Notes: bergamot, lemon, jasmine, rose, orris, opopanax, tonka bean, birch tar, patchouli, incense, vetiver, civet, castoreum, vanilla, musk
Period: The orientalist years
"Before Shalimar was a perfume, it was a garden of love," says the ad. Guerlain's most famous perfume is named after the splendid Shalimar Gardens near Lahore, present-day Pakistan. Built in 1642 by the Mughal emperor Shãh Jahãn, he used to walk in the garden hand-in-hand with the favourite member of his harem, Mumtaz Mahal. The garden included marble palaces and mosques decorated with mosaics and gilt, large ornamental ponds and fountains, waterfalls, and a variety of rare trees and flowers imported from all over the world. Following the emperor's accession to the throne, Mumtaz died during the birth of her fourteenth child. In her memory he built the grand mausoleum Taj Mahal at Agra in India, some 400 miles away from the Shalimar Gardens. "The gardens of Shalimar provided the inspiration for the perfume because gardens are full of flowers, and the thought of their exotic scent caught Jacques' imagination," Philippe Guerlain tells us. According to him, Jacques and Raymond Guerlain first heard the story about Mumtaz Mahal and the Mughal emperor from a maharajah whom they met in Paris. "Jacques thought of Shalimar as the very perfume Shãh Jahãn would have ordered to be created for his beloved wife." It wasn't until 2013, however, that Guerlain used the story as the basis for a Shalimar ad, a large-scale film shot in Northern India.
The Shalimar Gardens were eventually declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Shalimar the perfume has proved equally worthy of preservation. It was one of the first fragrances to successfully incorporate a veritable overdose of vanilla notes in its composition. On receipt of the newly developed ethylvanillin, many times stronger and creamier than vanillin, Jacques Guerlain sequestered himself in the laboratory and worked methodically to try to offset the intense vanilla odour with resinous, powdery and, not least, citrus notes. According to official lore he got the first idea after simply adding ethylvanillin to a bottle of Jicky, amazed by how marvellous it smelled. (Thierry Wasser is not an advocate of the Jicky-plus-ethylvanillin theory, because in reality it was probably not that simple.) After several trials Jacques exclaimed, "I think I have found the balance!" Over thirty percent of his composition consisted solely of bergamot oil.
The whole of Paris was entranced by the exotic in 1925, the year when Josephine Baker starred in La Revue Nègre on the Champs-Elysées with her frenetic Danse Sauvage. The Roaring Twenties, termed Les Années Folles by the French, were full of cabaret clubs and American jazz. Intrigued by the colonial world outside of France, Jacques Guerlain took his inspiration from the East. "India and Southeast Asia have always fascinated my family," Philippe Guerlain explains. "It is the birthplace of perfumery, the cradle of civilization which taught Arabia the art of perfume. Later, fragrant oils came to Europe from India, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, along the trade roads through Iran. That is why my family always returns to the roots of perfumery, to the Orient, where perfume began." Hearsay has it that years before Shalimar was launched in America, Madame Raymond Guerlain incited interest in it when she wore the perfume while crossing the Atlantic to New York. Some shipboard passengers believed Shalimar to be an entirely new perfume house whose name rhymed with the old Grasse company, Galimard. Guerlain knew that Shalimar had a big international potential, unlike L'Heure Bleue which is very French, because Shalimar's strong focus on vanilla made it easier to appreciate in different cultures. A rival firm released a perfume also called "Shalimar" and a legal battle ensued, forcing Guerlain to temporarily relabel it for export with its stock number, "No.90", "No.91" and "No.92".
The apparent ease of the vanilla-citrus equilibrium, deep yet uplifting, as if cast in one piece, had Chanel No.5's perfumer Ernest Beaux utter his oft-quoted compliment, "If I had used so much vanilla, I would have made only a crème anglaise, whereas Jacques Guerlain creates a Shalimar!" By this he meant that despite its evident sweetness, Shalimar didn't smell like a dessert, but like the most haunting perfume ever made. A rich, smoky-black scent exuding Arabian Nights and pillow-strewn burgundy velvet sofas, with notes of lemon-hinted medicinal vanilla and balsam, and plenty of tonka bean and dusty orris. Sparkling, powdery, and warm like animal skin, halfway between glamour and Indian incense, Shalimar was so ingenious it's still mentioned as "the reference oriental" and to this day is Guerlain's signature perfume. All modern gourmand fragrances are greatly indebted to Jacques Guerlain's groundbreaking oriental. "It has an extraordinary round and sensual base, but nearly no heart. It is so sensual that it goes perilously close to the edge of good taste. What makes it magical is the way in which Jacques Guerlain counterpointed it. That's something few other perfumers have managed to do with the oriental accord," perfume expert Roja Dove explained. Shalimar's burst of bergamot was to become Jean-Paul Guerlain's role model for how to handle citrus in a perfume.
Bottle. Despite being already finished in 1921, Shalimar's first public showing was scheduled to coincide with Paris' large-scale Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, the exhibition that epitomized what subsequently came to be termed "Art Deco". In collaboration with Baccarat, Raymond Guerlain designed the now iconic fan-shaped bottle, and he was awarded a prize for its novel design which featured a pedestal and a coloured stopper. Over the years, the Shalimar bottle has given rise to multiple interpretations. It imitated an elevated vase or fruit bowl, a typical Mughal handicraft motif, or maybe a water fountain, with the striations resembling the waterfalls in the Shalimar gardens. At the same time it evoked the image of a décolleté female torso, and some have seen it as the figure of Mumtaz Mahal, draped in a cape. Furthermore, the bottle was vaguely suggestive of the contour of the Taj Mahal mausoleum. Even the perfume's label was modelled after the characteristic shape of Persian arches and ornaments. In addition to a water fountain, the stopper's fan shape could also be a palm frond, a traditional sign of triumph, and some say its blue colour represents the clear sky above the Shalimar gardens. Sylvaine Delacourte explains that the stopper was in fact inspired by a piece of silver that belonged to a member of the Guerlain family. In the old Baccarat catalogues, the bottle was termed "the bat", because it looks like a bat with its wings pulled up. The bottle came in a mauve velvet box, presumably to reflect the prominence of iris in the fragrance.
Since then, Shalimar has sold tirelessly in ever-changing bottle editions, such as the Parfum de Toilette bottle from 1986, regrettably no more in production. The later "bat-shaped" atomizer, a shape derived from the Parfum label, was rather more mundane-looking. It got a well-deserved makeover in 2010 from jewellery designer Jade Jagger who revisited the majestic arrangement of urn, pedestal and tassel, with sleeker, modernized lines. Due to the myriad of different limited editions, some of them even given new names, many people erroneously believe that an endless number of Shalimar flankers do exist. However, most of these were only special bottle editions with the scent unchanged.
EdT, EdP, Parfum. In whatever version, Shalimar is about bergamot and vanilla but it's also about a lot of other ingredients, and one will find quite a gap between its Parfum on one side and the EdT and EdP on the other. The Parfum takes off with a taut, dense bergamot zing but with vanilla and birch tar already pushing up from below, giving the citrus an almost varnish-like, creosoted smell. As the citrus fades, jasmine and rose open up in full bloom, and join with the base notes of orris, amber, and patchouli. The drydown, redolent of face powder and tawny port wine, is earthier and not as sweetened as one would expect, and it lasts well into the next day. The EdT is gauzier, sweeter, with the orris charmingly clear (as is true of all the Jacques Guerlain Eaux de Toilette), the citrus is warmer and less medicinal, and it smells all in all closer to lemon tart than to earth, possibly on account of a lower proportion of patchouli and resins. The eighties demanded more powerful scents, so in 1986 Shalimar was the first of the Guerlain classics to be reinvented as Parfum de Toilette (now called EdP). But how could one give the already voluptuous Shalimar more power without losing its roundness? Shalimar EdP is surprisingly the most easy-to-wear of the three formats, with jasmine, rose and sandalwood enhanced in order to obtain a smoother, firmer, and more formal feel.
Reformulation. Getting to know if, when and how a classic perfume has been reformulated is almost an impossible task. The reason is that, like wine, a ten-year-old bottle of perfume will not smell the same as when it left the factory. Some perfume collectors are even so habituated to the scent of aged Shalimar that they will perceive a new bottle as smelling "too clean". The large amount of citrus, herbal and floral ingredients in Shalimar will go off after some years, but as the balsamic base notes get richer and more rounded with age, they outweigh the acrid smell of the other notes and the lack of citrus vitality. An old bottle of Shalimar may have lost some of its sparkle, but its sweet sensuality persists. It's only during the first fifteen minutes that we sense something is wrong; the rest smells so smoky and velvety that we don't pay attention to what's missing.
It's a fact, though, that like all the old Guerlains, Shalimar has undergone many changes during its lifetime. Jacques Guerlain's original formula for Shalimar was immensely more musky than the version that is sold today. Now, Shalimar is at once less creamy, less powdery and less smoky, the base notes drier, cleaner and not as sensually enveloping, and the whole thing a bit more restrained by the herbal lemon top. Some would say that today's Shalimar is more accessible, and perfectly unisex. Thierry Wasser explains that if Shalimar were made with old-fashioned bergamot oil, today prohibited as an allergenic, it would smell so different from the current version that people probably wouldn't like it and would demand a refund. "The original is much less animalic than the version we have today, because the civet is rounded by the raw bergamot," he says. "But it's much more leathery, because it has birch tar, which today has been turned into birch water by IFRA. And it's much muskier than today's. Now, the musk has disappeared." Read more
Variations. Shalimar is such an entertaining creature to play with: dark, fresh, tender, or overpowering — the different ways of understanding this legendary perfume are inexhaustible, and thus making flankers seems logical. In 2003, Mathilde Laurent came out with the first one (we wonder why it didn't happen earlier), Eau Légère Parfumée a.k.a. Shalimar Light, which true to its name had all smoky and heavy notes deleted and only citrus, orris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, tonka bean and vanilla left of its ancestor. She added key lime, a fruit often associated with the flavour of Coca-Cola but which curiously did equal wonders in Shalimar. The result was one of the loveliest of all Guerlain vanillas, a pastel-hued delight, and deservedly popular. Reformulated by Jean-Paul Guerlain and tinted turquoise, he replaced Laurent's softer version with a rougher lemon-saturated drydown typical of his style. Both these Eaux Légère were taken off the market in just a few years. In 2008 came Eau de Shalimar, officially the fragrance unaltered under another name but mocked by connoisseurs as lacking the refinement of the original Shalimar Light.
Incredible as it may seem, Shalimar doesn't contain any vanilla. Its intense vanilla scent stems from ethylvanillin, a synthetic molecule not found in nature. With the Ode à la Vanille series, started in 2010, Thierry Wasser gave us a Shalimar with real vanilla tincture. The result was a less leathery, more gourmand fragrance, with luxurious whiffs of plump vanilla beans, incense, and brown cacao liqueur. The Ode à la Vanille formula was later re-edited with different kinds of vanilla, the woody Madagascan vanilla (2012) and a fruitier variety from Mexico (2013).
Wasser also did the third spin-off, in 2011, reportedly at the request of his teenaged niece who asked for a Shalimar she would wear. Called Parfum Initial, alluding to Guerlain's promotion of a "beginner's Shalimar" (and to Serge Gainsbourg's 1968 fanfare "Initials B.B." in which he praised both Guerlain and Brigitte Bardot's young sexiness), this novelty had a very unbridled relation to classic Shalimar, with no leather and only a bit of vanilla. Its ambition was an unusual alliance between the powdery scent of orris and a contemporary composition of rose, fresh jasmine, caramel, patchouli, and white musk. Parfum Initial eventually came in a fresher L'Eau version too. Despite getting positive reviews, Shalimar Parfum Initial was unable to reach the intended target group, since people who dislike Shalimar will ignore any fragrance bearing its name, while those already in love with Shalimar stay devoted to the original. The sales figures didn't meet expectations and as a consequence, in 2014 Guerlain decided to discontinue the fragrance. "I had a lot of pride for Shalimar Parfum Initial," says Thierry Wasser. "I love the fragrance, but I think the whole concept didn't work. There is only one Shalimar. But frankly, I work for a company and we're not philanthropists, we have to make some money. The sickness of making flankers every five minutes is very upsetting, but if I don't want to get kicked out for not doing my job, I have to do it."
Perhaps in aid of retaining his position, in 2014 Thierry Wasser created a new Shalimar flanker, called Souffle de Parfum. "Souffle" is French for "breath", and the aim of this new fragrance was to offer a very airy and pure interpretation of the oriental accord. Guerlain defines the scent as a "tender floriental", fresh, luminous and cocooning, with notes of jasmine, orange blossom water absolute, white musk, and a drop of vanilla. This description correctly captures the scent of Souffle de Parfum, an example of what Guerlain paradoxically terms a "fresh vanilla". The citrus and orange blossom are angelically light and tender, with a transparent, ozonic and even slightly green feel. This is far removed from Shalimar’s overdose of zesty bergamot. When the top notes meet with white musk, we get the so-called marshmallow effect that several recent Guerlain scents feature too, like L’Heure de Nuit and Mademoiselle Guerlain. Here, however, it’s even airier, and less sweet than in any of those, with a lightness that achieves an almost aldehydic and salty character. The jasmine provides a certain body and creaminess but, like the vanilla note, dosed lightly. Yet, the overall impression is not light as in "diluted", but more as in "airy" or "ozonic", an example of "the weird long-term freshness that Thierry Wasser somehow builds into the fabric of his fragrances," as Luca Turin puts it. The drydown is only marginally gourmand, and we sense the warm dryness of cedarwood towards the end. The fragrance could easily have been an Aqua Allegoria. It smells lovely, really like nothing else Guerlain has made before, and it certainly doesn’t smell like Shalimar. Maybe it smells like what we'd imagine to be the scent of a vanilla orchid. So, why does Guerlain keep issuing Shalimar flankers that don’t smell one bit like Shalimar? Because flankers likely serve to direct new attention to the original perfume, thereby strengthening its commercial position. Compared to Parfum Initial, Souffle de Parfum comes across as stripped of the richness of bergamot, rose, caramel and orris. While Parfum Initial could be worn as an evening perfume, Souffle de Parfum seems more like a light and casual, but still refined fragrance. And, compared to Eau de Shalimar which is markedly citrusy and vanillic and even a bit "dirty" despite its softness, Souffle de Parfum is far more pure, crisp and airy.
Less than a year after Souffle de Parfum, Guerlain launches the sixth Shalimar flanker: Shalimar Cologne. The scent has no connection to classic Shalimar Eau de Cologne. The latter was introduced in 1937 as a diluted, low-cost alternative to the Parfum and EdT. Like all the old feminine EdC, it disappeared from shelves years ago, however it’s still produced for the US market. Nowadays, “cologne” doesn’t reflect the technical term Eau de Cologne, but is used to name a fresh flanker, usually an EdT (another example of this is L'Homme Idéal Cologne). Shalimar Cologne is basically a reworking of Eau de Shalimar (which has simultaneously been taken out of production), made with the lightness and subtlety that is Thierry Wasser's hallmark. In it we find delicate notes of lemon pie, low-calorie chocolate-box vanilla, airy rose, orris, and clean white musk. The scent description mentions grapefruit and freesia, completely alien in the Shalimar universe, but they are not perceptible and merely add freshness to the composition. Unlike Souffle de Parfum, Shalimar Cologne smells like a real variation on Shalimar.
We love: old Parfum, Shalimar ages wonderfully
The full Persian tale on a Sunday afternoon
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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