The world’s first lipstick. The first modern perfume. A pivoting toothbrush. The original Nivea cream and serum. Not to mention the intimate secrets of Queen Elizabeth II. These are some of the treasures held in Guerlain's first archive, which brings stories from the iconic French cosmetic company's sensational past to life.
Guerlain gave The Associated Press exclusive international media access to its newly opened collection, a warehouse of wonders shrouded in secrecy and hidden from public view by Paris’ Seine River. It's a gem of documents and mysterious objects spanning three centuries, each with a unique history of its own.
Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about the collection is that the company founded in 1828 that invented modern perfumery hadn't assembled it before.
“It’s what we call our little secret,” said Guerlain heritage director Ann Caroline Prazan, who sifted through a mine of artifacts to compile it in a years-long labor of love. “It was hard to whittle down 18,000 pieces to just 400 from so many years, but we did it ... Some of the pieces are so fragile, I’m scared to touch them.”
The ambitious project exists thanks to Prazan's passion — and patience. Through a mist of perfume, she reels off vignettes about Guerlain's innovations and famous patrons, including French Empress Eugenie, Josephine Baker, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbra Streisand, Margaret Thatcher and the late UK queen.
As Prazan turned to handle the collection’s most prized object, a lipstick created in 1870 and housed in a contemporary looking gold bullet, she carefully took off her white gloves as if she were performing a sacred ritual.
“It’s so modern,” she whispered, her finger carefully operating a push-up mechanism to reveal a dark Bordeaux wax pigment still intact after 153 years.
The refillable lipstick has a remarkable story, like everything else in the archive seems to. An employee of Aime and Gabriel Guerlain was walking in a street and happened upon the store of a candlemaker, whose wax and colored pigments gave him a eureka moment.
At the time, women used tubs of colored powder to paint their lips with a clunky brush. Seeing the candlemaker's tools gave the Guerlain employee the “mad” idea of creating a waxy, lip cosmetic as a stick, Prazan said.
“That small object revolutionized women’s makeup forever,” she said.
Prazan also procured the world’s first ever lipliner, also in sleek gold casing, and a third stick—that one AP journalist couldn't identify. It turned out to be a liner that women used to paint the veins on their arms and necks blue, a popular technique women used in late 19th century Paris to appear paler. Thankfully, Prazan said, it has gone out of fashion.
That Guerlain is a family-run house across five successive generations is perhaps one reason why these archival pieces have been so fastidiously kept. The company was bought by luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1994, but has managed to keep its unique identity.
Innovation, including beyond the sphere of perfume, is the brand's hallmark. Among the archival treasures is the patent for the first pivoting toothbrush. Documents revealed a 1845 design that looked like a precursor to today’s electric toothbrush.
A tub of moisturizing cream called Nivea that was whisked out of a drawer told another tale that connected past and present. The cream, which contained ingredients to whiten the skin of European women, was sold off by the house to create the famous skincare company of the same name.
Then there is the old bottle of Jicky, the world’s first modern perfume. Created in 1889, it revolutionized the market with the concept of a scent cocktail—not just one note like previous fragrances—that featured hints of spice, lemon, lavender, wood and vanilla. It also included synthetic ingredients and is, incredibly, the world's oldest continuously produced perfume.
Yet it is the anecdotes of the house’s stars that bring the most dazzle to a collection which seems so alive despite its history.
Queen Elizabeth II, featured in a photo on the wall wearing a glamorous white fur stole, was such a fan of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue perfume, Prazan says, that she emptied a bottle and filled it up with the oil from her 1952 coronation. It was kept for years, such was the late monarch's emotional attachment to the scent.
From another archive shelf, a bottle for a different perfume gleamed with allure. It was the fragrance created for the baptism of the queen's uncle years before he became King Edward VII—and famously abdicated the throne for love. Sometimes the collection seems like a potted timeline of the key moments of the world’s historical figures.
While the archive is an secret affair, the brand has created an exhibit open to the public for the 170th anniversary of its most famous design, the Bee Bottle. The exhibit, called “Chere Eugenie,” is on view at Guerlain's Champs-Elysees shop until 4 September.
There, the original Bee Bottle—a historical artifact—is on display like a crown jewel with light reflecting off hand-painted bee reliefs. It was created in 1853 for the nuptials of Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III.
The bee was the French imperial emblem and also the emblem of Clovis, first king of the Francs. It has come to represent Guerlain to this day.
For the bottle's anniversary, 11 international artists and actors, including Charlotte Rampling and Audrey Tautou, created a series of photographs inspired by the Bee Bottle.
A foot in the past with eyes to the future seem to define Guerlain, a mantra its longevity has forced the company to perfect.
“I plan well into the future, easily 100 years away," Prazan noted while putting away her nearly 200-year-old objects. "I know the house will be around for that long, long after we're gone. How many people can say that?”