I bought a bottle of Gem by Van Cleef & Arpels when it came out in 1987. It was great stuff, a charming fruity-chypre with floral undertones and a rather oriental base, and it's a shame that it's nearly impossible to find any more. Today I got a vial of Gem in the mail, and I am quite sure it was never reformulated before it was discontinued: the sample smells just as I remember it.
I wanted it for two reasons: because I wanted to re-experience it, of course, but also because I needed to compare it to another classic chypre, Guerlain's Mitsouko, which was launched almost 70 years earlier, in 1919. I'd never even smelled Mitsouko until a couple of years ago, but as soon as I did, I realized Gem was a sort of variant of it; but more on that later.
From this point on, when I refer to Mitsouko, I'm talking about the version that I have, which is an eau de toilette and certainly a recent reformulation, if not the most recent. It likely doesn't have as much oakmoss as the original, if it still has any at all--it could be a synthetic, supplemented with tree moss--but it is still undeniably a classic chypre, at least. (I own a vial of the eau de parfum, which apparently is different from the EDT, but I haven't even opened it yet: I'm saving it, though I'm not quite sure what for. Some day I'll compare and contrast the two. The perfume itself is different again, it's said: I don't have any of that at hand. That's the perfume bottle below: it even looks richer than the EDT, doesn't it?)
People with experience of the old formulation are not fond of the remake(s)
, and I understand this perfectly: I know a number of reformulated scents that are nothing like what they used to be, not least Tresor and Fahrenheit. But this Mitsouko, even if it's a bastardization and a shell of its former self, is what I own, so that's what I'm going to be talking about.
Mitsouko has a savagery to it; it sinks its talons into you and doesn't let go. If a cat could make a perfume, it would smell like another cat, or a mouse: but if a cat could make a perfume for a human being, it would smell like Mitsouko. It claws its way out of the bottle and thrusts itself at you all at once
: there are floral notes, citrus, peach, and the classic chypre notes of moss, vetiver, and patchouli (and a lot
of those last three). Yet despite this all-out assault, it has an inscrutability at the core of it, a secret shrouded heart that does not reveal itself easily. Mitsouko wraps you in a golden glow, but it has another glow, a dark ember with a slow burn, something that could burst into flames without warning. The middle has a prickly quality, the vetiver, I think, which the warmer elements try and fail to conceal. The overall effect is of something dangerous that could happen at any moment--a marvelous thing for a scent to elicit, the smell of peril.
Gem plays like Mitsouko reinvented by someone who wanted a G-rated version. Gem is the nice girl who gets the hero; Mitsouko is the quick-witted, tart-tongued woman with a past who gets all the other men. The structure of the two is similar, because there may have been hundreds of chypres over the years but they all have the same essential structure, a bright (usually citrus) top leading to a dark, earthy base of oakmoss and, usually, patchouli and vetiver. But Gem starts out sweet and stays that way; not the cloying sweetness of modern gourmands, but a warm compote of peaches and plums leading into a classically eighties bouquet of roses, carnations, and tuberose, slightly dark, slightly sweet, unexpectedly subdued. Unlike Mitsouko, which gives you the entire story of chypre in a single lunge, Gem makes you wait a bit for the mossy-woody elements, but they soon show up to bring the flowers down to earth. They're identical to those of Mitsouko, but in very different proportions, and are bolstered and heated up by the classical oriental notes of vanilla and amber: this chypre-oriental is what sees the fragrance out, hours and hours later. (Like most mid-eighties scents, it lasts a long, long time.)
If gender classifications matter to you, you'll note that both Mitsouko and Gem were sold as women's fragrances. But men have been wearing Mitsouko since its inception: Charlie Chaplin loved it, as did Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev, and Jean Harlow's husband
poured a bottle of it over himself before committing suicide. Whatever Mitsouko may have been in the past, his newest incarnation has so much force behind it that it wouldn't surprise you at all to smell it on a man. Gem, I think, would be harder for a lot of men to wear: the violence is entirely gone, and the composition is soft, rounded, a little sweet, and absolutely pleasant from top to bottom. I still think a man could wear Gem, of course, if he could find it, and be very happy in it, because it isn't sugary or flowery or perfumey. It's a chypre for people who don't like chypres.