Scent Notes | Eau de Shalimar by Guerlain


By Chandler Burr

eau de shalimar

The “oriental” category of perfumes is basically defined as scents built on two materials, vanilla and labdanum. Vanilla is slightly problematic; the 1960s turned it into a sort of hippie cliché. Then there’s labdanum, a natural resin from a Mediterranean bush that smells quite strongly like a dock worker’s armpit. Shalimar, created in 1925 by the perfumer Jacques Guerlain, is historically one of the most important perfumes ever made as it is arguably the progenitor of the entire category of parfums gourmands (culinary perfumes). But Shalimar is also a true oriental, which means vanilla plus labdanum, and that in turn means that Guerlain faces the challenge of selling this great early 20th-century work of art in the 21st-century global marketplace.

What to do?

In 2004, Guerlain issued Shalimar Light by perfumer Mathilde Laurent, who brilliantly modernized the juice while keeping its soul. Guerlain has now unaccountably taken Light off the market and is launching an even more updated update, Eau de Shalimar, which debuts in two weeks. For the past week I’ve been wearing the 1925 on my right arm (to be precise, the 1925 perfume updated with new materials, as the original formula contained several ingredients that are no longer legal for allergy reasons) and the new 2008 on my left. When I held my left arm up to a middle-aged Pfizer executive he said, “Nice. I’d definitely buy that.” Right arm? “Old-fashioned.” But a 30-something Lehman Brothers guy loved the old-fashioned perfume. “Vanilla!” he said happily. He then smelled my left arm, frowning, “Yo, dude, after that first one, I can barely smell it.“

This may be a problem. Eau de Shalimar is, at least for the first 20 minutes or so, a case study in how to modernize a scent. While the 1925 version is a darkly lush mystery — the slightly musty hallways of exotic hotels — 2008 comes out of the bottle with the by-the-book bright citrus top note that young perfumers are being instructed to put on their commercial scents. (You can actually smell the creative directors taking aim at the 15-29 market demographic.) When Guerlain modernizes the oriental category untill the labdanum evaporates and the vanilla is soaked in lemon zest, does any of the Shalimar DNA remain? At moments, I’m not convinced; the drydown strikes me as far too hygienic and, yo, I can barely smell it. At others moments, it seems to work. At a recent lunch with an editor friend of mine, I offered my left (2008) arm. “Oh! I like that!” she said. Before I could present my other arm, she added, “You know, it reminds me of Shalimar.”


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