1925, EdC 1937, PdT 1986, Light 2003, Ode à la Vanille 2010, Parfum Initial 2011
[ʃali'ma:r] Roaring balsams
Period: The orientalist years Shalimar collection
"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 his favourite wife, 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. Sadly, Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth following the emperor's accession to the throne, and in her memory he built the grand mausoleum Taj Mahal at Agra in India. "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 in a Shalimar ad, a big-scale film shot in Northern India. Not only Guerlain, but the whole of Paris was entranced by the exotic in 1925, the year when Josephine Baker entered La Revue Nègre on the Champs-Elysées with her feverish Danse Sauvage. Shalimar Gardens were 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 virtual overdose of vanilla notes in its composition. On receipt of the newly developed ethylvanillin, many times stronger and creamier than vanillin, Jacques Guerlain locked 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 reports he got the first idea after simply adding ethylvanillin to a bottle of Jicky, amazed by how marvellous it smelled. After several trials he came back and exclaimed, "I think I have found the balance!" Over thirty percent of his composition consisted solely of bergamot oil. Shalimar was born, and with it the definition of oriental perfumes. "India and Southeast Asia have always fascinated my family," Philippe Guerlain explains. "It is the birthplace of perfumery, the cradle of civilisation 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 Shalimar excited so much interest at its first American appearance, years before it was properly launched — on the neck of Madame Raymond Guerlain aboard a transatlantic ocean liner heading for New York — that some believed Shalimar to be an entirely new perfume house, rhyming on the old Grasse company Galimard. Guerlain knew that Shalimar had a big international potential, unlike L'Heure Bleue which is very French, because its heavy focus on vanilla made it easier to apprehend 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, carnal, plushy, smoky-black scent exuding Arabian Nights, Roaring Twenties, cabaret clubs, and burgundy pillow-strewn velvet sofas, with notes of lemon-hinted medicinal vanilla, labdanum and opopanax balsams, 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 Guerlain's flagship perfume. All modern gourmand fragrances are greatly indebted to Jacques Guerlain's old 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 treat citrus in perfume.
Bottle. Raymond Guerlain designed the now iconic fan-shaped bottle for Paris' large-scale Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, and he was awarded a prize for it as the first perfume bottle in history to present a pedestal and a coloured stopper. Despite being already finished in 1921 and worn by Raymond's wife, Shalimar's first public showing was scheduled to coincide with the exhibition that epitomized what subsequently came to be termed Art Deco. Over the years, the Shalimar bottle has given rise to multiple interpretations. It imitated an elevated palace 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 name label was modelled after the characteristic shape of Persian arches and ornaments. In addition to a water sprinkle, 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. Yet, Sylvaine Delacourte explains that the stopper was actually inspired by a piece of silver which belonged to a member of the Guerlain family. In the old Guerlain 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 iris-loaded fragrance. Since then, Shalimar has sold tirelessly in ever-changing editions and presentations, such as the solid, deluxe Parfum de Toilette bottle from 1986, worthy of a rajah but 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 beautiful arrangement of urn, pedestal and tassel, with sleeker, modernized lines. Read more ▶
Parfum, EdT, PdT. In whatever version, Shalimar is about bergamot and vanilla but it's also about a lot of other things, 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 bergamot zing but with impatient resins already pushing up from below, giving the citrus an almost varnish-like creosoted smell. Jasmine and rose try their best to illuminate but it's all relentlessly outnumbered by the base notes, opopanax, patchouli, sandalwood, birch tar, orris, tonka bean and vanilla in a pitchy, leathery mixture, zaftig, powdered, and musky beyond civility. Its drydown, redolent of tawny port wine, is earthier and not as sweetened as one would expect, and it lasts well into the next day, one of Guerlain's most addictive after-hours smells. 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. As the eighties demanded more powerful scents, in 1986 Shalimar was the first of the Guerlain classics to be reinvented as Parfum de Toilette, but how could one give the already voluptuous Shalimar more power without losing its roundness? Shalimar PdT is surprisingly the least curvaceous of the three, with jasmine, rose and sandalwood enhanced in order to obtain a smoother, more straight-backed and formal feel.
Reformulation. 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 and less powdery, the vanilla and musks are less turbid, drier and not as sensually enveloping, the whole thing a bit more restrained by the herbal lemon top. Some would say that Shalimar is now more accessible, and perfectly unisex. Thierry Wasser explains that if Shalimar were made with old-fashioned bergamot oil, 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.
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 to make flankers seems logical. In 2003, Mathilde Laurent came out with the first one (you wonder why it didn't happen earlier), Eau Légère Parfumée a.k.a. Shalimar Light, which true to its name had all earthy and spicy notes cut out 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 as supremely delicate and precise as Après l'Ondée, and deservedly popular. Even so, it was taken off the market after some years, by which time the juice had already faced reformulation — plus tinted in a turquoise nuance — towards a rougher, lemon-saturated drydown attributed to, and typical of, Jean-Paul Guerlain who might have found Laurent's version too soft. It was replaced in 2008 by Eau de Shalimar, officially the fragrance unaltered under another name but in reality a Disneyesque orange-and-thyme-scented amber, mocked by connoisseurs yet as immediately toothsome as the crème anglaise that Earnest Beaux once so belittled. In 2010, Shalimar's 85th anniversary was celebrated with an "Ode à la Vanille", a limited edition reworking by Thierry Wasser who explored the gourmand potential of the Eau de Parfum with a luxuriously silky vanilla extract and extra fine benzoin and jasmine indole, emitting elegant whiffs of incense and brown cacao liqueur, while he minimized that swaying, jazzy, raunchy vibe which otherwise defines Shalimar. The Ode à la Vanille formula was later re-edited with different kinds of vanilla, the woody Madagascan vanilla and a fruitier variety from Mexico. Wasser also did the third spin-off, reportedly at the request of his teenage 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 has a very unbridled relation to classic Shalimar, though without exactly pandering to youth. Its ambition is an unusual alliance between the ladylike, très parisien part of Shalimar (the plush-pillow accord of orris and tonka bean) and a new, retro-sixties floral naughtiness: seductive, hedione-polished rosy notes, then cuddly caramel, and lots of cashmere-textured patchouli and white musk added to the strikingly sparse vanilla. No dark corners, no vanillic smoke, but Gallic passion galore. Despite getting positive reviews, Shalimar Parfum Initial seems to fall between two stools commercially, since people who dislike Shalimar will ignore any fragrance bearing its name, while those already in love with Shalimar stay devoted to the original. Read more ▶
Recommended: old Parfum, Shalimar ages wonderfully.
For unintended seducing.
The full Persian tale on a Sunday afternoon.
Family: oriental. Notes: bergamot, lemon, mandarin, jasmine, rose, orris, labdanum, opopanax, tonka bean, sandalwood, birch tar, patchouli, vanilla.
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1925, EdC 1937, PdT 1986, Light 2003, Ode à la Vanille 2010, Parfum Initial 2011