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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Island in the Stream: The Enduring Mystique of Shalimar

By Donna

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 by GNU Free Documentation license, photo by Ali Imran.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't that just the most wonderful moment?? I remember it with Shalimar and L'Heure Bleue, neither of which I loved at first sniff. Definitely try the parfum strength - it skirts muuuuch closer to the skank!! And also try it in the heat/humidity - for me L'Heure Bleue in particular is even more gorgeous as the heat maximizes the anise note. Glad you finally had that Shalimar moment!

12:34 AM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Kim, I really never thought this would happen to me - but I am very glad it did!

I do love L' Heure Bleue, I just never got around to wearing it. I wore Chant d'Aromes for awhile when I was younger, and of course Nahema, but I was always more of a Caron and Patou girl. You just never know when something is going to reach out and grab you!

1:03 AM EDT  
Blogger Jared said...

Yay, Shalimar! Nothing really does come close to it. It always holds a special place in my collection. Isn't it great when you have those moments where suddenly you "get" it? I really must try the parfum and get that skank factor? I always wonder how it would smell on a guy, and I don't have the associations with smelling it on women. Either I'm too young or nobody around me wore it. Food for thought.


1:14 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story, Donna! I rarely bother to sniff new frags lately, it seems to always be a disappointment, just the experience you've had. But I've been buying up older bottles of Mitsouko, my all-time Guerlain fave. Few perfumes offer the kind of ecstasy pre-reformulation Mitsi can! Shalimar is gorgeous but has some negative connotations for me, just personal history. It's very memorable!

2:03 AM EDT  
Blogger Tama said...

I have wanted to love Shalimar since I was a teen but I never felt quite mature enough for it. As I am getting more mature I am getting to a place where I can maybe try it again. However, I had a Neiman Marcus SA spray some parfum on a card for me and it completely contaminated all my other scent cards plus made me nauseous. I think I need to just dab a tiny bit on my wrist and see what happens. I love Guerlain, have a bottle of l'Heure Bleue and am saving for Vetiver pour Elle. Still working on Mitsouko.
I'm glad you had your revelation! The kings and Queens of perfume rule on!

3:03 AM EDT  
Anonymous Mimi said...

This chimed with me - I too have had a Shalimar epiphany in the past year, but for me it was trying the parfum after dallying with the EdT and EdP for several years and being mystified by all the fuss.

I have a theory that it's difficult to appreciate the deep sensuality Shalimar represents until a gal gets a little older :)

4:15 AM EDT  
Blogger Alyssa said...

What a great essay, Donna. I love that moment when all is suddenly revealed... This has happened to me with paintings, poems, and some music, too. You?

5:56 AM EDT  
Blogger queen_cupcake said...

So lovely to read about your Shalimar epiphany! Mine came a little earlier this year. Love live Queen Shalimar!

6:33 AM EDT  
Anonymous Olfacta said...

A beautiful story and a beautiful experience. This is what vintage perfume is all about; the antithesis of the sad "modern" perfume experience.

6:54 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still have so many Guerlains to try and I think you just bumped Shalimar up a few notches with this great story!

7:54 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story, Donna - and one to which we can all relate!

I'm still waiting for my Shalimar epiphany. (I really have tried with Jicky, too, but I don't think that's ever going to happen).

However, (at the risk of causing everyone to run away screaming) I have got a bottle of Eau de Shalimar and I love it - I think it's an absolutely delicious mix of citrus and cream, with an admittedly barely-there base. People seem to disagree as to how much relation it bears to Shalimar, but for me it may be the key to the secret garden! - Emma

8:27 AM EDT  
Blogger bevfred said...

I'm glad you discovered the haunting beauty of Shalimar. It was one of my first perfume loves and I still wear it on occasion.
I do have a question though.
What is "skank?" Poivre Samarcande has a bit of a BO component. Is that skank?
This is a serious question and I look forward to you reply.

8:27 AM EDT  
Blogger bevfred said...

Oops! I meant your reply.

8:29 AM EDT  
Blogger krnszn said...

OK. I really need to try this stuff again. After yours and Marina's reviews, I have no excuse. I, too, have always felt that Shalimar was way too powdery and heavy. But I have not tried it in years! Now that I own bottles of both L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko, I need to give Shalimar a second chance. Thanks for the reminder Donna! In fact, due to Kim's post, I'm going to put on L'Heure Bleue right now! Humid weather and all!

9:11 AM EDT  
Anonymous dinazad said...

I've always loved Shalimar - it was Mitsouko I didn't get. However, only last week, I was suddenly taken by the beauty of Mitsy EdT. Working on my appreciation of the other concentrations now. Congratulations on conquering Shalimar!

10:23 AM EDT  
Blogger Dixie said...

Thank you for sharing! It took me years to get Mitsouko. And longer to get Shalimar-but I remember the moment well-it was very similar to yours!

11:24 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen sister! However, obtain a sample of the extrait and start with the tiniest little bit. You'll be in heaven. It took me years to get Mitsouko!

Love your posts and would love to go to that shop in Oregon!


12:49 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Mom has always loved and worn Shalimar (though now that I know something about perfumes I'm not sure which concentration she wore/wears) so I was "eh" about it until I bought a decant sampler pack and got a bit of Shalimar parfum. My HG scent beyond all HG scents. If I never wore anything else I would be just fine - the subtle dance of incense, bergamot and non-sugary vanilla is so wonderful. I adore it.

I don't really find any, or much skank, in the parfum and like it that way - NOT a skank fan (if Musc Nomade can scare me then I'm nowhere near ready for Musc Kublai Khan etc).

1:21 PM EDT  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

That's wonderful!!!!!!!! I am thrilled that you have finally found your "inner empress" and definitely buy yourself a bottle, you'll never regret it!!!! I adore Shalimar, always have probably because it was my mother's fragrance, but also because it does smell great on me.
I love to wear it in the autumn and's not so much a summer fragrance for me, but really blossoms in front of a crackling fire in the arms of my husband...

1:58 PM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Am so glad you had a happy ending to that trip! Shalimar is a scent I fall in and out of love w/ on a regular basis. But even when I'm going through a phase where I'm not in its thrall, I always appreciate its timelessness. Oh, and how very sad that your Nordstrom (all of them?) didn't carry Miss Dior! It's one of my top 10 faves of all time. And I really don't think I will be able to sniff the new Hadrien - don't want to break down crying in public.

3:40 PM EDT  
Blogger Cynthia said...

I adore Shalimar - it's a comfort scent for me and I often dab it on when I'm having trouble sleeping. I never had any trouble with Mitsouko either, I think that it's because I had already developed my nose to an extent and was older when I first tried it.

The one that took me forever was Chanel No. 5 - then one day earlier this year, I dabbed on the parfum and fell truly, deeply, madly in love. It really is a magical moment when you finally "get" a frag that you've never understood before.

4:09 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Jared, I think it would be just marvelous on a man! It could be that you are a bit too young to have experienced its dominant presence in the world, so much in perfumery has changed in the last 20 or so years.

8:47 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Marla, your plan is very good, you will never regret your Mitsouko stockpile. I wish I could have done it with some of my long-gone favorites.

8:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Tama, I do think you have to be fairly mature to wear it, if not simply appreciate it. There are many "grande dame" perfumes that simply can't be successfully worn by ingenues. I know I waited a long time to be worthy of some that I really love now.

8:51 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Mimi, I believe you are right, and I hope to get my mitts on that Parfum someday soon! :-)

8:52 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Alyssa, thank you, and yes, it sometimes happens to me when I experience great beauty in any form - it's that combination of transcendenace and clarity when you wonder where it's been all your life.

8:54 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Queen cupcake, I guess it must happen to us all - sooner or later!

8:54 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks Olfacta, it really brought home what it's so important to remember.

8:55 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks chasarumba, I hope it's a good experience for you!

8:56 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Emma, now that I have seen the light, Eau de Shalimar is on my list too!

8:57 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Bevfred, thanks so much for commenting.

I think of "skank" as any strong animalic element in a scent, whether it's musk, civet, or something like cumin that just seems "sweaty" - and leather too if it's not the refined glove leather type but the raw, rough stuff.

Skank puts the base in base notes, and I guess you either love it or hate it. Flowers, such as a really indolic, heavy, overripe jasmine, can be plenty skanky. If you want to experience unadulterated skank full-on without having to send to Paris for a bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan, just go to a perfume shop and ask to smell Bal a Versailles - any strength will do the trick. Same with Yatagan by Caron, which is manly in all the dangerously good ways. ;-)

9:05 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Karin, I don't think there is any bad time for L' Heure Bleue!

9:06 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Dinazad, thank you. I may have to start wearing Mitsy too, she has always been another one that I just never got around to wearing.

9:08 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Dixie, isn't it great to have that feeling of discovery about something? IF only it happened more often!

9:09 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Marsha! I really hope you can visit The Perfume House one day, you will never forget it.

9:10 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Anonymous, I have not tried Musc Nomade or MKK, but I want to try them both someday just to say I did; I doubt I could wear either! I would love to experience the Shalimar Parfum.

9:12 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Beth, I have seen the light. Took me long enough! This would never have happened 20 years ago - I just was not ready.

9:14 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Elle, I have never been so disappointed in a fragrance venture at Nordstrom as I was on that day, but in a way I am glad, since it brought me to Shalimar. And yes, I think it's best that you avoid the Hadrien, it's very sad...

9:16 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Cynthia, Chanel No. 5 is the "final frontier" for me - I just tried it again today, in fact, and it's still not ringing my bell. Who knows though, if I can get Queen Shalimar, anything can happen!

9:18 PM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Oh, Donna girl-
A voluptuary such as you was DESTINED to fall ;-)

Shalimar can be a profoundly personal, private indulgence.

[Years ago, it was all about personality- in perfume.]

Some wore Shalimar because it was a Guerlain, just as many wear / wore Chanel, for the name ;-)

Today, Shalimar is truly a CHOICE.

8:40 AM EDT  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Chanel No 5 is a tough one - and if you don't like aldehydes, you may never like it. I still don't like the edp, but the parfum is glorious.

My own mother still doesn't like it - here's a recap of our conversation the last time I wore it.

Mom: (after hugging me) Honey, why do you smell like an old lady?

Me: (indignantly) I do not smell like and old lady; that's No. 5 parfum.

My husband: (snarkily) Sometimes she smells like an old MAN, so this is a step up.

Dad: I think you smell great, sweetie

I smirk triumphantly at my mom and husband

Mom: Ha - he wears Old Spice, what does he know? (thinks she has me now)

Me: Old Spice is a classic oriental and was rated a 3 star frag by Luca & Turin, plus it smells good.

Dad: HA! I told you that Old Spice was underrated - anyway, I like it.

Dad and I triumph again - mom and hubby roll eyes.

9:15 AM EDT  
Blogger Mals86 said...

Shalimar was one of those I always wanted to love - I nearly always picked up the beautiful tester bottle to sniff and put it back down immediately. All I could smell was patchouli. It took a passionate encounter with Shalimar Light, and a lucky find of a small bottle of '80's vintage Shalimar in PdT to change my mind. (Regarding the skank: actually, Shal Light is plenty drrrty on me, while Queen S is taboo for any event other than Hot Date Night with my husband. Bal is really lovely, although my husband dislikes its very-French-perfumey florals and stays on the other side of the room until those have calmed down.)

I had a similar aha! moment with No. 5. My mother wore it, and I always thought it was too dusty/powdery for me. Then I managed to win an ebay auction for some vintage parfum - intending to give it to Mom for Christmas. I opened the bottle to make sure it was legit, and fell in loooooove. (Had to go find another bottle for Mom.) I feel that my nose has grown up a great deal lately.

Now the goal is to learn to appreciate Mitsouko, because so far, I don't. On the other hand, I've only tried the edt, and I do find that particularly with the classic Guerlains, "Try the parfum!" is good advice. Now if only I could FIND some Mitsy parfum...

9:15 AM EDT  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Oh, Mitsouko, how I love thee. Mitsouko is my "go to" scent on those days that I need a little extra fortification. My husband knows to steer clear on those days and now, when he smells Mitsouko, he invariably ask me "whose ass is getting kicked today?"

9:50 AM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Cynthia- smart man you got
there ;-)

10:30 AM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Chaya, you totally have me figured out! :-D

1:16 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Cynthia, that is just hilarious, thanks for sharing!

1:17 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Mals86, sometimes I think that if we all tried the Parfum version of things, we would never be satisfied with less. I am still dreaming of getting Nahema in that form, then I can die happy.

1:20 PM EDT  
Anonymous RusticDove said...

What a fun review to read as I can totally relate to your story. My mom gave a bottle of Shalimar body lotion and some edt years ago, and while I appreciated having them in my collection, I never really warmed up to the fragrance. I finally developed a new appreciation for Shalimar once I sampled the perfume - it is richer and warmer and that brash lemony note [to my nose] is more subtle. [Now, Mitsouko on the other hand, I have LOVED from my first sniff of the gorgeous stuff, and I know that some people have difficulty with that scent also.]

8:52 AM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

RusticDove, thank you, it looks like I am going to have to find a way to try the Parfum soon.

12:16 AM EDT  
Blogger popcarts said...

"Maybe that’s why I finally understood it, surrounded by a river of mediocrity and finding one immovable monument to rescue me."


4:11 PM EDT  

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