Period: The orientalist years
Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone have re-created an extensive list of historic Guerlain perfumes, using the exact same ingredients as when they saw the light for the first time.
Guerlain's oriental crown jewel, and to many the most iconic of Jacques Guerlain's creations, Shalimar is a kind of calibration test of how well the Guerlinade is doing faced with increasing IFRA restrictions on raw materials. Shalimar has everything we love about historic Guerlain perfumes: citrus, aromatics, wood smoke, rose, jasmine, animal sensuality, and vanilla. Perfume collectors who own older bottles of Shalimar are well aware that the scent of their vintage Shalimar is very different from the contemporary bottles in shops today. It seems evident that the formula of Shalimar hasn't stayed the same since its creation. Why, and how faithful to the original are the newer iterations? With Thierry Wasser's re-created vintage version, we now have some of the answers.
Instinctively we think that the change in Shalimar must have to do with the base notes, because we remember the scent as being more enveloping and deep than what we find it to be nowadays. However, Thierry Wasser reveals that more than anything, it’s the bergamot that's responsible. Almost one third of Shalimar’s formula consists solely of bergamot, without which the ethylvanillin, birch tar and civet would feel nauseatingly heavy. As a consequence, Shalimar is very dependent on the quality of the bergamot used. To prove this point, as well as numerous other intriguing facts and secrets in the world of Guerlain, Wasser and Sacone invited a group of perfume bloggers to Maison Guerlain to explore the re-created vintages.
The two perfumers had us smell raw bergamot oil in its pure form and compare it to the bergamot employed today, which is freed from the potentially skin-damaging photosensitive molecules. Raw bergamot oil has a yellow-green colour and smells rounded, dark and complex, with wonderful facets of sweet mandarin, petrol and earth. The new non-allergenic bergamot, by contrast, has almost no colour and smells drier and somehow shrill and one-dimensional next to the raw product. Thierry Wasser explains that the raw bergamot oil, with its power and depth, is what accounts for much of the roundness and richness of vintage Shalimar, both because it smells so amazing in itself, and because it balances and transforms the slightly fecal odour of the animal base. It's for the same reason, he says, that vintage Jicky and Mouchoir de Monsieur smelled less sharply animalic than they do today. When we're used to the modern version, Shalimar with raw bergamot oil feels almost shocking: this is Shalimar the lemon pie, made with Sicilian lemons, double cream and French butter. Thierry Wasser emphasizes that he is constantly working on improving Guerlain’s bergamot, in order to move Shalimar still closer to its original spirit.
Considering that bergamot plays an even bigger role in Mitsouko than in Shalimar, inquiring minds want to know why Shalimar relatively seems more affected by the bergamot issue. The short answer is that a chypre per definition is a dry scent, especially compared to an oriental, thus the dryness of the norm-conforming bergamot feels less distracting in Mitsouko than it does in Shalimar.
Apart from bergamot and vanilla, another striking feature of Shalimar is its smoky and leathery character. This smokiness, which stems from birch tar, is probably what made Ernest Beaux state that Shalimar doesn't smell like a vanilla sauce, but like the most haunting perfume. Without it, Shalimar wouldn't be the dark, sexy, jazzy, and quite unisex fragrance that it is. Regrettably today birch tar has "been turned into birch water by IFRA," as Wasser puts it, and modern Shalimar is therefore far less smoky and leathery, more innocent and powdery than it used to be.
Moving on to the subject of musk, Thierry Wasser tells us that the most characteristic and common feature of Jacques Guerlain's work was the overdose of different kinds of musk. The vintage version proves why Shalimar was the culmination of Jacques' style: it wraps the citrus-vanilla-leather accord in a warm, smooth cloud of nitro-musk. Next to this, today's IFRA-safe white musk feels anaemic and colourless. Thierry Wasser adds that like in the case of bergamot, he is focused on developing a norm-conforming musk that imitates the vintage material.
The aforementioned bloggers then finally went through an interesting experiment comparing the re-created original version of Shalimar with first the modern version and then a bottle of very old juice. The latter was provided by Guerlain collector Frédéric Lemaitre who attended the meeting. Its top notes were obviously damaged by age, while the base was surprisingly well-preserved and met us like a soft cocoon of vanilla, balsam and musk. Frédéric Sacone points out that people's perception of vintage perfumes is often biased by the ageing factor, and that the freshly blended vintage version actually smells closer to modern Shalimar than to the very old juice. With age, any oriental composition will necessarily soften and become more ambery.
Vintage Shalimar may be almost too rounded and musky for modern tastes. People who'd be partial to a drier, cleaner and more sharp-cut Shalimar will likely find the commercial version available today preferable. Otherwise we could keep it unopened at the back of a closet for a few years, waiting for it to get soft and round with age. Read more about Shalimar
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