Nahéma means ‘Daughter of Fire’. An appropriate name for a smouldering fragrance forged from a sensual elixir of roses, peach, tonka, benzoin, ylang, sandalwood and of course the mysterious and magical vanillic twist that has transformed so many Guerlain fragrances into lush hypnotic classics.
Created by Jean-Paul Guerlain in 1979, Nahéma is bronzed and golden, a burnished blooming rose, so beautiful as to be almost untouchable, like a movie star, glowing on screen in a darkened auditorium. It inspires shock and awe and no one else has come close to capturing the power and impact of Nahéma’s massive beauty. It seems like every rose ever made and like no real rose at all. I had forgotten its ability to literally stop my world turning, just for a moment as a storm of roses splinters, then coalesces and reforms around you.
I have been a Guerlain fan for years. Derby, Chamade pour Homme, Spiritueuse Double Vanille, Bois D’Arménie, Shalimar, Sous le Vent. Any trip to Paris incudes a visit to the salon on the Champs Elysées with its glittering golden stairs and specialist consultants who live and breathe Guerlain. I love the reverence of the language they use, the vanillic taste in the air, the chic and eternal way fragrance is revered from mainstays like Mitsouko and Insolence to hidden beauties like Iris Ganache, Cruel Gardenia, Derby Pour Homme and Quand Vient la Pluie.
So in early spring last year I was browsing a Guerlain counter listening to the facile chat of the saleswoman who seemed incredibly shocked I wore anything vaguely feminine and insisted on talking to me about Habit Rouge and Vetiver. I told her I actually disliked both and Guerlain had murdered the Vetiver through pointless tinkering and reformulation. She asked my opinion on Guerlain Homme, Thierry Wasser’s first major work for Guerlain after joining them as in-house perfumer and master in waiting to Jean-Paul G. I paused, recalling the acidic lime/mojito horror that had surfaced under the Guerlain name. It was utterly banal, bereft of any style and seemed to say: look Guerlain can do street. I told the poor woman it was not my thing. I liked my vanillas and balsams, my impact scents: my beloved Jicky and L’Heure Bleue, deep and full of personal history. Dancefloors, kissing older men, and falling into taxis reeking of vanilla, amber, sex and fags. I always wore them too young, but the memories resonate and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
So there I was wondering whether or not to replace my Samsara and Vol de Nuit, when I realised I hadn’t tried Nahéma in years. Had I ever worn it properly? Was it the rose thing? I knew it was a rich fruity rose and had been through a few changes, but I had only a memory of wearing it to a strange party where we danced in front of a log fire to The Pixies and I let a total stranger kiss me in the snow outside. Quite a sudden memory, just from thinking about wearing it. I sprayed it onto my wrists and scarf and walked away.
The aldehydes swirled around me as I walked, making me slightly dizzy. So classically French in its opening. Golden and bronze aldehydes, gauzy and shimmering; setting the scene for the glowing entrance of the rose and peach accord. It comes on like CGI, larger than life, luscious and beating like a fiery heart. The peach note is so tactile, palpable and yet elusive too, darting back and forth as the roses rise up and proclaim themselves. It is very hard to discern any one rose. In his Guide, Luca Turin mentions that word in the industry has it that Nahéma contains no rose at all. The effect is a dazzling slight of aromachemical hand, supported by ylang, cyclamen, lily, vanilla and woods. Yet the full-blown rush of roses is show stopping. It is like asking an artist to paint a perfect rose. What would it look like? What colour would it be? Nahéma is an olfactory fantasy rose, a storyteller’s dream, an essence of 1001 Nights. It has a voluptuous body, blush-toned and a little coy. But behind the seemingly innocent play of pretty soft peach, plush skins and heavy burgeoning roses, there is serious eroticism.
Despite Turin’s speculation on the invisible nature of Nahéma’s central rose motif, the hugely complex character of the fragrance is based on five roses according to Roja Dove. Rose de Mai absolute and essential oil, Bulgarian Rose absolute and essential oil and damascenones, the aromachemicals derived from natural isolates found in roses that glow in fragrances like flickering candle light viewed though cranberry coloured glass. These five elements build up layer upon layer like lacquer, polishing the rose effect to a glossy, reflective, grand piano shine.
It is not a subtle scent; those looking for lightness and prettiness need to look elsewhere. Nahéma has power and weight. The dark lactonic sillage is extraordinary. I love the storminess of the roses, the sweetness of the peach notes that calms the storm; the vanillic base is classic Guerlain but supports the weight of roses with grace and comforting warmth.
Wearing it again was an amazing experience. Its power to move and just hold me in time for a moment totally entranced me.
I remembered dancing with the heat of the fire on the back of my legs. I wanted someone to notice, I can’t remember who now. The Pixies were playing so loudly. The room was so hot. I’d drunk too much wine. I could smell so many roses, in my hair, on my skin, in the hot air. Someone danced behind me, telling me I smelt good. Suddenly I was in the garden, being kissed greedily as snow fell. Roses to keep me warm. Lit windows above. I looked up and smiled. He kissed my throat, ‘you smell gorgeous, like gold’, he said. I laughed.
So, Nahéma, daughter of Fire. When is a rose not a rose. When it is made from burnished gold. It is not a Guerlain bestseller, but it is one of the remarkable fragrances the House has produced. When I wear it I feel gilded and special as if I’m quietly on fire, flickering in the dark. There are roses everywhere, but there is nothing quite like a Guerlain rose.
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