An Island in the Stream: The Enduring Mystique of Shalimar
So here’s what happened - I went into my local Nordstrom store to check out the summer Dior scents. Escale à Portofino was in; the new Escale à Pondichery I had hoped to find had yet to arrive. I sniffed the Portofino, I was under whelmed, and I was even more disheartened when the Dior SA said they did not even have the “regular” Miss Dior anymore. The only ones on the shelf were Miss Dior Cherie and the very latest one, Miss Dior Cherie “L’Eau”, an even more diluted shadow of the original. I did not even know it existed until then, and I really don’t care, if the truth were known. (They no longer carry Diorissimo either, only Saks has it.) I wandered over to the wall o’ scents to see if there was anything new or noteworthy I should try. Recalling the recent lamentations over the reformulation of Annick Goutal’s iconic Eau d’ Hadrien, I sprayed some of that on my wrist, and to my horror it was even worse than I had feared. I turned to find Cartier’s Roadster; its cold and metallic facelessness was almost frightening. What was wrong, that everything smelled off somehow, jarring and dissonant? I reached for the familiar comfort of Vera Wang, but found none in its bland, anonymous sweetness. The five new Dolce & Gabbana summer fragrances were in, but having read about how disappointing they were I was just not in the mood to go there. I needed a palate cleanser in a big way. The Hermès Jardin series scents were too transparent to clear my nose of the wreckage of the Eau d’ Hadrien impostor, as were the Pradas, what to do? In desperation I eyed the Guerlain lineup; looking for Mitsouko, but the tester bottle was gone. So I did the last thing I would have expected when I walked into the store – I grabbed the Shalimar tester and sprayed a healthy dose onto my arm.
What happened next will go down in my personal history as a pivotal moment. I had never been able to warm up to the Queen Of All Perfumes for some reason, finding it too sweet and heavy for my taste and reminiscent of the bejeweled and semi-fossilized ladies at the cosmetics counters of a long-gone downtown department store. I associated it with too much caked-on makeup, overdone rouge and ropes of fake pearls. I tried it from time to time and as I got older, I was able to appreciate it on the level of understanding that it was masterfully composed of high-quality materials, but not in an emotional sense. It never got to me. But standing in that crowded store surrounded by the fumes of inferior fragrance products, I had an epiphany – I finally “got” it! I pressed my nose to my arm and it was like everything else had gone away, and there was nothing but Shalimar and me, bonded together on an astral plane of escape.
I was so shocked that when I finally pried my face from my arm, I promptly sprayed some more on the other arm, just to be sure. Oh yes. It had finally happened; I loved Shalimar at last. Just to be sure I asked an SA to make me up a sample, and when I got home I put on some more, and then even more at bedtime, and when I woke up, there was no doubt remaining. The scent had spent the night bonding with my skin in an orgy of Guerlinade, and it was good.
I shouldn’t really be surprised that it happened now, since I have been working my way up the perfume food chain since my teen years, going from light girly florals to darker florals (including Guerlain’s Nahéma) to edgy chypres to sumptuous Orientals like my beloved Bal à Versailles, which would almost certainly not even exist but for Shalimar being there first; they have much in common, except the ratio of “skank” to vanilla is reversed, with Shalimar having rather less of the former. Something deep down inside the Shalimar seems almost smoky, and combined with the lushness of the rose and the sweetness of vanilla, amber and tonka bean, it somehow conjures up an image of burnished gold flickering in firelight – a magic lantern, perhaps? The deeply resonant animalic notes are barely kept in check by the beautiful iris note, but somehow the line is held – the one that Bal à Versailles gleefully crosses – and it never becomes dirty or vulgar, even as rich and redolent as it is. And this is just the Eau de Toilette! I never thought I would say this, but I believe that a bottle of Shalimar Eau de Parfum, or even Parfum, is in my future. (I don’t know how much any reformulation may have affected Shalimar, but it smells the same to me as it always has, it’s just my attitude that shifted.)
This experience really highlighted for me (again) how much of an abyss there is between the classic ideal of fine perfumes and what modern fragrance marketing has become. I tried one fragrance that day that was distinctive for literally fifteen seconds before it smelled like everything else; Shalimar has been outstanding in its class since 1925. Wave after wave of “new” scents are released into the consumer stream each year; how many are even worth spending your olfactory cells on in the pursuit of trying to keep up with all the latest trends? Meanwhile, standing firm against the torrent are the great ones, Shalimar and her sisters and brothers, the artistic icons of perfumery. Decades pass and still they endure, the longtime signature fragrances of Guerlain, Caron, Jean Patou, Rochas, Dior and the other great houses, quietly and steadily selling bottle after bottle to those who know they will never be disappointed by the contents. Maybe that’s why I finally understood it, surrounded by a river of mediocrity and finding one immovable monument to rescue me.
Image credit: A pavilion in the real Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan in1641 A.D. From Wikipedia.org by GNU Free Documentation license, photo by Ali Imran.