Quite some time ago, Angie did a wonderful post on Now Smell This on becoming a perfumista – from Stage One (strong interest) to Stage Four – connoisseurship. I think NST’s Robin later added a quasi-joking stage five along the lines of ennui. Maybe defeat is the final stage for me. Many of us have talked in various forums about burnout, both from the sheer number of new releases and, often, their lack of anything interesting to add to the perfume dialogue.
I’ll be honest. I’m tired of sniffing new product. All too often it’s a fruitchouli or insipid musk or another gourmand or – in the case of that Chanel Chance Eau Tendre I just gave away unopened – it’s reduced to the sophistication level of a body-care product. I bet Coco’s spinning in her grave. Even Guerlain has worn out its welcome with the new releases. And when niche lines I’ve never heard of beforehand are releasing five or ten scents at once for their debut, I want to grab them by the lapels, gaze deep into their eyes, and say, How about just one? Or maybe two or three? Faced with all that, I’d rather go dig up my vintage Mitsouko.
There are releases I seek out – from Serge Lutens, say, or L’Artisan – because the chances are relatively good I won’t be bored. But more and more, I want to play with what I own. After years of steady, intense pursuit of perfume the way an obsessed person pursues an evasive lover, I have amassed quite a collection. Not a huge collection by the standards of some, but more perfume than I will wear in this lifetime. And in that collection are fragrances that are, for me, the most beautiful scents on earth. Increasingly, I’d rather spend the day wafting an old favorite than trying the new Tom Ford or Estee or what have you.
Some new fragrances I love, of course; I am craving a bottle of Amaranthine. And I’m always “discovering” scents from the past, scents I’d dismissed (Dune), or wore and then forgot about (Niki de Saint Phalle), or somehow missed the first time around (Theorema, Chaos and many others). One of these scents is Guerlain Chamade.
It’s not hard to understand how I might have overlooked it. First off, it’s not as widely available as some of the other classic Guerlains. Second, the current iteration of Chamade in the EDT is (like most Guerlains now, in my opinion) much sharper and less lovely than the current EDP version, not to mention the extrait. Finally, the top of Chamade is such a sullen, green oddity that if I ever sniffed it before, I probably thought, eh. I doubt it would have made it past the blotter onto my skin. However, having fallen in love with Chamade in Paris, I pursued a bottle of parfum de toilette (PDT, the slightly “vintage” version) online, although the newer EDP is great too, and the parfum is no doubt gorgeous.
Chamade was released in 1969, done by Jean-Paul Guerlain, and the notes (I’ve seen several slight variations to this list) are hyacinth, aldehydes, jasmine, ylang, rose, blackcurrant bud, galbanum, vanilla, amber, benzoin, and sandalwood. Chamade-lovers worldwide can now de-lurk and tell me I’m an idiot, but I don’t care for that green opening that seems so utterly disconnected from the rest of the scent. It’s like a Cristalle dupe without the same pitch-perfect, Marlboro-Light follow through. Luca Turin says in The Guide that he lived near the Paris flagship store at the time Chamade was released, and it took him months to realize the two perfumes (top and heart) he kept smelling were in fact one and the same. (He gives it five stars and calls it “a masterpiece.”)
The not-quite-Cristalle top fades, and then all is quiet; is the action over? No. Next comes the powdery floral of my dreams – i.e., less powder (not one of my favorite effects in a scent) and more floral. It’s not remotely baby-powderish, more sweetly diffuse, with a liquor-like richness that’s exceedingly difficult to describe. LT says it’s a “beautiful, strange, moist, powdery yellow narcissus accord that had the oily feel of pollen rubbed between finger and thumb.” And I’m quoting that because I’m hard-pressed to do better – there is something oily about it, and it is both beautiful and a little strange – it has a luminosity that makes me think of fireflies in the night, in one of their rare displays of synchronous flashing. It sends up its small golden flares in measured bursts as I wear it, the heavy vanillic white florals interspersed with the green-tartness of blackcurrant. It is leagues and fathoms away from the current Guerlains of the quasi-edible variety, but it’s less old-school and “difficult” than Jicky, Mitsouko or Parure (to name three Guerlains I happen to love, but I certainly understand why others don’t.) For a well-mannered floral with both powder and aldehydes, Chamade doesn’t make me feel like Aunt Nellie pinning on a brooch – it’s too wet and beautiful to smell old-fashioned. The drydown after two or three hours is well worth the wait – the powder fades, and it’s a quiet, ambery benzoin with a touch of honey.
Chamade fits very nicely in the smell-pretty box, a box that at least for me holds rather more interest than it used to. It doesn’t require careful consideration before I put it on, and I’ve garnered enough compliments on it to have concluded that others must like it too. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about that funny, mossy-green opening act.
image of fireflies: nature.com