This is a trip, because it's basically everything I associate with the best of old Guerlain, all happening at once and swirling in and out of focus. As such, it's really hard to explain.
It's got that spiced dough from Mitsouko/L'Heure Bleue, and the plasticky lavender poop of Jicky/Shalimar. It's got the greasy tarragon and greens of Chamade, and it all happens under a heavy cloud of benzoin baby powder.
This is a fun one to get to know because it never smells like the same thing twice, as the many themes interplay with and contradict each other. Sometimes it smells herbal, or green, or golden, or leathery, or spicy, or ambery. The only consistent thing is the heavy powder over everything.
This fully deserves a thumbs up - it's the kind of classic perfume masterwork that defines the best of the genre. That being said, if you're not into powdery classics, you'll probably dislike this. Personally, I wrote it off for years because I couldn't handle the powder/poop combination. This is definitely a smell I had to grow into and discover once I was ready for it.
A lot of people attribute the mastery of perfume Jacques Guerlain possessed to earlier classics like L'Heure Bleue (1912), Mitsouko (1919) or even the roaring 20's standard of Shalimar (1925), but to me his mastery was never more apparent than it is in Vol de Nuit (1933). The story goes that Vol de Nuit was inspired by the novel of the same name (titled "Night Flight" for English readers) by Jacques' friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, with a strong theme of the perfume being women in aviation, but more specifically flying through the cold of night. Because of this, Guerlain had to somehow capture the essence of cold air across aluminum wings, the dark expanse of ocean and forest below an aircraft traveling thus, and capture a strong female character "in a man's world" like aviation was at the time. By the way, he had to somehow do all this with the standard materials of the day, which did not include all the aromachemicals, captive molecules, and isolates from raw materials that perfumers in the 21st century have at their disposal, and also include the house "Guerlinade" accord somewhere in the mix. To say Jacques Guerlain's work was cut out for him is quite an understatement, but he somehow delivered in Vol de Nuit. Something like this may be hard to wear functionally in the 21st century, with the focus of modern perfume being on when it it appropriate to use it (e.g. sport fragrances), but a die-hard individualist needs not context for perfume.
This particular review is from a 1989 eau de toilette sample without any other concentration or vintage for comparison, so I cannot speak to the differences in newer examples or deeper vintages, nor concentrations like the extrait. The opening of Vol de Nuit comes across sweet, powdery, and tart with a familiar blend of bergamot, lemon, orange blossom, and petitgrain in the top. Anyone who has smelled classic perfumery from the first half of the 20th century will get this opening. Vol de Nuit quickly shifts into white florals for the initial transition to the heart, where a very classic arrangement of daffodil, narcissus, violet, carnation, jasmine, and rose resides. These florals do the usual seamless Guerlain blending, especially when that almost gourmand-like "Guerlinade" enters the picture. What's funny here is a sharp galbanum note surfaces, but not in the top as you might expect, but it provides a metallic gleam in this context when buttressed between sweet citrus, powdery florals, and a chypre base beneath. Oakmoss and orris butter mix with leathery castoreum to make a dry chypre savon accord that continues to sharpen and get a bit cold into the final dry down, smoothed by benzoin, vanilla, and rounded with spice. Ambergris shows up last with a breathy musky facet but the chilled air aspects remain, with little sweetness beyond the vanilla and lingering "Guerlinade". Wear time is over eight hours, and sillage can be terribly strong so be careful, at least in this old eau de toilette form.
Vol de Nuit is a statement perfume, at least as much of one as can be seen by 21st century eyes that have disdain for antique floral chypre arrangements, and probably reads very feminine due to the powder and floral aspects through the mid. The chypre finish reads dandy to my nose so a man could wear this with some confidence, but otherwise this is for the strong women that fancy themselves like Hélène Boucher or Marlene Deitrich. Suggested use would be fall through spring, as in summer this may wear too heavy, and since I can't speak to the (usually high) quality of Thierry Wasser's modern reformulation, you may want to sample it first if that's the route you take. I personally see this as a huge artist achievement since Guerlain basically made a bold and cool fragrance with a heavy aromatic background using standard florals, citruses, woods, and musks. In a world where most perfumes have chemicals as abstract as the concepts they try to create through scent, it's fun to see someone do the same thing in a decidedly "low-tech" manner, even if only because there was no other way to do it with perfume chemistry still being far then from what it is now. Vol de Nuit is wearable art from another time, worth smelling if only for the edification, and one of the greatest masterpieces from the house. Jacques Guerlain would continue to compose into the 50's before Jean-Paul would finally take over for him, but never again make something so poignant as this. Thumbs up.
wow...can see the love for this right from the 1st whiff...citrusy powdery vanilla with undertones of wood and flower...absolutely beautiful...seems kind of redundant to say anything else....I'd just be repeating things already said by others...I guess I can just sum it up with one word...masterpiece...