I am one of the lucky ones, as I was introduced to the Guerlain brand when I was about five, and could actually smell my mother’s Shalimar perfume before she entered the room. It was a heady scent, of vanilla and other things I couldn’t yet name. But I associated Guerlain with Shalimar and Shalimar with her, for years.
A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about this sensory association, as I elevated down from my Waldorf Astoria Tower Suite room in New York on the 27th floor to my appointment at the Guerlain Spa on the 19th floor. I was looking forward to it, as I knew about the Orchidée Impériale Skin Treatment I was going to have and the orchid extracts from which it came. But there was so much I didn’t know, and learned while there and afterward as well.
Toward the reception area, the walls are covered with large white and platinum mosaic tile roses that changed colors when you pass by. Then there is the Baccarat crystal curtain that separates the Spa Lobby from an area where guests can sample and purchase products and perfumes. The crystal curtain also reflects and refracts light, so that each time you look or that the air flutters it, the prismatic crystals also change color in subtle ways.
After checking in, I was guided to one of the private Guerlain Treatment Suites with a shower and bathroom, and living area with a treatment bed in the center. It was a more intimate setting for a treatment than the usual rooms. The aesthetician did a skin examination, and then started the one-hour Orchidée Impériale treatment. It was an exceptional 60 minutes knowing that the crème and serum came from orchids in the Far East. While that was the extent of my knowledge at the time, I planned to learn more when the aesthetician said the same 28-day treatment could be taken home for $1,500. And even in my trance-like state, I knew I had to discover the relation of its value to its cost. The cost reflects (as do all great luxury products) legacy, scarcity and worth.
Guerlain is one of the oldest fragrance and beauty houses in the world, founded in 1828 by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain, a physician and a chemist. The House of Guerlain has been a family-run business, owned and managed by the Guerlain family from 1828 to 1994. More than 700 perfumes and aftershaves have been created by the brand and many live on today, even those first created by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain himself.
One of the most famous was a perfume he created for the Empress Eugenie Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, called L’Abeille (The Honey Bee) de Guerlain. In 2010, it was re-introduced, in a Baccarat bottle, selling for $19,000. And this fall, a skin therapy will be introduced at the Guerlain Spa. The Abeille Royale Youth Facial Treatment was born from harnessing the repairing power of Royale Jelly Concentrate from Guerlain’s signature bees housed on the French island of Ouessant, off the western tip of Bretagne. In highlighting the unique sensory experience of the power of bees and honey in this country, guests will also receive a pre-treatment taste of the Waldorf’s one-of-a-kind Top of the Waldorf Rooftop Honey, produced from the hotel’s own apiaries.
Since it was founded, Guerlain remains one of the most inventive and pioneering brands, using natural elements to create substantial beauty products. Among the most compelling research that has taken place over the past 12 years, has been Guerlain’s research into longevity of certain orchids, and how such longevity can be transposed into serums and crèmes that help ageing skin. To that end, the brand built The Orchidarium, an integrated network of three complementary and interconnected research units placed under the direction of Guerlain Research.
First is the Experimental Garden in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Guerlain orchids are kept, and where experiments to understand their physiology are conducted. It was here at this orchid bank, now home to over 1,000 specimens of 50 orchid species from all over the world, that the three orchids, whose cells became part of the Imperial Orchid Molecular Extract, were identified and selected.
Second, the Guerlain Basic Research Laboratory in Strasbourg, France is the phytochemistry center. Its mission is to focus on the metabolism of the orchid plant in order to discover the molecular structures behind its exceptional longevity. The work carried out by the Basic Research Laboratory, headed by Guerlain Research, has resulted in the registration of eight patents.
Finally, Guerlain’s Exploratory Nature Reserve, an area of 2,225 acres in Yunnan, China, was created to study and replant orchids in their natural environment. It is a protected environment that allows the plant to flourish, maximizing its longevity potential. This Reserve insures that the brand has a consistent supply of orchids for their Orchidée Impériale skin care product line. It has also made it possible for the Bulang, the inhabitants of this region straddling the border of Burma and Laos, to re-establish a viable local economy.
The men climb the trees to harvest the orchids, two Vandas and a Dendrobium, of which four pounds are needed to make just 10 grams of the active ingredient used in the Orchidée Impériale product line. One is the blue Vanda Coerulea orchid is extraordinarily long-lived and plays a pivotal role in preserving the youthfulness of the skin, while the Vanda Teres, with its large, iris-like petals, is resistant to thermal shock. Its “vandaterosides”—unique molecules found nowhere else in nature—help the skin to better withstand the stress of dryness and other forms of external duress. The newest orchid being studied is the Gold Orchid, the Dendrobium Chrysotoxum, meaning “golden seed from the tree of life.” It is a resilient orchid that maintains its longevity, thanks to its tough leaves, watertight bulbs and featherweight roots. Then, in Switzerland, these orchids are studied, and the best are selected to serve as raw material for the Orchidée Impériale line first introduced in 2010.
The molecular orchid extract, the basis for the line, helps reverse cell aging in several ways. First, melanin production is slowed, diminishing existing age spots. The cream also acts as an anti-inflammatory, preserves the composition of cell membranes and combats cutaneous immunosenescence or, the physical aging of cells caused by oxidative stress. The Guerlain Spa treatment with the Gold Orchid Extract is called the Orchidée Impériale Prestige. I had the Orchidée Impériale – The Cure, and my skin did look much better. I wish I'd had more time, more treatments, more orchids.
As I was dressing afterwards, I saw a large bottle of Shalimar on the table, near the closet. I put a small amount on my wrist, and my mother’s essence, as always, gently filled the room.