Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Liu by Guerlain: fragrance review (vintage vs re-issue)

The Princess Turandot presents her first riddle: "What is born each night and dies each dawn?" Prince Calàf correctly replies "Hope." Unnerved, she presents her second riddle: "What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?" He thinks a bit: "Blood". Turandot is shaken and angry so she presents her third riddle: "What is like ice, but burns like fire?" He suddenly cries out victoriously and announces "Turandot!"
Guerlain has often been inspired by dramatic stories and exotic places in the onomastics of their illustrious line and Liù takes its pride of place among them. Named after the heroine Liù in Puccini's opera Turandot, it's inspired by the juxtaposition of two different characters who make a jarring comparison: Princess Turandot is cold and cruel, elegant but prideful, not believing in love yet finally conquered by it; her maid Liù on the other hand is kind, pitiful and gentle but also passionate, and although she has true love in her heart for her lord, Prince Calàf, she willingly sacrifices herself for the sake of it. Connected by a man, they provide a stunning portrait of antithetical pieces of the same puzzle ~a women's heart and the passions that rock it. That duality of woman must have been a never-ending source of inspiration for Guerlain, as it is reprised in another fragrance: the 1979 fiery Nahéma (sisters with her opposite Mahané) from the 1001 Nights tale.

Originally created in 1929 by Jacques Guerlain, Liù is a floral aldehydic of tasteful elegance and delicately sensual seduction that puzzles with its impersonating skills. In many ways it acts as the mirror image of the world-famous No.5 by Chanel, but with an added sheen of warm comfort and minus some of the sexpot wiles of the latter. One story wants it to have been created for Rose Fitzerald Kennedy who loved the smell of Chanel's No.5, yet considered wearing it an anathema due to her husband having had an affair with Gabrielle Chanel (although it's his affair with Gloria Swanson during his Hollywood reign between 1926-1929 that is documented). Therefore Guerlain was contacted and they made a fragrance inspired by her prefered scent especially for her. The fact is that Rose kept her favourite fragrance a secret all her life; it was only after her death that it was revealed it was her signature scent. Another story , perhaps more plausible and comparable to that of Chant d’Arômes, has Jacques Guerlain furious at his wife liking and wearing the fragrance of the rival house, Chanel No.5, prompting him in hopes of diverting her from wearing the products of his competitors to create his own interpretation of aldehydes over white flowers on a musky base ~Liù, poured inside an Art-Deco bottle, a masterpiece of geometric artistry, tucked in a box that echoed the architectural design of the bottle.

Whichever of those versions is correct, the fact remains that the two perfumes smell remarkably close, especially in their initial stages. The aldehydes that provide that tingling and soapy/waxy impression are immediately apparent along with a very fresh bergamot and citrusy overture. The fragrance then segues into plush decedent jasmine of an intense femininity. Once it settles on skin however, Liù becomes its own. Musk or sandalwood are not unmistakably obvious as they are in No.5. Rose is very much woven into the fabric of the scent to peak out just enough; it only hints at the velours, sensuously powdery quality which is intensified through the iris and vanillic notes. This version of powdery is detached from the talcum-animalic-vanilla of vintage Shalimar and is more reminiscent of a gentle lady who has freshly powdered her nose to enjoy an afternoon tea with other ladies in the Club, surrounded by bushes in fragrant bloom. There is also the hint of some dried fruit, a whisper in the wind, the culinary touch that is so ingrained in the Guerlain tradition. The Guerlinade base reveals subtly earthy iris, comforting tonka bean and resinous vanilla, finishing it off in a soft-focus lens style that is timelessly elegant while at the same time very much in tempo with the era when aldehydic florals reigned: the 1950s and 1960s. The whole is even close to another Jacques Guerlain creation of the 1930s, Véga, but it's less woody or unconventionaly feminine than the latter.

In the vintage extrait de parfum concentration I have deliciously melding on my skin the darkish vanilla softens the aldehydes, rendering it quite sultry and not too sweet or soapy. Once upon a time, even a luxurious Hair Oil existed which must have been the dream of many a long-tressed lady such as myself and I would love to have been able to try it. In the Eau de Toilette on the other hand the aldehydes are more pronounced, making it more diffusive. In the current Eau de Parfum the similarity with the newer batches of Chanel No.5 are very evident, accounting for a soapy nuance which projects and lasts very well.

Notes for Liù:
Top: aldehydes, bergamot, neroli
Heart: jasmine, May rose, iris
Base: woody notes, vanilla, amber

Liù was discontinued after Rose Kennedy's death and briefly reissued in 2005 by Jean Paul Guerlain in the Eau de Toilette concentration only, and then discontinued again with no explanation. Soon afterwards however it entered Les Parisiennes line, the exclusive line-up at Boutique Guerlain, in Eau de Parfum concentration and double the price, where it remains to this day (hopefully for good!). The re-issue of Liù in Eau de Parfum can be found in the big bee bottles at the Guerlain boutiques and at Bergdorf Goodman. The vintage parfum makes sporadic appearences on Ebay.

Pictures courtesy of Okadi, La Myrrhe, Sarah's Perfumes and Ebay.


  1. Liu was available in edt in the 80s -- I still have about a third of my flacon. If I weren't already doused in 31 rue Cambon, I would pull it out and wear it: I don't find it quite as amazing as N°5 but it does have a warmer facet to it that is very beautiful and, well, very Guerlain. I don't know which of the stories I prefer! Se non è vero, è bene trovato...

  2. D,

    thanks for the pointer: Rose Kennedy died in 1995 and I am certain it wasn't available after that but I am not sure on exact date of discontinuation of the products (for instance I'd love t have some hair oil, seems like such a decadent way of scenting oneself). I have edited and added one word so it doesn't read like it didn't exist before!
    It's definitely very Guerlain, although in that particular field I also prefer the muskier, sexier, more ylang-ylang rich No.5, especially older versions in extrait de parfum or eau de cologne.

    Una donna che ha trovato il profumo della seduzione, il profumo antagonista...è un'idea brillante!

  3. Anonymous18:44

    Thanks for posting this - I didn't realize Liu was still available. I fell in love with it & bought a bottle from Nordstrom in 1996 or 97, only to discover it was no longer available when I wanted to repurchase a couple of years later. Next trip to NY definitely means a stop at BG.

  4. Anonymous19:42

    You mention the Hair Oil - is that the last picture on the right?

    I've seen a few of these on Ebay (Mitsouko and Shalimar, I think) and always wondered if they were an oil based product for body or for hair.

    Liu sounds SO MUCH like something I would not like, but then a No. 5 with a 'Guerlain' base sounds a bit like the new Chanel Eau Premiere (which IMO mirrors Shalimar Eau Legere).

  5. Anonymous21:12

    Mike, yes, that one is the hair oil. I can make out the word "cheveux" on the bottle.

    I wish I had paid closer attention to Liu when I was at Guerlain in Montreal. I think I dismissed it rather perfunctorily when the SA told me it was similar to No.5. No.5 is one of those perfumes I've never really thought was that special; at risk of sounding ignorant, and for all my fragrance knowledge, it still smells like my grandmother! Once I can appreciate it on its own merits, and overcome my prejudice, I think I will have a true expert nose!

    Sounds like Liu hasn't lost much in the reissuing, has it? Lucky for us! Let's hope they continue to bring back old treasures like this...

  6. Anonymous21:48

    Helg the oddest thing , this is my SOTD! It is a stunner indeed, much like #5 and yet not , that chill of melting snow is absent , this baby is much warmer and dare I say it? a bit more inviting.

  7. Anon,

    the current version is quite good, so a stop at BG is recommended. Hurry before they get any ideas... ;-)

  8. M,

    confirming that indeed it is the last bottle on the right that holds the hair oil: the original name is Stilboide Fluide pour les Cheveux (which indeed means hair). That product circulated in many Guerlain scents and has always seemed like such an indulgent way of enjoying them. I suppose one would have no problem using them on body as well. I would! :-)

    Interesting thought on the Chanel-Guerlain rapport transported in the current situation: you will have to wait for my Eau Premiere review to see what I think. ;-)

  9. A,

    clever thought about the cheveux bit, yes.
    I do believe that No.5 is "difficult" because it's such a giant of a myth: everyone feels like they need to get to know it, blah blah blah, when in fact it's quite easy to approach if you disconnnect it from all associations (which we all have, alas). Put some (preferably parfum or vintage batches) on a blotter, leave it on your desk, smell it a couple of days later...there it is, a musky skin scent, quite contemporary actually!
    Compare and contrast with many other fragrances which have been inspired by it, too: an educational lesson, I'd wager ;-)
    (for instance, take Sicily -see the aldehydes read as soap in both)

  10. Nub,

    isn't it eerie? I am that close to saying "great minds..."etc but I think it's the telepathic vibes we share from time to time.
    Your SOTD choice is excellent, mon amie, and your observation about the melting ice is great. (this is what I think when I think Rive Gauche to be honest!)
    I think I prefer the musk in No.5, but Liu is very elegant and very Guerlain!

  11. I remember reading somewhere that Liu was created by J Guerlain for his Mother! LOL

  12. M,

    hmmm....perhaps you're thinking of Jean Paul and Cachet Jaune?
    That one is certain at any rate ;-)

  13. Hello, E. I received some Liù in a swap over the summer, and am quite in love with it. Yes, of course, it is very similar to Chanel No. 5, but I have been finding that each has its unique charm.

    I was very excited to see it at Bergdorf Goodman last weekend during Sniffapalooza (although I could not afford to buy a FB -- honestly, not sure if I would be able to go through a whole bottle of an aldehydic floral).

  14. Hello, E. I received some Liù in a swap over the summer, and am quite in love with it. Yes, of course, it is very similar to Chanel No. 5, but I have been finding that each has its unique charm.

    I was very excited to see it at Bergdorf Goodman last weekend during Sniffapalooza (although I could not afford to buy a FB -- honestly, not sure if I would be able to go through a whole bottle of an aldehydic floral).

  15. I hadn't put two and two together about Liu and Turandot! Very interesting story that this may have been created for Rose Kennedy. I am not a big No 5 fan myself but it just shows its power that Guerlain thought they had to come up with something similar- even though they already had all those fabulous scents

  16. I am another person who doesn't really get on with No 5. I don't dislike it we have just never meshed. Thinking about it now perhaps a Guerlain interpretation of it could be wonderful.

    Very interesting about Rose Kennedy- I do really enjoy knowing what people wear/ wore, I guess for someone who enjoys scent it's a window into someone's character.

  17. J,

    the two are very similar, yet also wonderfully idosyncratic in a way. Highlighting different elements. I find Le Dix another one which draws a similar figure.

    Yeah, I kinda figured it would be tough to pull off a floral aldehydic most days for you ;-)

  18. Kim,

    thanks for saying so. I think No.5 did what others hadn't before: created a huge marketing-driven vehicle. Much of its buzz is its mythos.

  19. Rose,

    You're not alone, from what I read and hear. I think you might like Liu: the Guerlain element might call to you!

    BTW, are you familiar with this project of mine?

  20. Anonymous14:16

    Did someone say aldehydes? I have never heard of this fragrance. It sounds wonderful and I must try it.

  21. Helg, yes I most certainly am and I think it's fabulous! in fact that is how I found you- looking up stars and scents.

  22. [Whoops!]

    Forgot to send a note to express my pleasure at round #2...still with my feet up and enjoying every minute...

    ...bring on more vintage Guerlain, Helg-style!


  23. The art deco Liu bottle is divine... love it!

    I also love how Guerlain romanticizes their perfumes with stories... it makes the scents seem that much more special and exotic...

  24. Your eloquence and erudition blow me away, E! Loved the Turandot backstory - if I ever set foot in 68, Champs-Elysees, I'll be sure to track down this aldehydic gem.

  25. Kathleen you should!
    And it's not that hard to find (in the current formulation of course), I am sure people would have some for swap/sale.

  26. Oh Rose, that's all right then and wow, you make me blush :-)

  27. S,

    you're welcome (take care to warm those tootsies!) and more is to come!!

  28. DC,

    that bottle is indeed something else, isn't it? Very individual.
    Guerlain seems to have a knack on making up stories: they obviously work!

  29. Dusan,

    you're flattering me, I am so very glad you liked the Turandot opera backstory (the Callas version is my favourite, btw).
    It's worth testing to be sure: the current EDP lasts amazingly well too.

  30. I wish I had paid closer attention to Liu when I was at Guerlain in Montreal. I think I dismissed it rather perfunctorily when the SA told me it was similar to No.5

  31. Anonymous18:57

    I purchased Liu in it's box 20 years ago and was amazed to see it being sold for up to 1500 dollars at this time.


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