Shalimar (Guerlain)

There is no one and only Shalimar, either in pleasure gardens or in perfume. Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan built no fewer than three "Abodes of Love"* during the 17th century, proving that even a park can have flankers. As for the fragrance, one can sample new and old vintages in extrait, EdP and EdT concentrations as well as Shalimar retreads in every shade from légère on up. (I count at least six.) And if it's bottles you like, you can track down Shalimar in bouchon cœur, habit de fête, parapluie, quadrilobe or discus flacons in addition to the ever-iconic fan-topped crystal urn produced by Baccarat.**

That, my friends, is a whole lotta love.

Throughout its ninety-year history, the Shalimar Mythos has been chanted by so many voices, one is left feeling that there's nothing to do but chime in on the next chorus when it makes its way back around the room. Yet one is also keenly aware that this saga of ageless romance is a fantasy painstakingly composed by a modern corporate entity. It stirs and swells the heart because it is specifically engineered to do so.

During the first quarter of the 20th century, Orientalism -- the Near East-influenced aesthetic movement popular since Napoleon's abortive conquest of Egypt more than one hundred years previous -- had received a jolt of energy from its collision with Art Nouveau and other contemporary schools of design. Though the '20's and '30's may have witnessed Orientalism's last gasps, these came in a fierce blaze of color, emotion, and bold lyricism that lit up the modern age like fireworks.

While its swan song lasted, this curious exoticism could be found everywhere: in popular illustrations by Maxfield Parrish and Erté, in haute couture designs by Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny, in Leon Bakst's costumes for the Ballets Russes, even in print ads for Djer-Kiss brand toiletries. The public bought up copies of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923), and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and lined up at cinemas to swoon over The Sheik. It would be lunacy if Guerlain didn't capitalize on this trend-- and so, crowned in sapphire and veiled in PR romance, Shalimar made its commercial debut in 1925. The world sighed-- and has continued to sigh ever since.

Divorced from its Orientalist trappings, would Shalimar the perfume have sold so well? Based on its throat-gripping beauty, I would say yes-- but my goodness, what a little moonlight can do.

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Stop me if you've heard this one before. Guy goes into a chemistry lab, dumps an entire vial of synthetic chemicals into a vat of finished perfume. Pure genius ensues.

The tale of how Jacques Guerlain arrived at Shalimar by overdosing a batch of Jicky with ethyl vanillin varies according to the drama lent to the retelling... as well as to the level of conscious intent ascribed to the story’s pivotal act. Some versions have Guerlain pouring in the vanillin "suddenly", as if wracked by an uncontrollable whim. Others portray the deed as accidental, hearkening to a similar anecdote regarding Chanel No. 5's aldehydes being mismeasured by an inept lab assistant. Add that bottle-smashing klutz François Coty, and perfumers come out sounding like Jerry Lewis-style bumblers to a man.

Guerlain didn’t do it accidentally, of course. He added the vanillin on purpose—coolly, calmly, probably by tiny degrees, taking reams of notes and measurements between droplets and conducting scores of tests on the results. He wasn't tossing together an impromptu batch of ratatouille, after all. This was his life's work, one for which he was superlatively skilled.

And not just as an artist-- as a scientist as well. Every day, he entered a nice, clean, modern laboratory and made a series of highly rational and conscious decisions. Only when he had put the finishing touches on yet another masterpiece did he hang up his lab coat and begin (invariably) to speak of visions, ideals, emperors, empresses, gardens, poetry, love.

Plainly put, these things sell perfume. Science does not.

It strikes me as odd that fragrance is the one industry where cool, careful, and deliberate production methods are viewed as a total mood-kill for the consumer. What irony: that something which takes thousands of precise calculations must somehow look effortless, as if it suddenly appeared ready-made out of the mystical blue. I'm sure that if Shalimar had been discovered flowing like spring water from a crevasse in the high Himalayas, ready to be bottled directly at the source à la Perrier, the Guerlain PR team would have fainted with joy. But that was never the case.

Behind the overlay of eternal passion and starlight glimmers a room of sterilized glass and steel. Not exactly a Mughal emperor's garden-- but an honest place, and real. Here, and nowhere else, is Shalimar.

Is it any less beautiful for having been born from a test tube?

Is its impact on the heart one jot diminished?

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Of all the possible permutations of Shalimar, I own two: a wonderful 60-year-old parfum which my friends DC and CC shared with me (and which we recently decanted, hallelujah!) and a boxed 5ml. mini of the modern eau de toilette. The latter ended up serendipitously in my hot little hands on a visit to Ye Olde Antique Barn, when the owner urged it on me as lagniappe. I suspect her generosity may have been prompted by the fact that I was taking the infuriating Mystery Minx Flacon off her hands-- but I could be mistaken.

As one might expect, the parfum is grandly hypnotic, potent as all get-out, with a deeply affecting rasp in the lower registers as when a contralto reaches deep down for a low note and instead brings up (to her surprise as well as ours) a sob. At the very same time that its florals transport the wearer with a sense of heart-brimming euphoria, its combination of civet, ambergris, tonka, and that powerfully smoky vanillin catch palpably in the throat like a long-buried emotion. I find I can only handle a drop or two without feeling overwhelmed.

Thank heavens, then, for that sweet, windswept EdT! Though quite recognizable as a daughter of this historic marvel (right down to the suggestive breath of civet hiding behind the fresh bergamot top note), it's understandably less complex-- and maybe better for it. A girl can't have mascara tears running down her face 24/7, can she? An interesting note: the EdT’s smoky facet (which I imagine now has to be added in to maintain the authentic “feel” of the old vanillin) has a modern powdery-rubbery quality most wonderfully reminiscent of Bulgari Black. How appropriate to the times—and yet it mingles with the vintage parfum without a hint of complaint on either side.

Still, when I wear either Shalimar, I don’t think of love or romance, of emperors or empresses, of a peacock’s echoing cry through a garden at moonrise. I think of science. I marvel at the wonders of chemistry; I sing the praises of atoms and molecules, of terpenes and esters, of alembics and pipettes and thermometers. I give thanks for the human impulse to take things apart and reassemble them in new combinations-- and to keep doing so until the end result is perfect.

Shalimar is perfect. Thank you, Jacques Guerlain, you emperor in a lab-coat, you.

*Located in Kashmir, Lahore, and Delhi respectively. Shalimar #1 and #2 were built to please the wives (me, I get a big bag of Smartfood all to myself when I've been good) and #3 served as a sort of Imperial-grade highway rest stop. Romantic, no?

**Thanks to Cleopatra's Boudoir and Sorcery of Scent for the lowdown on Shalimar bottle variety and history, and MonsieurGuerlain for writing the prose that makes me want one -- no, TWO -- of each.


Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, rose de Mai, iris, jasmine, vetiver, patchouli, sandalwood, opoponax, tonka bean, balsam Peru, benzoin, vanillin, civet, ambergris, castoreum