What follows is not, properly speaking, a review of Guerlain's Shalimar. Shalimar is so iconic that there isn't much to be said on the subject that hasn't already been said, and the only reason I'm writing about it today is that I'm planning to talk about the newest member of the Shalimar family, Eau de Shalimar, tomorrow, and my inner perfume geek insists that I can't talk about Eau de Shalimar without at least mentioning its parent first.
The oft-told story about Shalimar is that perfumer Jacques Guerlain was messing around with ethyl vanillin, a then-new synthetic vanilla, and he poured some into a bottle of Jicky to see what would happen. Apocryphal or not, the anecdote neatly connects the dots between the dawn of modern perfumery with Jicky in 1889 and the classic fragrances of the 1920s and 1930s.
Purists will insist that to appreciate the classic Guerlains, you must try them in Parfum. I wouldn't insist that you must prefer the Parfums (heathen that I am, I prefer Jicky in Eau de Toilette), but I would certainly say that it is worth the effort and expense to obtain even a few drops of the Parfum in Jicky, Shalimar, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue. With Shalimar in particular, you might prefer the lesser concentrations, but I don't think they'll tell you what the fuss is all about. Shalimar in extrait is, simply put, one of the glories of French perfumery. The base is rich, smoky and animalic; it smells mysterious and sophisticated, and frankly, dirty, almost indecently so. It hails from an era before fresh-from-the-shower became everyone's notion of sexy; Shalimar is sexy precisely because it smells unclean.
In the Eau de Parfum, the contrast between the brightness of the bergamot and the warmth of the base is still there, but it is less pronounced, and much of the richness is lost. Worn next to each other, the Parfum very nearly pulsates on the skin; the Eau de Parfum smells comparatively flat. The corollary to that is that modern consumers might find the Eau de Parfum considerably easier to wear, and perhaps the Eau de Toilette (which I have not tried) easier still.
Do I love Shalimar? That is a hard question to answer. One of my favorite paintings in the world is Whistler's White Girl (and don't ask me why, I've no idea). When I lived in Washington, D.C., I used to go visit it regularly at the National Gallery, but that doesn't mean I'd like to have it hanging in my living room. So it goes with Shalimar. It smells gorgeous to me, and I love to put on a few drops of the Parfum from time to time, but it doesn't fit me — Shalimar wears me rather than the other way around. According to John Oakes, "if you're not sophisticated, witty, seductive and incurably romantic, forget the fireworks of Shalimar" (The New Book of Perfumes, p. 243), and perhaps that explains everything.
As I've nothing original to say about Shalimar, I'll leave you with two of my favorite quotes on the subject. First, Roja Dove:
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. Counterpointing is the ability to balance the rough with the smooth, the rich with the light and fresh. When you make a perfume as sensual and rich as Shalimar, you have to find a way to balance it, so that you don't end up feeling that it is just too much. (quoted in Michael Edwards' Perfume Legends, p. 56)
And from Luca Turin:
[...] Unlike modern perfumes eager to make a good first impression, Shalimar is an intricate machine designed to project an olfactory effect remote in both time and space. It does not smell "good" in the strict sense for at least half an hour after being put on skin. It also often feels rather strange up close, while radiating a quietly melodious aura. But just as we patiently sit through an overture in anticipation of the aria at the end of the first act, we rightly expect Shalimar to come on-song in an hour's time, and to be better appreciated from the stalls than the stage. How does Guerlain achieve this? A century of practice and two or three perfumer geniuses along the way certainly help, but there is another, more earthbound reason: Guerlain's raw materials are of a different order than the stuff that merely mortal firms can get their hands on. Their vanilla absolute is sensational, their civet tincture is unique, and they have the sort of know-how that makes great cuisine more than the sum of its parts. (quoted by Chandler Burr)
More information: Guerlain Shalimar was introduced in 1925 and the notes include bergamot, lemon, rose, jasmine, patchouli, opoponax, vetiver, civet, musk, vanilla, iris and tonka bean. It was named for the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore (and you could find worse ways to waste an hour than clicking through a search on Shalimar at Flickr). While I think of Shalimar as the quintessential French perfume, according to Susan Irvine, Shalimar "at first, found more success in America where its potency was appreciated" (The Perfume Guide, p. 139).
Tomorrow: Eau de Shalimar & Shalimar Light