Perfume Review: Guerlain Shalimar, or The First Story

My father-in-law is a storyteller. What he especially likes to do is tell you a story, and then say, “I told you that story in order to tell you this one…”  The second one is always better, but it would not make any sense unless you’ve heard the first one.

This is sometimes true of perfumes, and of perfume reviews.  In this case it’s true: I’ve been wanting to review Shalimar Light for some time, but have thought that it was pointless to do so without reviewing Shalimar first.  Shalimar is one of the oldest extant Orientals, along with Emeraude.  (Emeraude’s been mangled so many times by reformulation that the current version is utterly unwearable.  But we won’t discuss it.)

Officially released in 1925 by the house of Guerlain, home of several of iconic classics – Jicky, Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue – and named after the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, it’s been called the “reference Oriental,” and is famed for its combination of bright citrus underscored by creamy, yet smoky, vanilla. It’s also been known for decades as the scent of indecent, sensuous women… if you want more information, check out Perfume Shrine’s review here.

But you know all this. Let’s dive right into the shallow pool of my own opinions about it.

I think the bottle is one of the most distinctive and beautiful ones ever. It’s hard to mistake a Shalimar bottle for anything else, with its shield-shaped flacon and blue fluted top. Yes, I know Shalimar has been presented in a number of different shapes over the years. My own miniature bottle of vintage parfum de toilette is not the classic shape. My point is that, as far as I can tell, no other scent has been released in the classic Shalimar bottle, thus making it distinctively identifiable as Shalimar.  It may also be Guerlain’s biggest seller. Devotees seem to stick with it – and indeed, nothing else smells quite like it. It’s not like my replacing a worn-out bottle of Revlon Xia Xi’ang with one of Elizabeth Arden’s True Love… no, for Shalimar wearers, only Shalimar seems to do.

I’ll list the notes here, not so much because they matter, but because these notes are the pattern for later development, and also because I am something of a geek who likes to compare lists of notes both to what I smell in the fragrance, and what I smell in fragrances that are similar.
Notes for Shalimar: bergamot, lemon, mandarin, rose de mai, jasmine, orris, vetiver, heliotrope, opoponax, vanilla, civet, Peru balsam, benzoin, tonka bean, patchouli, leather, sandalwood.

Before I “fell down the rabbit hole,” as they say, I used to pick up the lovely tester bottle from the department store counter, sniff longingly, and then quickly put it down. All I could smell was bergamot and patchouli. Ick. Now I know that I seem to be extremely sensitive to patchouli, picking it up in quantities unsmellable to the general public. And now that I have smelled many other Orientals, the patchouli doesn’t stand out to me as it used to; now what presents itself to my nose is the small amount of birch tar added to the vanilla to replicate the smell of the original composition, which had a particular impurity that caused it to seem smoky. I like to call Shalimar The TarNilla Godzilla – it’s tar, it’s vanilla, it’s loud, and it’s one of the few scents that seems to last for days on my skin.

I like that bottle of parfum de toilette a lot more than I ever liked the EDT in the tester, which just proves my belief that classic Guerlains (the ones I mentioned above) are difficult for me in the lesser concentrations, but more easily wearable in parfum or PDT form. You don’t want to know what I had to say about L’Heure Bleue in EDT – but the parfum is probably my favorite classic Guerlain. (I leave aside the gauzy silk chiffon of Apres l’Ondee. I suppose you could call it a classic Guerlain, since it’s old and it’s still in production, but it’s so light that people never seem to hate it. They might not find it compelling, but nobody is wishing it out of existence. Or at least not to my knowledge.)

A drop of Shalimar is lovely when it’s chilly outside, and particularly when there’s woodsmoke in the air.  What I like better, though, is a drop of Shalimar followed by a spritz of Shalimar Light 2.0… and now we come to that second story I was talking about.  To be continued…

Image is Shalimar pure parfum by bhperfume5mor at ebay.

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7 thoughts on “Perfume Review: Guerlain Shalimar, or The First Story”

  1. Have you tried the Shalimar EDP as well? What is the difference between the parfum de toilette and the eau de parfum concentrations? Patty (known as fleurdelys on NST)

  2. Patty, I haven't tried the edp. I actually lucked into that little vintage bottle for $10 on ebay and only then began to like Shalimar… it's still not really my thing. (But $10!!! Steal! And there in a nutshell is my ebay problem. 🙂 )According to Helg's very-informative post on Perfume Shrine (go click on the link and read it if you haven't, it's worthwhile), Guerlain released several classics in pdt in the 80's, before they began producing edp. The other one that I've actually seen in pdt is Chamade. I would think that pdt and edp would be comparable in terms of percentage of fragrance oils, but of course if you find pdt, it's by definition "vintage." My Shal pdt is in pretty good shape, although its citrus has gone a little fainter than it ought to be. (Well, getting older does that to a girl.)

  3. This is one of the classics I would really to appreciate, but the civet is a deal breaker for me, unfortunately. : – (

    1. Welcome, Booklover! (I assume we’re talking body products here and not stuff like candles or hand soap.) I’m generally quite fond of B&BW body products, and very often I find that they layer well with more serious fragrances. Moonlight Path goes well with No. 5, for example.

      Shalimar has several major components, if you ask me, although its note list is pretty long – what stands out to me is the lemon, the vanilla, the jasmine, the sandalwood, and the opoponax. Although I haven’t specifically tried any B&BW products with Shalimar, here are a few I think might layer well with it:
      Lemon (lemon, orange blossom and vanilla – in the Bigelow line)
      ** Lemon Vanilla (this might have been a limited summer edition, but it’s still on the website) This is probably the best bet, in terms of the notes I personally like best in Shalimar, but of course your opinion might differ!
      Jasmine Vanilla (in the Aromatherapy line – this along with Lavender Vanilla is one my sister loves)
      Vanilla Verbena (Aromatherapy line)
      White Citrus (lemon, grapefruit and some light florals) – actually this layers very nicely with citrus florals of all kinds, as well as floral chypres
      A couple more which seem less likely but might still work:
      Honey Vanilla Dream
      Sensual Amber
      Cool Citrus Basil
      Lime & Coriander

      Good luck! I’d really love to know what you find out when you go sniffing around B&BW!

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