Cosmetics brand Guerlain has opened a Paris warehouse to store thousands of its historic documents and artefacts. Guerlain, which was founded in 1828, has collected an array of items that capture the evolution of beauty since the 19th century, including advertising posters, packaging, labels and beauty accessories. The company is working with the Paris-Sorbonne University in a bid to preserve the heritage of French perfumery, and will use the stored items for teaching and research. Among the rare pieces are a hat box that once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor and ornate perfume bottles that are more than 100 years old. The public will eventually be able to visit the warehouse, which Guerlain is calling its “warehouse of wonders”.
Guerlain’s first-ever archive houses some of the most exceptional items of the French cosmetic company’s rich and illustrious history, including the world’s premier lipstick, the first modern perfume, an innovative pivoting toothbrush, and the original Nivea cream and serum. Furthermore, the archive also contains secrets about Queen Elizabeth II’s intimate and personal routines, adding to its allure. These artefacts provide a glimpse into the iconic company’s sensational past and breathe life once again into its historical legacy.
Guerlain has offered The Associated Press an exclusive international media access to its newly opened archive, which is located in a warehouse of wonders situated beside the Seine River in Paris, shrouded in secrecy and hidden from public view. It is a treasure trove of documents and mysterious artefacts that span over three centuries, each one carrying a rich history of its own. This archive is a unique gem that provides an insight into the legacy of one of the most iconic French cosmetic companies.
What makes the collection even more remarkable is that despite being the creator of modern perfumery since its establishment in 1828, Guerlain had never before assembled such a vast and comprehensive archive. Therefore, this archive is an accomplishment for the company, as it cements its place as a pioneer in the beauty industry.
Guerlain’s heritage director, Ann Caroline Prazan, who spent years sifting through the vast number of artefacts to create the archive, refers to it as their “little secret.” With a painstaking effort, the Guerlain team was able to narrow down a collection of 18,000 pieces to an impressive archive consisting of just 400 exceptional artefacts that span centuries. Some of the items are so delicate that Prazan admits that she is scared to touch them, making this collection even more precious and deserving of admiration.
Thanks to Prazan’s passion and patience, this ambitious project came to fruition. With great admiration, she shares her knowledge and expertise on Guerlain’s historical innovations and famous patrons, including Josephine Baker, French Empress Eugenie, Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbra Streisand, Grace Kelly, Margaret Thatcher, and the Queen of England. As she speaks, the delicate perfume swirling in the air seems to add to the exhibition’s charm, creating a unique atmosphere that adds to the remarkable experience of visiting the archive.
As Prazan reached for the collection’s most prized jewellery – a lipstick that was manufactured in 1870 and housed in a modern-looking gold bullet – she took off her gloves cautiously and with a sense of reverence, almost as if performing a holy ceremony. This lipstick, with its rich and storied history, is an exemplary piece of Guerlain’s heritage and an indication of the company’s unwavering dedication to innovation and elegance.
As she examined the lipstick with a sense of awe and wonder, Prazan whispered about the gold bullet, calling it “so modern.” Her fingers delicately operated a push-up mechanism, revealing a stunningly dark Bordeaux wax pigment that has remained intact for over 153 years, highlighting the product’s high-quality and longevity, which is an impressive feat in the beauty industry.
The refillable lipstick possesses a remarkable back-story, similar to everything else in the archive. The lipstick’s creation began when an employee of Aime and Gabriel Guerlain chanced upon a candlemaker’s store while walking on a street. He noted the vendor’s wax and coloured pigments, ultimately having a eureka moment that led to the creation of this now-iconic lipstick.
In that era, women relied on tubs of coloured powder and a coarse brush to apply makeup to their lips, which was an inadequate and awkward process. When the employee stumbled across the candlemaker’s tools, it gave him the “mad” idea of creating a wax-based cosmetic that is easier to apply and more convenient for the users. This innovative thinking led to the creation of a lipstick that remains a legendary invention, as well as a symbol of style and sophistication to this day.
Prazan obtained the first-ever lipliner in the world, which also came in an elegant gold casing. In addition, he acquired a third stick that stumped an Associated Press journalist. It was later discovered that it was a liner used by women to paint blue veins on their arms and necks, a popular trend in late 19th century Paris to give the illusion of paler skin. Fortunately, Prazan confirmed that this technique has fallen out of favor.
Guerlain’s status as a family-owned business for five generations may have led to the meticulous preservation of its archive. Even after its acquisition by luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1994, the company has maintained its distinct identity.
The brand’s distinguishing feature is its innovation, extending beyond the realm of fragrance. The archive includes a patent for a pivoting toothbrush, emphasizing the company’s commitment to creativity. Records show a 1845 prototype that resembled a forerunner to the modern electric toothbrush.
One item in the archive, a jar of Nivea moisturizing cream, revealed a connection between the past and present. The cream, initially designed for European women to obtain fairer skin, was divested by the company and used to establish a skincare brand under the same name.
Another remarkable piece is a vintage bottle of Jicky, the first modern fragrance worldwide. Launched in 1889, it disrupted the market by offering a blend of scents rather than a single note, including elements of spice, lemon, lavender, wood, and vanilla. Additionally, the perfume utilized synthetic ingredients, making it the oldest continuously manufactured scent in the world.
At times, the Guerlain archive appears less like a repository and more like a condensed chronicle of the significant events of historical figures worldwide.
For instance, on one of the walls hangs a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, dressed in a magnificent white fur stole. Reportedly, she adored Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue fragrance so intensely that she drained a bottle and refilled it with oil from her coronation in 1952. The Queen retained the scented oil for many years due to her profound emotional attachment to the perfume.
Although the Guerlain archive remains a confidential affair, the company established a public exhibit to commemorate the 170th anniversary of its iconic creation, the Bee Bottle. Titled “Chère Eugenie,” the display is available for viewing until September 4th at Guerlain’s Champs-Elysées store.
The exhibition showcases the original Bee Bottle as though it were a prized possession, illuminated by dazzling light and adorned with hand-painted bee embellishments. In 1853, the bottle was designed for the wedding ceremony of Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III, rendering it an essential historical artifact.
As the emblem of the French Empire and Clovis, the first king of the Francs, the bee has become synonymous with Guerlain even to this day.
To commemorate the anniversary of the Bee Bottle, 11 global artists and actors, including Charlotte Rampling and Audrey Tatou, produced a collection of photographs inspired by the iconic design.
Guerlain has established a signature style that balances a reverence for its history with a focus on the future, a mantra that the company’s longevity has compelled it to perfect.
After returning over 200-year-old relics to their storage, Prazan emphasized that she plans well into the distant future, sometimes up to 100 years ahead. “I am aware that the firm, long after we are gone, will continue to exist for generations. How many individuals can make that claim?” she reflected.