dimanche 15 juin 2008

The Gender of Scent (II): Guerlain Jicky

Is it by chance that one of the first fragrances to have burst forth from the shackles of apothecaries’ recipes, the only one to have been continuously produced since its launch in 1889, has been hesitating for so long on its gender attribution that its sex is still undetermined? A bit like the Eiffel Tower, born on the same year, phallic yet feminine in that its base recalls the garter-belt (according to a stubborn urban myth, Gustave Eiffel was inspired by it when designing the tower).

To this day, no one really knows if Guerlain’s Jicky was first meant for men or for women: at the time, all scents were shared.
Its very name expresses its original hermaphroditism: it was the nickname of Jacques, Aimé Guerlain’s nephew and assistant, but also of a young girl whom Aimé had met when he was studying in England, and to whom he’d proposed marriage. The girl’s parents refused, and Aimé never married, or so the story goes.

In his Perfume Legends, Michael Edwards ponders at some length on the hesitation that surrounded Jicky’s birth. According to Philippe Guerlain, whom he quotes, “Jicky was such a revolutionary perfume that it seemed more masculine to Gabriel [Guerlain, who was in charge of business], Aimé’s brother. Jicky was a bit harsher that the sweet flowery notes of the time. (…) Also, certainly, the blue colour, the strict and straight lines of the original bottle suggest that it was conceived for a man.” However, men were reluctant it seems to accept the fragrance. “When they realized that Jicky was too modern for men, they decided to target it towards women”, adds Philippe Guerlain.

It is interesting to note that the matter of Jicky’s gender identity revolves around the modernity of this abstract fragrance: abstraction, i.e. the absence of a natural referent, was not entirely novel. But Jicky’s predecessor in that field, Houbigant’s Fougère Royale (1881), was still named after a plant – though it is a fantasy attribution, since ferns have no smell. Whereas the name of Jicky didn’t refer to any smell at all.

Who, then, of men or women, would be ready to embrace such modernity? “It is only in 1912 that women’s magazines start singing its praises”, explains Colette Fellous, the author of a book on Guerlain (editions Denoël, 1989), also quoted in Perfume Legends. Women, whose taste had meanwhile been educated by great abstract compositions saturated with synthetic compounds like Coty’s L’Origan (1905) or Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée (1906) and L’Heure Bleue (1912), were clearly more ready to move onto uncharted territories, just at they would in fashion – Poiret had already inspired them to drop the corset, and Chanel’s revolution was just around the corner. Men, on the other hand, were still encased in the stiff black suits inherited from the 19th century…

However, Jicky was, and is still shared by men and women: any perfume that can boast, among its wearers, both Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot, or Roger Moore and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, either suffers from serious gender dysmorphia or sings with the voice of an angel – who, as we all know, has no sex.

Like Balzac’s Seraphitus/Seraphita, with whom Luca Turin compares it in his first, French language guide, Jicky’s identity has never stopped swinging back and forth. Since its birth, the combination of lavender and coumarin, the aromatic note of rosemary, the green, lacteous roundness of geranium are accords that have been widely used in masculine fragrances. But the lushness of its jasmine and rose heart, the edibility of vanillin, cinnamon-tinged benzoin and smoky opoponax give it an amplitude that escapes any rigid classification.

Of course, Jicky hasn’t survived for over a century without undergoing a few tweaks, if only because the animal substances used at the time (civet, and almost certainly musk as a fixative, although it isn’t listed in the notes) are no longer available. I own a perfume that was probably produced pre-war (it doesn’t say “perfume” on the label, which is the case for post-WWII fragrances, because this is the period in which colognes and eaux de toilette were launched in the same range).
The smell has miraculously remained intact, so that I was able to compare it with a modern extrait – which fortunately remains as faithful as possible to the original. The older scent, as is almost always the case, has a smoothness and a depth that can only come when natural musk is used, as its makes all the notes pop out. The quality of the lavender seems to be a bit different. Real civet brings animalic notes that would certainly not be considered tolerable in the modern market.
A member of Makeup Alley once stated, very funnily, that to her, Jicky smelled “like a cat crapped in the lavender patch” – and she was talking about the current fragrance. Which only goes to show how Jicky, thought to be too modern at its launch, has remained improper, precisely in what links it to the near-extinct tradition of classical perfumery: the inclusion of “dirty” notes, which transform sweet-smelling blends into alchemical compositions, and allow stench, distilled in infinitesimal doses, to enrich the exquisite suavity of flowers and spices.

Image: Victorian Lady 1889, courtesy of In Style 19th Century Fashion

6 commentaires:

  1. I don't believe it...
    I just purchased a refill of Jicky, it's STILL in my backpack.

    We must be in sync, these days.

  2. What more is there left to say? Excellent post. Having not read Turin's original guide, I never would have known the Balzac reference unless you'd cited it? I keep dabbing my Jicky -- I need to atomize it, for full effect!

  3. Dear I., I do believe we're sisters in many ways, not least of all in fragrance! Jicky is a scent I'd never be without. I've even named my new Siamese kitten Jicky!

  4. Thanks, C. Yes, do please atomize: I always do. I've even purchased mini 2ml atomizers to transfer samples in!
    As for the Luca Turin Guide, he writes: "No one knows if it is a man or a woman, everyone has seen it on the same evening at the arm of a belle or a beau." It's a beautiful, poetic text -- not quite his current style. Another time, another age, another language...

  5. I have never smelled Jicky, but your post made me intent on finding it. It sounds intriguing.

  6. Hi Elizabeth,
    You should seek out Jicky, if only for its historical value. I don't know how available it is in the US, I suppose most Guerlain counters would carry it. Try to sniff it in the parfum, but the edt is very good too, I like it better than the edp in fact.