The day I lost my perfume sample collection was tragic indeed.
I was eight or nine years old back then. Stashed in a shiny little black cardboard box that I kept at the back of my closet was my treasure---that is, a truly ridiculous amount of perfume samples haphazardly thrown into a messy pile. I had a little bit of everything, from cheap men's cologne to fairly high-end women's perfume. Of course, as you'd be wise to expect from a kid watching over a collection of fragile glass containers, most of it ended up cracked and damaged. The samples' collective content quickly soaked directly through the box to comfortably seep into the carpet below – producing an odor so overwhelming that I'm pretty sure it could have fried our dog's nose, God bless her. A few days later as the smell began to reach toxic levels, I came back from school to discover that the box and its contents had mysteriously vanished...
It was a hard and cruel blow for me, but I came out stronger; the scars healed (except the ones on the carpet) and life went on. It certainly gave me a newfound appreciation for fine fragrances, and I could now hide away in my closet without suffocating, which was a definite plus. It also taught me a thing or two about quality over quantity – a lesson that I carry with me as I have reduced my perfume consumption to a precious few small bottles a year. And precisely a few months back, I acquired a vial of a rather intriguing eau de toilette, whose name "Mouchoir de Monsieur" (Monsieur's Handkerchief) caught my attention...
Mouchoir de Monsieur is from another time. Not unlike that old distant relative who you meet for the first time at your grandparent's home during a family reunion. Past the first contact, which might be slightly rough around the edges, you discover something that only old people can offer. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is – it's in the air, it might be dated, it might be timeless, but it's worth listening to, if only because it makes you ponder for a while.
Created in 1904 by Jacques Guerlain, five years after its legendary predecessor Jicky, Mouchoir de Monsieur is one of the oldest men's perfume of the Parisian institution. It was conceived with its sister, Voilette de Madame, for the marriage of one of Jacques' friend. This raison d'être is hardly surprising, the Guerlain family had a habit of making perfumes linked to very personal stories and anecdotes. As an example, the 1933 fragrance Vol de Nuit was created by the same Jacques as a tribute for his friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Describing such a perfume is a hard task, especially when it's your first time trying your hand at it. The vocabulary used can be fairly esoteric and abstract, which makes sense to a certain extent; after all, the sense of smell deals with the intangible. But above all considerations of style, the substance itself is not easy to grasp either. Mouchoir de Monsieur is what you could call a rare fragrance, in every sense of the word. Rare because it is refined, that's for certain, but also rare because not so long ago, Mouchoir de Monsieur was only made for a very small ring of aficionados, including European royalty and old money.
The original formula has changed, that much is true – and much of it can be blamed on numerous regulations made in Brussels on which products can or cannot be used in perfumes and cosmetics, for various ecological and health-related reasons. An unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of being a member of the European Union. Despite this, the current iteration has retained a lot of charm.
I've often seen Mouchoir de Monsieur described as a perfume for "dandies", which I find to simply be not true. The state of mind that such a term implies is light-years away from the spirit of the perfume itself. While wearing it may be understood as a strong statement, Mouchoir de Monsieur is, at heart, a very subtle and discreet fragrance that has nothing in common with the flamboyant and hell-raising art de vivre of the original dandies. It is so subtle in fact, that even the name references the very delicate custom of lightly spraying a handkerchief (mouchoir) with perfume to have something nice to present to someone that might have a use for it.
Mouchoir de Monsieur is a very deceiving fellow however; the first few minutes after the initial spray from a newly opened bottle are extremely rich and strong, almost overwhelmingly animal – an impression most likely brought about by the strong notes of civet. You could almost smell the damp earth of a forest after the rain, with puddles of mud heated by the sun underlining beautifully the strong fern, the lemon, and the floral notes that try to break through the lingering lavender scent.
But as quickly it came and as wild as it was, the beast gets domesticated, and after going through rose and jasmine, it finally settles down and lets the vanilla shine through. It is then that everything comes full circle in a muted, powdery, and discreet way.
Mouchoir de Monsieur then becomes the understated kind of fragrance that stays close to the skin. After the first few hours, it makes its presence known only through small and discreet hints here and there throughout the day. In that respect, it is deceivingly long-lasting. It doesn't leave behind a silage so thick you can almost see it, but it's a perfume that goes through many phases. The kind that has you scratching your nose just so you can get a quick whiff at your wrist. Because Mouchoir de Monsieur is a discreet fragrance. Very discreet. One could even say too discreet, as you could very much be tempted to reapply a spray or two as the day goes by. But is it necessarily a defect ? Apply it on a handkerchief though, and it becomes obscenely long-lasting – making it a pleasure to appreciate its many different aspects as the hours pass.
Mouchoir de Monsieur is a peculiar perfume, and a beautiful balancing act that is much more than what it seems to be. As a direct heir to an era long past, it plays by a slightly different set of rules, perhaps at the risk of finding itself at odds with some of today's codes. It is a very refined scent, and a slightly dirty one at that, which, in a world dominated by clean "sport" deodorant, is an excellent thing.
Wear it with an old tweed.