Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Magicians and Pharaohs: Djedi by Guerlain (fragrance review)

Lore has shaped the imagination of many in reference to the secrets of the Great Pyramid of Egypt: hidden passages, curses cast upon intruders, mystical symbols and astronomical calculations far ahead of their times. More Sphinx-like than the actual Sphinx, the Great Pyramid still holds some of its secrets to this day.

Djedi by Guerlain ,"the driest perfume of all time" according to Roja Dove and the "tremendous animalic vetiver" for Luca Turin, is an analogous example in perfumery. And it takes its name after an ancient Egyptian magician related to the Great Pyramid. It is as magical, as soulful and as strange a perfume as entering an ancient burial place hidden behind rocks in a far away desert.
But you might need magical powers to have a bottle procured; or very deep pockets…Or better yet a dear friend like mrs.Kern who is so amazingly generous and kind that she sent me a little of her own.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, had visited Giza in about 450 BC, where he was told by Egyptian priests that the Great Pyramid had been built for the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks) second god-king of the Fourth Dynasty (c.2575–c. 2465 BC). It weighed 6 million tons, the weight of all Europe's cathedrals put together and it was the tallest building in the world up till the start of the 14th century AD.
Khufu and the Magician is a tale of Egyptian magic which appears in the Westcar Papyrus (Second Intermediate Period - around 1500 BC), housed in the Berlin Museum.
Pharaoh Khufu's sons are amusing their father by telling tales of magic:

“Djedi is a man of one hundred and ten years~the tale went. Every day he eats five hundred loaves of bread, a haunch of ox is his meat, and he drinks one hundred jugs of beer as well. He knows how to reattach a severed head and how to make a lion follow him with its leash on the ground. And he knows the number of secret chambers in Thoth's temple."
Khufu orders his son to bring the magician and then a prisoner brought, to lop off his head and see Djedi's magic in action. But the magician protests that he could not sacrifice humans for his magic. So a goose is brought on which Djedi could perform his magic on. The morale of the story is transparent: some things are just too sacred to be trifled with.

Khufu had wished Djedi to fashion his mausoleum under his guidance, but to no avail. In the words of Zahi Hawass, upon excavating the pyramid, courtesy of guardian.net:
“I never thought we would find anything behind the door discovered 64 metres inside the south shaft of the Great Pyramid in 1993 by Rudolf Gantenbrink . […]But when we used the ultrasonic equipment and learnt that the thickness of the door was only 6cm, I said that this was a surprise and there must be something there. […] We sent the robot into the second shaft, and as it traveled through we could see […] it stopped in front of another door with two copper handles: Some believe these doors have a symbolic meaning because it is written on the Pyramid Text that the Pharaoh must travel through a series of doors to reach the Netherworld. […] I would like to suggest that these doors hide Khufu's real burial chamber. […]
About 900 years after the reign of Khufu we have a story called "Khufu and the Magician". Djedi knew everything about the secret chambers of Thoth, but he did not reveal the secret. I therefore believe that the burial chambers were hidden behind these doors”.

The perfume itself is a strange and perfume-y mineral affair of dry leather and ambery, animalic decomposition that almost defies description. Its opening is jolting, disturbing, the weirdest thing; yet it beckons you to continue smelling till the end of the prolonged journey into the night. There is deep grief manifesting itself through bitter herbs, artemisia-like, and copious amounts of earthy vetiver with cold air which reminds one of the strange feelings upon first trying Messe de Minuit by Etro. Those elements fan out into feminine, yet dusty, almost musty rose and a powdery base. This is no opulent rose for a bourgeois eager to show off her wealth or powdery sweetness for an aristocrat who wants to keep her man in difficult times. This is a regal lament for the loss of a favourite son, perhaps lost forever in the cold waters of the battle of Salamis or the trenches of the World War I, no matter; this grief transcends cultures.
Pungent leather with its slightly sour edge and powdery musk act like whalebone does to underpinnings, supporting, exuding an image of bravery and humaness at the same time.
This is unmistakenly Guerlain, unmistakebly animalic with a rather fecal warmth at the end, exuding the grandeur of another, elegant era. Reminding me of my grandmother who had her clothes tailored in Paris and her jewels made in Smyrna and who always smelled ravishingly opulent.

Although its strange, intense greeness and dryness have a passing relation to the classic Bandit eau de parfum, the closest to it that I have smelled is Vero Profumo’s Onda; although the latter is a tad warmer and sexier with its catty whiff and coriander/mace spiciness. However, while Onda has a certain modernity that puts it firmly into the realm of a contemporary piece of art, Djedi is stylistically a product of its time and recalls an era that is past us.

Djedi was created in 1926 by Jacques Guerlain and re-issued in 1996 for only 1000 bottles. Today the vintage is extremely rare and goes for astronomical prices rivaling the mathematical achievements etched on the pyramid walls itself. The re-issue, using the formula of yore, is also quite rare and costly.

But it lets one glimpse one into the abyss and back. If one dares…

Notes: rose, vetiver, musk, oakmoss, leather, civet and patchouli

Pic of Great pyramid by inderstadt/flickr. Painting "And there was a great cry in Egypt" by Arthur Hacker courtesy of art.com. Bottle of Djedi courtesy of Guerlain


  1. Dear E., I can also confirm the resemblance to Veroprofumo Onda, having smelled the two side by side with Vero herself (who was kind enough to offer me a sample of the precious Djedi). I would volunteer, as additional notes to the ones you state, a distinct whiff of castoreum (that fecal basenote so characteristic of older Guerlains), definitely some iris and I would say some ambergris.
    Onda, I agree, is a modern variation on the theme though very much its own creature, with added spices (ginger, coriander, basil) and a beeswax-honey base that can definitely smell a bit feral.
    What both definitely have in common is a soulful depth.

  2. Dear D,

    as always your opinion is highly appreciated (and welcome!).

    Thank you for the additional notes.
    So the leather and "deathly" smell come from castoreum? Makes sense. There is that dirty element which is indeed the coup de grĂ¢ce in many great older perfumes; their distinct characteristic that redeems any old-fashioned nuance and makes them so intriguing to explore regardless.
    I do not get much flowers, I have to admit. There is the hazy, abstract bouquet that is characteristic of chypres with a lightly powdery drydown. Whether this comes from the Guerlinade or not...

    "Soulful depth" is exactly right!

  3. Anonymous14:52

    Thank you so much not only for the review of Djedi (which sounds like a Guerlain that I might actually enjoy--if never try, LOL) but also for more on Vero and her Onda. I have a tiny sample of Onda on the way, and I bite my nails down to the quick in anticipation. Vero Profumo's works sound so utterly strange and complex...just the thing in these bitter, but sparkling, winter days.

  4. Anonymous15:45

    I have tried not to notice the existence of Djedi seeing as it is so hard to come by and I had a feeling I would love it and that way lies perfume madness. However, having fallen under the spell of Onda, I will resist no longer and keep my eyes peeled. A fascinating and if I may say so, soulful, review, thanks very much. Love that painting too - the Hacker. Another subject to go scurrying off to investigate!

  5. Dear Catherine,

    it is a strange Guerlain, but it possesses some weird attraction: perhaps a gothic strain. I am looking forward to your impressions on Onda. It was one of the best surprises in my sampling days.

  6. Donanicola,

    thanks so much for the compliment on the review and I am very happy you like the choice of the painting. It is of course tied to the 7 plagues of the Pharaoh; quite a different one, but it fit the mood...

    If you come across a sample of Djedi it would be fascinating for me to hear your thoughts. The Perfumed Court does carry samples (albeit you must be prepared this is one expensive perfume)

  7. Anonymous18:34

    dear e.,
    i have a tiny sample vial of djedi, but up to now haven´t tested it, yet. i´m pretty sure, i´ll like it & perhaps that keeps from trying it - i´ll be sad that it´s almost impossible to get a hold of. - unless you´re rich, that is ;)
    onda is a wonderful scent, it has some rough edges which makes it even more interesting & i especially enjoy its smokiness. it smells almost exactly like i thought it would - which is a very good thing!

  8. Dear C,

    by all means try it out! The days when I hoarded things without trying them (for various fears) are over and I highly recommend the same to everyone: life is short and worth living to the full, even if through tidbits such as trying an expensive, impossible to find perfume.

    Onda is a masterful creation: I was very much impressed by it!

  9. Wonderful review of this perfume legend. I've been meaning for some time now to order samples of Vero's work, and now I know I must do it. Today, probably.
    (Any idea why Guerlain won't issue it again? I'm sure they'll sell just about any amount they make. It can't be that expensive to produce, right?)

  10. Thanks G for your lovely compliment. You really should sample Onda!

    I dn't know why they haven't done it already (apart from the fact that is a rather difficult perfume). But something tells me they will do it once the demand is up ;-)

  11. E., the "demand" is generated in the blogosphere. Our musings, our comparatively constructive deconstructions of perfumes, their contexts and their allure--all these contribute to the choices that houses make in what they relaunch.

  12. C., from your lips to God's (or Bernard Arnault's) ears!

  13. Hopefully they will relaunch, C! Hopefully....

    *crossing fingers*

  14. I read about Djedi in Elle or some other intelligent magazine when it was reissued around 2000 and for whatever reason, I decided that I want it.
    Obviously, the small town perfumery which had a few Guerlain items never heard about it but it stayed somewhere at the back of my mind and I bumped into it when I started messing around the perfume blogs. Only then I found that the reissue cost arm and leg anyway. So, I'm raising my hand for another reissue, maybe in less elaborate packaging for the poorer crowd.

  15. I am raising my hand alongside yours, Liisa! Although it's very much a product of its era and perhaps it is best if it stays so, artistically.
    Might I urge you to sample Onda? It has a cult following!

  16. Late to the party but I got samples from Vero Kern and when Kiki is Eau de Washing Powder for me until many hours and a shower later and Rubj is fine, Onda rocks indeed. I love the saltiness of it and the ashes and incense - not the perfect scent for me but very close. Too bad that the first half an hour, it is burning plastic for me...

  17. Great review and a fascinating read.

    I've always been intrigued by the backstory of this and I have finally purchased a sample. It's very exciting. Down the track, I will attempt to make my own version of this classic. It will be a more modern retelling and a respectful homage.
    It will be an exciting journey.


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