Perfume Review: Guerlain Samsara EdT (modern)

I love my mom.

Obviously, there are many reasons, but one of them is that she knows what interests me and tries to encourage me in those directions. Recently, she gave me a 1 oz. bottle of Guerlain Samsara EdT, thinking that I’d enjoy it. In my hometown, a small city about 50 miles away from where I now live, there’s an Elizabeth Arden warehouse, and a couple of times a year, the warehouse has terrific sales on makeup, skincare items, and perfume.

Mom had asked me a couple of times last year what she could get me at the warehouse sale. At the time I was stocked up on lipsticks and EA’s warehouse didn’t have the kind of foundation I like. And I checked the website twice to see if there was anything, anything at all, in the way of perfume that I’d like to have.

Nothin’. Really. I said as much. Mom looked disappointed. She’d given my sister a bottle of Alfred Sung Shi, which both Mom and A liked and called it “nice and light, like fresh water.” Uhhh, yeah. Water… well, maybe watered-down window cleaner, if you ask me. Bleargh. Though I didn’t say so to either of them. (Digression: Mom and A, if you are reading this blog, either of you, you’d better tell me now so I don’t embarrass you in the future. Hmmm?)

During a recent visit to my parents’ house, Mom pulled me into the spare bedroom – once my brother’s – and told me, “I got you this at the warehouse sale. I hope you like it. It’s Guerlain – I think you like that, don’t you?”   The price sticker was still on it, in case I hated it: $18.00.  You did good, Mom.

Samsara EdT, image from Sephora

Uh, edit here.  Looks like putting that photo in took out an entire paragraph, and I did not notice.  Aarrgh.  I’ll put it back now.

Digression: Look, I’m just going to say it:  Guerlain is not for everybody.  It might be THE perfume house with the most noticeable family resemblance among its perfumes, Chanel’s gorgeous luxury iris notwithstanding, but not every fragrance fanatic is going to like every single Guerlain scent.  In fact, it’s long been a pet theory of mine that most Guerlainophiles are going to fall either into the Shalimar camp or the Mitsouko camp, and while it’s possible to like both, it’s rare to absolutely-love both. 

Please notice that I did not even bring up Jicky (which I hate) or Apres l’Ondee (which is gorgeous but emotionally taxing for me) or L’Heure Bleue (which sometimes seems beautiful and sometimes boringly one-dimensional). Those just complicate the concept, so I’m pulling a Research-Faculty fast one on the options and ignoring them in favor of my elegant theory¹…

and where my so-called elegant theory touches on my mother’s preferences, it’s probably safe for me to say that if you offered her a bottle of any Guerlain she wanted, any one at all, she’d dither between Vega and Vetiver pour elle, and whichever one she wound up picking would languish on her dresser, while her Elizabeth Arden 5th Avenue and her Chanel No. 5 and her Jovan Musk for Women would be the ones she actually wore. My take on the matter is that Guerlains are too rich and vanillic, and too “obvious,” to suit her taste, and she really prefers the tailored chic and the reserve of Chanel.

I have no earthly idea whether my sister would find a Guerlain she liked at all. Based on her love of Coco Mademoiselle, I’m guessing she might find a kindred spirit in Idylle – modern, not too heavy, light florals over a woody-patchouli base. Thing is, although I’m not going to suggest it, I think she could totally and completely rock some Mitsouko, with that dark-and-mysterious and Do Not Mess With Me vibe it has. Even with all of that, it’s still very… old-fashioned… and A might find it too, too much. End digression.

I was unfamiliar with Samsara before cracking open that shiny red box. It might have been ubiquitous in certain places in the late 80s/early 90s, before the Attack of the Clean Fragrances began, headed up by cKOne and L’Eau d’Issey (which really were everywhere, as I remember), but to my knowledge I really had never smelled it. I’d heard a lot about it: Samsara is loud, Samsara hits you over the head with fake sandalwood, Samsara smells trashy, Samsara was the beginning of the end for Guerlain… that sort of thing. I sniffed from the bottle and had to agree. I said to myself, “It smells fake. And sweet. And loud. Gah, the Eighties are aliiiive…”

And I figured that since there were very few serious blogger reviews, I might as well write one. So then I thought, Well, if I’m going to review, I actually have to wear it several times. I never, ever, write a review based on a fragrance I have only smelled on a test strip or only worn on skin once. My minimum is three times. And even though it’s been hot and humid here – not ideal weather for a floral oriental – I figured I could manage to wear Samsara in air conditioning.

And I read up on it: the user reviews at Makeup Alley and Basenotes and Fragrantica, which tend to be split between “sexy, elegant, sophisticated, complicated, my signature scent” reviews and “huge flaming mess, way too sweet, only fit for helmet-haired automatons” reviews. The blogger reviews I found tended to be noncommittal. Angela at Now Smell This called the modern EdT wearable, Victoria at Bois de Jasmin compared vintage parfum to modern and found the modern less rich but not totally ruined, Barbara at Yesterday’s Perfume found vintage EdT unbalanced and (the kiss of death!) boring.  Dane at Pere de Pierre called it “stylish, eccentric, genius” as well as “too loud and in-your-face.”  There’s also a mini-review of Samsara EdT by March at Perfume Posse, in which she said that it’s pretty much all jasmine on her, no sandalwood, very linear, and very Not Her.

Samsara ad from coleurparfum.com

And, of course, I had to check Perfumes: The Guide, which devotes several paragraphs to Samsara. I’ll condense a bit here, but I’ll say this review/history by Tania Sanchez (Hey, Elisa! I double-checked this time!) is one of my favorites, even though I disagree on the ickiness of Samoas:

As with Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, the case of Samsara is fascinating first because it was so bad, second because it was so big, and third because it was happening to a beloved franchise. Samsara… is a fragrance in which the things that had always gone right [for Guerlain] were tainted by the things that have gone wrong since… What Guerlain wanted was something modern, and by modern, they meant something you could smell a quarter mile away… [Samsara] is, in every sense but one, a Guerlain in the classic style, with top-notch, rich jasmine and ylang-ylang playing the full, vast white-floral chord from banana to licorice and grass, and tons of the delectably complex burnt-sugar amber we loved so much in Attrape-Coeur: in other words, high quality materials working in concert to provide a lovely plush effect. Except for that sandalwood. I’m told that Samsara used to feature quite a bit of excellent real sandalwood from India as well as the pottery-shattering synthetic polysantol for which it is infamous: a smell so thundering you can almost hear it coming if you put your ear to the ground. Mysore sandalwood is now all but unattainable… so Samsara seems to have gotten only more synthetic. Sadly, beyond the beautiful florals lurks an indigestibly heavy, artificial praline-and-coconut confection, like those evil cookies the Girl Scouts sell called Samoas… Samsara felt to many like an irreversible break with tradition, confirmed by the subsequent (awful) releases of Mahora and Champs-Elysees.

I’m with Tania on that amber being the best part about Attrape-Coeur. I’m also with her on Mahora, which I thought was gorgeous for six hours, a big tuberose-y tropical thing that eventually went so inexplicably nasty that I truly thought I was going to toss my cookies (no, not the Samoas).

I was expecting Samsara to be this huuuuuge jasmine-sandalwood oriental thing, big enough to fill a stadium. I was fully and completely expecting to hate its guts. While I like sandalwood very much (my favorite sandalwood scents: Chanel Bois des Iles, Lanvin Arpege, Sonoma Scent Studio Champagne de Bois, and a small vial of New Caledonian santalum album essential oil), jasmine can be very, very difficult for me, since it tends to take over a scent and also because jasmine grandiflorum – the traditional French jasmine in Jean Patou Joy – can go really skanky on me. So I sprayed one half-hearted spritz on my wrist, cringing away from myself as I did it.

But it didn’t overwhelm me. I sniffed closer. Hmmm. It smelled oddly familiar – not in the sense of “Hey, I’ve smelled this before,” but in the sense of “Wait, this reminds me of something I wore when I was younger!” I sniffed again. Was that rose? Yeah, rose, which I hadn’t expected. And ambery vanilla. And, oh yes, there’s the sandalwood. The jasmine in Samsara smells to me not like the green, clean kind I tend to enjoy, and not like the Ho Panties stuff in Joy, but like the very tropical and sweet jasmine sambac. Which I happen to like, by the way. The other thing that surprised me was that it was not, in fact, all that loud. After that one spritz worked out okay, I started spritzing twice during wearings. And then I went brave and did three spritzes – and I was still not radiating past my three-foot radius.

Well, okay. Maybe a four-foot radius with three spritzes.  But only briefly.

So: tropical jasmine and ylang, rose, vanilla and sandalwood, very sweet and very radiant, and, truth be told, a little on the trashy side. And what Samsara reminds me of is a scent I wore in my last year of college: Revlon Xia Xi’ang, a half-ounce of which I must have paid all of $10 for at the drugstore. To be honest, I am sure Xia Xi’ang smelled exactly as if it cost all of $10 for half an ounce, but I liked it. And I rather like Samsara, although perhaps I like it because it smells sort of trashy and obvious and cheap and big-haired.

Revlon Xia Xi'ang, from Fragrantica

Notes for Samsara: bergamot, lemon, ylang-ylang, green notes, peach, jasmine, iris, narcissus, violet, rose, sandalwood, vanilla, tonka bean, amber, musk.  The notes for Xia Xi’ang are much simpler, which makes sense for a drugstore cheapie, but similar enough that now I understand why I immediately picked up on the resemblance: tangerine, lemon, gardenia, rose, sandalwood, vanilla oakmoss.  Citrus, tropical white florals, rose, vanilla, sandalwood, and there you go:  Samsara is a lot like Xia Xi’ang on a (slightly) better budget.  (Notes for both from Fragrantica.)

Another edit, because I’ve been thinking about this: Xia Xi’ang, while ubiquitous in the drugstore for a couple of years, disappeared pretty rapidly.  I don’t know why.  I did look for it on ebay several months ago, when I was going through a stage of wondering whether the fragrances I loved in my younger years were good or cheap dreck.  And guess what?  Half-ounce bottles of Xia Xi’ang cologne, the same bottle I owned for $10, are now available on ebay, from $35 to $60.  Yes, really.  I’m not sure what this indicates – was it really that good a scent, or was it just loved that much?  If it was loved that much, why was it discontinued – raw mats scarcity?  Or was it just Loved That Much by only a few people?  Puzzling.  As a matter of fact, thanks to ebay, I’ve found that most of my earlier fragrance standards really were pretty good, even if they were drugstore cheapies: Chloe, Cachet, Emeraude, VS Victoria…

However, a puzzling fact is that the Samsara EdT is only big-sillage for about an hour on me, after which it does an Alice-in-Wonderland shrink right down to something vanilla-ish and only smellable within half an inch of my arm. This phenomenon was confirmed by four different people I came upon after two hours of wear, so I don’t think it’s nose fatigue. Freaky, right? Especially when I read accounts of one spritz lasting twelve hours and Samsara’s unassailable, unavoidable presence on skin. I begin to wonder whether there was something off about this particular batch which might account for its being found at Elizabeth Arden’s discount warehouse. Insufficient maceration? Messed-up formula?

I’ll point out that I have not attempted any other formulas of Samsara, whether vintage EdT, or EdP or parfum of any age. That probably would make a huge difference in my perception. I hear rumors of “peach” and “iris” in others’ comments about this fragrance, and I’m not getting either out of my little bottle of EdT. Too, the longevity and sillage of a higher concentration might be more what I was expecting.

I’ll also point out that this is not the first time I have found a Guerlain fragrance that smells cheap: Terracotta Voile d’Ete, which was a limited edition and which smells to me a lot like a girlier Old Spice with a beachy, suntan-oil angle, seems similarly cheap to me. I like both fragrances, which probably says a lot about my personal tastes. Or maybe not. There’s nothing that says that you can’t enjoy an ethereal sorbet (Apres l’Ondee) on Monday, a rich crème brulee (Shalimar) on Tuesday, and a sloppy sundae-in-a-waffle-cone (Samsara) on Wednesday, right?

¹Okay, okay: I’ll apply my Shalimar-or-Mitsouko theory to my own tastes. So which am I? Neither, actually. If I had to pick one of the two, it would be Shalimar, though I do not love it the way I love Shalimar Light. This is, of course, the ultimate sarcastic take on hardcore academic types: my theory doesn’t apply to myself, because I’m special. And I cannot be quantified like the rest of you poor saps, so there, ha ha HA. (“A census taker once tried to quantify me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”)

To be honest, if I had to pick one Guerlain for the rest of my life, I’d take a bottle of Vega myself, thanks. For preference, I’d rather have the gorgeous original reissue bottle, though I wouldn’t say no to a fresh, full bee bottle if the older one was unavailable.

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