Message in a Bottle

Christopher Coppola

French perfumer Jacques Guerlain created L’Heure Bleue after twilight walks in his garden. Nearly a century later, Jean Nathan finds magic in his bottle.

There are many ways writers cope with the terrors of the blank page. I sniff perfume. The effect is somewhere between a mental decongestant and a magic carpet ride. It never fails to leave me transported and to stir my imagination.

A bottle of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue has pride of place beside the computer on my desk, among the papers, books, and a cherished photograph. But no matter how I might wish otherwise, this powdery, complex, romantic scent is not here to be worn. I love the way it smells—on anyone but me. Instead of dabbing it on my pulse points, I spray it on the doorframe of the room in which I work or inhale it straight from the bottle. This admittedly off-label approach has been mine for years.

Before I was a writer, before I even knew how to talk—or walk—very well, I was a researcher, and my field of study was grown-up women. It was as if I felt I needed to know everything possible about them in order to become one.

Early on, my studies revealed that what distinguishes a little girl from a woman had to do with high heels, jewelry, and makeup. When my parents had parties, I became an anthropologist with a whole tribe at my disposal, a tribe to which I wanted (fiercely) to belong. Wending my way shakily through the living room, I would scrutinize the gathering. Once I had made a thorough investigation of the guests, I would sit contentedly in their midst, pondering my findings until I floated off to an imaginary future in which I was ready to leave behind the dress rehearsals and become a real grown-up woman. Of course nothing broke the spell faster than the peals of laughter elicited by the spectacle I created—my mother’s lipstick smeared around the vicinity of my mouth, her high heels slipped over my shoes, my skinny legs crossed the way I noticed the women did.

I was about nine when my research uncovered a nonvisible appurtenance of adult femalehood: perfume. A friend and I would closet ourselves in her mother’s bathroom when she wasn’t home to avail ourselves of the treasures kept there. One afternoon, on a ledge beside falls and false eyelashes (it was the late sixties), a grouping of exquisite bottles and atomizers caught my eye. Soon I was spraying with abandon until my friend held her nose and begged me to stop.

By early adolescence, self-consciousness crept in. Instead of making me feel grown-up, all this “play pretend” and dress-up made me feel childish. My research shifted to women between book covers. Reading helped relieve the sense of restlessness I felt at waiting for my life to begin. During those years, long hours were spent lying on my bed in the company of tragic heroines, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the women of Jean Rhys, like Marya in Quartet, who develops a fascination with a woman wearing L’Heure Bleue.

She had taken off her hat. Her hair, which was curly and worn cut to the neck, fell very beautifully about her face and smelt of some warm perfume.…

“What scent do you use?” asked Marya suddenly, speaking to Mademoiselle Chardin. “Chypre?”

“I? L’Heure Bleue of Guerlain.”

It was on the first day of a fifth-period high school French class that a new research subject presented herself. Expecting only another hour of verb conjugation, I found myself transfixed by the apparition at the blackboard. Here was an entirely different form of womanhood, the embodiment of simplicity and restraint. Wearing no makeup at all, her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, her clothes, always turtlenecks over pencil skirts, ranging from beige to gray. Her only jewels were a single gold bangle that floated down low on her hand and a thin gold wedding band. Even her classroom was different. Instead of smelling of chalk, it was permeated by a magical scent: faintly powdery, flowery, sweetish but with a peppery bite.

The class came just after lunch period and I discovered that if I showed up a few minutes early, I might find her there preparing, like an actress about to take the stage. Beside her on the desk were slices of lemon on a saucer that she’d brought from the lunchroom. These she would suck on daintily while organizing her books and papers. Then, just seconds before curtain time, she would reach into her purse and retrieve a perfume bottle, its stopper in the form of a hollowed-out heart. Pulling it out, she would dab it to the inside of each wrist, to the inside of each elbow, and finally behind each ear.

Usually I observed all this in silence. At some point I overcame my shyness and asked her about her rituals. “It cuts your appetite after a meal,” she said, explaining the lemon. And the perfume? “L’Heure Bleue.” She pronounced the words in the way that only a true French person—which she was—can.

I bought my first bottle of L’Heure Bleue with babysitting money. I sniffed it surreptitiously and sprayed it in my room. I waited for the day I would be ready to wear it, but that day never came. Whenever I put it on, I felt like an impostor. And worse, it smelled like a grandmother on me. Still, its unsuitability did nothing to dampen my obsession.

It is said that L’Heure Bleue, or the Blue Hour, was inspired by Jacques Guerlain’s twilight walks in his garden, his attempt to capture in fragrance the moment when the sun has waned but darkness has not entirely descended and the blue of the sky is at its deepest. That was in 1912, almost a century after Jacques’s grandfather, Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, founded the House of Guerlain. Jacques worked for a year building his masterpiece of top notes of aniseed and bergamot; heart notes of tuberose, violet, carnation, and neroli; and base notes of tonka bean, iris, benzoin, and vanilla.

Patricia de Nicolaï, the great-grandniece of Jacques Guerlain and a parfumeuse herself, says Jacques was also inspired by François Coty, who in 1905 invented a new perfume “chord”—neroli, carnation, and vanilla—with his L’Origan, which means “oregano.” Guerlain took that chord and tweaked it, adding aniseed and orris, then, voilà, L’Heure Bleue, which lives on nearly a century later.

Luca Turin, an olfactory scientist who with his wife, Tania Sanchez, is the author of Perfumes: The Guide, concurs with De Nicolaï’s version of L’Heure Bleue’s genealogy but includes the detail of the “tremendous rivalry” between Guerlain and François Coty. “L’Heure Bleue was Jacques Guerlain trying to outdo Coty,” he says.

Before sitting down to write César Birotteau, an 1837 novel chronicling the rise and fall of a perfumer, Honoré de Balzac had asked Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain to compose a fragrance for him. Throughout the book’s writing, the bottle never left his desk. Truman Capote was another writer who couldn’t get enough of Guerlain. In his stories are references to not only L’Heure Bleue but also Mitsouko, Jicky, and Fleurs des Alpes. My favorite reference is in “Unspoiled Monsters” from Answered Prayers, in which Capote describes a visit to Colette’s apartment:

The room smelled of her perfume…at some point I asked what it was, and Colette said: “Jicky. The Empress Eugénie always wore it. I like it because it’s an old-fashioned scent with an elegant history, and because it’s witty without being coarse—like the better conversationalists. Proust wore it. Or so Cocteau tells me.”

Reading this sent me at lightning speed to a department-store Guerlain counter, where I doused myself in Jicky, concocted in 1889 by Jacques’s uncle, Aimé Guerlain. I marveled at the possibility of knowing how Colette—and for that matter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—smelled, and smelling that way myself.

Although my obsession with L’Heure Bleue continues on, the French teacher responsible for it faded into memory until three years ago, when I walked into a restaurant. Other than the fact that her hair now matched the gray of her pencil skirt, she was unchanged. She smiled quizzically when I said hello. When I told her my name and that I had been her student, she put out her hand—same bangle, same gold wedding band—and introduced me to her husband and son. She asked about my life and said she had retired. Just then, the waiter brought their dinner and I put out my hand to say goodbye. She stood up and embraced me, enveloping me in L’Heure Bleue. Somehow, transmitted from her to me, it smelled so beautiful.

For me, L’Heure Bleue is an elixir containing notes of the past, autonomy, and inspiration. The fact that I do not wear it does seem like a failure of grown-upness, to not have become the woman I planned to be. But then, these days I am more likely to concur with Colette not on her choice of perfume but on something else she told Capote: “To be a grown-up person…is the one thing none of us can ever be.”

Perhaps I had it right when I was a child, that the whole idea of being grown-up was an imaginative act. But I have yet to find anything that primes my imagination better than L’Heure Bleue. As I write this, that bottle is sitting just beside me, a reminder of how I’ve tried and continue trying to unlock the secrets of being a woman and the message in that bottle. (For the record, I wear Calèche by Hermès. But that’s another story entirely.)


Even though Coco Chanel took the credit, it was actually the poet Paul Valéry who said, “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” Here, five long-running classic perfumes that have given women the world over fragrant prospects indeed.

Chanel N° 5, 1921

Coco Chanel and her perfumer Ernest Beaux formulated Chanel’s first fragrance to last. Until N° 5, perfume had to be doused on frequently or the scent would fade away. Synthetic floral aldehydes, which Chanel was first to use, give it its staying power. Marilyn Monroe’s 1954 retort to a journalist who asked her what she wore in bed—“a few drops of N° 5”—didn’t hurt its endurance.

Top notes: ylang-ylang, neroli, aldehydes

Mid notes: May rose, Grasse jasmine

Base notes: sandalwood, vetiver, Bourbon vanilla

Joy, Jean Patou, 1930

Jean Patou and his perfumer, Henri Almeras, hit on the highly concentrated Joy when Patou gave Almeras the go-ahead to create a break-the-bank scent; just one ounce contains 10,600 jasmine blossoms and 336 Bulgarian roses. For decades it held a solid claim to its tagline, the “costliest perfume in the world.”

Top notes: Bulgarian rose, ylang-ylang, tuberose

Mid and Base notes: Grasse jasmine, May rose

Miss Dior, 1947

Christian Dior’s favorite flower was lily of the valley, so that’s where he turned in 1947 when he considered the first fragrance for his newly launched maison de couture. Its woody notes give it a slightly masculine slant, but the women who wore it, Grace Kelly and Babe Paley among them, were paragons of femininity and style.

Top notes: bergamot, gardenia, galbanum

Mid notes: rose, jasmine, lily of the valley

Base notes: patchouli, oak moss, amber, sandal- wood, vetiver

Fracas, Robert Piguet, 1948

Marlene Dietrich’s signature scent turns 60 this year. Although Robert Piguet—the couturier who with France’s first parfumeuse, Germaine Cellier, created Fracas—closed his legendary house in 1951, the scent lives on, as do the reputations of the many young apprentices he hired, including Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, and James Galanos. Piguet knew how to make an enduring classic, whether perfume or clothes; it was he who designed Edith Piaf’s trademark little black dress.

Top notes: bergamot, mandarin

Mid notes: jasmine, tuberose, gardenia

Base notes: sandalwood, musk

L’Air du Temps, Nina Ricci, 1948

Also for 60 years two Lalique doves have hovered over a crystal bottle as its contents graced a staggering number of pulse points. (The exclusive Lalique black crystal 60th-anniversary edition is shown here.) A bottle is sold somewhere in the world every 15 seconds. Creator Robert Ricci said he saw fragrance as “a protection in the same way as a veil. It shelters the wearer inside a fragranced aura.”

Top notes: carnation, gardenia

Mid notes: jasmine, Centifolia rose

Base notes: Mysore sandalwood, Florentine iris