One hundred years after the French Revolution began, the Eiffel Tower rose above Paris as a testament to the new century’s innovations in engineering and construction. It could be seen from everywhere in the city; an inescapable sign of a different type of revolution. But the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the only technological innovation to dominate the streets of Paris in 1889. That same year, the first modern perfume was created: Jicky.
What makes Jicky modern? As mentioned in our previous post on “The Art of the Scent,” it is widely regarded as the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic ingredients as well as natural extracts, making it one of the most significant perfumes in the history of scent design. Jicky was created by Aimé Guerlain, the son of perfumer Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, who founded the family perfume house in 1828 when he opened a small shop in Paris. At the time, natural floral perfumes were all the rage and the senior Guerlain was a master of the craft whose clients included Queens and Tsars. When Aimé took over as master perfumer upon his father’s death in 1864, he continued to develop new floral fragrances but he also brought his own unique innovations, adding exotic spices from the far East to the traditional Guerlain bouquet. In 1889, with the Eiffel looming above Paris, everything changed with the creation of Jicky, a new scent Aimé named after a lost love.
Breaking with traditions and trends, Guerlain challenged conventions by introducing synthetic molecules into his perfumes. At its most basic, Jicky was primarily composed of lavender and vanilla scents, along with secondary citrus notes and a hint of the traditional Guerlain bouquet. While the lavender was steam-distilled through a standard process, the vanilla scent presented a unique problem—it was an expensive and rather weak extract. So Guerlain sought out an alternative: synthetics. According to The Little Book of Perfumes, when the perfume was being conceived, only a single firm in Paris, De Laire, had the rights to patent synthetic vanillin, which was cheaper, sweeter and creamier than the natural alternative. Not only would these designed components—terpene alcohol β-linalool, coumarin and ethyl vanillin—add to the multi-faceted complexity of the scent, they also made it last longer. Although the process wasn’t perfect, the impurities of the synthetic extract added to the complexity of the scent. It was brave. It was bold. It was the first perfume designed to stir emotions, rather than just recall flowers. And it was worn almost exclusively by men. At first, anyway. Women soon came around and Jicky was actually marketed as a unisex fragrance. The ambiguity became a part of the identity of Jicky and is still referenced in the official description of the perfume:
“Oriental chypre Fresh, dynamic, surprising Filled with contrasts and dualities, freshness and oriental notes, Jicky is a magical perfume that plays on the olfactory ambiguity between masculine and feminine. The subtle spicy notes that blossom with the usual warmth of the oriental facet also play skillfully with the fresh and aromatic notes of lemon and lavender at its heart. Underneath this audacious structure, one detects woody and vanilla notes for greater vibration and character.”
Jicky is still made by Guerlain. And though it enjoys the distinction of being the oldest perfume in continuous production, the modern Jicky is different than the original. According to the authors of The Little Book, the scent was once “raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately.” The disparity can be partly explained by the purity of the vanillin, which improved as the process of creating synthetics was refined. Though measures were taken to recreate that certain je ne sais quoi with the addition of birch tar, the contemporary scent remains slightly different from the original. We may not think about it often, but all scents are the result of rigorous experimentation, trial-and-error and, sometimes, revolutionary invention. By breaking with tradition, Aimé Guerlain introduced perfumers to an entirely new, nearly limitless palette and changed perfume forever. The story of Jicky is the story of modern perfume. It’s a union of science, art, and perhaps even a little romance. And it proves, beyond a doubt, that scent is not only a design discipline but an art. Although it may evolve over time, it seems safe to say that as long as the Eiffel Tower stands, there will always be Jicky.
Previously on Design Decoded: Designing Scent: An Olfactory Exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design