Jean-Paul Guerlain 1989, EdT 1991, Un Air de Samsara 1995, Samsara Shine 2001
Family: oriental
Notes: lemon, tarragon, jasmine, ylang-ylang, rose, narcissus, sandalwood, vetiver, tonka bean, benzoin, orris, vanilla
Big jasmine and sandalwood
Period: The hard years

Jean-Paul Guerlain had put enormous effort into the creation of Nahéma but compared to Shalimar's popularity, its success in the market had failed. Guerlain needed a new cult oriental to counteract the two blockbusters of the eighties, Opium (Yves Saint Laurent) and Poison (Dior). So one hundred years after Jicky, Guerlain plunged into the massive launch of a worthy opponent called Samsara. Rather than giving free rein to the nose, it was the house's first perfume created from a marketing brief, inviting external perfumers to work in competition with Jean-Paul Guerlain. Note that this was five years before the business mammoth LVMH came into the picture, but the use of target marketing was already escalating, as the market for fashion and beauty products as status symbols exploded during the 1980s.

Who actually composed Samsara remains a mystery. The scent is officially authored by Jean-Paul Guerlain, whose autobiographies recount how he created it, while his then co-perfumer Anne-Marie Saget says that it was the last Guerlain perfume she worked on before leaving the brand in 1989. However, perfumers Gérard Anthony and Jacques Chabert have also been cited for the ownership of Samsara. It wasn't until Jean-Paul Guerlain's retirement in 2002 that Guerlain began to reveal the names of the perfumers behind its fragrances.

Samsara's creamy jasmine-sandalwood harmony was as amazingly simple as that of Mitsouko's peach and oakmoss. As both jasmine and sandalwood are revered ingredients in Asian religious rituals, the scent perfectly fit its oriental-themed presentation: Chinese red and gold packaging, and a name that in Sanskrit means "continuous flow", referring to the repeating cycle of birth, karma, death and rebirth found in Buddhist philosophy. Guerlain explained the Buddhist name in an advertisement with the catchphrase, "Samsara is an invitation to serenity and harmony with oneself and the world." Samsara's immaculate materials and smooth accord exuded a tranquil fullness that could easily translate to this description, yet it was completely ill-conceived perfume mumbo-jumbo, since in Buddhism "samsara" is characterized by anxiety and dissatisfaction arising out of ignorance, possessiveness and clinging.

Jean-Paul Guerlain has said that he hit upon what would be the final composition of Samsara within his first few trials but continued frantically to work on it for years, making over three hundred tests, because he didn't think it could be that easy. He was also afraid that his perfume wouldn't pass muster with the marketing panel. He later admitted he never was fond of Samsara's name, but the company's marketing director wanted something that sounded striking and assertive, at first suggesting it be called "Success". Jean-Paul Guerlain's own working title was "Delicia", to reflect both the sweetness of the fragrance and his attraction to an English equestrienne named Decia who served as his muse (she had told him she didn't care much for perfumes except for the scent of jasmine, rose and sandalwood). While working on the ad campaign for the new perfume, the marketing department came up with a tagline: "At the dawn of the third millennium, with Guerlain, woman is reborn." Cleverly, the tagline used the words "third millennium" and "reborn", to convince the public that Guerlain didn't live in the past anymore but was poised for the future. To reflect the theme of rebirth, the name Samsara was chosen, paired with the Asian-inspired bottle, box, and ad material, all of which seemed taken straight out of Guerlain's oriental tradition.

Back in 1989, Samsara smelled unmistakably modern, and if you asked many a Guerlain devotee, much like a period piece, slightly pretentious and vain. Sandalwood has been a standard Guerlain prerequisite since Jicky, but its predominance in Samsara seemed too bombastic to some. Then again, as perfume reviewer Luca Turin comments, "hindsight humbles," and today, Samsara stands as completely Guerlain, triumphantly grand and replete with Guerlinade notes of vanilla, benzoin, tonka bean and orris, plus a Provençal touch of tarragon. The heady ripe jasmine came from Guerlain's own extraction factory near Coimbatore in India, and its sensuality was reinforced by ylang-ylang, narcissus and rose. But Samsara's most famous aspect was the overdosed sandalwood, gilding and warm — a staggering twenty percent level, way beyond what anyone had ever used before. Sandalwood oil in a monumental leading role is challenging: it smells profound but has little radiance and risks flattening the perfume. This problem was solved by adding polysantol, which gave a sense of diffusion and verve to the creamy sweetness of Samsara.

The deep red, gold-trimmed Samsara bottle is one of Robert Granai's most elegant Guerlain designs, its curves drawn from the ancient statue of a Khmer dancer's waist and neck, and the stopper shaped like a Buddha's closed eyelid. The 30 ml Parfum presentation was nothing short of majestic: the bottle voluminous and heavy and cushioned on a red velvet bed inside a Chinese-style lacquer box. The original clear glass atomizers for the EdP and EdT were later replaced by opaque red ones. In 2017, Guerlain replaced the Samsara bottle with the standard quadrilobe bottle and a frosted version of the bee atomizer.

Parfum, EdP, EdT
The opulence of Samsara is represented magisterially in its Parfum concentration, rich but never blaring, with intense, carnal jasmine and ylang-ylang, and oily sandalwood that swells and burns and only slowly sinks into amber. The EdP achieves it more quickly, the rose is clearer, and the white flowers are not quite as narcotic. An EdT version was launched two years later, more effervescent but far less satisfying. On a side note, collectors may be interested to know that Samsara marked the first time Guerlain used the appellation Eau de Parfum instead of Parfum de Toilette. After this, all the Parfums de Toilette (Shalimar, Jicky, L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Chamade and Nahéma) were renamed Eau de Parfum, although the formulas remained unchanged.

Due to today's scarcity of sandalwood, Thierry Wasser has set up sustainable sandalwood plantations in Sri Lanka as a viable "green" source for Guerlain. Therefore, the fact that today's Samsara smells somewhat less creamy than older bottles do may be attributable to the juice's ageing, and not to any shortage of sandalwood.

Just like Samsara was Guerlain's first marketing-derived fragrance, it was also the first to be promoted with flankers. The scent's thundering richness almost begged for fresher reinterpretations. First it spawned a minty version, Un Air de Samsara, and then a fruity one, Samsara Shine.

  We love: the Parfum

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