Summer Series Part 2: Shalimar Showdown

Welcome to Perfume Polytechnic’s Summer Series. I’m taking a break over summer from writing new posts, but instead of stopping publishing altogether, I want to share with you some of my favourite posts from this year and earlier. I hope you enjoy reading them; you may even come across something you missed the first time round!

Today I’m sharing a post of mine from early 2015, Shalimar Showdown: The Originals and The Flankers Battle it Out, in which I compare and review eight different kinds of Shalimar (vintage, contemporary, different strengths and flankers) and one vintage Emeraude. It was fun to write and I hope you find it fun to read!

Shalimar Showdown is my most read post on Perfume Polytechnic. It’s interesting to read if you like Shalimar but don’t know which one to buy, or if you’re interested in collecting many of the different Shalimars, or even if you just want to find out what some of the differences are between them all. Obviously I haven’t reviewed every Shalimar there is: I do hope in a future post to review a few more of my vintage bottles and also the Shalimar flankers that have been released recently. But for now, pour yourself a cuppa, find a comfy chair, and enjoy the journey that is Shalimar ShowdownContinue reading

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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The Flankers

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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.

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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.

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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!

Top Ten Olfactory Moments of 2014

This time of year perfume bloggers around the world often post their top ten fragrance releases of 2014. Living on the somewhat fragrantically-isolated island of Australia, without easy (i.e. free) access to many of these releases makes it difficult for me to write such a post. No matter, as this blog is as much about the sense of smell and all things olfactorial, I am going to list my top ten olfactory moments of 2014 instead, in no particular order. This list includes perfumes, real-life smells that really made a mark on me and my nose, and creative experiences based around scent and fragrance.

Sheep and twin lambs in the clean, fresh country landscape.

1. Moving to the country

Moving to a small rural town in Australia, away from the stinking, pollution-filled hubbub of Melbourne this year, has given me access to clean, fresh air, a wonderful petrichor-like smell as dusk falls and the massive fields of grasses release their oils into the atmosphere, and of course the smell of sheep. We live on a sheep farm, and I love the smell of oily, slightly animalic lanolin that pervades the air subtly at all times. It’s warm and comforting, just like the smell of your favourite woolly jumper.

Guerlain's Shalimar

Guerlain’s Shalimar

2. Shalimar

As much a constant in 2014 as the clean country air, the gorgeously rich, animalic and constantly delightful Shalimar was my most worn fragrance this year. While I own this in many different vintages and versions, including several flankers, the 2010 EDP is the version I like most. Every time I wear Shalimar, it surprises me, but it also soothes me. I wear it on special occasions, when I want to wear an old favourite, and when I need cheering up.

Bois des Iles by Chanel (vintage version)

Bois des Iles by Chanel (vintage version)

3. Smelling Bois des Iles for the first time

When a friend brought her large bottle of Chanel’s Bois des Iles to a lunch catchup last Easter, I was taken aback by this beauty. I’ve long been a fan of sandalwood, and smelling Bois des Iles for the first time, I felt like I’d discovered the superlative sandalwood fragrance. This fragrance is such a gorgeous melange of creamy sandalwood, ylang ylang and spice, held together with the floaty, fizzy lightness of aldehydes. This will be a life-long love, up there with my favourite fragrance Shalimar.

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Smell walks

4. Smell Walks

When I started this blog, I started going on smell walks. Smell walks are an exercise in mindfulness, appreciating the present, and the everyday smells around me. These walks open my nose up to all kinds of smells, and I’m learning to notice and appreciate all the odours around me, not just those that are considered pretty or pleasant. A good side-effect of these walks is that I am more mindful of the smells around me most of the time now, whether I choose to write about them for Perfume Polytechnic, or not. If you’re interested, you can read about my Smell Walks here.

Karatta House – finally restored

5. Making my own “Karatta” perfume with Emma Leah at Fleurage

Not only was this a creative person’s dream activity, making perfume for the first time under the guidance of perfumer Emma Leah, but I had a ball sniffing all of the 80 ingredients available to me! What fun for a perfume enthusiast! Best of all, I got to create a perfume that was a tribute both to a wonderful old family holiday house, Karatta (in Robe, South Australia), and to my now-departed father, who had dreams of restoring this lovely old mansion from a state of extreme disrepair, but was not able to do so.  You can read about my experience at Fleurage making my own perfume here and here.

Karatta Beach, Robe

Karatta Beach, Robe

6. The smell of the ocean at Robe

Just before Christmas I made a pilgrimage back to Robe, South Australia, the little seaside town where we spent many family holidays throughout my childhood. I wanted to see Karatta House, and I wanted to see if my smell memories (from creating Karatta perfume, see above) were accurate. The ocean at Robe has the most beautiful smell: intensely salty, strong, slightly fishy, and incredibly fresh. It was marvellous, and I think Emma at Fleurage captured this salty sea smell very well in the Karatta perfume that we created together.

Giant Morton Bay fig tree

Giant Morton Bay fig tree

7. The Moreton Bay fig tree

Smelling the Moreton Bay fig tree at my childhood holiday house in Robe for the first time in almost 27 years was a treat. This fig note also made it into my Karatta perfume, but smelling the actual tree, in real life again, offered so much more than I remembered. If you haven’t smelled a Moreton Bay fig (it’s an Australian type of ficus), let me describe it for you: it’s a bit like a standard fig tree, but with some differences. It’s sweet and figgy, but also dusty, slightly earthy and powdery. It’s a strong smell and this massive old tree gave off quite a fabulous aroma.

Hyper-Natural at the NGV

Hyper-Natural at the NGV

8. Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural scent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria

Melbournites were treated to an exhibition curated by Chandler Burr at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this past spring. This scent exhibition, situated in the gardens behind the NGV, was a delight. It featured sniffing stations, or “pods” that contained seven different Guerlain fragrances and the corresponding aromachemicals that feature in each fragrance, and atmospheric mist (sadly unscented, but visually pleasing) was pumped into the air around the garden. The sniffing stations were arranged chronologically in the garden, starting with Jicky (1889), and ending with one of Guerlain’s most recent releases, L’Homme Idéal. I attended the opening keynote speech given by Chandler, and a guided tour with him the next morning, and visited the exhibition a couple more times. Hyper-Natural was my first ever fragrance exhibition, and as Guerlain is my favourite house, this event was pretty exciting! I also made lots of new fragrance buddies and met some online fragrance friends in person for the first time. You can read my blog posts about Hyper-Natural here.

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Cèpes Mushroom

9. The smell of Cèpes Mushroom Absolute

At a meetup at Fleurage Pefume Atelier a few months back, a small group of Melbourne perfumistas got to smell many rare and unusual fragrance ingredients. A highlight of the night for many was the cèpes mushroom. This unusual perfume ingredient smelled of an intensely savoury and rich combination of mushroom and vegemite. I would love to smell this ingredient in a perfume one day. If you want to smell this magnificent, rare ingredient for yourself, you can purchase some from my friend, perfumer Mark Evans (of Evocative Perfumes and Hermitage Oils) here.

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a lemon myrtle tree. Copyright  James Niland, Brisbane, Australia.

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on a lemon myrtle tree.
Copyright James Niland, Brisbane, Australia. URL: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Trichoglossus_haematodus_-Brisbane%2C_Queensland%2C_Australia-8.jpg

10. Native Australian Spices at Saltbush Kitchen, Ballarat.

Olly Technic and I had a thrill just yesterday while we were snacking at the new Saltbush Kitchen Cafe at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E.) in Ballarat. As well as offering scrumptious food and drinks using Australian ingredients (something that is done far too infrequently in Australia), they had for sale some Australian “Bushfood” spices that smelled absolutely incredible. Our favourites were Lemon Myrtle (a sharp and vibrant smell reminiscent of fresh lemongrass, but somehow richer), Strawberry Gum (a combination of eucalyptus, and intensely sweet, sharp strawberry), and Aniseed Myrtle (a strong, sweet aniseed smell with a hint of lemon myrtle). It was a great olfactory experience to finish off 2014! You can read about Saltbush Kitchen here, and while their yummy herbs and spices are not yet for sale online, they do have plenty of other temptations to indulge in. Or if you’re visiting Ballarat, drop in and see them at M.A.D.E.


I do hope you’ve enjoyed my top ten wrap-up of olfactory experiences in 2014. What were some of the best things you’ve smelled this year? I’d love to know – make a comment in the box below!

Happy New Year readers and followers and thanks for your support in 2014. See you next year!

Polly Technic

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How Does Hyper-Natural Smell? Scent Chemicals at Chandler Burr’s National Gallery of Victoria Exhibition

Yesterday I revisited the Chandler Burr scent exhibition, Hyper-Natural, at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia. To recap, the Hyper-Natural exhibition showcases seven fragrances by Guerlain, presenting them in scent stations, or “pods” in the garden at the rear of the NGV. Each of these pods contains pools of each fragrance, and also the synthetic scent chemical (molecule) used prominently in each of these fragrances. There is also some curatorial information inside each pod (which I draw from in this post) about each scent chemical and fragrance and the significance of the chemical and how it is used in the completed fragrance. I gave an overview of the opening events of Burr’s exhibition a few weeks ago, including the Keynote Address and a curator’s tour. You can read that post and see some great photos of Hyper-Natural here. You can also visit the NGV website to read about the exhibition.

Today I want to talk about how Hyper-Natural smells. For those of you who don’t live in Melbourne or who don’t have the good fortune of being able to visit Hyper-Natural, I want to describe to you how the scent chemicals (molecules) in the exhibition smell. The Guerlain fragrances themselves are generally easily found in department stores and will be well-known to many of you, so I won’t spend too much time describing them here. We don’t often have access to the isolated chemicals or ingredients used in perfumery, however, so it is a treat to be able to smell them and describe them to you, so you can share in the experience of Hyper-Natural.

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One of the scent stations at Hyper-Natural, with Chandler Burr standing to the right of the “pod”.

Before heading out to the garden to sniff the exhibition, gallery patrons are encouraged to pick up a card containing tear-off strips to dip into each scent chemical and fragrance, to facilitate the sniffing process.

Cards to tear off, dip and sniff.

Scent Station 1 – Scent Chemical: Coumarin / Fragrance: Jicky

Coumarin is the common name for scent molecule 2H-chromen-2-one. It was created out of necessity, at a time (the 1800s, in Europe) when it was hard to source certain raw, natural perfume materials. Coumarin is supposed to smell like the tonka bean from South America. It was synthesised by an English chemist in 1868 and was used by perfumer Aimé Guerlain in Jicky in 1889.

What does coumarin smell like to me?

Coumarin does smell like tonka beans, an unusual ingredient I’ve been lucky enough to find and smell at a boutique spice shop in Melbourne called Gewurzhaus. I’ve also eaten it as a flavouring in white chocolate, where it imparted a soft, vanilla-like taste. For a scent chemical, coumarin actually smells very natural. It has a subtle almond, marzipan, creamy vanilla kind of smell.

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The inside of Scent Station 1: Coumarin/Jicky

Scent Station 2 – Scent Chemical: Ethyl Vanillin / Fragrance: Shalimar

Ethyl Vanillin was created by chemists in 1872. It is described by Burr, in the curatorial notes, as a more powerful version of natural vanillin. This chemical is a good example of a “hyper-natural” smell: it’s like the natural smell that it references, but is amplified. Because of the strength of the chemical, Shalimar only uses 2% ethyl vanillin, yet the vanilla note in Shalimar, for those of us that know it, is very dominant, testifying to the strength of ethyl vanillin. Jacques Guerlain created Shalimar in 1925; rumour has it, he added a quantity of ethyl vanillin to Jicky to create Shalimar. Whether or not the creation of Shalimar was this simple (there are other differences between the compositions of the fragrances too), Shalimar does smell like a more vanillic version of Jicky.

What does ethyl vanillin smell like to me?

Like coumarin, this scent chemical also smells very natural, but as Burr says, it is more intense than natural vanillin. To me it is a sharp, savoury, strong, natural-smelling vanilla.

Scent Station 3 – Scent Chemical: Sulfox / Fragrance: Chamade

While this scent molecule is extracted from a shrub, it doesn’t smell particularly natural. At Chandler Burr’s Keynote Address, audience members had different ways of attempting to label this smell, with the general consensus being that the smell is strong, fruity, chemical, yet not particularly nature-identical (unlike coumarin and ethyl vanillin). In Chamade, perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain balanced out the “oomph” of this synthetic ingredient with large quantities of similarly powerful ingredients such as blackcurrant and galbanum.

What does sulfox smell like to me?

To me sulfox smells like a slightly funky version of passionfruit, specifically the inside of passionfruit skin, after you’ve cut it open and eaten it with a spoon, crossed with a faint, chemical, burning smell, like that of burning rubber.

Scent Station 4 – Scent Chemical: Polysantol / Fragrance: Samsara

Sniffing station 4: Polysantol / Samsara. At the curator’s tour with Chandler Burr and the NGV’s Ewan McEoin.

Mysore Sandalwood, much used in perfumery, has been over-harvested, leading to a world-wide shortage and the need to create synthetic versions of this very popular fragrance ingredient. Polysantol is just one of the synthetic versions of sandalwood to have emerged, which each representing a facet of the natural material, but unable to replicate natural sandalwood in its entire complexity. Burr considers polysantol to be an abstracted, streamlined version of sandalwood, stripped of its cedar and tar-like aspects. Polysantol is a starring note in Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Samsara, a gorgeously creamy, rich fragrance that combines faux-sandalwood and jasmine in a heady and comforting combination.

What does polysantol smell like to me?

Polysantol smells like a creamy, slightly fake version of sandalwood. It’s almost a little sickly sweet and too cloying on its own. In Samsara, the jasmine provides a balancing counterpoint to this sickly aspect of the scent chemical.

Scent Station 5 – Scent Chemical: Cis-3-hexanol / Fragrance: Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca

Cis-3-hexanol is a green-smelling scent chemical. As Burr explains in the exhibition notes, there have been other green-smelling scent chemicals before, but cis-3-hexanol is unique in that it smells strongly of cut grass, crossed with the smell of an unripe (green) banana. In Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca, perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain uses cis-3-hexanol in combination with other green plant smells, such as mint and green tea, to create a hovering, floating, fresh scent that most certainly references nature but is somehow abstract at the same time.

What does cis-3-hexanol smell like to me?

Cis-3-hexanol smells like a chemical, hyper-natural version of cut grass to my nose. It is also a tad earthy and hints at the cool aspects of crushed peppermint. I can also detect a faint burning smell in this chemical.

Scent Station 6 – Scent Chemical: Methyl cyclopentenolone / Fragrance: La Petite Robe Noire

This scent chemical is considered a “maple lactone”, and, according to Burr’s exhibition notes, is used “to generate sugary caramel notes without associations of fairy floss.” When perfumer Thierry Wasser was working on creating La Petite Robe Noire (The Little Black Dress), he wanted to represent the colour black in the fragrance. As methyl cyclopentenolone has a very deep, dark smell, Wasser chose to use it in La Petite Robe Noire.

What does methyl cyclopentenolone smell like to me?

Methyl cyclopentenolon smells like a deep, earthy, almost-savoury, synthetic maple syrup. It is a touch woody, and burnt-smelling, like a burnt-sugar topping on a crème brulée.

Scent Station 7 – Scent Chemical: benzaldehyde / Fragrance: L’Homme Idéal

Benzaldehyde has actually been around for quite a while, as far as scent molecules/chemicals go. It was created in 1832, and is, according to Burr, notoriously difficult to use because of its intensely strong smell of bitter almond. In L’Homme Idéal, Thierry Wasser has balanced the intensity of this ingredient with coumarin (from Jicky) and ethyl vanillin (from Shalimar), no doubt rounding out its strength with these other, slightly softer gourmand notes.

What does benzaldehyde smell like to me?

Benzaldehyde has a glorious, rich, true marzipan smell. It’s a tad sweet and while it smells a bit like coumarin, is much richer and more intense. As I continue to smell it, after a few minutes I detect a strong cinnamon facet to this chemical. The aldehyde component (aldehydes give fragrance ingredients lightness and help them to “float”) helps to create an overall impression of a floating, hovering, sweet, spicy, cinnamon-infused almond tart filling. It’s incredible, dark, rich and gorgeous, and is my favourite scent molecule in this exhibition.

In Summary

I hope that this report of my own impression of these scent chemicals and a brief discussion of how they were used in the corresponding Guerlain fragrances has helped to evoke a sense of what it is like to experience Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural. Have you been lucky enough to smell any of these scent chemicals yourself in another context? Have you been to Hyper-Natural, and if so, what did you think of these ingredients? What did they smell like to you? I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bibliographical note: I drew upon the curatorial/exhibition notes from the NGV’s Hyper-Natural exhibition in order to write this report, however, the opinions stated about each scent chemical are my own.