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.