L'Heure Bleue Eau de Toilette (Guerlain)

"I'm looking for L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain," I tell the perfume counter employee.

She sets down the BabyPhat gift pack she was about to place on top of the display pyramid and squints at me. "Girr-what?"

"Guerlain," I repeat. "One of the world's oldest and most famous perfume houses."

"Well, I'VE never heard of it," she says, waving me over to one of her colleagues.

"I'm looking for L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain," I tell the colleague.

"Guh-who?" she says, gripping the edge of a table bearing a ziggurat of Ed Hardy for Christian Audigier, as if for moral support.

I point to the glass display case behind her, where a lonely bottle of Shalimar gathers dust. "Guerlain."

"Oh! Gwer-layne!" For a moment her face brightens. Then: "Is, um, what you said... Lurr Blur... is that a new product?"

"Actually, it's almost a hundred years old, but still in production today."

"Oh.... let me get my manager."

The manager, a fiftyish woman with a leathery tan and mascara clumps on her starry lashes, waves a gold-bangled hand at my request. "Leer Bloo? Maybe in the city, dawling. But we have Joocy Coo-toor-- that's kind of French."

Call me a snob, but I believe that every perfume counter ought to invest in a single bottle of L'Heure Bleue as an educational tool. Let corporate write it off as a training expense-- that little bottle will provide a reference baseline against which all other fragrances may be compared. For once you have tried L'Heure Bleue -- no matter which side of the counter you stand on -- "good" will become a fixed definition in your mind.

The fabled "blue hour" begins with a sunset. The landscape is drenched in dying light, a haze of evanescent pink, orange, and lemon yellow that fades even as you focus your mind on it. The last of the earth's heat causes the evening air to shimmer. Shadows that seemed stark and black in full sun now appear as shifting veils of deep purple and periwinkle blue, against which the first fireflies begin to paint their fluorescent calligraphies. You settle back in satisfaction, relaxing into the beauty of the evening... only to realize with a start that the air has turned slightly chilly and damp. The day has died away; twilight steals over the scene... along with an undefinable sense of loss and regret.

This melancholy is what L'Heure Bleue famously evokes. Other perfumes before it sought only to assemble a list of ingredients in the interest of providing a good time. Jacques Guerlain took the same ingredients -- neroli, carnation, iris, musk, and vanilla -- and opted instead to convey a human emotion, and not an easy or happy one. There is an unmistakable salty tang to L'Heure Bleue's drydown that brings tears to mind (if not to one's eyes). Are they tears of joy or sorrow? The answer is left to the wearer.

Many modern perfumes shriek confidence in a way that makes you think there's a "positive thinking" clause in the contract. The tales they tell are those of conquest, self-promotion, and overweening optimism, in which the wearer always wins. But L'Heure Bleue dares to confess uncertainty, vulnerability, and a certain ambivalence about the future. Its story contains sad scenes of cherished things coming to an end-- a day, a way of life, a love affair. In an ephemeral world, it has the audacity to remind us of the eternal price one pays for fleeting pleasure.

Some perfumistas label L'Heure Bleue an "old lady" scent. Of course-- it's the old ladies, not the young, who have loved, lost, and lived to tell about it. To paraphrase Jim Morrison: the girls don't know, but their grandmothers understand. And in the simple terms of quality, if more first-time perfume buyers had the opportunity to experience L'Heure Bleue right out of the gate, the Baby Phats, Harajuku Lovers, and Juicy Coutures of this world would never stand a chance.

To this day, L'Heure Bleue voices a challenge to our preconceptions. In a language both archaic and timeless, it says: Forget what you think a fragrance ought to be-- what it should smell like, how long it should last, what it should say. I am from another time, another world. And once you have heard it speak, all other tongues seem impoverished by comparison.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, aniseed, carnation, neroli, orange blossom, iris, violet, jasmine, heliotrope, ylang-ylang, Bulgarian rose, tuberose, vanilla, benzoin, tonka bean, incense, musk