Guerlain‘s Vol de Nuit is legendary among chypre (and narcissus) lovers, so I was curious to see how it fared in the age of IFRA with its draconian limits on oakmoss which, as many of you know, has now been legally restricted in perfumery to practically nonexistent levels. So let’s take a look at the current parfum, a sample of which I bought in early 2021.
Vol de Nuit was created by Jacques Guerlain and released in 1933. The name means “Night Flight,” a reference to a 1931 novel by that name by French author, Antoine de St. Exupéry, who wrote Le Petit Prince and who was also a friend of Jacques Guerlain.
This review is for the modern pure parfum or extrait. It will not have great relevance to Vol de Nuit in other, lesser concentrations like, for example, the eau de toilette; there will be slight formula differences in addition to major differences in sillage, longevity, body, and weight.
While Vol de Nuit’s original notes in formulations pre-1980/1982 were probably different, the notes for the modern and current version are, per Fragrantica, as follows:
Top notes are Galbanum, Narcissus, Bergamot, Orange Blossom, Lemon, Orange and Mandarin Orange; middle notes are iris, Narcissus, Aldehydes, Vanilla, Violet, Indonesian Carnation, Rose and Jasmine; base notes are Oakmoss, Orris Root, Sandalwood, Spices and Musk.
Vol de Nuit varies significantly, and even more than normal, on my skin depending on how much scent I apply. It’s not only the overall effect but also the very types of fragrance families as well as the order, prominence, and clarity of the individual notes, the sillage, the longevity, and the density of the scent.
With 2 light smears from a vial, the equivalent of two tiny spritzes from an atomizer, Vol de Nuit was a thinner, heavily muted, and significantly less interesting or appealing bouquet which dissolved within a mere 10 minutes from a simple aldehydic narcissus chypre into a totally abstract floral before devolving further during the first 6 hours into an abstract, powdery, creamy, and soapy floral woody musk. In addition, the bouquet felt so diaphanous in body that I wondered if Surrender to Chance had accidentally sent me an eau de toilette instead of a pure parfum.
Vol de Nuit’s progression, overall bouquet, individual note focus, scent families, and heft were quite different with a larger scent quantity, though, interestingly, both versions did end up eventually in the same place. It took 3-4 generous, broad smears – roughly equal to 3 good sprays from an atomiser – to achieve a fuller, more complex, spicier, richer, more projecting, and, frankly, more appealing and interesting bouquet. Given the incredible simplicity and linearity of the first version during the first 6 hours, I’m going spend time focusing on this second one instead.
With 3-4 generous, wide swathes of scent, Vol de Nuit opens on my skin with the scent of spring meadows and a multifaceted floral garden captured in one bottle. First and foremost is a green vista comprised of spiky green galbanum and plush oakmoss laced with cinnamon and clove-ish spices and a dash of woody patchouli. Following the wave of green are sweet roses, dry and hay-like narcissus, and syrupy white florals. The entire thing is spritzed with an orchard variety of citruses dominated by brisk, crisp, slightly acidic lemon. A smattering of soft, clean aldehydes glides over everything like small clouds in the sky above while the ground below, or the scent base, occasionally stirs with pops of vanilla and benzoin amber.
Vol de Nuit changes in incremental degrees during the first 3 hours. 30 minutes in, caramel-ish benzoin and creamy vanilla rise from the base, engulfing the flowers, wiping out the aldehydes, and weakening the citrus medley. The patchouli, spices, rose, and carnation expand at the same time as does Vol de Nuit’s sillage. (More on sillage at the end.) 40 minutes in, the narcissus retreats to the background; it’s replaced by powdery iris root or orris which smells more like slightly violet-y make-up than a stony, cold, or rooty iris.
45 minutes in, the notes begin to dissolve, turning blurrier and more impressionistic with every passing moment, particularly the rose, the oakmoss, and the galbanum. The last two are now merely a watery, heavily subdued and muted swathe of greenness, like a diluted pastel watercolor on white paper. Given the IFRA oakmoss situation, I’m not particularly surprised, though I did expect the greenness to be a main note for longer. (Then again, at least it’s still present in some fashion and didn’t die away after a mere 15 minutes as it did in the test where I applied only a small amount of scent.)
Vol de Nuit continues to shift in small bits as the first hour draws to a close and the second begins. About 55 minutes in, Vol de Nuit turns more purely floral as well as sweeter and more vanillic in its undertones. The chypre elements, including the citrus and the watery greenery, disappear. At the 75-minute mark, Vol de Nuit is a spicy, impressionistic blur of mixed florals, clove-ish spiciness, benzoin amber and vanilla sweetness, patchouli-ish woodiness, and a smattering of vanillic, violet-y, orris-y powder.
90 minutes in, the bouquet dissolves even further, turning into a simple, sweet, spicy, vanillic, mixed floralcy laced with a few flecks of citrus and resting atop an ambery woody base. To the extent that the individual flower components can be pulled apart and distinguished when I sniff really hard and focus, they seem to consist primarily of iris, violet, and a syrupy whiteness (jasmine) shot through with a hay-like aroma (narcissus) and occasional touches of pale, honeyed floral sweetness (rose) and a more spicy floralcy (carnation).
At the end of the second hour and start of the third, Vol de Nuit is a spicy, lightly powdered, vanillic, ambered sandalwood floral with a creamy texture from the vanilla and sandalwood combination. In the middle of the third hour or 2.5 hours in, the emphasis shifts towards the darker, richer base notes as the sandalwood blooms, followed by the patchouli and sweet benzoin amber. The blurry florals become merely a different type of sweetness layered within. To the extent that I can determine what flowers they are when I sniff hard and focus, the majority seems to consist of a syrupy and slightly indolic whiteness (jasmine); there are no telltale markers or indicators of rose, narcissus, violets, iris, or carnation on my skin.
Regardless of how much fragrance I apply, a fascinating thing that I have never previously experienced happened in all three of my Vol de Nuit tests when the heart stage begins: The out-of-focus clouds of abstraction suddenly part, leaving behind absolutely clear, easily determined, concrete notes. I’ve never encountered note blurriness or impressionism turning back into clarity and I can’t explain how or why the standard progression reversed, but I thought it was wonderful and astonishing.
The only difference that scent quantity made to this consistent development was the time in which it occurred. With 2 small, light smears, the return to note solidity or clarity occurred midway during the 6th hour, about the 5.5 hour mark; with 3-4 generous, wide smears, it occurs about 4.25 hours in or a little after the start of the 5th hour.
In both cases, the bouquet is the same: Dry, hay-like narcissus dances with syrupy, lightly indolic, sweet jasmine, spicy patchouli, creamy sandalwood, benzoin amber, and bergamot-infused vanilla. If you put aside the narcissus, the remaining components are identical to what you find in the post-1980/1982 versions of Shalimar (particularly the EDP).
With 3-4 smears, Vol de Nuit’s drydown begins about 6.5 hours in or midway during the 7th hour. The bouquet now consists almost entirely of lightly spiced, plush santal woodiness shot through with bergamot-laced vanilla and lying within a soft cloud of ambery goldenness. At a rough estimate, the trio comprise about 95% of the bouquet. Initially, there are occasional pops of both syrupy and dry floralcy suggestive of jasmine and narcissus that twinkle in the background, but they are fleeting and short-lived.
They disappear entirely when the 9th hour rolls around. All that’s left in the final hours is a creamy, slightly citrusy and vanillic woody plushness cocooned in a delicate, ambery goldenness.
With 2 light smears, Vol de Nuit had good longevity and low sillage. The fragrance opened with about 2-3 inches of scent trail that grew to about 5 inches after 15 minutes but then dropped substantially at the 45-minute mark to virtually nothing at all. In fact, I had to put my nose right on my skin in order to detect the notes. It was basically a skin scent on me. Plus, Vol de Nuit was so sheer in body that I thought Surrender to Chance might have sent me an eau de toilette by accident. The longevity, however, was more on par with an eau de parfum as Vol de Nuit lasted, to my surprise, roughly 9.75 hours.
With 3-4 smears, Vol de Nuit had excellent longevity and initially good to moderate sillage that turned low only after a few hours. The fragrance opened with 3-4 inches of sillage that expands to about 8-10 inches after 25 minutes, in large part thanks to the darker or richer base notes like the patchouli, amber, vanilla, and spices growing stronger. The scent trail drops to about 4-6 inches at the start of the 3rd hour but Vol de Nuit doesn’t become a skin scent on me until midway during the 7th hour or about 6.5 hours in. In total, this version of Vol de Nuit lasted just a little under 13.25 hours on me.
I liked modern, current Vol de Nuit parfum and didn’t think it was terrible, which came as a bit of a surprise given the IFRA oakmoss issue and the fact that I’m a vintage purist when it comes to the old legends. But, even if the IFRA-ravaged version was somewhat enjoyable, a chypre is supposed to have oodles upon oodles of oakmoss and greenery in my traditionalist view so all my experience did was to make me want to try the oldest vintage formulation possible. I remember my friend, Monsieur Guerlain, once telling me privately that Jacques Guerlain loved birch tar so much that he basically added it in all his creations, even if the official notes didn’t say so explicitly, so I can only imagine how glorious Vol de Nuit pure parfum must have been in the 1930s or in subsequent decades pre-1980/1982 which is when the company basically switched over to sandalwood instead. Unfortunately, the vintage fragrance has always been, in all its concentrations, far more expensive on eBay than say, Shalimar or L’Heure Bleue, though never as expensive as Jicky.
There is another issue which may be impacting vintage Vol de Nuit parfum prices and sending them even higher in recent months: the availability of the modern, current alternative. At the time of this review, April 2022, Guerlain has removed ALL EXTRAITS except for Shalimar parfum from its website. Its old masterpieces are organized within the Légendaires section (except for Shalimar, its flagship best-seller, which has its own separate section) but none of them come in a pure parfum concentration. In fact, when I looked at the section about 7 days ago, the only concentration available was eau de toilette. (Bizarrely, they didn’t have Jicky in any formulation whatsoever, though it’s now listed there as an eau de parfum along with a handful of other fragrances in EDP concentration.) If you’re interested in Vol de Nuit, it is only available as an eau de toilette!
I was very upset about the disappearance of all the extraits (except for Shalimar’s) because that parfum has always been the best version of any Guerlain scent and, in fact, was primarily how Jacques Guerlain and his predecessors meant for their creations to be experienced. I suddenly remembered how an Italian Twitter friend and perfumista told me several months ago that Mitsouko extrait had vanished from the European Guerlain website and how I’d noticed that several people had found my site by searching for the whereabouts of Jicky.
When I frantically queried on Twitter what had happened to all the Guerlain parfums, Jane Daly of Daly Beauty, a Canadian beauty and fragrance site, told me that she thought LVMH was pulling them because they weren’t big sellers:
Another friend noted that the European Guerlain site also lacked the extraits (minus Shalimar) and, more importantly, did not have the usual “rupture de service” (sold out) message that would usually appear when a fragrance was temporarily out of stock. When she asked the Facebook Guerlain group about the extraits’ disappearance even from the French Guerlain website, the moderator said it was merely a supply chain issue and that Paris had not officially said that the extraits were being pulled.
The “supply chain” claim does not add up in my mind given that all the fragrances are still available in lesser concentrations and also the fact that there has not been any apparent issues with the big modern bestsellers like the wretched L’Homme Idéal, La Petite Robe Noire, the Aqua Allegorias, new releases in the Art et La Matiere line made from a variety of raw materials also found in the Légendaires classics, or any of the Absolus d’Orients.
Are you telling me that 14 different sections of Guerlain consisting of at least 35 to 50 different fragrances have not been impacted by supply chain issues regarding raw materials but, somehow, just the old legends have been? Even if that were plausible (which it absolutely is not, in my opinion), then Guerlain shouldn’t have the raw materials to offer Samsara and Jardins de Bagatelle in both 75 ml eau de toilette and 75 ml eau de parfum, yet somehow not in the significantly smaller sized 15 ml pure parfum. They should be out of stock of everything. I find the argument that none of the old classics (except Shalimar) sold in the more costly parfum form in large quantities so they were pulled as part of LVMH cost-cutting measures to be a much more likely explanation for the situation.
Whatever the precise situation with the pure parfums, the bottom line is that the Vol de Nuit that I have described here is unavailable on any of the Guerlain websites at the time of this review.
Furthermore, samples of modern Vol de Nuit parfum are not as easy to find as they once were, probably because the decant sites cannot buy bottles to replenish their stock. Surrender to Chance where I bought my extrait vial only has Vol de Nuit EDT right now. Ditto The Perfumed Court, though they do have vintage Vol de Nuit parfum. Fragrance Line has modern Vol de Nuit parfum for the exorbitant price of $21.99 for a 1 ml vial. (I think I bought my vial from STC in 2021 for roughly $9?)
If you’re new to Vol de Nuit parfum and want to read other opinions to determine if the fragrance is worth all the fuss, you can turn to Basenotes and Fragrantica. The latter also has a separate page just for the extrait version. Please remember that the fragrance I’ve described here will differ from the eau de toilette version in a number of significant ways.
If you already own modern Vol de Nuit parfum, then hold onto it tightly because it’s precious and not easily replaced.