Shalimar Showdown: The Originals and The Flankers Battle it Out

And the winner of the prettiest bottle award goes to...

And the winner of the prettiest bottle award goes to… Shalimar Parfum Initial L’Eau Si Sensuelle.

Shalimar by Guerlain is my favourite fragrance of all time. It is the fragrance that got me interested in the notion of fragrance as an olfactory art, so I owe it a lot. So many words have been devoted to the history of Shalimar, the making of it, and the many versions of it over the 90 years it has been in production, that I hardly need to go into much of that now. Instead, here is a bit of trivia about this much loved fragrance:

  • Shalimar was created in 1925 by Jacques Guerlain.
  • Shalimar is similar to Guerlain’s own Jicky (1889) with a mega-dose of vanilla added, although rumour also has it that it was based upon the formula for Francois Coty’s Emeraude, created in 1921.
  • Shalimar is often called the Queen of Orientals, or the reference oriental fragrance.
  • Shalimar is one of Guerlain’s bestselling products.

You can read more about the Shalimar and Emeraude connection over at The Perfume Vault, and ponder the origins of this iconic fragrance. If you want to look up the particular notes and ingredients used in Shalimar, Emeraude, or any of the flankers from my review, head on over to Fragrantica. It should be noted that this blog post is more for the seasoned perfume aficianado, in that it assumes some knowledge of Shalimar and its flankers, and how they smell.

Yesterday afternoon I tested eight versions of Shalimar, including four flankers, and one version of Coty’s Emeraude. I didn’t include Jicky in my survey this time, although it is remarkably similar to Shalimar.

I sprayed the originals on my left arm, and the flankers on my right. I wrote my initial impressions down over the first five minutes or so after spraying, and then came back to the fragrances after a period of about ninety minutes to see how they developed and changed over time.

The Originals

shal_originals

Shalimar Originals and Emeraude by Coty

Emeraude

Emeraude Cologne Spray

1. Emeraude Cologne Spray by Coty

I have a vintage bottle of Emeraude – I’m guessing it dates from the 80s by the look of the bottle and the lettering on the sticker underneath. As far as Emeraude goes it’s not very old and it may not be the best version out there. Coty sold out (financially and creatively) a long time ago and sadly their classic and iconic fragrances have all but been destroyed over recent decades. However, this version seems quite good and it’s an interesting reference point to start my adventure from.

At first spray: it’s very much like Shalimar, but is softer, lighter and more powdery. There is less of the discordant harshness that I find in Shalimar, which is what I think makes Shalimar a great fragrance. I smell Johnson’s Baby Powder here, a zesty bergamot and a hint of fresh lemon is well blended with the vanilla and amber, and I also detect opoponax. If I didn’t know this was Emeraude, I might mistake this for a vintage (20-30 years old) Shalimar, in an EDT concentration. It’s yummy, but it’s not outstanding!

After ninety minutes it smells quite wan. The amber is there, as is a touch of baby powder vanilla, but any interesting qualities have faded and it just smells simple and a bit stale. My guess is Coty was already using inferior ingredients (compared to Guerlain) during the period this bottle was made. It just doesn’t cut the mustard in comparison to any of the Shalimars, sadly. Maybe one day I’ll get to smell an older, better Emeraude.

shal_edt

Shalimar Eau de Toilette from 2000

2. Shalimar Eau de Toilette refill bottle from 2000

On first spray: this smells harsher than the Emeraude. It’s much more complex and I immediately notice a touch of civet, an unmistakable fecal note. The bergamot has a real edge to it, which contributes to the harshness. It’s much stronger than the Emeraude too. I smell leather, but it’s not concocted from birch tar; it has a softer, gentler, new leather handbag smell. The bergamot, amber and vanilla are the most dominant notes in the first few minutes, more or less equally.

After ninety minutes this is really interesting and is still moderately strong on my skin, which is great for an Eau de Toilette. It’s quite savoury for a Shalimar, and I can smell distinct layers of fragrance notes hovering over one another: amber at the base, a powdery soft vanilla in the middle, and a muted, yet still present bergamot adding a little bit of pizzazz up the top. This is good stuff.

Shal_EDC

Shalimar Eau de Cologne c. 1990s and missing its label

3. Shalimar Eau de Cologne c. 1990s

Wowzers! At first sniff this is harsher again; there’s almost a hint of bug spray, and a very sharp leather note, but it quickly calms down to become a soft and rounded scent. The bergamot is much softer than in the Eau de Toilette. I’ve heard that natural, untampered-with bergamot was more rounded and complex than the version used in fragrance today, which has had its potentially skin-harming photosensitive molecules removed from it. I wonder if it’s been used here? It certainly doesn’t have the screechiness of the bergamot used in the newer versions of Shalimar. Overall, this version of Shalimar is much quieter in volume, being a cologne (the weakest concentration of fragrance), and the ingredients are more blended. I almost get a hint of licorice here, which is odd: I’ve never noticed licorice in Shalimar before! As with the Eau de Toilette (EDT), the bergamot, vanilla and amber are equally blended together, with no one note dominating. This is a divine skin scent. I’d love to splash it on lavishly all over and have someone think this was how I actually smelled, naturally.

After ninety minutes this has almost gone. A faint whisper of vanillic amber is barely detectable in the crook of my elbow.

Shal_parfum

Shalimar Parfum from 2010

4. Shalimar Parfum from 2010

The first big difference I notice between this and the other Shalimars is an overtly strong, warm animalic smell. It’s civet again, but here it’s immediately dominant. Then a fresh, lemony bergamot swiftly rises up and hovers above the sweetly warm animalic smell. Amber appears and tussles with the civet for dominance. The vanilla sits there in the background quietly, supporting the composition. This is a very sophisticated and well-balanced fragrance. It’s strong, but as there is less alcohol in this parfum-strength Shalimar and a correspondingly higher proportion of delectable, smelly ingredients to enjoy, we don’t have to wait very long for the alcohol to evaporate before we can dive in, nose first, and enjoy the fragrance. Shalimar parfum is rich and refined.

After ninety minutes this is a cuddly, warm, sophisticated joy to smell. It’s faded quite a bit, but an almost sweet, vanillic amber wafts up from my skin. The civet has toned down considerably (only adding warmth, but no poopiness to the mix) and the bergamot has left the room entirely.

This is a scent that I use on special occasions only. It’s beautiful and well crafted.

Shal_EDP

Shalimar Eau de Parfum, current version

5. Shalimar Eau de Parfum – current version

This is the exact fragrance (year and concentration) that got me excited about perfume, and which made me realise that fragrance can be an olfactory art. It’s the version of Shalimar that I wear most. But do I still love it the most, after this showdown?

There’s something quite rough and intense and dark about this brew. Goodness, I do love it so. I smell not only quite a strident bergamot and a touch of lemon, but rough, masculine woods, leather made from birch tar, smoke, strong amber, and quite a bit of civet. It’s so exotic and passionate: a mix of fresh and almost fetid, sweet and savoury, light and dark. The vanilla is only just starting to peek its head out at about two minutes in. At this stage the Eau de Parfum could be a unisex fragrance. Perhaps it’s this straddling of camps that I like about Shalimar: it’s such a great mix of so many seemingly contrary things that it’s not easily classifiable or even describable.

After ninety minutes this is still a complex and beautiful fragrance. It’s faded a bit, but is still quite noticeable with my nose a good six inches or so from my shoulder. Any rough edges have faded, and the vanilla is rising up to take on a starring role, alongside the ever-present, very dry and savoury amber.

I’m at the half-way point now, so I take a break for my nose’s sake. My left arm smells incredible, like it’s been coated with lemon meringue tart and Johnson’s Baby Powder. I feel lopsided with fragrance on only one side of my body!

The Flankers

shalimar_flankers

The Flankers

shal_mexique

Shalimar Ode a la Vanille Sur la Route du Mexique from 2013

1. Shalimar Ode a la Vanille Sur la Route du Mexique from 2013

I get an intense civet burst at first spray and almost a hint of cumin-like body odour deep in the background. I’m trying to smell the chocolate that’s listed in the notes but I’m struggling at this stage – perhaps all I can smell of it is a powdery, earthy cocoa smell, very faint. The bergamot is quite strident again and reminds me of that used in the Eau de Parfum (EDP). It’s on an equal footing with the civet and the amber is strong too. This flanker is very similar to the current EDP version of Shalimar at first spray, but with certain elements skewed or enhanced, especially the civet. If I didn’t know it was a flanker, I would probably just think it was another version of Shalimar that I didn’t already know well. It mellows reasonably quickly and the sweeter lolly-tones are emerging a couple of minutes in.

About ninety minutes in this fragrance has mellowed significantly and the animalic elements have blended beautifully with the caramel and chocolate notes, both of which are quite prominent now. It’s like a warmer, sweeter, lolly shop version of Shalimar, with amber and vanilla still intact, but in the background.

shalimar_eau

Eau de Shalimar from 2011

2. Eau de Shalimar from 2011

Holy lemon starburst! This is lemon sherbet lollies and bright golden sunlight and a zesty bottle of sweet lemonade being opened on a hot day, all at once! The fizz! The sweetness! Underneath it all, like a layer of bedrock, is the signature Shalimar trademark blend of vanilla and amber, but it’s quite well disguised on first spray. This is edible!

Ninety minutes in this is more diminished than I would like: it’s now a soft, lovely melange of lemon, amber and vanilla, but it’s only sniffable about an inch from my skin.

shal_PI

Shalimar Parfum Initial Eau de Parfum – current version

3. Shalimar Parfum Initial Eau de Parfum – current version

Oh! This is so dark and rich and intensely delicious. This fragrance, while it shares a name with Shalimar, is not particularly like the original. Its darkness, richness and complexity equals that of the current Shalimar Eau de Parfum, even if the two do not smell particularly closely related. I visualise dark purple velvet swathes of fabric when I smell this. Shalimar Parfum Initial contains enormous quantities of iris and molasses-infused caramel, which delightfully combine to give the impression of licorice. There’s a hint of bergamot, and though it’s kept in the background, it certainly creates a frisson with the warmer ingredients, including the ever-present vanilla and a rich, almost savoury amber. While this flanker contains gourmand ingredients, it’s far too complex and interesting to place firmly in the category of gourmand. Oriental-gourmand, perhaps?

After ninety minutes the licorice note has toned down, to leave a lovely combination of dark caramel and savoury amber. The iris is still strong and compliments this duet, and is now displaying a powdery quality that wasn’t present earlier.

And the winner of the prettiest bottle award goes to...

Shalimar Parfum Initial L’eau Si Sensuelle from 2013

4. Shalimar Parfum Initial L’Eau Si Sensuelle from 2013 (Eau de Toilette)

This is a flanker of a flanker of a flanker: first there was Shalimar Parfum Initial, then Shalimar Parfum Initial L’eau, and then this one. Shalimar Parfum Initial L’Eau Si Sensuelle is, confusingly, the same fragrance as Shalimar Parfum Initial L’Eau; apparently it was merely repackaged in 2013 in a gorgeously girlish pink frosted bottle with an impossibly soft feather tassle. This fragrance also wins the contest for the silliest, longest fragrance name in history. But apart from all of this, SPILSS, as I shall now call it, is not a complete frippery. The iris is much softer here than in Shalimar Parfum Initial and shares centre stage with a more buttery caramel. As a result, the licorice effect is much more subdued in this version of the fragrance. Bergamot plays a supporting role here too, though it’s much subtler than in any of the original Shalimars, and vanilla is also in the background. Where has the amber gone? I’m not sure I can detect it at all, nor am I certain that it’s meant to even have any.

After ninety minutes this is a softer, sweeter version of Shalimar Parfum Initial. I smell mostly caramel and a soft powdery iris. It’s lovely and is moderately strong for an Eau de Toilette after an hour and a half.

And the Winner Is…

So, which Shalimar wins the showdown? Both the original Shalimar Eau de Parfum (current formula) and the Shalimar Parfum Initial Eau de Parfum tickled my fancy the most. Shalimar EDP is complex, rich and interesting, remains interesting through its development and drydown, and exhibits a range of qualities and ingredients that create both friction and harmony. It’s a perfect blend of opposites, and it works incredibly well. Shalimar Parfum Initial is not quite as complex but is equally distinct in character as Shalimar EDP, and yet they are both dark and intense creatures. I love how the edible, gourmand ingredients of Shalimar Parfum Initial are offset with more classical perfume ingredients such as iris and bergamot. Again, it’s a beautiful blend of somewhat oppositional forces that somehow coalesce to create a marvellous composition. These two favourite versions are followed closely by the utter beauty and warm sophistication of the 2010 Shalimar Parfum, with its balanced and elegant use of exquisite raw materials.

There is no doubt that I love and enjoy wearing every one of the fragrances I’ve reviewed today, and this has been such a fun and educational experiment for me. I’ve been able to study, for the first time, the subtle and not-so-subtle differences and similarities between various versions of the original Shalimar and some of the flankers. I have a new take on all of them thanks to this exercise and I do hope it’s been interesting for you too!

Which Shalimar is your favourite? Do you own a version that I don’t have? If so, or if you have a different take on things, let me know in the comments box below!

Why write a perfume blog? Musings on Charlie Hebdo, Human Nature and Art

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, loosely translated into English as "Sleeping Beauty".

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, loosely translated into English as “Sleeping Beauty”.

Let me be honest. When I say I’ve been a composer for more than twenty years, it’s not true. I started composing music in 1993 and at the end of 2008 I just stopped, though not by choice. For more than six years now I’ve tried to figure out why; I’ve tried to will the energy, the spark for my creativity, back to life, but every attempt failed. I felt numb. Perhaps I stopped making music because my father, who had early onset Alzheimer’s from age 60 was put in a nursing home that year. Seeing my father change so much, to watch him fracture apart in mind, body and eventually soul over a period of eight years was harrowing. A part of me disintegrated with him; I felt like I lost a vital organ and lost my identity, which was so bound up with being a composer. So I kept saying I was one, telling people I was a composer, but “I haven’t written much lately”. I felt like such a phony.

Even when I created a short, one minute piece a few months ago for a concert, with a couple of days notice, I still didn’t feel like a composer. I made a piece I was happy with in the space of only four hours, but I didn’t connect with the act. It didn’t spark any more desire in me to compose.

My creative attention these past six years has been diverted. My creative activities have been like a series of rivulets or creeks, branching off of the main river of composition. The water in the river has long dried up, but the creeks are still running strong, looking for somewhere for the water to flow to, with energy to spend, to provide the nourishment to help new things grow and thrive. Over these six years I haven’t written much music, but I’ve knitted, I’ve sewn, I’ve improvised in the kitchen, I fell in love with fragrance and olfactory art, and I started this blog. The thrill I felt the moment I realised there was, or could be, an art form based around the sense of smell, was not unlike the moment I decided to be a composer. A lightbulb went off! I was obsessed, and wanted to find out everything I could know.

Two days ago I got the urge to sit at the piano. It was the day after the horrible murders at Charlie Hebdo. I’d been for a walk in the rain, across the fields, no human in sight, rolling extinct volcanoes and sheep in every direction for kilometres. Then the urge to compose came. So I sat, and I worked with some chords from a piece that I wrote back in 1994, a time when writing music was easy and pleasurable. I sat for a couple of hours, bearing in mind something a composer friend of mine recently said about the concept of play: that play is vital for good mental health, and that play is an activity without any endpoint or goal in mind. I realised when my friend wrote this that I had lost my creative sense of play long ago, and that I had replaced it with mindless wanderings on the internet, and in online and real-life shops. Wanderings without much intention or meaning, and with potentially destructive and addictive outcomes: wasting precious time and mindless consumption.

As I composed for the first time in a long time, I felt my mind and frontal lobes open up. It was similar to the feelings of relaxation, calm and bliss one experiences after meditating. It felt so good, that yesterday I tried again to sit at the piano and compose. But instead of the feelings of “coming home” and contentment that I’d felt the previous day, I dealt with a constant barrage of internal self-talk, of critical and negative comments from my subconscious that tried to throw me off-balance. The most persistent comment that came to mind was “this is pointless”. The day before, I had actively sat there with the notion of “play” in mind, as a pointless activity that I was striving to achieve, and yet today, I had turned this very concept against myself, using it as a way to critique and negate my creativity. I pushed on as a kind of psychological experiment to see if I could keep going in the face of such internal negativity. I did, and for about three hours I played some chords, I hummed some notes, and I ended up with four bars of some of the most musically conservative, yet pretty music I’ve created.

Today, I open up Facebook and Twitter and I see many ugly, self-righteous comments by people I know and follow about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, and I feel sad. Sad about the state of humanity (though it has always been this way). Sad that we hate and hurt each other so much, when we are all from the same species. Sad that we assert that we know the answers to these problems, and yet continue to perpetuate the hurt with extreme, often divisive and self-righteous declarations about “the right way” to think and be. We strive to change others and their behaviour all the time. It strikes me today that we need more tolerance, of both the little differences and big differences between us. Of different values. We need to accept what is and I think if we do some of the extremes of self-expression will soften and lessen.

With this in mind, I look back upon my time at the piano these past two days, my time spent being a composer again, and I have a new take on the “pointlessness” of it all. I see this act of creating beautiful-sounding chords as a necessity. Beauty and pleasure are required to balance out the negativity and destructiveness that goes on both around, and within us. We need more beauty, we need more pointless, pretty chords, more delicious food, more surplus hand-knitted scarves, more perplexing, confounding art that puzzles us, and more sweet-smelling perfume. We need all of this to balance out the bad stuff. We have the potential as humans to create beauty and to enjoy pleasure, and today, to me, this seems as much an essential and effective antidote to the destructive violence that has been perpetuated in Paris recently as any other action. To embrace, express and amplify the positive and good sides of humanity, including our ability to make art and enjoy it, is a powerful political act. From today forwards, I will strive to write more pointless music. I am a composer once again.

And to answer my question: why write a perfume blog? For the beauty of it.

Music and Smell: Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility

Bitter orange foliage, blossoms and fruit by Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler's "Medizinal-Pflanzen". Public Domain.

Bitter orange (neroli) foliage, blossoms and fruit. By Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler’s “Medizinal-Pflanzen”. Public Domain.

I’m a composer of more than twenty years, a musician of thirty years, and an accomplished knitter. I sew reasonably well, I write, I love to cook and plant things and once had a tiny business making and selling my own felt and textile jewellery. You could say I like to make things. In fact, creativity is my life force, and it’s the thing that gets me going more than anything. That and sensuality: creativity as it relates to the senses. In order to create in any medium or art form,  I feel that I really need to get to the core of an activity and find out how things work in the background. If there’s a science to it, I try to learn about it, if there are methods and practices that artists use to make their work, I find out about them and practice them. That’s what I intend to do with this blog, to really get into the nitty-gritty of the sense of smell and the art of perfume.

One of the things I wanted to do when I started Perfume Polytechnic a few months back was to investigate the connections and parallels between music and perfume. This is something else I do, and perhaps it’s because I’m a synaesthete as well as a creative person – I like to see and find the connections between things. Or perhaps it’s because I hope to use fragrance or scent or smell in an artwork I create one day. As music is the field I understand best of all, perhaps I strive to understand other creative practices by finding parallels and similarities (and also differences) between other artistic practices and it. I see other art forms through the lens of music, and my understanding of it, as well as looking at each art form as a separate entity.

I’ve only just started digging into this topic of the connections and differences between music and perfume, and in doing so, I came across a wonderful article by Brian Eno called Scents and Sensibility, published in Details Magazine in 1992. It was news to me that Eno, a well-known musician and creative polymath, is a long time fan of all things smelly, including fragrance. Eno is interested in trying to understand the working innards of perfumery and the science of smell, and in his article muses about the futility of trying to find a classification system for smells that is neat and clear and finite. He also laments the difficulty of finding a direct and clear language to describe smells that doesn’t simply rely on metaphors and similes. Eno draws some wonderful comparisons between the areas of music and scent, and how the two fields are studied and described, but I won’t spoil too many surprises by summarising any further. You can read Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility here.

In 1993 Eno released an ambient instrumental album called Neroli, named after the syrupy sweet, floral and heady essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree (citrus aurantium subspecies amara or bigaradia). The perfume ingredient neroli actually got its name after the popular 17th Century Princess of Nerola (Anne Marie Orsini, aka Marie Anne de la Trémoille) started using the oil to fragrance both her gloves and bath. A lovely name and etymology for such a beautiful fragrance ingredient!

I haven’t listened to Brian Eno’s Neroli yet, but I intend to soon. Did you know that Brian Eno was interested in perfume and the sense of smell? What do you think of comparing one art form to another – can it be done, or should each art form stay clearly defined as a separate entity? Let me know what you think in the comments box below!

Until next time…

Polly Technic

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