Monday, December 15, 2008

Nahema by Guerlain: fragrance review

Nahéma...The sonorous name comes from the 1001 Nights, in a story by Scheherazade recounted on the one and only day of her storytelling. Scheherazade is also the name of a symphonic suite by Rimsky Korsakov, worth exploring; nevertheless the effect of Nahéma more closely resembles the climactic experience of Ravel's Bolero. The Arabian story involved the fate of two abducted princesses: one warm and compassionate, the other called Nahéma, meaning “daughter of fire” of a passionate disposition. No one on the various boards actively bothers to find out the name of the other one, but here at Perfume Shrine we like to question the unquestioned and support the underdog. Mahané was the name of the other princess, then. So now you know, in case you wondered!

Created in 1979 with Catherine Deneuve in mind by Jean Paul Guerlain who had been fascinated by her in the film "Benjamin", Nahéma follows the fiery character of the fictional heroine who was ruled by passion and the imagery of Deneuve in a gold cage surrounded by roses (as depicted in the film) aiming to express the duality of woman. Although La Deneuve has been tied with Chanel #5 to the collective unconscious, largely due to the hyper successful campaign (that aimed to the American market though and not France), she proclaims to be deeply into all things Guerlain naming her signature scent as L’Heure Bleue. However she is a regular perfume collector too and has an extensive collection indeed that can be viewed on my Celebrities and the Perfumes they Wear list. This comes as no surprise and definitely justifies my opinion that Nahéma doesn’t really suit Deneuve’s icy exterior, which forms however a significant part of her appeal. On the other hand there are other devotees of Nahéma who love it with a passion: “I feel completely unlike myself if I don’t wear Nahéma. It’s a strange scent, but I love it, and I confess it’s a luxury I can barely live without.” Thus waxes poetically about it Shirley Manson of Garbage rock-group-fame.

However Nahéma didn’t do very well, sales-wise ,and thus is not so easy to find at Guerlain counters, but of course it is not extremely rare either. Its being a commercial flop might be attributed to the fact that it was ahead of its time, introducing the fruity floral concept 20 years before its heyday. It came out at a time when light streamlined chypres like Charlie had already established the image of the independent woman and the new thing were the spicy, mysterious orientals that followed the success of Opium. Nahéma was neither.

On the contrary, Nahéma is a very feisty affair of honeyed rose backed up with intense fruity and balsamic notes such as passion fruit and benzoin, respectively. The initial start has the intense blast of aldehydes redolent of a classic French perfume, so giving it a little time before judging is strongly advised. The heart also encompasses ylang-ylang, jasmine and lily of the valley, as well as an accent of sweet hyacinth (the most characteristic blossom of Chamade): notes which take the supporting role of subtly underscoring the rose. To my nose however the real mate for the rose is peach and plummy nuances: rich and juicy and sunnier than either the note of peach skin in Mitsouko (undecalactone gamma) or Parure, here rendered by the use of lush damascones, at the time just recently discovered (damascones are natural isolates from the rose, giving rose its very rosiness). The rose-fruits combination as well as the richness of damascenones have been reprised by Sophia Grojsman, notably in Trésor in the early 90’s rendering it an instant best seller. In that case nevertheless it’s much more powdery, sweeter, overwhelming and heavy-handed in my opinion. The moderately powdery, liquor-like rose bouquet in Nahema allegedly comes from no less than five elements: Rose de Mai (Grasse or Centifolia rose)absolute and essential oil, Bulgarian rose (Rosa Damascena) absolute and essential oil and the above mentioned damascenones. However other sources, such as Luca Turin, proclaim "the rose at Nahéma's core [...] a geometric locus bounded by a dozen facets, each due to a different ingredient" making it "too rich even for analytical chemistry to make sense of" (By which I deduce he hasn't had the privilege of running this through a gas chromatograph and mass spectometer).
A little while into the drydown of Nahéma clearly detectable sandalwood, Peru balsam and that prerequisite of orientalia, so beloved by Guerlain, vanilla, make their appearance. Guerlain vanilla is unlike anything else out there – it positively smolders. Deep, rich, completely alien to the concept of teenagers seeking a low-calorie substitute to their Haagen Dazs ice cream, it manages to ignite interest even in people who do not normally appreciate vanillic scents. Suffice to say this is not for those who like lighter or “clean” scents, although I do not detect particularly naughty or indolic notes.
The Nahema parfum in the squat bottle with the quadrilobe stopper (same as Jicky, but with a red label) is rosier and smoother, as usual with Guerlain fragrances, as well as to a lesser degree is the 80s concentration of Parfum de toilette and the more recent Eau de Parfum. Yet the Eau de toilette is not unpleasant either, although the initial opening might seem completely aggressive and thin in comparison. Compared with the retro-chic and light-heartedness of Guerlain's Rose Barbare , Nahema is fiery, voluminous and single-minded to the point of stubborness but generous and expansive.

The advertising makes use of the fiery heroine, always depicting women clad in orientalised robes of red and flames shaped like a wreath surrounding the bottle.In my mind Nahéma can be polarizing, making people react viscerally to it. To my detriment, I am not truly enamored with it, mainly because I am no great lover of roses or peach or passionfruit, so another bottle of it is not in my future, however I can’t fail to appreciate the audacity and pedigree of the composition and keeping a small quantity at my side is a lesson in letting the genie out of the bottle.

Notes for Guerlain Nahema:
Top: Peach, bergamot, hesperides, aldehydes, green notes
Heart: rose, jasmine, lilac, hyacinth, lily of the valley, ylang-ylang, passionfruit
Bottom: Perum balsam, vanilla, vetiver, sandalwood

A small sample of Nahéma parfum will be given to one lucky reader. State your interest!

Pic of
The name of the Rose mock-manuscript via Wikimedia Commons. Bottle pic through Fragrantica. Clip of the 2nd part of Ravel's Bolero to a choreography of Maurice Bejart, originally uploaded by audiodeluxe on Youtube.


  1. Anonymous16:24

    Please enter me for the sample drawing!

  2. Raising my hand here!

  3. Anonymous17:14

    please enter me! Nahema sounds lovly, you had me at honeyed-rose.
    and thank you, not only for your sample givaways, but for the daily effort of updating. reading all my perfume blogs and the promise of coffee are the highlight of my mornings :)

  4. Anonymous17:39

    Dear Helg,

    I too was thinking about the Nahema yesterday! Actually, I did a little research on what exactly happened to the Nahema flop so I will try my best to let you know what happened (at least to the North American market, which mercilessly tanked this classic):

    1. The original parfum flacon was designed to showcase the first drop of essence that comes out of a distiller. The idea was way too avant-garde, especially since Guerlain's PR team didn't really communicate the meaning behind the design. (Think of the PR opportunities to showcase that--surely other brands have cashed in on the idea since then!)

    2. The SAs didn't really bother promoting the scent because Guerlain flat out refused to hand out extra sales bonuses. The American SAs were getting paid extra for pushing some products so they pitched something else instead. (Of course, some department stores still do hand out extra bonuses, as Mr. Burr will tell you.) I don't know the Guerlain people well enough to ask them about these kind of things so I don't know what happens now.

    3. Of course, the name was hard to pronounce to a non-French speaker(with the silent h and the accented e). I still hear several Guerlain SAs getting it wrong actually. (There's a very slight stress on the last syllable if I get my intonation right.) The bottom line is that I don't think it's Na-hee-ma with no intonation stress on, well, anything.

    4. Just a personal opinion...there were just way too many conflicting inspirations--Deneuve, Bolero, Sheherazade, the precious first drop of essence. That, combined with the people's aversion to rose-scented fragrances back then this Guerlain classic didn't have a chance. (YSL Paris flopped in the US initially due to the same reason: the American distributor advertised Paris with a rose bouquet pop-up in the US Vogue. Didn't work.)

    So who knows. My theory is that had Guerlain re-introduced Nahéma in the late 80s / early 90s things would be different...but then Guerlain was introducing Samsara of course. (I'm not even going to get into the squabbles amongst the Guerlain family members. Sigh.)


  5. Please enter me in the drawing as well. I sought out Parure thanks to your article and it is lovely; Nahema sounds equally intriguing!

  6. Anonymous18:04

    Please enter me for the draw. I am a big fan of Guerlain fragrances.

  7. I'm with you on Nahema. We've met, but don't care for each other.

  8. Anonymous20:44

    Raising my hans, here also! I belong to the ones sceptical of many of the vanilla heavy scents, but then the Guerlain´s don´t count among them! I also can like roses.. :)

  9. Nice review, E. I feel pleased for Mahané finally getting her due. ;-)

    It's been a very long time since I sniffed Nahema. I remember respecting it, but not liking it, even though I am a rose fan generally. I suspect it was the passionfruit that was the deal breaker. Is it actually available at retailers in the US? I never see it anywhere.

    I am amazed to learn from AlbertCAN that Paris was initially a flop. I had no idea. It has always seemed like the quintessential crowd pleaser to me.

  10. Please enter me in the drawing. I have been wanting to try Nahema, it sounds so perfect for me!

  11. I'd love to give it a try!

  12. I have a Guerlain or three and I love them all. I'd love to try this one! Please? :)

  13. Hmmm...intrigue instigated. Please count me in.

    (As always, thanks for a lovely, entertaining, well crafted review.)

  14. I remember when Nahema first came out . We did not get Catherine Deneuve here but I do remember a lovely photo of a hippy girl in the flowing robes that hippy girls wear , sitting ontop of big cushions. I did not like it back then - too young. I do love it now and have it in the EDP . Honestly I cannot see Deneuve as a Nahema girl - like you say, she is too icey . Sophia Loren would have been my choice to promote it. I think its a woody rose to my nose and its lovely at night or in the cold weather. What a shame Guerlain did not do a double with Mahane - a good and evil girl scent but of course Guerlain are stupid! LOL Maybe that shocker Mahora was it! Phew! Cannot wait for you to do Mahora! Oh the scent and that ugley bottle and sounding name and weirdo poster girl with the nails! LOL

  15. Anonymous05:29

    Just a clarification on YSL Paris:

    I only know that the initial US marketing push for YSL Paris didn't work because the American distributor focused too much on the rosy aspect of the juice. (Plus I don't foresee pop-ups working too well for fragrance advertising.) I don't know what happened to the other markets--I think the European markets didn't face the same problem because YSL focused on the bond between the couturier and the city.


  16. Anonymous05:40

    Dear lady jicky,

    According to a reliable source from Guerlain Deneuve was never featured in the Nahéma ads--she was however supposedly featured in Guerlain Chamade ads back in 1968, although I haven't seen any of those. This might have been one of the reasons why Deneuve only wanted to do US-only Chanel No. 5 campaigns. (I think her Chanel No. 5 ads ran from '69 to '77...of course, '77 was the year YSL Opium came out so she might not want to endorse YSL's rival.)

    So as you can see this adds a whole layer of confusion to the gamut of inspirations.


  17. Hello, E -- please enter me in the drawing. I tested Nahéma briefly a while back, and should re-test it. i remember being favourably impressed. I do have to admit to also liking Luca's description of it as a rose-explosion in reverse.

    The Bolero video is quite stunning, too.

  18. Anonymous10:43

    Oh God, how can I not try it? Please include me in the drawing.

  19. Anonymous13:30

    Another wonderful Guerlain review! Surprisingly I love Nahema. I say "surprisingly" because while the scent of roses while still growing is one of my favorite scents, I've never liked it in a perfume. On me, rose scents become soapy, much like the essential oil.

    I received a sample of Nahema extrait last summer, a 90 degree day, and without thinking, put some on. Too late I thought that I'd probably asphyxiated myself. To my surprise, on my skin (which de-fires, de-spices and de-skanks most scents), it became a beautiful, cool, predominantly rose with peach undertones scent. I absolutely love it, and have decided that a bottle will be my birthday present to myself next summer!

    Along with the house of Guerlain, your blog is the best!

  20. Well, put my name in the draw for a sample (somehow I've never tried Nahéma), because the one thing you can always say about any Guerlain (at least pre-2000 Guerlain) is that it isn't boring, even if it doesn't suit you.

  21. Oh my - its so confusing AlbertCAN - I do remember she had her own self named scent come out many years ago and I liked it!
    I tell you - I can give the "kiss of death" to any product! LOL
    No Parure either. Crying now.

  22. I love Nahema in parfum, it's something about the rose- which sounds like it's the quality of it. I love that Shirley Manson wears it too, I can really imagine that being right. Again I wish Guerlain would give some of their older ones more attention. I agree if this had come out at a different time I think it would have been more popular, but I quite like it being a hidden gem, in a way.

  23. Ben,

    you're in the draw!

  24. Rachael, you're very welcome and thank you! It pleases me to have such loyal readers: means I'm doing something right, I guess.

  25. A,

    how very interesting! There are things you say I didn't know (so Paris was initially not the mega-success it was here? I was smelling it everywhere for quite a while!)

  26. Sue, I hope not to disappoint, since I scored with Parure the previous time. You're in!

  27. Maureen,

    you're included!

  28. Dain,

    yeah, wonder why! It's certainly very well-made. I blame us! (LOL)

  29. S,

    I think you have good chances to like this one. Good luck!

  30. M,

    thanks for saying so; she needed to be mentioned at last, yes?

    I believe certain Guerlain counters have it, but don't especially advertise the fact. I have heard contradicting stories and erratic finds. It's certainly not that rare as it would seem at first. I think it's just too much for the two of us: it takes a certain type of rose lover to genuinely love this one.

  31. Amanda,

    best of luck, then! :-)

  32. Deanna,

    hope you win, then!

  33. Roland,

    sure, you're included! :-)

  34. S,

    thank you honey for your kind words. I managed to awaken curiosity? I hope you win and get a chance to try it out!

  35. M,

    my dearest, you have the most shockingly amazing ideas! Of course a duo of good girl-evil girl would have been perfect! They should have hired you instead of those people who write their ad copy now.

    I don't know if I can manage to drag myself through Mahora/Mayotte again, but I will try it, for your sake (and laughs!! LOL) *Scratchchchchchc!!!* (those nails......)

  36. A,

    ah, there we are! Yes, the tie with the city I do recall ("I love you my Paris" etc)

  37. A (again),

    I'd love to see Deneuve Chamade ads!! (and yes, A and M, corroborating that she was never featured in Nahema ads, it was just what JPG said about the inspiration)

  38. J,

    yes, the video is quite something: it was a very impressive performance by all accounts of those present.
    You're in!

  39. Maitrey,

    you're included, good luck!

  40. D,

    you honour me too much; how can I live up to your praise? :-))

    Roses turn sour or bath-freshener on/to me: it's a rare one that escapes this "fate".

  41. R,

    I am putting your name in the hat!Yes, Guerlain are not usually boring (I can think of a couple, lately, but no more). I respect most of them, even the ones I am not crazy about.

  42. M,

    the Deneuve scent was awesome!!! I had included it in my Chypre series, although it's so scarce because after trying it, I just couldn't not to!
    I think there is some on Ebay still, from time to time. Grab it!

  43. K,

    isn't it fascinating that Shirley likes this one so much?
    I believe the scarcity factor of Nahema is endearing to its fans: like a personal treasure. ;-)

  44. Anonymous08:32

    Is it terribly late to enter me in the drawing, I never tested this and would love to be able to, thank you so much for giving me the chance if possible.

  45. ** Posted in the incorrect location. ** Can't read? HA. Anyway. Please include me in your drawing. Thanks for the information.
    Nahema, I have had a tiny miniature of this fragrance since 1979 and have loved it ever since. When I first was given a chance to fall in love with this I was just out of High School and couldn't afford it. Since then I never could find it when I had the chance to look for it. I still have the miniature bottle and it still has some fragrance in it that I enjoy smelling and wishing I had more. This is great stuff but oh so hard to find.

  46. I fell in love Nahema when about the same time i fell in love with the man I was going to marry. I just love the floral notes that are rich with romance and sophiscication. When I wear Nahema I feel sexy and beautiful....and like a 17 year old falling in love for the first time. Thanks for the wonderful memories Nahema. Please please please enter me in the draw for this delightful perfume!

  47. Felpe03:27

    I´m very interesting, please, put my name in the hat too?
    Thank you.

  48. Nahema was my favourite fragrance over 26years ago! It describes my personality perfectly and I would love to wear it again. I live in South Africa and have not been able to find it here for years.

  49. Farasha,

    I think that some international online boutique stocking it might be able to ship to you in South Africa? I can recommend which is trustworthy and prompt and stocks it. (non affiliated)


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