Anubis the Embalmer – Guerlain Vintage Djedi (1926)

In 1926 the perhaps most unusual Guerlain perfume ever saw the light of day. Inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in 1922, and the Egyptomania which followed in its wake, Jacques Guerlain created this broody, dry perfume, named after an age-old Egyptian magician who was able to ‘resurrect the decapitated’.

Curious as most perfume-nerds, a sample of Djedi in the reissued 1996 version has been in my collection for a very long time. It was a disappointment to me, having more in common with ‘Vetiver pour Elle’ than Pharaohs or any exoticism or glorious descriptions I read around the net.  Nothing dark or that unusual even, just rose and vetiver and gone in an hour or so… DISAPPOINTMENT! But hey, one less perfume unicorn to worry about, thought I.

When Guerlain enthusiast, collector and connoisseur ‘Bragmayer’ offered to send me some of the ‘REAL’ Djedi (from a 1936 bottle), I was at first only mildly interested (Mea Culpa). It wasn’t until he told me the most incredible story of a main ingredient of Djedi that I was all ears. Could Djedi be all it was hyped up to be after all?

What I’m about to write I haven’t tried to verify from any other sources, but since the story is simply to good not to share, I will recount it here and leave it the rest up to you…

From the middle ages up until early 20th century Mumia, powder of embalmed bodies/ mummies, had been used for medical purposes. Many stories around the net goes into this fact, only a short while ago Elena Vosnaki wrote a piece on Mumia at Fragrantica, so I won’t write further about this.wikipedia mumia

Certainly Mumia, at the time of the making of Djedi, would have been a known, if out-dated, remedy, and familiar to chemistry trained Jacques Guerlain. As a perfumer we could assume he would not have been oblivious to the scent either, which would have been that of 1000-year-old resin formulas, rather than of decayed corpses. What Bragmayer told me is, that original Djedi has some of this ‘vintage mummy’, or so-called ‘Mumia’ powder in its formula. The thought of this is as fascinating as it is macabre, and perhaps I love the thought of it even more, for not being able to ever verify it. I’m sure no Guerlain perfumer of sound mind, would ever tell us if this were actually true.

What is true, is that upon smelling real Djedi, and even with the expectations now raised sky-high, I was blown away by the first sniff. I have never smelled anything like it. I wrote in a comment recently that Djedi might be the closest thing in my mind, that perfume has ever come to art, and I stand by that. It keeps unsettling me, keeps showing new facets which are so unusual, one should think it impossible to wear Djedi as a perfume, and yet, having worn it several times in order to write this post, I find it highly wearable, at times even addictive.

Bone-dry, as Djedi is on the one hand, I also sense a green undergrowth dampness. The colour scheme has not a single primary colour, nor does it let light through its fumed layers. It is all hues of dark greens and browns in all varieties, a mud-luscious Nile-green perhaps, or dust-withered papyrus ochre?

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The damp and dry does somewhat remind me of ancient enclosed spaces – stone, moss and smoke – of old attics and mausoleums, but it also reminiscent of fairy tale woods; Show White, Hansel & Gretel or The Little Red Riding Hood. A deep forest which is both lying-in-wait dangerous and caressingly familiar at the same time, I would almost say that Djedi works on the subconscious level similar to fairy tales.

Suitably mummy-esque and living up to the extraordinarily-aged magician’s name, Djedi last forever, and somewhere in the middle of the development I was actually reminded of vintage Habanita, with its sweet tobacco note supported by resins. The smoke could hint at ancient magic ceremonies, the resins (mummified or not) at burial rituals. But even if I sense vetiver, patchouli, clove, musk and leather, even if I could perhaps call this an animalic leather chypre, Djedi remains enigmatic and elusive. Djedi remains a mystery.

 

I wasn’t initially going to mention Verdi’s Aïda, thinking it just a bit too obvious. But the music from the closing scene has a similar eeriness to Djedi.

Radames condemned to die by being locked in a subterranean tomb sees the stone closing upon him. It turns out Aïda has locked herself in there with him, foreseeing his destiny. Singing their farewells to each other and the world, the priests above praise the God Ptah.

La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse… (The fatal stone has closed above me)

*Anubis was the God associated with mummification

 

20 thoughts on “Anubis the Embalmer – Guerlain Vintage Djedi (1926)

  1. Holy Moly, this post is fantastic! I’ve been waiting for your review of Djedi and was interested to hear your thoughts, but this is truly fabulous – both the sound of the perfume and your writing.

    Love the idea of it containing mumia and working on your subconscious the way fairy-tales do. What an experience this must be, rather than just a scent. Thanks for sharing your feelings so eloquently with us.

    • Thank you Tara, well I was a bit star struck, so I have been procrastinating quite a bit writing this one 🙂 I’m glad you liked it, and yes that Mumia story is just too fabulous. It’s definitely an experience, and when I finally get to visit you in London, I’ll remember to bring it.

  2. Brava brava, thank you for adding exquisite mystery to my day both with your writing, pictures, and that wonderful Aida duett!

    • Thank you dear Trine. I forgot for a moment that Aida isn’t just marches, elephants and Asterix-like Romans 😉 it’s actually also some rather fantastic music, and that final duet, with the chorus and Amneris singing from above, really is stunning. Perhaps Anubis is one of the most recognisable Egyptian deities, but it was not until after I’d done the drawing that I realised that Anubis was the God for embalming… Perhaps Djedi doing its magic?

  3. What a tour de force of a review!, and I am also smitten with your equally haunting and mysterious visual of Anubis, which perfectly echoes the colours evoked in your mind by the scent. Was fascinated by the thought of mumia being actual ground mummies- no wonder Djedi packs a punch. No two bottles would be the same either as they would have different people in them, as it were. 😉

    I also reckon I could use the ability to ‘resuscitate the decapitated’ when Truffle starts bringing in dead birds, which is only be a matter of time.

    I still don’t consider perfume to be art under any circs, however I can well believe that this bewitching and multi-faceted scent may be as close as it gets.

    • Haha, “which mummie is in your perfume?” Great conversational topic.
      Yep, I’m with you with regards to perfume as art, I don’t think I’ll ever be truly convinced about that, but Djedi (in this vintage, and as M Guerlain points out, macerated version, and hence perhaps not what was truly intended, who knows?) comes the closest to be the one exception to my rule 🙂
      Thank you for your kind words about my Anubis, I had a feeling you would like that one. Perhaps talking a bit to Anubis might help you with Truffle’s catch.

  4. It’s impossible to judge a fragrance from a juice that dates back to 1936. A fragrance that old has completely changed over the years. You can really only rely on Thierry Wasser’s re-created original version of Djedi, available to discover in Paris, which is remarkably close to the 1996 reissue, and nothing like Vetiver Pour Elle. The main components are aldehyde, lily of the valley, rose, vetiver and woody amber.

    • Dear MG, thanks for stopping by. You’re right I didn’t mention maceration, I think I’ve written enough about vintage perfumes here for people to know about that aspect of vintage. Most perfumers I’ve ever talked too are huge fans of the view that maceration changes everything the perfumer intended. I do get that, however would you ever be in doubt when smelling a vintage Shalimar or L’Heure Bleue (when properly stores of course) which perfume you were smelling? As you’ve said yourself on your wonderful blog, sometimes that maceration ads a deepness which is what some people prefer even if it wasn’t intended. I like both, but I wasn’t a fan of the 1996 version, but since I only smelled it as a sample, yes, I suppose it could have lost some intensity in the transferral… I don’t remember smelling the re-created Djedi with you unfortunately, if Guerlain were to send me some I wouldn’t object, hæ 😉

      • Dear Asali, I guess my post could sound somewhat patronizing, but I must say that I’ve smelled some extremely old Sous le Vent, for instance, that was more a study in ageing than in Jacques Guerlain. Old vintages all seem to smell alike: blackened resins and dusty roots. What thrilled me particularly about Wasser’s re-created vintages was that finally we could find out what all these scents were supposed to smell like.

        • What Wasser and Sacone have done is both remarkable and wonderful. I can equally imagine that Sous le Vent would age badly, I too have sniffed a fair few badly aged fragrances, but equally I’ve sniffed centenarians which were in stunning shape. Does the fragrance stop being a perfume, when it’s no longer exactly as the perfumer intended? I suppose it’s a question which can always be discussed. And no worries, I didn’t think you were patronising 🙂

          • It’s such an interesting question, is Shalimar still Shalimar after 50 years in a closet? Some would even say that a freshly blended bottle is not the best way to smell Shalimar.

            • Yup, I know where the perfumers stand 😉

  5. Even though I do not really care for vintage perfumes in general and I’m not the biggest Guerlain fan, I just loved this post!

    When I grew up, for a while many people were into an Indian medicinal substance the name of which in Russian sounded very similar to “mumia” (and to the word that meant “mummy”) so many people believed it was coming from mummies – and nobody was grossed out about it. Of course, now we know that it has nothing to do with human remains – it was Shilajit, but that early misconception has conditioned me not even to think that it’s macabre (if it’s true).

    Still, great story. And if smelling a vintage sample brings it to life, who cares for the true (to what?!) re-creation?!! 😉

      • Haha, true. Sorry about that, much as I love both Guerlain AND vintage, I just loved that little fairy tale too.

    • Thank you Undina, I’m glad you did. With vintages I’m aware that some perfumes are so hard to come by people will never smell them, so it truly is as much about the story as about the perfume itself.
      That is so funny that you still remember that ‘Shilajit’. I read about it, and as far as I could understand, the whole trade in mummie powder started more or less because of this misinterpretation. How funny, if it took a reverse turn again.
      And exactly, I loved the story and we will never know for sure so who cares, like really cares?

  6. …”it is also reminiscent of fairy tale woods; Show White, Hansel & Gretel or The Little Red Riding Hood. A deep forest which is both lying-in-wait dangerous and caressingly familiar at the same time, I would almost say that Djedi works on the subconscious level similar to fairy tales.”

    Oooh, I love that description, Asali!!

    Your review of vintage Djedi is every bit as mysterious and alluring as what a perfume lover anticipates it would be when fantasizing about smelling this rare ghost. Whether true or not, the thought of there being mumia powder in the original formulation certainly adds to its mystique. Altogether you wove a great story here, and not only that, I do feel like I smelled it, in a vicarious way, through your review.

    • Thank you Suzanne, surely if you nearly felt like you could smell it, that’s the greatest compliment.
      That mummie powder truly is a fascinating story, I had never even heard of it before, as a medicine I mean, and it seems to have been rather common.

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