World Bee Day: why Angelina Jolie has set out to save the humble insect

Perfume house Guerlain launched its Women for Bees initiative with the help of famous friends in 2021

Angelina Jolie, face of the Mon Guerlain fragrance, has been named the 'godmother' of the brand's Women for Bees initiative. Reuters
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“Without bees, there is no more planet. It’s finished.” That’s the stark warning from Ann Caroline Prazan, Guerlain’s international artistic director for brand culture and heritage.

The French cosmetics, skincare and fragrance house has a long-standing relationship with the bee. In 1853, the company’s founder, Pierre Francois Pascal Guerlain, created a perfume for the empress Eugenie to celebrate her marriage to Napoleon III. The fragrance, Eau de Cologne Imperiale, was housed in the now-famous Bee Bottle, which was adorned with his majesty’s coat of arms, a swarm of bees and a festoon pattern inspired by the Place Vendome.

The bee has been intertwined with the house’s story ever since, whether appearing as a recurring motif on the bottles for the brand’s Le Absolus d’Orient or Aqua Allegoria collections, or contributing to the ingredients of the Abeille Royale skincare line, which is crafted using honey produced by black bees on Brittany’s Ouessant Island.

Royal jelly, beeswax butter and honey from the French island of Quessant are key components of Guerlain new Abeille Royale range. Photo Courtesy: Strategies International *** Local Caption ***  ABRO15-207.jpg

A symbol of sustainability

In more concrete terms, the bee is essential to the pollination of many of the precious ingredients that Guerlain incorporates into its perfumes, and is a symbol of the natural world, which the brand has lauded since its launch almost 200 years ago. And now, the bee has become a symbol of Guerlain’s commitment to sustainability.

“In the beginning, the bee was more a symbol of the empress and Napoleon III; an imperial symbol, rather than a symbol of nature and of our commitment to sustainability. But for 50 years, we have known the bee is in danger and we have wanted to protect it,” Prazan tells me.

Guerlain prides itself on using the highest quality ingredients for its perfumes. Photo: Guerlain

As part of these efforts, the company joined forces last year with Unesco to launch Women for Bees, a beekeeping programme that encourages women to acquire the theoretical and practical knowledge to establish and manage sustainable beekeeping operations. The aim, by 2025, is to have 2,500 hives within 25 Unesco biosphere reserves, from France to Ethiopia and Cambodia, in the hopes that the programme will contribute to the repopulation of 125 million bees. Simultaneously, it will create an international network of female beekeepers who can share their scientific knowledge and local expertise on the crucial role bees and pollination play in maintaining the planet’s food security.

Angelina Jolie, godmother of bees

Angelina Jolie, the face of the Mon Guerlain fragrance, is the “godmother” of the Women for Bees initiative, which came about during a trip to Cambodia in 2019. “I was in Cambodia with Angelina Jolie shooting a campaign for Mon Guerlain, and she said: ‘I want to show you my foundation and for you to meet my team in Cambodia'. We had a fantastic visit and met some amazing people,” Prazan recounts.

Ann Caroline Prazan, Guerlain's international artistic director for brand culture and heritage. Photo: Guerlain

“Some of them showed me their bees. Angelina and I immediately said, we have to do something together for the bees. We want to push beekeepers, especially women. Angelina Jolie is very committed to helping women, in Cambodia and all over the world, so she became our godmother.”

The partnership was celebrated in an ethereal portrait of the actress, taken for National Geographic by world-renowned photographer Dan Winters, in which the actress and activist is covered in live bees. “We think of a future without bees as science fiction, but bee populations are declining globally, due to human activity,” said Jolie. “The implications for our food supply, for biodiversity, if we continue on this path, are apocalyptic.

“As I started to work with Guerlain, we spoke often about bees, and then we really started to talk about what could we do to improve the situation — what could we do for both for the bees and also for women. This global sisterhood that is forming with this Women for Bees programme is very exciting.”

January 24, 2017: A handout image of Angelina Jolie in Guerlain campaign. Courtesy Guerlain  *** Local Caption ***  Guerlain.jpg

Guerlain has a long history of innovation. In fact, it is very difficult to do anything new at the company, because almost everything has been done before, says Prazan with a laugh. Case in point: a year ago, at an auction, Prazan bought the first lipstick ever created by Guerlain. Released in 1870, Ne m'Oubliez Pas was also the first lipstick tube in the history of modern make-up — a pink wax stick that revolutionised the industry. It is one of many firsts for Guerlain, which also invented the first face serum, the first commercially packaged kohl eyeliner, the first moisturiser and even Nivea cream. When Prazan received her historic tube of lipstick, she realised it was refillable. “So in 1870, Guerlain invented the refillable lipstick. That’s sustainability,” she says.

A history of innovation

The maison’s long history and invaluable contribution to the worlds of beauty and fragrance will be further highlighted in an international exhibition making its debut in Shanghai next year. “For me, it is a fantastic challenge and opportunity to share this amazing story and communicate about Guerlain. People need to know.

“I have one of the best archives in the industry, with 18,000 items, including pictures and pieces of writing. My archives are fabulous and I continue to protect and enrich them all the time,” Prazan tells me with unbridled enthusiasm.

The exhibition will also make a stop in Dubai, a place that Prazan holds close to her heart. “This is the most amazing region for me, because the people are so sophisticated and they love perfumes. The clientele is so amazing, so passionate and so in love with perfumes and good ingredients. So the bridge between Guerlain and the Middle East is not surprising.”

A tribute to the Middle East

Les Absolus d’Orient acts as a tribute to that relationship. A celebration of Oriental scents, the collection consists of eight distinct fragrances, including the newly launched Epices Exquises, which combines tinges of black pepper with woody notes of oud, patchouli and sandalwood, and facets of cardamom, pink pepper and fresh green angelica.

“With Epices Exquises, I wanted to re-transcribe the surprising scent of the irresistibly spicy cardamom coffee I’m given every time I visit the Middle East,” said Guerlain’s master perfumer, Thierry Wasser. “This coffee’s unique blend of spices fills my memory with deliciously contrasting sensations: at the top, fresh accents of cardamom mingle with a warm, peppery, sensual base. It’s an intoxicating fragrance.”

To celebrate the launch, Guerlain has teamed up with artist Tarek Benaoum, who had the task of reinterpreting the brand’s double G motif in his signature street art-inspired calligraphic style. Illuminated with gold and ochre tones, he has rendered it as a shimmering gust of wind sweeping across the desert dunes.

The bee has been intertwined with the story of Guerlain, even appearing as a recurring motif on the Le Absolus D’Orient bottles. Photo: Guerlain

This, too, continues a long-held tradition at the French house. “Art is key in all the story of Guerlain,” Prazan explains. “Guerlain has been a patron of the arts since 1828, and for me, art is at the centre of the Guerlain strategy. Guerlain creates art when it transforms nature and since the beginning, it has been very connected with artists.”

While her predecessors forged relationships with the feminist 19th-century painter Louise Abbema, or the Impressionists, or the notorious Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes, Prazan has a particular affinity for Oriental art, and is already planning collaborations with Nadine Kanso and Nja Mahdaoui.

“Artists are so important in our world, especially nowadays, because they can sense the future and be inspired by what is around us. And a perfumer is absolutely like an artist. But instead of colour, like a painter, he uses different scents.”

Artist Tarek Benaoum reinterpreted Guerlain's double G motif in his calligraphic style, illuminated with gold and ochre tones. Photo: Guerlain
Updated: May 20, 2022, 11:28 AM