Friday, December 5, 2008

Guerlain Atuana: fragrance review and history of a vintage gem

If in the darkest moments of our urban stress we want to eschew European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional" to sail to the tropics instead in our own path to Utopia, Atuana by Guerlain could be our gateway without abandoning the indulgencies of the way of life we have become accustomed to. Atuona (and not Atuana) is the name of a small island in the Marquesas where French Post-Impressionist painter Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin(1848-1903) moved from his former residence in Tahiti and where he died in his Maison du Jouir on May 9, 1903, having spent a total of ten years in self-exile in French Polynesia.
In 1952 Jacques Guerlain dedicated Atuana the fragrance to the French painter who went to the South Seas to devote his time and life to painting. After all, he was not the only one to be inspired by the iconoclast broker agent-turned-painter: Noa Noa (after Gauguin's text describing a luminous season in Tahiti in 1891) was another fragrance redolent of the warm and fiery ambience of the tropics, circulating under Helena Rubinstein's name at the zenith of her career.

Inspired by the lush colourful Primitivist paintings by Gaugin with their red splashes among the green folliage and the ambery-toned flesh of the native women, Guerlain's Atuana, encased in a plush red box focused on the qualities of that hue: exuberance, passion, lively nature, raw power and thus indeed a sort of Primitivism. A leathery floriental perched on spicy carnation emerged, rolled into smooth nappa.
Although one can detect the leathery accents under the refreshing piquancy of little citric touches , in typical Guerlain fashion the fragrance evolves into a rich melody of florals lullabied into a sweet siesta, full of warm resins, where there is no place for bitterness or aloofness and every little thing smiles satisfied, at one with the world.
Atuana's 3 years senior Fleur de Feu, another floriental with spicy accents reminiscent of carnations, took a similar route, but there the base is more powdery, with no leather pungency. Both extoll the properties of the spicy palette that Poivre by Caron first opened up exhibiting a mature vibe of les parfums fourrure (perfumes to be worn with furs); what a contrast with Guerlain's Eau de cologne du jeune âge coming up in 1953, just one year later! Ode which followed in 1955 was a regression into mellower compositions, full of feminine, non agressive tonalities: rose and jasmine. But that time hadn't arrived yet when Atuana came out, a time when rich chypres reigned supreme. The dare of leather was permissible and therefore a luscious harmony materialized for the enjoyment of those who couldn't abandon their conventional life for the Great Escape.

Notes for Guerlain Atuana: bergamot, neroli, rose, jasmine, iris, amber.

The bottle of Atuana is the same as Fleur de Feu, made by Baccarat: a simple art-deco flacon of ribbed surface on a pedestral, inspired by the skyscrapers that defined the American urban landscape in the early 50s.
Atuana circulated as extrait de parfum and as Eau de Cologne, a concentration that despite current sensibilities was quite lasting. Out of production for several years, it's very rare to find, but it makes scarce appearences on online auctions, where it goes for as much as 950$. A tiny sample can be acquired (for a hefty price naturally) at The Perfumed Court.

Guerlain Atuana ad courtesy of parfumsdepub, Painting La Orana Maria by Paul Gauguin, courtesy of Wikipedia


  1. Oh dear, E. I may have to order that tiny sample, just to have a taste. This sounds quite lovely.

  2. Oh J, don't let me enable! It does go for a hefty sum, alas...
    (imagine an Eternity diluted five-fold, with a little Guerlinade and the smooth Doblis leather note)

    It has struck me as quite interesting that Fleur de Feu, Atuana and Pour Troubler, although coming from a very different era, could very well stand in today's market (OK, maybe not the mall's usual market, but other than that, why not?). They're not especially "dated", the way Djeji for instance is...(despite its unquestionable intrigue!).
    Guerlain, are you listening? ;-)

  3. Anonymous16:59

    I had honestly never even heard of Atuana - thanks for the review H.

    How woudl you compare this to Terracota Voile d'Ete by Guerlain?

  4. Another intriguing history and review- thank you! Love the Gaugin print- makes me want to escape to an exotic island...

  5. Mike,

    you're very welcome. Well, those are really, really unknown, rare Guerlains from their archives. I happen to collect Guerlain which is why I have tried to score as many as possible :-)

    Terracotta is more of a spicy lily (I know often people say carnation, but lily does have a spicy facet as well), in my opinion: very fetching too and simpler/a little sweeter than Atuana.

  6. Daily,

    thank you so much for saying so.
    Yeah, aren't Gauguins completely escapist? Makes you forget there is a time schedule and deadlines, no?

  7. Incidentally, Atuona was also the island that Grench singer-songwriter Jacques Brel made his home from 1975 until 1977. Acc. to Wiki, "He died in 1978 at age 49 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin."

    1. Anonymous08:46

      Atuana is the village in which both - Jacquel Brel and Paul Gauguin lived and are burried on the cemetery. It is on the island of Hiva Oa, Archipelago The Marquesas, French Polynesia.

  8. How very, very interesting dear C! I didn't know that! (and to think I like Brel ~shame on me)

  9. Helg , what a wonderful sounding scent and that bottle and presentation box is elegant. See, this is what is missing in perfume house's today - that something special . Its all plastic packaging and throw a way ! Even if it smelt like Samsara (I cannot stand Samsara! or Gucci Rush ) I would be soooo tempted to buy it if they re-issued Atuana in that same bottle and box!

  10. Hi, E -- thanks for that olfactory snapshot (diluted Eternity + Guerlinade + Doblis leather).

    Meanwhile, I would crawl over broken glass to get the last remaining drops of Djedi...

  11. I love nuance, and I love flat out here's something you've not seen/done before. A well done review like this of a scent I have not heard of does both...thanks for the fun.

    I've got to agree with some of the others, I'm kind of groovin' on that bottle, even if ultimately the proportions don't quite make it a slam dunk for me.

    Am very grateful for the olfactory "pitch" (quick summary) on this one, as I don't see myself able to pick up a vial anytime soon.

  12. My dear M,

    how can I disagree? You're absolutely right: there's something so classy and luxe about that presentation without it being ostentatious. Of course back then fragrance was more of a luxurious product than a fashion accessory I guess, which probably accounts for the throw-away character of today's products.

  13. J,

    you're very welcome. Djeji is very individual, don't get me wrong, I have cherished what I have as well :-) Then again, I feel it's not the easiest thing to wear day-in day-out, even if one did have copious amounts of it (no such luck though!)
    BTW, Get well soon! ;-)

  14. S,

    you're very sweet to say so! Thank you!
    I think we're all a bit out of luck with this one: it goes for a fortune on auctions, so we'll have to satisfy ourselves with samples if we can find them.

  15. I want to escape to a tropical island... yes thank you for such a great review. I have been on a leather kick this weekend so am very intrigued about the leather notes. Sadly the price might be a prohibitive- I like the obsession watered down etc description!

  16. You're very welcome and thank you for the kind words, K!
    (nota bene though, Eternity with Guerlinade and Doblis drydown, not Obsession)

  17. Nah, no worries. Just clearing it up, didn't want you to be misguided. :-)


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