Elegance that defies time and age, the crystal clear clarity of moonlight, the refinement of a dandy with the soft warmth of the lady, the natural freshness of an aromatic country garden, and a play on light and dark, cleanness and dirtiness. Those are a few of the things encapsulated for me by Jicky, a Guerlain legend that just celebrated its 125th birthday and is reportedly the oldest fragrance in continuous production. In this review, I’ll focus on modern Jicky, solely because it is the version most people have access to, and limit myself to the Eau de Parfum concentration, often called Parfum de Toilette. The eau de toilette is most common form of the scent, with the lightest, freshest, and most citrusy aspects, but I think the PDT/EDP may be truest to the spirit of the original Jicky.
Jicky was created in 1889 by Aimé Guerlain. The legend is that he created it in memory of a girl he loved whose nickname was “Jicky,” though it seems that he may have named it after his nephew instead. It is a fragrance that is considered one of the very first “modern” creations, both in terms of its use of synthetically extracted molecules and in terms of being truly unisex. In fact, Jicky seems to have been originally marketed as a men’s fragrance before women took it over for their own. I think it is a masterpiece that anyone of any gender who enjoys aromatic perfumes centered on lavender should try for themselves.
From a technical and perfume aspect, Jicky is significant for a variety of reasons. There is the issue of the synthetic coumarin molecules used for one of the first times in perfumery (after Houbigant did it for his perfume) and the unisex angle, but Jicky is also important because it serves as the template for many of Guerlains which followed. According to Monsieur Guerlain, who runs an unofficial website about Guerlain’s fragrances and an undisputed expert on them, Jicky was the first example of what later became known as “Guerlainade,” the signature elements in the base that is evident in almost all of the house’s creations to this day and which people often summarize simply as a lightly powdered, vanilla tonka sweetness. (It’s a little more than that.) Many people find Jicky to be extremely similar to Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur, but it also seems to be the template for Shalimar, and some people argue that the latter is simply an oriental version of Jicky that has leathery resins and more vanilla, but not its boyish, herbal, outdoorsy, and dirty, masculine, civet elements.
One thing that is important for people to understand about Jicky is that it is an aromatic fougère. It is a genre that is often today associated with male fragrances and colognes, which is perhaps why some women find Jicky to be too masculine a scent. However, the fougère is one of the oldest, main, and most classical perfume groups. As Fragrantica explains, these fragrances center on coumarin, as does Jicky in large part:
Name of the olfactive group ‘fougere’ derives from French word ‘fougere’ or ‘fern’. Coumarin can be found in the center of compositions. Perfume-originator of this group is Fougere Royal by the house of Houbigant, created by Paul Parquet in 1882. The perfumer extracted the synthetic component coumarin and used it in perfumery for the first time. Coumarin can be found in nature in several plants, such as Tonka beans, and it possesses intensive scent of freshly mown grass. Fougere compositions include notes of lavender, geranium, moss and wood.
To me, coumarin smells largely of fresh, sweet, dried hay. Yet, it also derives from tonka beans which often have a strong scent of vanilla with a slightly powdery nuance. Both aspects are a critical part of Jicky, along with the lavender which is another key component of the fougère category.
According to Monsieur Guerlain, the newest list of notes for Jicky are:
bergamot, neroli, verbena, lemon, orange, rosemary, geranium, lavender, mint, absinthe, tuberose, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver, civet, orris [iris], tonka bean, vanilla.
Jicky opens on my skin with lavender and green, fresh anise, followed by tiny sprinkles of rosemary and thyme for a very crisp, herbal, aromatic bouquet. In the background, there are bright, juicy citruses, and the merest whisper of something darker from the civet, musk, and rosewood. Initially, they hover just out of sight like a shadow, before floating into view like wisps, then retreating back to the periphery.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, civet is something very traditional in French perfumery and was originally derived from the anal gland secretions of civet cats. Its “dirty” aroma can smell fecal or urinous in large doses, but perfumers love it in small doses for the radiance and warmth that it adds. Here, in reformulated, diluted, post-2010 Jicky EDP, the note is too light and subtle to take on some of civet’s skankier, more hardcore animalic aspects, but it does add a slightly musky dirtiness to Jicky. It is initially an intangible, almost abstract whiff at first, but it nonetheless provides a sharp contrast to the cleaner, lighter, fresher notes.
The odd thing with regard to the civet’s dirtiness is that its appearance, timing, and strength seem to depend on how much Jicky I apply. In earlier tests when I used less (roughly 2 big smears amounting to 1 spray from a bottle), the note didn’t show up until the start second hour, was very muffled, stayed largely in the background, and then faded away after another 60 minutes. However, when I applied more amounting to the equivalent of 2 small sprays from a bottle, the civet showed up from the start in a much more significant way, and was not a muffled note at all.
Even odder is how it moves through the fragrance in those first 90 minutes. It ebbs and flows, like a wave hitting the shore, appearing quite noticeably almost like clockwork every 10 minutes, before retreating to the periphery. Every time I thought it had finally vanished, it reappeared again. Once, it felt vaguely sweaty, but it usually combined with the woody elements to add a vague”dirtiness” and woody skankiness. The strange 10-minute cycle continued for the entire, opening 90-minutes, before the civet finally retreated to the background in a more muted, muffled way. My suggestion for those who aren’t keen on skanky notes is to apply less of the fragrance, or to have some patience because the true beauty of Jicky lies elsewhere.
Jicky’s heart centers around three notes, one of which is lavender. It feels silvery, as if it had been purified of all its abrasively pungent, medicinal, harsh tonalities. As regular readers know, I have a deep-seated phobia regarding lavender that goes back to my childhood in the South of France. Fragrances featuring the note can often send me running for the hills in horror, and my perfume nightmares are centered around the ghastly, very potent, Provençal lavender sachets exploding like minefields, drowning me in the revolting, dried, purple things. I’m shuddering even typing these words. There are only two lavender fragrances in the world that I love, and it’s taken me a long, long time to reach even that point. So, it should tell you something when this lavender-phobe says that the note in Jicky is lovely. It’s refined, elegant, and consistently makes me think of silver light.
A large part of the appeal is how the lavender has been impacted by walloping, massive amounts of coumarin and tonka which are threaded through every molecule of the plant here. Not only is the lavender purified in feel, but its softness is sweetened by hay and vanilla tonalities. Wisps of fresh, green anise arrive from God knows where to add brightness, as well as a licorice undertone that further underscores the sweetness. Tiny speckles of bergamot and lemon are seamlessly swirled into the mix to provide a sparkling freshness.
Jicky’s opening stage is my ideal for a clean scent. This is not the artificial, often sterilized, always synthetic “clean” of so many commercial scents today with their laboratory-created, ghastly fabric softener, Bounce, and white musk notes. This is a “clean” that evokes crisp, white sheets being hung out to dry on a clothes-line in a country garden, absorbing the natural freshness of the lavender bushes and herbal garden around it, the sweetness of distant flowers, and the warmth of the sun. This is a natural, beautiful “cleanness” that feels incredibly comforting.
And, yet, it is also far more. I think Jicky oozes with elegance, a minimalistic but simultaneously complex smoothness, and an androgynous dandyism. It is the embodiment of a raffiné icon, from the 19th century trendsetter and societal darling, Beau Brummell, to the stylish Marlene Dietrich in a tailored man’s suit. It doesn’t feel modern to me; it feels timeless. It may be 125 years old and centered around one of the most classical, traditional, and earliest fragrance genres, but Jicky seems to float through the air, through time, through gender classifications to become something more. It has an effortless elegance that defies a date, an elegance for every man and every woman.
It smells so simple at its core. And, in truth, Jicky isn’t a particularly complex fragrance on my skin, regardless of that long list of notes. It is primarily a triptych of lavender, coumarin, and tonka vanilla which opens with fluctuating degrees of civet and anise, before it turns to a drydown infused by creamy woods. Yet, Jicky feels as though everything has been carefully calibrated to be as seamless and as smooth as quicksilver. Again and again, I think of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” piano piece, and of the lightness of the moon in a twilight sky tinged with lavender purple and with whispers of darker shadows at the periphery. Tonka vanilla surrounds the silvery orb like a creamy halo, but the key is that light which symbolizes lavender purified to the point where it feels as clear as a musical note trembling in the air.
I’ll be honest, the civet rather ruins the experience for me when I apply a larger dose of Jicky. It’s fine at a lesser quantity, because it adds an intriguing contrast that is muted enough to be genuinely appealing and interesting, a perfect shadow in the background. Yet, when the note is more prominent at a higher quantity, adding an occasionally raunchy dirtiness, it takes me out of the poetic, comforting, soothing bouquet. It feels rather disconcerting, like this is something that simply doesn’t belong, much like one of those high school exam questions where you’re given a list of things and asked “Which one of these things is not like the other?”
It’s not as though I have issues with civet or dirty, animalic notes, either. After all, I just raved about vintage Bal à Versailles which is considered by some to be the queen of civet skankiness. With Jicky, though, the dirtiness is such a sharp, jarring juxtaposition to the silvery light and the natural cleanness that it feels like a disconcerting, almost alien encroachment. I realise that this polarity is precisely the reason why the fragrance is considered to be so brilliant. It is most definitely a clever construct, an interplay on both light and dark, clean and dirty. I fully realise all that on an intellectual, theoretical level. Yet, on an emotional level, I’m not quite so enthused because I truly love the purity of the scent without it. I rarely like lavender fragrances and now that I’ve found one that moves me to virtual sonnets about its elegance, there is the blasted murkiness to ruin it. You can understand why I may be a little grumpy.
Patience is the key, however. Every time I’m about to wrinkle my nose to bemoan the loss of that beautiful, lavender-vanilla-hay sweetness, the dirtiness vanishes. Not just every 10 minutes like clockwork in the first stage, but almost permanently as a major element in Jicky roughly midway during the second hour. There are exceptions, where the civet pops up its head briefly in the background to give a tiny wave, but generally the dirty darkness is gone in any significant way.
At the 90 minute mark, Jicky turns deeper, creamier, and with a greater degree of both the vanilla and the hay. The touch of anise greenness and all lingering herbal elements have disappeared. Instead, taking their place is a certain tonka graininess. It is not powdery, but, rather, the sort of textural quality that I often experience with tonka. The bergamot pops up once in a while, along with a subtle, wholly abstract, “floral” accord in the background. The latter is not something that can be teased apart into jasmine, rose, or iris. Rather, it’s merely a generalized, “floral” impression on my skin.
What is interesting is the hay or coumarin note. It has started to play the same game that the musky civet did earlier, waxing and waning like the tide. At times, the note feels amorphous, and without distinct, individual edge, but you can definitely sense it swirling in the mix. On other occasions, however, the hay surges past the lavender to become the driving force in Jicky, before dropping back a few paces. Eventually, the sweet hay does, in fact, take over completely as the main note on my skin, along with the tonka.
The 3rd hour heralds the start of Jicky’s long drydown phase. The perfume begins to turn woodier, as the rosewood and sandalwood start to trickle up from the base. The latter never smells like Mysore sandalwood in and of itself, but the wood has a lovely creaminess that is lightly spiced and similar to Mysore’s gingerbread tonalities. I suspect the aroma derives from the combination of the rosewood, the sandalwood, the sweet myrrh, and vanilla. The overall effect is to add greater body and nuance to the bouquet which, from afar, still smells primarily of lavender, dried hay, and sweet tonka.
Jicky doesn’t change in any significant way for the next three hours. It is generally a lavender and hay combination with an occasional, very faint streak of civet skank, all resting atop a thin base of creamy tonka and creamy woods. It is a gauzy, soft, light affair that clings to the skin like a private kiss.
The main change on my skin concerns the lavender which slowly, very slowly, begins to fade away. At the start of the 6th hour, Jicky is primarily a soft, creamy vanilla-hay fragrance with abstract woodiness, the faintest smidgeon of lavender, and an occasional, brief touch of civet. The perfume remains that way until its final few hours. In its dying moments, Jicky is merely a blur of slightly dry, vaguely tonka-ish sweetness.
All in all, Jicky Eau de Parfum lasts consistently over 9.5 hours on my skin. With a small dose equivalent to 1 spray, the longevity came in at roughly 10 hours, though it seemed close to dying at the start of the 8th hour. With a larger amount equal to 2 sprays, Jicky lasted just under 12 hours on my perfume consuming skin, but, again, you had to put your nose actually on your skin to detect it by the middle of the 8th hour.
As a whole, I think Jicky has average to soft projection. The opening bouquet is very strong at first, but the scent as a whole is airy, lightweight, and soft. Jicky is not a powerhouse either in terms of density or projection. The larger quantity that I’ve described above initially gave me 2-3 inches in sillage, but it took a mere 45 minutes for Jicky to drop to an inch above the skin where it remained for a while. Jicky turned into a gauzy skin scent on me 3.5 hours into the perfume’s development, but it wasn’t particularly hard to detect up close until much later. When I dabbed on a smaller quantity, roughly 1 spray from an actual bottle, Jicky initially projected 1-2 inches, then followed the same general pattern as described above. In short, average projection and good longevity.
Jicky is a polarizing scent that people either love or hate, and it’s due primarily to the civet skankiness, though some women also struggle with the aromatic fougère qualities that they occasionally find to be too masculine. Bloggers generally love the fragrance, but comments on Fragrantica are largely mixed.
What is interesting to me about the comments there is not the usual discussion of whether Jicky’s dirty aspect is too much or just perfect, but something else: the extent to which it resembles other Guerlain fragrances. A number of people argue about the ways it does or does not resemble Shalimar, not to mention Mouchoir de Monsieur. 92 people voted that Jicky is similar to the latter, while 5 chose Shalimar, but the actual comments on Fragrantica focus heavily on how Shalimar is Jicky+. In a nutshell, Jicky with the addition of oriental, leather, dark, and balsamic elements, as well as a more significant quantity of vanilla. You can read the comments for yourself, as I’d prefer to give you some blogger perspectives instead.
One has to start with Monsieur Guerlain, the unofficial site about all things related to Guerlain fragrances and whose expertise I admire. While he has a post on vintage Jicky, the more applicable one is his 2008 discussion on Jicky as a whole. There, he lays out the perfume’s history, explains why it is a technical masterpiece on a structural level, and then analyses its aroma:
Parfum, EdT, PdT. Multifaceted and subtle, Jicky shows a somewhat different portrait in each of its concentrations. The Parfum, with its focus on the base notes, is smooth and deep, at moments strangely unassuming like the milky skin of a baby, at others warmly carnal as a woman’s body. The EdT is much more open and zippy up top, lightheartedly emanating citrus-soaked purple lavender, herbs and tonka bean, a delicious mixture of sweet pastry and all the smells of Southern France in the summer. If one wants an all-in-one Jicky, the choice is PdT which has every part fully represented and given off in delectable succession, with extra sandalwood and the spicier of the three.
Reformulation. Given the fact that Jicky was invented along with the automobile and the light bulb, it’s no surprise it hasn’t stayed exactly the same. Vintage Jicky was Guerlain’s finest example of the use of sandalwood oil in a perfume, glowing and slightly earthy, and Luca Turin remembers the Jicky of his childhood as “raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately” — all those turbid, spicy and leathery materials are no longer available to the perfumer. Jicky is now undeniably politer. A side effect of the tidying up is lower tenacity, an oft-heard complaint about today’s Jicky.
Recommended: Parfum or PdT from the late 1980s.
His assessment of how the PDT or Eau de Parfum is the best all-in-one representation of Jicky, with a spicier tonality and more sandalwood is one reason why I’ve focused on that formulation here today. Another is that I’ve smelled the Eau de Toilette, and don’t find it as appealing. It’s far too thin, especially in its post-2010 reformulated state, and also too citrusy for me. The Parfum is too expensive for most people to obtain, and is also said to have much more of a herbal/lavender focus which, for reasons explained above, made this lavender-phobe reluctant to try it.
Jicky is not for everyone. It really isn’t, and I think those who are unaccustomed to civet may have some difficulty, especially if they’ve never experienced an animalic note or are used to the cleanness of most modern, commercial fragrances. Barbara Herman — the vintage perfume expert who blogged at Yesterday’s Perfume before writing her book, Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume — gives a good account of her initial reaction to the scent. Please note that her review dates from 2009, and talks about an earlier eau de toilette formulation of Jicky, as well as the vintage pure parfum. Both are much, much skankier than the current, very watered down, tamer, post-2010 and 2012 versions, but her account still serves as a cautionary tale:
Jicky is not a love-at-first-sniff scent, unless you are blessed with an adventurous nose or cursed with anosmia (the inability to smell). I sampled a modern formulation at Saks Fifth Avenue last year when I just began to get into vintage scents, and I was truly baffled. After spraying it on, I couldn’t believe that people said they loved it. Are they faking, I wondered, because they’re supposed to love a classic?
Between the blast of citrus and lavender, followed by the stink of (synthetic) civet, Jicky was a fragrance I was horrified that anyone would have worn. I began to wonder if perfume simply meant something different at this time.
I have since developed a more complicated nose, and able to appreciate other perfumes I’ve loved with enough civet to make them mysteriously erotic [.... So I then] got a sample of vintage, parfum-concentration Jicky. Like a junkie seeking a hit of civet but having to wait for it to kick in, I was a little disappointed that the parfum concentration was so well-blended and rounded! Unlike the modern EDT, which gives you a one-two punch of lavender/civet, the vintage parfum Jicky took its sweet time to take off its underpants, as it were.
Like a horny teenage boy faced with a gorgeous, brilliant woman, I was not inclined to appreciate having to make small talk with Jicky before she showed me her carnal side. But, it had to happen. I got to know Jicky first as lavender, then as bergamot, easing into vanilla, and then, in the afterglow, the civet that hovered over these bright notes like the smell of sex after a romp between two freshly bathed people. [Emphasis added by me.]
On Temptalia, a guest post from “Caitlin” in 2012 called Jicky “a life-changing scent.” It mirrors a lot of my own feelings about the perfume’s strange beauty and the “jarring” nature of the civet. At the same time, it offers an accurate, succinct analysis of Jicky’s smell, and how it differs from concentration to concentration:
Confusion is not an emotion I expect to feel when sampling a fragrance, but that was exactly my experience the first time I came across Guerlain Jicky (Eau de Toilette, $98; Eau de Parfum, $122; Pure Parfum, $317). I had never before experienced such enticing notes mixed with something a little strange, something a little off-putting. The thing is, that jarring note wasn’t quite off-putting enough. It was off-putting in an interesting way, in a good way, if that’s possible! Jicky was the first fragrance I found to be truly compelling precisely because of its oddness. [¶] [...]
Jicky is famously divisive. It was initially a complete flop with women. Jicky was much more successful with men during its early years, and Guerlain now classifies it as unisex. Jicky’s contentiousness comes from the sense that it smells ‘dirty’ both in the sense that people find it too reminiscent of sex and too much like actual dirt. The animalic civet note is the troublemaker here, but I actually love this note in Jicky!
To me, the civet brings much needed balance to the fragrance. Jicky’s opening is a whirlwind of lemon, bergamot, and lavender. It’s intoxicating, but it teeters on the brink of smelling too medicinal. When the civet kicks in, it anchors the fragrance with more warmth and depth. There is an undeniably ‘dirty’ aspect to the civet but, again, balance is the key to Jicky. The cool lavender top note persists well into wear time and blends effortlessly with the warmth of the civet.
The Jicky Eau de Toilette is a bright and sparkling composition that focuses more on the citrus top notes, while the Eau de Parfum is more civet-heavy, and the extrait of pure parfum emphasizes the herbal lavender note. I have worn and enjoyed all three concentrations at different times; it simply depends on your mood as to which one you would prefer. [...]
Jicky is not straight-forward or easy to love. I have returned to this fragrance again and again, and each time I feel simultaneously puzzled, pleased, frustrated, and seduced. But I love Jicky in all its beautiful strangeness. Worn at the right moment, there is nothing like it.
Honestly, I think her assessment sums up Jicky better than the reviews from a hundred professional perfume bloggers. The perfume has an incredible allure, even in its reformulated version, but also an oddness that requires some patience and an open mind. If you’re not into skanky perfumes, I think you should keep in mind my experience with how differing quantities can alter the nature and prominence of the civet note, and perhaps start slowly by applying only a small amount.
At the end of the day, Jicky is a complicated scent that you will either love or hate. I think it is a play on light and shadows that is brilliant and a masterpiece. Its refined, smooth elegance also feels utterly timeless. Nonetheless, happy 125th birthday, Jicky!