Parfums de Nicolaï Sacrebleu Intense

Some perfumes have a quiet prettiness that weave their way around you over time, or that touch you with a feeling of comforting familiarity. Sometimes, they are also about a study in contrasts, contradictions that work together seamlessly in a way that becomes more important than the individual notes. Sacrebleu Intense from the Guerlain descendent, Patricia de Nicolaï, and her company, Parfums de Nicolaï, is one of those perfumes.

The 30 ml and 100 ml bottles of Sacrebleu Intense. Source: Luckyscent

The 30 ml and 100 ml bottles of Sacrebleu Intense. Source: Luckyscent

It is an eau de parfum that appealed to me the first time I smelled it, but it didn’t bowl me over and throw me into a state of maddened lust. It still doesn’t, if truth be told, but Sacrebleu Intense quietly squirreled its way into my thoughts, and I ended up succumbing to a relatively blind buy months after the fact. It has a quiet solidity and classical appeal with just enough of a nod to the past to be comforting at times.

What I like is the feeling of contrasts that have been superbly blended into a seamless whole. There is sticky, chewy darkness, but also, airy, white sweetness. Bitter green leafiness lies side-by-side with boldly fiery, red cloves, brown cinnamon, smoky blacks, and twiggy, petitgrain, neroli orange-browns. Sometimes, the contrasts are just about the stark black and whites: black licorice and smoke, against white Church incense and spicy red carnation. Sometimes, they are about gender, as femininity collides with touches of masculinity. Often, they are about boldness and strength mixed with refined quietness; or the contradictions of weightless heaviness.

Photographer: Carl Bengtsson. Source:  fashionproduction.blogspot.com

Photographer: Carl Bengtsson. Source: fashionproduction.blogspot.com

Sacrebleu Intense is about all those things. It is fierce and potent, but understated and quietly elegant. It is a nod to the past that is also very modern. It has a simple beauty whose appeal grows stronger with time, and it manages to stay in your head, long after you’ve smelled it. At least, that was the case for me. I first encountered the perfume in Paris where I was trying the full Parfums de Nicolaï‘s line at one of her shops. (From this point out, I hope you will forgive me if I spell Nicolaï as just “Nicolai” for reasons of speed and convenience, as it takes a while to put on the dots, or Trema.)

Sacrebleu Intense stood out immediately amidst the Nicolai offerings. A few of the other scents were pretty, but too subdued or restrained. A good number felt too damn thin by half, but Sacrebleu Intense made me do a wee, tiny double-take, and I sniffed my wrists appreciatively. However, I almost never trust first impressions and needed a sample to test to see how it would develop over time, especially on my wonky skin. Unfortunately, the Parfums de Nicolai line doesn’t seem to believe in that practice, and I was always told, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any vials.” So, I skipped it. Upon my return to America, though, the memory of Sacrebleu Intense nagged away at me for months. I finally said, “to hell with it,” and ordered a bottle.

Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue via radiobresil.com.

Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue via radiobresil.com.

I did so for one reason, and one reason only. Every time I had tested Sacrebleu Intense, the same thought rang in my head: “L’Heure Bleue. This is a definite nod to L’Heure Bleue, only it’s more modern, fruitier, with different spices, and possibly a more unisex feel.” Now, vintage L’Heure Bleue is one of my two, absolute favorite Guerlain scents. In fact, it is only fickleness and a slightly fiercer love for vintage Shalimar that prevents L’Heure Bleue from ranking as my favorite Guerlain of all. Plus, vintage L’Heure Bleue can be a wee bit powdery for my tastes, though none of it matters in the face of the reformulated modern version. Sacrebleu Intense reminds me of vintage L’Heure Bleu, though with enough differences for it to be its own scent. It feels more modern, and not as wistful in nature.

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

The strong connection to one of Guerlain’s masterpieces should come as no surprise to anyone who knows about Patricia de Nicolai‘s background. I’ve written about how she is part of the Guerlain family, a grand-daughter of the house’s founder, Pierre Guerlain, a niece to Jean-Jacques Guerlain, and a relative of the famed nose and current Guerlain family patriarch, Jean-Paul Guerlain. Madame de Nicolai is also on record as saying that she absolutely loves L’Heure Bleue, though she stopped just short of saying that it is the Guerlain scent that has had the most impact on her own perfumery. Still, her love of L’Heure Bleue shines through in Sacrebleu Intense, though I have to emphasize that I think they are very different scents at their heart.

Sacrebleu Intense is an eau de parfum that was released in 2008. It seems to have been intended as a bolder version of the original Sacrebleu which has now been discontinued, though I’ve also read in one place that the Intense was meant to highlight the floral notes more than the original. According to Fragrantica and Luckyscent, Sacrebleu Intense has:

Top notes: mandarin orange, red berries and fruity notes; Middle notes: carnation, tuberose, cinnamon and jasmine; Base notes: peru balsam, sandalwood, tonka bean, patchouli, olibanum [myrrh], woody notes and vanilla..

Source: CaFleureBon

Source: CaFleureBon

Sacrebleu Intense opens on my skin with massive amounts of carnation cloves, followed by cinnamon, dark resins, and green notes. There is a strong spiciness to  the scent beyond just the cloves, a sort of piquancy that makes me think of peppery, fuzzy geranium leaves, as well as of bitter neroli and petitgrain. Petitgrain is a citrus tree’s twigs, distilled down into the bitter, pungent woody, masculine notes, while neroli is a different method of distilling the trees’ orange blossoms. Honestly, on my skin, I don’t smell mandarin oranges in their traditional, sweet, sun-ripened juiciness. There is the strong bitterness of neroli, and the woodiness of petitgrain instead.

FrankincenseThere are other elements as well. Lurking in the base is a black, leathery smokiness from the styrax, the least sweet of all the resins or benzoin-like notes. There is also a heavy presence of olibanum or myrrh. It is nothing like the High Church, soapy, chilly, dusty character that it usually manifests, at least not yet. Instead, it smells like chewy black licorice with a hint of anise. There is a definite sense of smokiness, though. A sweet incense note that feels like sweet myrrh, rather than pure, dry, black frankincense.

Clove Studded Orange. Source: DwellWellNW blog at DowntoEarthNW.com

Clove Studded Orange. Source: DwellWellNW blog at DowntoEarthNW.com

The odd thing is the nature of the floral notes. I’ve worn Sacrebleu Intense a few times, and only once did I ever really detect tuberose. It was brief, very muted, and had a slightly rubbery, black undertone to it. However, the tuberose was so thoroughly blended into the other elements, it was extremely hard to pick out and I don’t think it lasted for more than perhaps 10 minutes at best. The main flower on my skin instead is always the carnation, though it is barely floral at all. Carnations can take on a peppered rose aroma or a clove-like one, and it is the latter which shows up on my skin. In fact, Sacrebleu Intense is heavy cloves from start almost to finish, with only a touch of actual carnation.

Geranium pratense leaf, close-up. Source: Wikicommons

Geranium pratense leaf, close-up. Source: Wikicommons

I keep imagining a clove flower with a spicy neroli heart, bitter petitgrain twigs and peppery, pungent, green geranium leaves, all dusted with cinnamon. The “flower” grows out of soil made from black licorice and the stickiest, chewiest, balsamic resin around. It’s a base that is faintly leathered and smoky, but the main impression is of bitter fruits heavily dusted with cinnamon and cloves.

For the most part, Sacrebleu remains that way for the majority of its long life on my skin. This is a fragrance that is beautifully blended, and each time I wear it, different parts seem to be emphasized alongside the clove carnation. Never the tuberose, but the green bits and the smokiness seem to fluctuate in degree. On one occasion, all that came to mind was black, chewy, resinous smokiness on a white, airy background that felt only vaguely fruited and was heavily dusted with spices instead. As a whole, Sacrebleu Intense is a scent that is very hard to pull apart. The notes move into each other seamlessly, and, as indicated, that makes the perfume a bit linear in nature. For that reason, this review will be a little different than most of mine, and will focus mainly on the perfume’s overall development and feel.

Pez. Source: Wikipedia.

Pez. Source: Wikipedia.

The one thing that does change (and is quite constant each time I wear Sacrebleu Intense) is the touch of powderiness that creeps in after a while. When it precisely occurs seems to vary, and I’ve noticed that one arm (my right, which is not my usual testing arm) reflects very little of it as compared to the other, but there is always some degree of powder. At first, it’s only a subtle touch that is almost iris-like at times. It’s definitely sweetened powder, and its combination with the bitter neroli and petitgrain-like accord creates a distinct impression of Pez candy. A sort of Sweet-Tarts or Pez powderiness, if that makes sense.

I have to admit, I’m not very keen on it, and I become less keen as time passes because it turns into quite a distinct myrrh incense note that I always struggle with. It’s a spiced, slightly dusty powderiness, though much more sweetened than most High Church incense fragrances. As regular readers know, I’m not particularly enthused by High Church or Catholic Mass tonalities, let alone powder, so I must admit, I struggle a little with Sacrebleu after about 5 or 6 hours. Still, as noted earlier, the perfume is well-blended and there are enough spicy clove, carnation, and resinous elements to make up for it.

 Source: darulkutub.co.uk

Source: darulkutub.co.uk

In its final stage, Sacrebleu Intense is a blend of myrrh incense, spiciness, and sweetened Pez powder, lightly flecked with bitterness and a hint of something vaguely fruity. In its last moments, it’s powdered sweetness and myrrh. I like it… from afar and as long as I don’t smell it up close too much.

All in all, Sacrebleu Intense consistently lasts 12 hours or more on my wonky skin, depending on how much I apply. It generally becomes a skin scent about 4-5 hours into its development, though it requires absolutely no effort whatsoever to detect the perfume if you bring your nose near your arm. Furthermore, you can push both time frames if you spray on a lot. With 3 big sprays, I once experienced a 14 hour duration, even though I had to put my nose on my skin and sniff extremely hard to detect the faint traces after the 12th hour.

I’m glad I bought Sacrebleu Intense, though I have mixed feelings about the drydown stage. In fact, if some of my discussion sounds a little like blind buyer’s remorse, there is that on occasion, but only because I really don’t like Churchy myrrh incense or powder. That said, there is something about the opening moments of Sacrebleu Intense that really compensates for it all.

I can’t really explain in any logical way except to say that there is a mood and feeling which overcomes a lot of the sticky details down the road. Something about Sacrebleu Intense feels like elegant familiarity, perhaps because of that distant, tiny kinship to L’Heure Bleue. It’s such a classic, refined scent that it makes me feel as though I should sit up straighter, put on my best clothes, and get ready for a garden party. It feels like something suited for High Tea at the Plaza Athenée, or a walk through the Jardins de Luxembourg near the Louvre. It lacks the va-va-voom luxuriousness of vintage Shalimar, or the emotional power of vintage L’Heure Bleue‘s haunting melancholy, but Sacrebleu Intense has a definite, quiet charm.

Photographer: Carl Bengtsson. Source:  fashionproduction.blogspot.com

Photographer: Carl Bengtsson. Source: fashionproduction.blogspot.com

Sacrebleu Intense doesn’t take me back in time or feel dated. I don’t feel as though I belonged in the 1920s or 1950s. Perhaps because there is an airiness to the scent that seems to belie the strength and potency of its spicy, piquant notes. It doesn’t feel opulently heavy at all, to the point that I don’t think of luxuriousness when I think of Sacrebleu Intense. Rather, I think of spiciness — intense spiciness and resins. Peppered, resinous, smoky, chewy blackness and white daintiness, speckled with every shade of red, brown and green.

In some ways, Sacrebleu Intense feels a little like an attractive girl whose appeal grows stronger over time. She may not blow you away at first, and, in fact, she may not even sweep you off your feet after you’ve known her for years, either. But you’d definitely miss her if she weren’t around, and, whenever you’re with her, you enjoy the experience. Something about her stays with you — her good humoured spiciness, perhaps — and you can’t forget how comfortable she makes you feel.

Almost all the blog reviews out there are for Sacrebleu, the original, and not for Sacrebleu Intense. There is said to be a difference. It’s not only that Sacrebleu was an eau de toilette, while the Intense is an eau de parfum, but the notes seem to be different. The original is said to have included: black currant bud, peach blossom, jasmine, tuberose, vanilla, tonka bean and incense. I also vaguely remember one Parfums de Nicolai sales lady telling me that the focus of the two scents is different, though for the life of me, I cannot now recall how.

Cellists. Source: Nathan Branch

Cellists. Source: Nathan Branch

The one blog review for Sacrebleu Intense comes from Nathan Branch who writes:

For a couple of hours, Sacrebleu Intense is mesmerizingly beautiful — rich, full, deep . . . like a roomful of cellists all playing the same sad, sweet song, but then everything starts to sound (or, in this case, smell) a little off — too much noise, too many notes crammed up close together and discordantly overlapping.

It’s a shame, too, because when the stuff is pulling together it really shines, but the last half of the scent’s lifespan is a sloppy mess — well, until you hit the patchouli/balsam drydown, which deserves some praise.

Maybe the original, less pumped-up Sacrebleu is better, less messy, than this Intense version?

Source: nature.desktopnexus.com

Source: nature.desktopnexus.com

On Basenotes, one person has the following thoughts on the two versions:

Sweet but not fruity once the initial orange has departed. Close to, the jasmin is not wholly evident, but floats a nose- distance away until displaced by carnation (not cloves). The cinnamon is a mere hint (according to the assistant in PdN in Paris the ‘intense’ version has vanilla instead of cinnamon, but it’s still there to me). Overall less spicy than sacrebleu and therefore easier to wear. Intense is an edp rather than the original sacrebleu which is an edt. However the difference is not just in the concentration, they smell noticeably different, so worth trying both

As a whole, forum and website reviews for Sacrebleu Intense are mixed, with the vast majority being very positive in nature. I also think the reason for the split is that Sacrebleu Intense is a perfume best suited to those with specific tastes, starting with an appreciation for L’Heure Bleue. After that, ideally, you’d love a heaping amount of cinnamon, myrrh incense, and the bitter petitgrain and neroli aspects of orange. It might also help if you like Pez powder or Smarties, the latter being a comparison that was raised in two Fragrantica reviews.

One Fragrantica commentator, “vitabhaya,” has what I think is a good summation of Sacrebleu Intense:

Call me nuts, but the topnotes on this smell like a blend of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue and Smarties–you know, those colored, super-sweet candies that come in a roll. It is melancholy but energizing, sweet yet with a great mellow depth, really a mezmerizing fragrance.

After an hour or two, the tonka bean, patchouli, sandalwood and olibanum lilt along the edge of a vanilla that is neither quite sweet nor spicy. It feels rich, sensual and downright sexy. It reminds me of late afternoon sun drifting through the curtains after a lover’s rendevous. There is something hypnotic about this blend, and I find myself lingering with my arm up to my nose long enough to wonder how long I’ve held this pose. Suddenly I feel as if I enjoy the longing for past lovers for pure memories’ sake. I cannot at this point decide if it is slightly melancholy (L’Heure Bleue?) or if it is rather dusky and languid. Oooooh, how I love it!

This goes on the “must have” list.

Source: Fragrantica.ru

Source: Fragrantica.ru

Other Fragrantica commentators seem equally enamoured, with one saying that Sacrebleu Intense had replaced L’Heure Bleu in her heart:

  • For a very long time, since we first met in a candy-box perfumery in Salzburg decades ago, L’Heure Bleue was my absolute favourite scent of all. With all due respect and nostalgia, the Pefume Queen’s Throne in my heart is now occupied by another sovereigh: Sacrebleu. (Especially that L’Heure Bleue’s new formula does not have the perfection of its predecessor.) It is the softest, most embracing, soothing, calming scent about, and I absolutely enjoy its elegant velvety dark character. Mind you, Sacrebleu’s darkness is not menacing, it’s mistery is not dangerous. It is a peaceful night, when you know you are safe, loved and can relax without a hint of worry and care. It is related to L’Heure Bleue, but more modern, less melancholy and much more life-affirming. [¶] To my nose and mind this scent is so perfect, that while wearing it I never once try to isolate it’s notes…it is a perfect harmony, and I don’t care the least what single notes make up this wonderful olfactory symphony. Truly wonderful!
  • I think Sacrebleu Intense is one of the sophisticated and finest scents I have sniffed. Very feminine [….]  I do not get candies from Sacre Bleu, but sacred feel yess. I have also L´heure Bleue and this might be kinda sister, but they are standing quite far from each others. Sacrebleu is more sensitive…. but eaven if she is sensitive do not take her to be not strong!
  • Prepare yourself to be granted a sweet redemption, to gain a second or third youth, to leave the ground and premises in bliss… [¶] Concentrate on happiness! […][¶] Olibanum and Peru Balsam control the -harsh- tubereuse. Carnation and Tonka Bean rule over the omnipresent cinnamon. Mandarin, Jasmin and Sandal turn your face to the light! [¶] Sacrebleu Intense has lifted me with joy.
  • I got this sample from the lovely Carnation. I smell hot spice! This is warm and intense and perfect for me. There is a sweetness to it that could be vanilla but its not cloying. This is a perfect combination of the things I love, Sandalwood, Patchouli, Vanilla and Spice (must be the cinnamon) I love it!
Photo: mypham.us

Photo: mypham.us

One male commentator loved Sacrebleu as well, writing:

A fruit and floral aroma that embraces you with power, quality and exuberance.
The heart is beautifully made of jasmine and tuberose, going to a soft side of the fragrance, surrounded by peru balm, olibanum (frankincense), woods and a delightful vanilla.
It starts completely feminine and then, goes to a more unisex scent during its evolution on the skin. Fierce yet delicate, strong yet romantic…nice work!

Smarties. Source: imgarcade.com

Smarties. Source: imgarcade.com

However, not everyone was quite as thrilled, whether from the fruit or the spices. In fact, I think the following comments underscore the importance of a love for cinnamon, not to mention skin chemistry, of course:

  •  very fruity and sweet. vitabhaya mentions Smarties and L’heure Bleue. I agree about the Smarties, but feel it’s only got a nod in passing from L’Heure Bleue. I purchased a sample because I love cinnamon and hoped for more cinnamon/carnation effect – but fruit tends to overwhelm my nose. Should have checked more carefully, because the top notes are all fruity, and they tend to hang around. Altogether not bad, won’t be one of my favourits, though.
  • Sweet,juicy fruity opening,but I could not detect any spices throughout this at all. […] It’s probably one of the worst I have smelled-cloying and rubbery would describe this perfectly.
  • I get cinnamon, but the horrid thing is that on my skin it smells like a cheap cinnamon candle. [¶] You ever been to a candle store, and then felt a bit yuck after smelling a tonne of candles? That’s this scent on my skin, unfortunately.
  • Hmmm, no. Opening is sweet orange, then comes cinnamon that has a very synthetic feel to me. A whisper of flowers, then some Tonka in the dry down. Average longevity and projection. L’huere bleu made me realize that I have a strong desire to smell like carnations and I was hoping this would be an interesting, well rounded composition with a clear carnation note, but it seems to have been hidden by the cinnamon. So disappointed.

On my skin, as noted, the clove-like smell of the carnations was far more dominant, but Sacrebleu Intense has a few resins or benzoins that can manifest a cinnamon side. Given that the perfume contains actual cinnamon as well, then you bloody well better like the spice if you’re going to try the perfume!

You should also like strong perfumes. On Surrender to Chance, one person commented that they liked the juicy, fruity opening but that Sacrebleu Intense was “too strong.” Well, it is, but that’s why I gravitated towards it, instead of the thinner scents in the line. Sacrebleu Intense is definitely a scent for those who like their fragrances to be bold and full-bodied.

The 30 ml bottle. Source: randewoo.ru

The 30 ml bottle. Source: randewoo.ru

One of the big positives about Sacrebleu Intense, and the Parfums de Nicolai line in general, is affordability. There is always a small 30 ml size which is very reasonably priced. For Sacrebleu Intense, the 1 oz size costs $65 or €51. It may be too tiny for some, but it’s great if you have a vast number of scents in your collection, or if you just don’t want to spend a fortune on perfume. Plus, as noted earlier, a little Sacrebleu Intense goes a long, long way.

Lastly, I think Sacrebleu Intense skews a little feminine, but not overly so and really only at the start. The incense, resins, spices and piquant neroli certainly make it very unisex in nature. My only hesitancy is the slight powderiness of the scent. It’s not at Guerlainade levels, and is much more myrrh-based in nature, but it’s something to keep in mind.

All in all, if you’re looking for a more spicy, modern version of L’Heure Bleue that is strongly centered on carnations with orange and neroli, dark smokiness that turns to white myrrh incense, and very piquant green leafiness, you may want to give Sacrebleu Intense a sniff.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Sacrebleu Intense is an eau de parfum that comes in two sizes. There is a tiny 30 ml/1 oz bottle that costs $65 or €51, and there is a large 100 ml/3.3 oz bottle that costs $165 or €153. As a side note, I think that there might have been a recent price increase for the Nicolai line, as I see a number of sites selling the large bottle for $185 now.  In the U.S.: Luckyscent sells both sizes of the perfume, with the large one at the old price of $165, and also offers samples. Beautyhabit sells the small and large sizes of Sacrebleu Intense at the same price. In New York, the New London Pharmacy is selling the 100 ml bottle for $150 on its website. OsswaldNY lists the 100 ml bottle as retailing for $190, which is way above retail, but is currently discounting the large bottle for $150. Parfum1 sells the large 100 ml bottle for the new price of $185. Outside the U.S.: For Canadian readers, the US-based Perfume Shoppe sells the small 30 ml size for US$65, and you can email them to ask about Canadian pricing. Their Canadian website offers Sacrebleu Intense in a 4ml travel spray for CAD$30. In the U.K., Parfums de Nicolaï has a shop in London on Fulham Road. You can check the Store Link below for the exact address. For all European readers, you can order directly from Parfums de Nicolaï which sells Sacrebleu Intense in both sizes for €51 and €153, respectively. In France, the company has numerous boutiques, especially in Paris. First in Fragrance sells the large 100 ml bottle for €152. In the Netherlands, ParfuMaria carries both sizes of Sacrebleu Intense, as does Annindriya’s Perfume Lounge. In Spain, I found the perfume listed in the 30 ml size at Ruiz de Ocenda for €52. In Hungary, you can find the perfume at Neroli, and in Russia, there are a lot of retailers but one of them is Eleven7. For other locations in France and the one store in London, you can turn to the Nicolai Store Listing. It doesn’t show any vendors outside France or the UK. I found nothing in Asia, the Middle East, or Australia. Samples: Surrender to Chance sells Sacrebleu Intense starting at $3.99 for a 1 ml vial. You can also order from Luckyscent.
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Profile: Patricia de Nicolaï & The Guerlain DNA

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

I thought it might be nice to take a look at a very talented perfumer whom I deeply respect, but whose scents frequently seem to fly under the radar. It is a little surprising to me, given who she is. Patricia de Nicolaï of Parfums de Nicolaï comes from the Guerlain family, is a grand-daughter of the house’s founder, Pierre Guerlain, a niece of Jean-Jacques Guerlain, and a niece or cousin to the famed nose, Jean-Paul Guerlain. She is a pioneer amongst female perfumers, and has won prestigious honours from both her perfume peers and from the French government itself. Yet, even die-hard Guerlain lovers aren’t always intimately familiar with her works. I hope to remedy that in the upcoming weeks, but I thought I would first start with a look at the woman herself. 

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Patricia de Nicolaï fascinates me not only because she is a trail-blazer in some ways, but because she seems authentic, down-to-earth, passionate, warm, and wholly unpretentious. Though she has the Guerlain genes in more ways than just mere chromosomes, let’s start with Madame de Nicolaï’s genealogy. She is closely related to Jean-Paul Guerlain who is both the current family patriarch and the last Guerlain who creates fragrances for the house.(Several sites call her his niece, but Patricia de Nicolaï says her mother was his cousin, so wouldn’t that make her Jean-Paul Guerlain’s second cousin?) Jean-Paul Guerlain is legendary for his creations. According to Guerlain’s Wikipedia page, he made such legends as: Vétiver (1959); Habit Rouge (1965); Chant d’Arômes (1962), Chamade (1969), Nahéma (1979), Jardins de Bagatelle (1983), and Samsara (1989), along with Héritage and Coriolan in the 1990s.

Madame de Nicolaï grew up surrounded by the Guerlain culture. As her website explains, she “spent her childhood in the Guerlain family home in Paris. A home in which she has been in contact with 4 generations of Guerlain.” She elaborated a little further to the The Daily Mail newspaper:

“I grew up surrounded by people who were fascinated by smell. My parents had a beautiful 18th century manor house in Burgundy with a lovely garden where the rooms were scented with Pot Pourri de Guerlain. Neither of my parents were noses but they had a vineyard and my mother was a famous wine taster. I think my love of fragrance was unconscious – I grew up with it.”

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

CaFleureBon has a superb, detailed interview with Madame de Nicolaï where her warmth, charm, and wit shine through in great abundance. I recommend reading in full if you’re interested, but I’ll quote my favorite part involving her memories of her childhood, her mother, and Shalimar. The quote not only creates the image of one, big family filled with strong characters who were all completely crazy about perfume, but also really underscores the powerful impact that one’s parents (and their fragrance) can have on a person’s olfactory development. As Madame de Nicolaï explained:

I lived within the Guerlain Parisian ‘Hôtel Particulier’ for the first 20 years of my life. We had – and we still have – a very big family and we all had our corner in this wonderful spot. I could tell loads of little stories about my childhood but if I had to take one moment, it would be when I was waken up every morning by the powerful and spellbinding Shalimar that my mother used to wear. I did not need an alarm clock in that time! The Shalimar scent was my morning wakeup call! And I loved it! My mother’s room was situated underneath mine and the scent came through my window which was always open, because sleeping with an opened window is in fact very healthy. You can trust my grandmother on that!

My mother loved Shalimar , it is true, but she really liked to be the first one to ‘test’ all the perfumes created by Jean-Paul Guerlain. She was the tender ‘guinea pig’ of her beloved cousin.

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

As an adult, Madame de Nicolaï attended the perfume school, ISIPCA, at Versailles, and then was employed at Quest, which later turned into Givaudan. During the late 1980s, she spent a few years working alongside some famous “noses,” like Maurice Roucel. There is also Sophia Grosjman whom she assisted on Lancome‘s very popular Tresor.

Madame de Nicolaï always forged her own path, in part because she was not allowed to work at the family business and, in part, because 30 years ago, perfumed doors were closed to women. In fact, there is an interesting article in the Edmonton Journal which talks about the glass ceiling faced by women perfumers:

When she graduated from ISIPCA, the perfumery school in Versailles, de Nicolai initially sought a job as a junior perfumer but doors were closed. “Because I was a woman. Even if the manager said yes, the chief perfumer didn’t ever want to have a woman on his team.”

She was never allowed to work at the family business. (To be fair, the family sold it to luxury goods behemoth LVMH in 1994, but still.)

“A lot of people ask me that,” de Nicolai shrugged, diplomatically, before adding: “You should ask that to the Guerlain family!” A couple years ago in Paris, when Jean-Paul Guerlain handed in the reigns of house master perfumer and LVMH brought in the first non-family member Thierry Wasseur, I had done just that. [¶]

Did he not believe that women could be good perfumers? I asked. Monsieur Guerlain, then 71, waved his hand dismissively and muttered something about de Nicolai being a woman who made scented salts and candles.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

To put it as politely as I can, Jean-Paul Guerlain seems to have … er… issues… with a number of social groups, beyond just women, as evidenced by his attitude towards minorities and immigrants. I am doing my utmost to refrain from commenting further.

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Still, Madame de Nicolaï had talent that other people couldn’t deny or so easily dismiss. In fact, she seems to have had the last laugh. In 1988, she became the very first woman to ever win the “Prix International du Meilleur Parfumeur“, an award given to the best international perfumer from the French Society of Perfumers (SFP). According to Madame de Nicolaï’s Wikipedia entry, Luca Turin reportedly called her  “…one of the unsung greats of the fragrance world.”

In 1989, Madame de Nicolaï founded her own company, alongside her husband, Jean-Louis Michau. I suspect she did so in part because there were not a lot of other options open to her. As she stated in the CaFleureBon interview, her uncle (Jean-Paul Guerlain presumably) had told her that she had “to improve [her] skills and then ‘we’ll see’. This ‘we’ll see’ never happened.”

The Parfums de Nicolai website merely states that she

started ‘NICOLAI, parfumeur-créateur’ … to continue the prestigious family tradition of perfume creation. The concept was to emphasise the role of the perfumer. A perfumer free in his creative choices and free to use the best quality ingredients available.

With an impressive number of creations, Patricia de Nicolai has succeeded in building one of the largest collections of fragrances in the contemporary perfume business.

She is in charge of the creation of the fragrances as well as the purchase of the raw materials and the making of the concentrates.

In all these creations her personal style appears, giving a real signature imprint. Patricia de Nicolaï’s creations are identifiable, original and elegant reflecting the high Parisian ‘parfumerie’ and ‘Le luxe à la française.’ […][¶]

She is also the only independent woman perfumer to have her own fragrance company. [Emphasis in the original, not from me.]

In 2002, Jean-Paul Guerlain retired from the family business as Guerlain’s official nose. Many assumed the mantle would pass to Patricia de Nicolaï. Well, apparently, that glass ceiling is alive and well at Guerlain, even under LVMH ownership. Madame de Nicolaï was passed over entirely for the role of in-house perfumer, a position that eventually went to Thierry Wasser in 2008.

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

I find it utterly astonishing that a talented, much admired and respected nose who is an actual member of the Guerlain family was brushed aside. I simply can’t wrap my head around it. Guerlain’s Wikipedia page states: “With no heir from within the Guerlain family to take over, the role of master perfumer is no longer tied to family succession.” But there was an heir! An heir who was an actual nose, and who had received international recognition from her peers at an extremely young age! A 100+year family tradition was broken simply because Madame de Nicolaï was a woman??! It’s bloody outrageous.

Today, Patricia de Nicolaï runs her personal company, but is also the president of L’Osmothèque, the famed perfume museum at Versailles. It has become the main guardian of what is left of many of the legendary perfumes of the past, perfumes from Houbigant, Coty, and the like, perfumes that have now vanished from existence except for the tiny quantities that Osmothèque keeps in a Fort Knox-like vault. (You can read all about the fascinating place in a Fragrantica article, if you’re interested.) Osmothèque’s importance is just one of the reasons why France awarded Madame de Nicolaï its greatest honour when it made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2008.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolaï is passionate about the cultural importance of perfumery. As the Edmonton Journal article makes clear, she believes perfume

it is part of the French cultural heritage, as important a cultural and economic export as fashion (which, in the aftermath of the Second World War, saved the country’s economy thanks almost entirely to Christian Dior’s New Look). “It’s a notion of art, and when in the middle of the 19th century synthetic molecules appeared and perfumers were not only chemists or apothecaries, they became really creators,” de Nicolai said.

“Perfume is probably the most sophisticated creation to make,” she added; “it’s very intellectual. It’s the most valuable product of our spirit.” More important than gender, she said, is that each creator has what in fine art is called la patte d’un peintre — the hand of the artist. “You recognize Beethoven, Mozart immediately,” de Nicolai said, and so too the signature of a perfumer.

Her own olfactory signature admits to certain genetic tendencies. “I am influenced by my family!” she admitted with rueful laugh. “Growing up Guerlain was always only nice perfumes, something you could recognize from afar, the sillage, and you would know it was Guerlain. I wanted to have the same approach.”

Source: Now Smell This.

Source: Now Smell This.

I respect Madame de Nicolaï for her character more than for anything to do with Guerlain. It’s not only her passionate commitment to the art of perfumery, but what seems to be to be something that I can only describe as integrity. She puts her head down, and quietly creates what she thinks is beautiful. Fads or popular trends be damned; it’s beauty and elegance which matter.

In fact, as she told CaFleureBon, one reason why she left Quest (Givaudan) was because she was fed up “by the practice of creating fragrances based on focus groups and marketing questions. I was very frustrated and I wanted to be free!” Her desire to be true to her own beliefs helps explain why it has taken Madame de Nicolaï years to put out a fragrance with oud. She did so finally in late 2013, only after intensely studing the character of the wood. As she said in her CaFleureBon interview, “I did not want to be trapped by trends. I am a free woman, free to create my own perfumes the moment I want to, regardless of any marketing concepts.”

I can’t tell you how much I respect all that. I’m a sucker for quiet intellectuals who also seem to be very down-to-earth, funny, humble, self-deprecating, warm and kind — traits which all the interviews demonstrate that Madame de Nicolaï has in abundance. Really, CaFleureBon did a stupendous job with their interview, and it is a stellar read from start to finish. It’s also quite funny in parts. I laughed like mad at Madame de Nicolai’s confession that she would have loved to make a perfume for Margaret Thatcher… because of how challenging it would be.

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Apart from the three interviews linked up above, The Smelly Vagabond also has an account of an evening which a London perfume group spent with Madame de Nicolaï last year. It has lovely personal anecdotes, like how Madame de Nicolaï’s daughter suddenly “gets the flu” whenever she’s required to smell perfume. Or the key role played by her very supportive husband who urged her to begin her own perfume house:

At that time I had to take care of my children. My husband told me that if I stopped working in the perfume industry I would never be able to come back to it. Working for other companies was not an option because there is not enough freedom for the perfumer, who is under the whims of the marketing team. There is competition not just within the company but outside as well. So my husband told me that if I made the perfumes, he would settle the rest of the business.

As for her perfumes, well, there is one that I instantly liked, and liked so much that its memory stayed with me for months after I tried it in Paris and I ended up buying it. That will be the subject of the next review. The rest of her line isn’t always very “me,” however, as I find that many lack the sort of bold, opulent heaviness that I enjoy. However, I respect them a lot, appreciate their very classique feel, and can see the technical skill behind them.

"New York" via Luckyscent.

“New York” via Luckyscent.

I get the sense that there often seems to be one single Nicolai perfume that wrap its tentacles around you and becomes “yours.” Take, for example, Luca Turin who loved Madame de Nicolaï’s New York cologne so much that he wore it for a whole decade. In Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, he gives New York his highest 5-Star rating, and writes :

If Guerlain had any sense they would buy Parfums de Nicolaï, add her range to theirs, trash fifteen or so of their own laggard fragrances, a couple of de Nicolaï’s, and install owner-creator Patricia in Orphin as in-house perfumer. She is, after all, a granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and genetic analysis might usefully reveal the genes associated with her perfumery talent. As a control where the genes are known to be absent, use the DNA of whoever did Creed’s Love in White. Smelling New York as I write this, eighteen years after its release, is like meeting an old high-school teacher that had a decisive influence on my life: I may have moved on, but everything it taught me is still there, still precious, and wonderful to revisit. New York’s exquisite balance between resinous orange, powdery vanilla and salubrious woods shimmers from moment to moment, always comfortable but never slack, always present but never loud. It is one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one I would save if the house burned down. Reader, I wore it for a decade.

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

I have samples of a few Nicolaï scents to test in the upcoming weeks or months, including Luca Turin’s beloved New York. It’s a nice, masculine fragrance which contains some of the Guerlain DNA, as it opens with a very superficial similarity to Habit Rouge before turning into something very different and wholly chypre-like in nature. I also have the oriental Maharanih (which I may skip reviewing as it has been discontinued in favour of the new Intense version), and the new Amber Oud whose notes include everything from lavender and thyme, to cinnamon, saffron, cedar, styrax, musk, castoreum and amber.

First up, though, will be the scent which I fell for and bought for myself, Sacrebleu Intense, a fragrance which I find to be a darker, non-powdery and possibly more unisex, modern take on Guerlain’s legendary masterpiece, L’Heure Bleue.

The Guerlain DNA, indeed. Better still, it’s from a really lovely person.