I smelled L’Heure Bleue first, not long after I’d smelled the ethereally beautiful Apres L’Ondee, and not long after I’d rediscovered lovely older versions of Coty Emeraude. I’d run across a mention of it in a book, and just had to find out what the heroine’s perfume smelled like. I didn’t know, at the time, any of its history.
I hated it. I called it “Hell’s Medicine Cabinet.” Mind you, I tend to like medicinal smells – witness my love of clove and mint, and my utter-swoon immediate love of Serge Lutens’ famously medicinal La Myrrhe, and my toe-curling happiness when I crack open the tin of Porter’s Liniment Salve. But I thought L’Heure Bleue’s combination of anise, bergamot and coriander was jarring and unpleasant.
It was only later, when a swap friend sent me a sample of L’Heure Bleue that was a much darker color than the sample I’d tried before, that I realized I’d sniffed the Eau de Toilette. The penny dropped: I frequently have difficulty appreciating EdT concentrations of classic Guerlains. Not always, of course: the aforementioned Apres L’Ondee comes to mind, and so does Chamade, also Vega – but Mitsouko and Shalimar EdTs are complete disasters for me.
It turned out to be parfum my friend had sent me, and it was a totally different beast: soft, plush, rich, warm, strange, aloof yet friendly, like a stray cat who has deigned to have its chin scratched by a stranger. It was an eye-opening experience. “So this is what they’re talking about,” I pondered. “Not the EdT.” I went straight to ebay and looked for a bottle of parfum – and found one. Modern, 1 ounce, slightly-used, missing its paper label, being sold for cheap by a woman who needed cash, post-divorce. The impression I got was that her ex-husband had given it to her, and now she couldn’t get it out of the house fast enough!
Understandable: L’Heure Bleue is nothing if not memorable, immediately identifiable at the faintest whiff of sillage. It’s not the kind of fragrance that one could wear casually; as a signature scent, it is both quirky and comforting, melancholy and romantic. Its name, The Blue Hour, refers to twilight, with more connotations of romance and melancholy.
Even in parfum, the opening is a bit bumpy. It’s aromatic and medicinal in a way that I remember from visiting hospitals as a kid in the 1970s, and still not very pleasant. However, in the parfum, the coriander seems to drop out quickly, leaving anise and clove singing a close harmony. The clove note becomes more floral and carnationlike in just a few moments, and then there’s that orange blossom. I am not a huge orange blossom fan, as it often has a “milled soap” angle for me. There is a hint of that in L’HB, but then the rose and heliotrope pop up, and it veers sweet and woody and almost almond-pastry-like. I do notice that in hot weather, the anise note seems to be prominent throughout the development, and I like that a lot. In winter, it’s very much Floral Bearclaw, with lots of orange blossom and almond, and I find it less interesting in the winter.
L’Heure Bleue is the kind of fragrance that, if you loved it, could haunt your memory all your life. Sadly, I do not love it. I admire it.
My bottle of L’Origan came from eBay, in a little satin-lined leatherette case. The packaging seems to be that used by Coty in the 1940s through (possibly) the early 1960s, so I’m not sure how old this bottle is. The cap is a bit tarnished, and the liquid is definitely darker and more orange than pictured here (probably due to the aging of the jasmine and/or the orange blossom). But the box, and the rubber (plastic?) stopper under the cap, seem to have protected the fragrance fairly well.
Of course, it is vintage, and although in fairly good shape, it is not very long-lasting (two and a half to three hours, compared to L’Heure Bleue’s five hours on my skin). There is a slight mustiness in the topnotes, as well, and the woody parts of the base seem very dry, with cedar dominating the sandalwood. I smell a sharp clove note, as well as some rose and jasmine with the orange blossom. But where I sniff L’Heure Bleue’s drydown and think, “Eh, almond pastry,” I keep bringing my L’Origan-wearing wrist to my nose. There is a soft benzoin-tonka-vanilla angle, the same sort of thing I love so much in Mariella Burani, but the woods tend to dominate it, and perhaps I’m picking up on a bit of incense as well.
As others more knowledgeable than I am have pointed out (see Denyse’s review at Grain de Musc here, or Octavian’s at 1000 Fragrances here), Jacques Guerlain seemed to take each one of Francois Coty’s groundbreaking scents and develop the ideas further: adding the rich peach note of Persicol to the structure of Chypre and creating Mitsouko, or adding a brighter citrus note, a more sharply delineated jasmine, and that genius hint of tar to the Emeraude structure to create Shalimar. Clearly, L’Heure Bleue admits kinship to the older L’Origan, one of the first “soft,” Oriental Florals. What’s the difference in notes and development?
I’m still not sure. In fact, LHB seems less descended from L’O than tangentially related. The anise and heliotrope notes hark back to Guerlain’s own Apres l’Ondee, while much of the structure – orange blossom, eugenol (clove) and ambery vanilla – seems to dovetail with that of L’O. L’Origan, though, has what seems to me to be a darker cast; it’s less melancholy, more mysterious. There seems to be more clove in L’O, more aromatic and herbal details, and it seems rather drier to me, just to mention a few differences. Halfway through the development, L’O has gone right to the edge of a mossy kind of bitterness that makes me wonder if there’s vetiver in there, whereas L’HB has veered toward vanilla and heliotrope.
As Denyse of Grain de Musc points out, the Coty fragrances have a tendency toward crudity, where their Guerlain counterparts are smooth and seamless. And yet, and yet… I love (vintage) Emeraude with all my heart, while finding Shalimar a little over-the-top. And L’Heure Bleue has very little emotional impact on me at all, while L’Origan stirs me. Maybe it’s just me – or perhaps it’s that my L’Origan is vintage and my L’Heure Bleue is not. The first time I opened that little bottle of L’Origan, I was bowled over by its sheer beauty. L’HB never did that to me, not even in parfum. L’HB was a stray cat, L’O was a Siberian tiger lounging in the sun: powerful, beautiful, and potentially dangerous.
Notes for each fragrance from Fragrantica.
L’Origan: Bergamot, orange, coriander, pepper, peach, nutmeg, clove, carnation, violet, jasmine, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, rose, benzoin, incense, cedar, musk, sandalwood, vanilla, coumarin (tonka bean), civet. Fragrantica reviews here. See also Victoria’s review at Bois de Jasmin, and this lovely one at Memory and Desire.
L’Heure Bleue: Anise, coriander, neroli, bergamot, lemon, carnation, orchid, jasmine, violet, clove, orange blossom, rose, heliotrope, iris, sandalwood, musk, benzoin, vanilla, vetiver, tonka bean. Fragrantica reviews here. See also: Kevin’s review at Now Smell This, Donna’s review of the parfum at Perfume-Smellin’ Things, and The Non-Blonde’s review, as well as this one at For the Love of Perfume.
Photo of wrestlers from Wikimedia Commons. L’Origan ad from ebay seller adlibrary. Other photos mine. (Since my L’HB bottle had lost its sticker before it came to me, I added one. It’s too big, and probably the wrong color – so sue me! At least you can tell what it is now, in case you’re not familiar with the inverted heart stopper.)