Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guy Robert: Loving Tribute to a Legendary Perfumer

The creator of masterpieces Madame Rochas, Amouage Gold & Gold for Men, Dioressence, Calèche and the original 1955 Doblis by Hermès  is no more: Perfumer Guy Robert died on Monday 28th May. His mantra: Un parfum doit avant tout sent bon (a perfume should first and foremost smell good).
 One small anecdote (and some perfume quotes I will address below) shows us how historical memory is fleeting when it comes to perfumes and perfumers' work. Despite Robert's amazing and historically important work, not everything is recorded and much of what passed behind closed doors has escaped the written word. Like Robert's unknown perfume called Chouda...

Guy Leyssène, who met Madame Grès at a dinner part two years prior to Cabochard's launch, suggested that she should issue a perfume because it was a profitable enterprise which all the other fashion designers of the times had embarked on. The perfume that was in works was a composition by legendary perfumer Guy Robert, called Chouda. Then young Robert ~under the guidance of mentor Andrée Castanié, then editor of L'Officiel de la Mode et de la Couture~ had been introduced to Mme Grès in 1956. But it took a trip to India, the land of exoticism, which prompted Alix Grès to further her plans on the house’s fragrance. The visit had begun innocuously, invited by the Ford Foundation to assess Indian brocades. It was there that Alix Grès discovered water hyacinth: a flower she became enraptured with. It has a sweet odour, rich like tuberose, yet with a fresher top and slightly warmer. The experimentation of Guy Robert yeilded rich fruits: Alix loved it, however Chouda was almost exclusively used by her (only five litres of Chouda were ever made) as it was too flowery for the tastes of the 50s which veered towards classic chypres. She launched another fragrance under the pressure of public input: the mod of what was to become Cabochard, made by Bernand Chant of IFF, was received much more favourably and thus the plan to push Chouda was ultimately abandoned, although the two were issued almost simultaneously in 1959. It comes as a surprise that there were focus groups even back then, but it is a fact that puts things into perspective: public reception is (and will always be) the moniker of how things work in a sector that, although hinges on art, is also largely a business.

According to Luca Turin, as quoted by Chandler Burr:  "I got to know Guy Robert particularly well. He's a professional-level jazz pianist, writes fiction, is a terrific cook. You should hear him talking about olive oil. He knows the only place to get it. He took me to one of the best restaurants I've ever been to, Le Bistro le Paradou, west of Aix. He's in his seventies now. He's been in the business a long time, has bad relations with Jean Amic, the old head of Givaudan. It's a small world, Grasse. Everyone's screwed everyone else at some point, literally and figuratively."

Guy Robert's wit and realism were unparalleled. He said of Piguet's Bandit scent: "A beautiful, but brutal perfume." And on Ernest Daltroff of Caron, lamenting current state of affairs in perfumery: "Today, when copycats make money, and perfumers are discouraged by lawyers and toxicologists from using some of nature's most fascinating products, Daltroff's creations are a reminder of what true perfumery is all about. He devoted his unique taste and sense of balance to a quest for fragrance perfection." [quotes via Michael Edwards, Perfume Legends]
And on composing: “We are like painters: some use simple colors, others prefer sophisticated ones. It's the result that matters” [quote Guy Robert, Les Sens du Parfum]

Guy Robert belongs to a clan of perfumers as is typical with classic French noses; nephew of Henri Robert, the second perfumer after Beaux at Chanel and famously the nose behind Coty's Muguet de Bois, Chanel pour Monsieur, Chanel No. 19 and Cristalle, while Guy's own son is François Robert who worked on Lanvin Vetyver and the newer Les Parfums de Rosine scents. Between 1949 and his death he worked for six different fragrance houses (Hermès, Rochas, Dior, Gucci, Amouage and The Pink Room), learning perfumery, creating perfume and then supervising groups of perfumers.

In 1961, at the prompting of Jean-René Guerrand (son-in-law of Émile Hermès and founder of the fragrances branch), the perfumer Guy Robert composed Calèche, a masterpiece which instantly transformed Hermès into one of the major players of modern perfumery. Nine years later, moreover, he would be the author of Équipage, the House's first fragrance for men and arguably one of the most graceful to this day. But in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s he also composed numerous perfumers' bases and accords which have been incorporated into ready-made fragrances credited to other perfumers. He also composed The Pink Room perfume Parfum No.1 pour toi: "The Pink Room Parfum Number 1 was then created with the wonderful Guy Robert as mentor, guide and friend. It was an eidetic experience of the textures, colours and ambience of The Pink room. Having produced Number 1, it became clear to Sarah where her senses were leading her, in a very niche and special way." [quote: Sarah Barton-King]

In his work he served internatioal clients but also involved in the training of new perfumers. Guy Robert considered 'Amouage Gold' a symphony and the crowning glory of his career.
Robert was not without author's credentials either: His Les Sens du Parfum (where he lists some of his favorite perfumes, among them the original Quelques Fleurs, Coty's Cordon Vert alongside Coty's Chypre, Ambre Antique, Emeraude, L'Origan and devotes space to the opus of Germaine Cellier) is considered a handbook into appreciating the art of perfumes, while he served as President of La Société Française des Parfumeurs.

He will be sorely missed. Our condolences to his family.

Guy Robert's known perfume oeuvre comprises, apart from scented products for the body, perfumers' bases and cosmetics:


  1. Thanks very much for this write-up, Elena.

    It makes my recent discovery of a vintage bottle of Dioressence all the more poignant.

  2. You're welcome dear D!
    I got carried away a bit, didn't I? I meant to upload more photos too, but have trouble with uploading at the moment, maybe later.

    Dioressence was among my beloved mother's top 3 perfumes in its vintage form and therefore especially poignant to me. Happy find for you, enjoy!
    It's a pity that they have "chypre-ized" it and made it more austere where it used to be more orientalised & gloriously salty-animalic. I can't find my mother in there anymore and my vintage is drops evaporating with every unscrewing of the bottle...

  3. Mimi Gardenia15:34

    Thank you , Elena -for this . Rest in peace, Guy Robert.

  4. You're most welcome, M.

    I think a more comprehensive portrait of this great perfumer was lacking and this sad occasion provides a chance to highlight some of the less known aspects about his life and work.

  5. I was about to wear either Sarrasins or Mitsouko today but I am wearing Amouage Gold today in honor of Guy Robert.

  6. Anonymous07:12

    What a lovely tribute, Elena.

    I love Dioressence and Madame Rochas. I was so sad when Madame Rochas (the actual woman, not the perfume) died a few months ago, and now this....

    Rest in peace, both of you. Your fragrant legacy lives on.

  7. Eld,

    it's a nice gesture on your part...

  8. Anon,

    thank you for the kind words. He needed to have a perfumer's profile for a long time. I took the opportunity to collect my notes/drafts. It would be a shame if he didn't get the attention he so richly deserves.
    Helene Rochas was an equal in pure class and all around old-guard elegance. The world looks a little poorer all of a sudden.

  9. Cheryl14:37

    Thank you, Elena.

  10. C,

    thank you Cheryl for stopping by!


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