How kind of you to say so: and I had a feeling you would be a fan of this one too! You should definitely try to locate a bottle. One is never certain with those houses... (let's not give them ideas, now, shall we?) It's completely unavailable here, though, I get mine while travelling and vintage through connections.

  19. So... what do you think of the current parfum version? I've never tried vintage and honestly - I'm really not that kind of person who would...

    But when I tried the parfum of vol de nuit at a Guerlain counter three years ago - I was mesmerized...hypnotized.

    I think it's the most beautiful fragrance I ever smelled.

    Some people say it doesn't last. Well... I apply parfum in the evening ... and I can still smell it the next day in the morning while having breakfast... hair undone:) that's my favorite part of Vol de Nuit to be honest:) So I think it just blends into one's skin scent so that one doesnt feel it...though it's still there...

    It's georgeous! even the current version. what do you think?

  20. DM,

    I agree with you that VdN does last more than it is known for. Usually, it being such a snuggly scent, I spray it on my woolen scarves and pullovers, it trails wonderfully and last very well indeed that way. I suppose letting one's hair down (literally and figuratively) would also help it last more! What a lovely suggestion. :-)

    I own vintage edt and a batch of semi-old parfum (1980s) and use that most, though the current isn't too bad compared to some other perfumes out there which have been ruined (ex.Cabochard). There is a difference but it's not that huge that it would render it unrecognisable, perhaps it's a bit harsher but it mellows out soon.
    The parfum version of VdN is marvellous, rich and satisfying, exactly how such classics should be worn, drop by exquisite drop. *sigh*

  21. Anonymous23:19

    Just to update the celebrity influence, Vol de Nuit is the favourite fragrance of Kate Winslet. Naturellement!


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