Friday, October 31, 2008

Ode by Guerlain: fragrance review and history

He locked the door behind him and came over and sat on her bed and put one hand firmly on the little hill that was her left breast. "Now listen, Tracy" he began, meaning to ask her at least one or two questions, find out something about this wonderful girl who did hysterical things like gambling without the money to meet her debts, driving like a potential suicide, hinting that she had had enough of life. But the girl reached up a swift hand that smelt of Guerlain's Ode and put it across his lips. "I said 'no conversation'. Take off those clothes. Make love to me. You are handsome and strong. I want to remember what it can be like. Do anything you like. And tell me what you like and what you would like from me. Be rough with me. Treat me like the lowest whore in creation. Forget everything else. No questions. Take me.”
If the above piece of prose is nudging you into an abyss of sensual surrender (and a little sideways feministic complaining as well), it's all because Ian Flemming knew a thing or two about perfumes and their secret language. Coming aboard chapter 4 in his novela "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", Ode is making an appearence as the feminine wile that seals the sentimental trap for James Bond: the one time in the old series when he falls in love.

Much like Liù is Guerlain's warmer interpretation of the aldehydic vision of Chanel's No.5, Ode is the Reconquista of the floral territory of classical luxury held by Patou's Joy. Yet it is also taking a page off the book of Arpège by Lanvin, another aldehydic floral, merging the two into an abstract creation that smells like a woman; like a woman very much of the era of its creation, I should clarify.
Jacques Guerlain created Ode, his last perfume, in 1955 with the assistance of his grandson Jean-Paul (aged 18 years at the time), heir to the family vault of formulae, passing the baton to catapult the house into the modern times: it was only a few years later that Jean Paul would write his own history with the fresh tonic Vétiver and the delicate caress of Chant d'Arômes.
Putting on Ode in extrait de parfum and contemplaing its time-frame however never fails to make me wonder how those milliners (Chanel began as one) and dressmakers played such a major part in the consciousness of even old and traditional perfumery houses such as Guerlain! And also how the platonic ~rather than the literal~ idea of flowers as transfigured into a feminine fragrance stood as the semiotics of how a woman was supposed to smell like in those times. After the roaring 1920s and 1930s with their strange and brave revolutions such as Guerlain's own Djedi , Mitsouko or Shalimar , the emancipated dukey Tabac Blond by Caron or Cuir de Russie by Chanel and the shocking evocations of Piguet's Bandit during the war, the mould would slowly fall back into traditional femininity as women eased their way out of the laboring workforce and into the homely caregivers or obedient secretaries. In 1955 a floral perfume should be more than the summation of its parts (Chanel's dictum that no woman wanted to smell like a rose bed had caught on firmly) yet also less of the animalics and sophisticated bombastics of the garçonnes' era.

Ode stands as a luminous floral in the Guerlain galaxy focusing on the luxurious rose and jasmine accord that is the pillar of classical French perfumery, yet it infuses it with gentle musk and a bit of the Guerlain vanilla which gives a warm, round feel. The rose is slightly more accentuated than jasmine to my sensibility, but perhaps this has to do with my desire to immerse myself in the indolic aroma of jasmine that makes me experience this as a void. Despite the passionate prose by Ian Flemming, Ode by Guerlain is subdued and elegant through an overture of aldehydes that nod to Arpège and a creamy, slightly powdery base of delicate iris and musks. Toned down compared to both its antecedants, it is gentle and retro feminine and it makes me feel that it wouldn't be hugely popular with today's sensibilities. In extrait de parfum it stays close to the skin as an invitation for further evaluation.

The original bottle of Ode, much like Liù, was inspired by the imposing American skyscrapers. It featured a curvilinear flacon design, partly frosted, and it was crowned with a rosebud stopper. The flacon was manufatured by both Bacarrat and Pochet et du Courval (the different manufacturer can be traced via the acid stamps on the bottom of the bottles) at different times. The design proved to be so successful that it hosted Vol de Nuit, Shalimar and Mitsouko as well in the early and mid 1950s.

Although Ode should have already been the next installment in the legacy collection Il était une fois after Véga in 2005 and Sous le Vent in 2006, no news of an upcoming launch have been issued more than a year after the supposed launch (summer of 2007) and the collection remains thus mangled. Along with Kadine (1911) and Cachet Jaune (1937) they were re-issued in 2005 for demonstration purposes for the celebration of the Paris flagship store renovation, where you can catch a whiff of those long-defunct perfumes being vaporised in the air inside the infamous "microwave oven" contraptions. Let us hope that Ode will join the legacy collection at some point and not remain a memory of things irrevocably past.

Notes for Ode: rose, jasmine, woods, musk

Pics of Ode ads through Toute en parfum and Parfum de pub.


  1. I really enjoyed this post; Guerlain and James Bond are two of my favourite things!
    Ian Fleming seems to have had an interest in fragrance and good taste too- he mentions Vent Vert and Muguet De Bonheur in another book doesn't he. Although perhaps he was more intereted in women and that's how he came to like these scents... Who knows anyway I enjoy his references and Tracey Bond is one of my favourite Bond girls.

    I am really not very happy with whoever allowed that Avon 007 Bond Girl perfume to be made! I'm being snobbish I know but it just isn't at all in keeping with James Bond.

  2. Anonymous15:54


    The purple prose at the beginning of this post made me think I had either lost my mind or was reading the wrong blog :) I forgot that James Bond started life as a fictional character. I cannot wair for the movie, and I hate the fact that they have chosen to market the movie through an Avon perfume.

    The pictures you choose are remarkable-a true visual treat. Thanks for another entertaining and enlightening post.

    Happy Halloween (if apllicable) and I hope you have a good weekend,



  3. Rose,

    glad you did! I also like James Bond and Ian Flemming :-)He also mentions No.5 in another one, so yes, definitely intent on the scent part (and let's not forget Bond's excellent knowledge of wines, shall we?)

    The Avon frag is somehow cashing in on a successful enterprise: like the merchandise off a Disney movie. Ah, well, if at least the movie is as good as the last one, I can be forgiving.

  4. Carole,

    LOL!! Yeah, well, purple is usually not my colour (I think!), except for clothes bien-sur! :P
    I am happy you derive so much pleasure out of my articles. They're intended as an informative but also a pleasurable piece of reading/viewing so hopefully they're somewhat successful.

    Halloween: not really festive (at least as much as over the ocean), but I can do a little trick or treat of my own à deux! ;-)

  5. Anonymous17:28

    I have so much enjoyed your homages to these vintage Guerlains, thank you E! One day I'll go to Paris and stick my head in the infamous microwaves at 68 Champs Elysees (and leave clutching a bottle of Attrape Coeur at the very least!) . Donanicola

  6. N,

    thank you :-)) I have some more up my sleeves and a little draw, so hopefully you will enjoy a little more treats.
    Attrape Coeur is quite special: a lot of people love it, so I am wondering whether they could get it in wider distribution. (wouldn't that be something)

  7. Hi, E -- I'm enjoying these classic Guerlain reviews so much! I have a little bit of Ode that someone gave me few months ago, so I'm planning on applying it and re-reading your review tonight. (I'm wearing a drop of Liu, inspired by your review from Wednesday).

  8. Qwendy sent me a bit of Ode -- sadly, it's worse for the wear. I always have a sniff of it in the microwaves... What a pity they've stopped that reedition program! The next in line was supposed to be Cachet Jaune, Jean-Paul Guerlain's mother's signature scent. I had a few drops of that thanks to Octavian, and doused myself the day I knew I was to meet Mr. Guerlain -- he, of course, identified right off the bat. Sadly, he couldn't reassure me about the reedition, but he did say Parure was being reformulated for reissue... Yup. Oakmoss.

  9. D, how lovely that you wore Cachet Jaune to meet Monsieur Guerlain, and that he recognized it! :-)

  10. I have never smelt Ode . It would be wonderful if they could re-release the old ones locked away and throw away that shocking Isolence ! LOL
    Mmmm - rose and jasmine.

  11. D,

    I recall when we had discussed this choice of yours and how it would produce an effect! ;-)
    It's a pity they have abandonded the Il était une fois collection, I agree. (Thank heavens I could grab some Sous Le Vent and get a decant of Véga...I just don't trust them not to drop them at any moment).
    I am wondering if they found it it was financially non viable to re-issue any more of those. Think so?

  12. J,

    I am honoured you got inspired to wear these forgotten Guerlains due to my reviews, thanks!
    D knew how it would certainly make an impression if she chose that one! Olfactory memory is strong even in non perfumers, so...

  13. M,

    Ode is not very dissimilar to Joy so if you're happy with that one, you're set I'd venture.
    LOL on the Insolence, do try the EDP when it gets there, you might change your mind :-)
    (and let's hope the next feminine campaign from them is mapped out differently)

  14. Anonymous19:55

    Hmm. I sense a serious lack in my perfume vocabulary, having never smelled either Joy or Arpege. I don't think I can even form a rough idea of what Ode smells like without those two references. More things to add to the "to-sample" list!

  15. Anonymous23:43

    Helg I too am enjoying this journey into Guerlain rarities. Being the sort who is loathe to chase "exclusif" or discontinued vintages but who does wonder about their former glory I am glad to have your insight and some of the comparisons(to the readily available).
    The only thing better than this series in your blog would be to have a time machine , with current knowledge of their fates and followings, travel back and make a grab while they are still considered mainstream , current and priced accordingly and widely available.

  16. Adam,

    those two are considered rather landmarks: Joy isn't a terribly abstract smell; you sense a very flowery type of scent which is expansive. Arpege is more complicated, more abstract, quite elegant and warms as it progresses.
    However they're not among my most favourite scents for some reason.

  17. Nubs,

    who would disagree with your time machine idea? Not me! Yes, the exclusive tag gets to me too sometimes, especially because I see it as an increasingly employed marketing tool.
    But I am glad I got the chance to sample them and procure a little to sustain my memory.
    As to hunting down the elusive, well...on very select cases only.

  18. Just having a quick lie down after reading the purple prose... my friends and I were bemoaning the fact that, while we love Guerlain, there wasn't anything to compete with it - until we tried Parfums de Nicolai "Sacrebleu" and "Vanille Tonka". Pure old school Guerlain (I believe Patricia de Nicolai is descended from a long line of Guerlain parfumiers?).

  19. LOL!

    I like Vanille Tonka a lot and Sacrebleu is in some ways a more modern L'heure Bleue, so I agree with you. Yes. Patricia belongs to the clan, true!
    I think you might want to try the Ormonde Jayne line however: Tolu is especially worthy of being on a par with the best Guerlains.


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