digging (into) vintage: Guerlain Chamade, 1969

Image, Gregory Crewdson.

Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain.

Chamade captures the olfactory gestalt of Springtime like no other perfume. It smells like fresh stems, flowers, moisture, soil and rot. Succulence and indolence. More than a summary of notes, though, it smells like the sensations of Spring. It combines the acceleration of exploding growth and the leisurely pace of a world thawing over time. The rush of hyacinth pushing against the constraint of snow and pollen exploding from flowering trees convey the good-natured horniness and impatience of youth, yet the rebirth of the season is a free pass to young and old alike. The juxtaposition of the cool, crisp greenness and the burnished languor of the base, create a tension, an indeterminacy.  It comments on one season but refers to the cyclical nature of time, posing questions without offering conclusions.

Springtime is classically the season of potential and therefore, expectation. It suggests wide-open horizons and dreams of love and success, but a crocus blooms only  briefly and not all the chicks that hatch survive. Spring is equally passionate and cruel.

And I thought opera was melodramatic.

Chamade expounds on all of the above better than I could ever hope to. I avoid describing artwork as great because the ‘greats’ are usually a tally of opinions and ‘musts’. Greatness is held out as a threshold, a line to be crossed. Still, greatness in art has precedent. Great works are perennially rediscovered by individuals and generations because they are significant and remarkable. They express the meaning of their times at the same time that they offer advice to future generations. 

Chamade is a great perfume and it can be read on many levels, another attribute of great work. Its meaning for you could be Springtime, the story and the era of the novel after which it is named (Francoise Sagan’s La Chamade) or the excellence of its composition. Most ‘great’ perfumes are cited for the measurable effect they had on the state of the art. Chamade didn’t spawn movements and artistic trends in that way that Fougère Royale, Mitsouko, Shalimar and other iconic perfumes did. Its lasting influence is its capacity to frame broader meanings through expert composition. 

I know that my take on Chamade comes off like a litany of cheap platitudes, and I apologize for that. I’ve tried to write about Chamade numerous time, each time throwing out what I’ve written as it never seemed to capture the pertinence of Chamade. I still don’t do Chamade justice, but I’ve changed my goal from understanding it to acknowledging it.