A Kiss in the Gardens of Love


–       a review of Guerlain’s Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar

Dear M. Wasser,

We really can’t go on meeting like this. You in your elevated stratosphere at the venerable Maison Guerlain, and I, one lone perfume writer in the void you likely are not even aware of, even as I’ve applied my suspect prose to some of your works and on occasion been less than charitable in my estimations.

If you’re bracing yourself for the next barrage of mellifluous dressing down, I regret to disappoint you. This will not be one of those reviews, because as you are surely aware, s*** happens.

And in this instance, one of the greatest and grandest and most celebrated perfumes of the 20th century, an ode to love, to a garden or two, to a starry-eyed Moghul emperor and his dearly beloved, and to the perfume that somehow managed to wrap all of it up in one sumptuous embrace and sear itself into the memories of millions of women who wore it and the men who adored it…


It pains me a great deal to say this, yet say it I must – much as I appreciate its splendor, its opulence on anyone who isn’t me, its sheer operatic scale of influence and scope, I am no acolyte at the temple of Shalimar.

You see, M. Wasser, Shalimar has one fatal, Freudian flaw.

My mother wore Shalimar. In fact, it was her favorite Guerlain, which is the very reason I can never, ever wear it.

For as all daughters must, I, too defined myself in my mother’s despite, and on that long-ago May day at Guerlain on the Champs Élysées, when all of its wonders were mine for the taking and it was time to choose my own manner of fragrant explication, I chose not Shalimar but Jicky. Life had yet its pleasures proved, and I was nowhere grown-up enough for this Grande Madame. I would have felt like a four-year-old dressing up in Maman’s hat and high heels, only to hear her laugh at my audacity.

No matter.

Nevertheless, I remembered watching you in the BBC documentary ‘Perfume’, and how you were given the unenviable task of rejuvenating this Grande Madame for a younger clientele, saw your trepidation at messing with a masterpiece, and who could blame you?

Stuck in my nowhere corner of northwestern Europe, Shalimar Parfum Initial was alas nowhere available until this past fall, when I encountered it in a Florentine department store, only to find myself bemused to discover that perhaps my own issues with Maman had made me more than a little biased for no good reason at all.

Because I adored it even if I am no longer young in the slightest. It stuck in my mind like all the best fragrant stories do, with a tantalizing ellipsis that implied… to be continued.

As it will, I can assure you.

One day, as friends with a common passion do, one dear perfume friend sent me a sample of your 2012 release, the euphoniously and impossibly named Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar, made to commemorate an exceptional harvest of Sambava vanilla, and whatever hesitations I might have had in my own biased history with La Grande Madame were swept away in an instant by a deliciously decadent vanilla cloud of… oh, be still, my beating heart!

I know it well. Your deft touch of decadent gourmandise has undone me before in the now sadly discontinued Iris Ganache, and Jean Paul Guerlain’s sumptuous Spiritueuse Double Vanille is one of my own exalted vanilla thrillers.

No doubt as Jacques Guerlain certainly intuited and Jean Paul was well aware, you surely know that vanilla has a rather unique effect on the human mind – it elevates our perception of all our other senses, whether tasted or inhaled.

You see where this is going.

Once upon a time not so long ago, I trained as a pastry chef, and came to know that not all vanillas are created equal. The flirty floral dolce far niente of Tahitian vanilla, the no less floral, earthier Mexican vanilla, which was used in this year’s Ode à la Vanille and that grande dame of them all, Bourbon Madagascar vanilla with so many woozy, boozy, woody, deliriously rich symphonies of aroma it’s almost an insult to call it mere ‘vanilla’.

So here we have your tribute to an exceptional harvest from Madagascar’s northeastern Vanilla Coast, a Sambava vanilla dancing in tandem with a reorchestrated Shalimar – less leathery and animalic than its grandmother, and yet, one thing about it really makes my sweet tooth ache.

The name. What was the marketing department thinking, apart from humiliating non-French speakers at Guerlain counters and having a good laugh at their expense? For quite a few people, French is quite bad enough, thank you. So for the purposes of this review and to distinguish it from its illustrious ancestor, I shall call it Shalemur.

And although I would not necessarily label Shalemur ‘cute’, it is certainly at least as fluffy as any lemur.

Certain elements of both your own Iris Ganache as well as Shalimar are immediately apparent – its seamlessly constructed iris-y bouquet de fleurs (jasmine and rose, so they tell me) but the dark, earthy iris heart dancing its own delirious tango with cedar and patchouli is only too happy to bring in the bright Malagasy sunshine for the journey too, the bergamot, the mandarin and the lemon adding their own macaron de citron laugh, but front and center finds this… vanilla. Warm, enveloping, sweet yet not sugary in the slightest, it’s the kind of megawatt superstar vanilla other vanillas aspire to be when they grow up. I’ve been hard-pressed to tease apart the many elements of Shalemur, because basically, who the heck cares when it’s this good? The perfume writer bangs her head against her keyboard in frustration, whereas the woman floats away on a fluffy cloud of iris, cedar and that dangerous, erotically charged vanilla, cooking up her dangerous, vanilla-charged dreams and the rest be damned.

Hours upon hours of them, and it’s all your fault, M. Wasser. Much, much later, Shalemur becomes woodier and darker, with incense overtones, opoponax hints and tonka bean shadings and it’s a marvel I have any intellectual capacity to think at all by now.

It boils down to an old Moghal love poem in perfume:

If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this,

it is this.

Ring-tailed Lemur Love

Lemurs do it, too. This insidiously lovely, decadent, delirious ode to vanilla is a stolen kiss in the Garden of Love.

Whoever knew it could be found…on the way to Madagascar?

Yours most sincerely,

The Alembicated Genie

Notes for Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la Route de Madagascar: Mandarin, bergamot, lemon, cedar, iris, patchouli, jasmine, vetiver, rose, leather, sandalwood, opoponax, musk, civet, Sambava vanilla, incense and tonka bean

So far as I’ve been able to determine, Shalemur is becoming nearly impossible to find. But if you do, let me know!

With profound thanks to Ruth and to Maggie.

Photos: From the Shalimar Bagh gardens of Srinagar. And two lemurs of Madagascar.

Perfectly Lovely

351jardin-du-luxembourg-paris-41607 – a review of Guerlain L’Heure de Nuit

Dear M. Wasser,

For all your indubitable charms, I suspect you do not have such an enviable job as we perfume writers with our twisted imaginations think. When I sniffed one of your latest creations, launched last year under a great deal of fanfare in a centennial year of very great importance, I remember I thought how difficult it must be to wrestle creatively with all the late, great and haunting ghosts of all the eminences fragrants Mssrs. Guerlain who came before you, to carry their work forward into a new era and new times and that relentless chase for new customers, new challenges, new perfumes.

Don’t get me wrong. You are yourself a rock star perfumer who counts many, many perfumes as your creations, not a few of which I own myself and am inordinately proud to waft behind me in my own quotidian and not at all glamorous life.

I’ve also got a bit of a crush, but don’t hold that against me…

So I understand something about your creative predicament. It’s a filthy job in a sordid business, but someone’s got to do it – bring the glories of Maison Guerlain into the twenty-first century, that is.

I’ve read – not having tried it, since it’s at least as scarce as real orris concrete in my part of the world – you pulled off that intimidating challenge with admirable èlan when you modernized one of the greatest Guerlains of all time, Shalimar, and called it Parfum Initial. I’ve read great things about it. I’m sure it’s good. With any luck, I might get to try it some day.

Then, Marketing socked it to you with this one. A modernization of another of the Great, the Grand, that unquestionable twentieth-century towering masterpiece that is L’Heure Bleue in time for its centenary celebration.

I felt your pain. Really, I did. That had to hurt. It must have felt a bit like recreating the Mona Lisa – in acrylic paint. On cardboard. With a palette of no more than ten colors, in this IFRA-compliant age.

Well, I can almost hear them whisper down the hall, let’s face the facts people…L’Heure Bleue is unquestionably titanic. It’s also difficult, demanding, strange, melancholy, musty, musky, and a tad…their whispers grow even more sotto voce, as if the ghost of Jacques Guerlain might appear at any moment in broad daylight in those hallowed halls at Levallois-Perret to smite them dead for emoting such heresy…démodée. But it is L’Heure Bleue.

Noblesse oblige, after all.

guerlain l'heure de nuit perfume exclusive

Alors. A stunningly beautiful presentation, that goes without saying. With an equally stunning price tag. Limited distribution of course, since everyone wants what is difficult to obtain. We’ll launch it in the Les Parisiennes collection, for that prerequisite je ne sais quoi touch that always heads like a Cruise missile straight for the most superheated spot on their Visas.

I wonder, though. Did you sigh heavily as you dragged out Jacques Guerlain’s original notebook and wonder why you thought this was a good idea? I wouldn’t blame you.

En avant. The juice. Did you fail at your mission, did you pull all the alchemical rabbits out of your hat, were you thrown over the intimidating fence of all that history and heritage?

Noblesse oblige. Of course you didn’t. This is why you’re Thierry Wasser and why this humble D-list perfume writer is writing about it.

L’Heure de Nuit (I’ll be getting back to that name) wears its history right on its lovely face, with a modern orange blossom twist, and what’s not to love about orange blossom? Those cherry-tinged, anisic, bitter-almond, sparkling facets of heliotrope and violet are all present and accounted for as indeed they must be in an homage, before the orange blossom boogies in on the scene with her friends iris, jasmine and a tinge of rose, but really, the heliotrope, iris and the orange blossom are the stars of the show, with all their charisma intact.

L’Heure de Nuit is nothing if not charming. Orange blossom gets me every time. And iris. I’m really big on iris. Iris adds a bit of the original’s timbre and depth to the blend with its sober restraint, and heaven knows it’s not at all easy to restrain an exuberant orange blossom once she’s in the mood for mischief and gangs up with jasmine and rose.

At the heart, I can begin to see where this is going. As a centennial tribute, you have somehow managed to pull off a coup d’état, as if to say this is a younger and far less serious age demanding a far less somber perfume. L’Heure de Nuit is far flirtier and not a little flightier, and therein lies the problem. It seems to mistake one-liners and quips for the erudite wit and intelligence of the original, and at this point, I’m feeling a bit… peeved.

M. Wasser, don’t get me wrong. It is indeed intelligent, but somewhere in my bottle, I hear a blonde – in several senses of the word – giggle. As if you had somehow managed to find a girl – my sorrow to say, L’Heure de Nuit is indeed a girl, as opposed to a woman – just smart enough to pick pointers on how to appear brainy without the tedium of actually having to bother with the real thing.

I’ll grant you this – you took that astonishing magical whiff of flour in the original and turned it into patisserie powder puff, essence absolute of dried, ground almond meringues. Less the staggering gateau Napoleon of the original – so fattening – and more one perfectly made, melt-in-your-mouth Ladurée macaron, just to say you’ve indulged…a little. A Barbie pink macaron, I should add.

At this point, I’m not so much peeved as thoroughly disappointed. If the maxim holds true that a perfume’s greatness to a large extent is determined in its drydown – which is but one of my own criteria – then here’s where you were thrown off that horse.

The original drydown of L’Heure Bleue is nothing short of haunting. Unforgettable. You simply can’t get it out of your mind. This is what men will remember the morning after, this is what they will associate with you, this is why they’ll grab the pillow you slept with when no one is looking and what they’ll bury their noses to catch, this is what will drive them to distraction for days…and nights. That drydown is why they’ll call you. Trust me. I know.

Yet this babe is gone in four hours, leaving nothing behind but a flat, rather one-dimensional impression of laundry detergent white musk – and not much else. A memory? Of course…something along the lines of ‘last night’s blonde’. Who looked an awful lot like last week’s, if blondes happen to be your thing.

L’Heure de Nuit is younger, brighter, much fresher and lighter than the original. In the same manner no woman of my age can possibly compete with the physical loveliness of youth, for one simple reason: we know too much of the world, its whims and wiles and ways.

In that sense, you succeeded – again. It’s perfectly lovely. The problem is, it doesn’t have much else than that light, that bright, that youth to recommend it. No experience, not enough depth or substance. Only a sugar daddy’s Visa so she can actually afford to buy it at that price.

Now, about that name. Please do attack whoever cooked up the name with an oversized bottle of castoreum tincture. There is nothing in the slightest ‘midnight’ or ‘nighttime’ about this heure. Like all the prettiest, youngest blondes, she blooms best in daylight.

And in daylight, she’s perfectly lovely.


The Alembicated Genie.

Notes: Heliotrope, violet, orange blossom, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, white musk.

With thanks to Ruth. Without whom.

Photo of L’Heure de Nuit via a favorite inspiration, The Non Blonde

S*** Happens


– a review of Guerlain’s Encens Mythique d’Orient

Dear M. Wasser,

Before I incriminate myself to such an alarming degree, I’d like to start by declaring myself an empahtic fan of your work, especially your astonishing work continuing the great heritage of Guerlain. Guerlain and all its perfumed wonders have a special place in my heart – for one, the very first perfume I ever chose for myself was a Guerlain – Jicky extrait, quite an audacious choice for an ingénue fourteen-year-old.

I fell for your own inarguable talents far too many years later thanks to a friend and distinguished perfume blogger named Carrie, who knew just what buttons to push in order to get me to invest my paltry fortune in a family – gourmands – I had formerly overlooked if not derided, and also to part with an exorbitant amount of money for a perfume I had never sniffed, and that was Iris Ganache. It was a purchase I have never had cause to regret unless to bewail its discontinuation.

So understand this pains me a great deal – more than you know. In my over two years as a perfume writer of ill repute and less esteem, I have broadened my horizons and expanded my limits to a degree never imagined before I began this perilous and ruinous descent into the odiferous maelstrom that is…perfume.

You could argue that I am perhaps a philistine, that I have no appreciation or knowledge of the terrors or delights of perfume artistry. To which I counter with the many exemplars in my cabinet from a diabolical competitor based in the Palais Royal. I rest my case.

In being one of your countless admirers, it follows that my devotion is such I’m prepared to forgive you a great deal and always give your work a second, or third, or even seventh chance as the occasion merits. Therefore, any new release from the house of Guerlain is cause for great anticipation if not excitement – a new Guerlain! How will dear Thierry Wasser astonish us now?

Such was my eager train of thought when yet another and seemingly unattainable series was released to much edification on Planet Perfume, and although my acquisition of these marvels was delayed by other factors known as “real” and “life”, eventually, Fortune deemed it timely that I, too – buried nose-deep in the Perfume Empty Quarter of Europe – should have the opportunity to sniff and to wonder at these new creations by your hand.

Lo and behold – the peerless majesty invoked in the collection known as ‘Les Deserts d’Orient’, and the one that called to me louder than any lonely djinn in a water gourd – Encens Mythique d’Orient.

I’m quite aware of the challenges inherent in a trio marketed towards an audience with somewhat different fragrant sensibilities than we milquetoast, spineless strawberry blondes languishing in the dimmest, bleakest outreaches of Northern Europe’s left armpit. I’m no stranger to ouds, mukhallats or attars, nor even to those heinous, screechy jasmines which ostracize you so deftly from all polite society. But I have a definite weakness for the many wonders of frankincense, whether Omani, Somali or Indian, so when a full set of Les Deserts arrived thanks to an enterprising friend, I wasted no breath and less time to head straight for the eponymous mythical incense of the Orient.

M. Wasser – my kudos to you. It begins in such a glorious fashion, all gold-embroidered damask and a slithering, silver-smoky undercurrent of L’Animale Fatale…less frank about the frankincense unless as an ideal of what incense could be. I regret to say I am transported…not to some elevated passage of the Rubai’yat or that eloquent turn of phrase Rumi was justly celebrated for, but rather…to one of those licentious, nay – salacious descriptions that run rampant throughout Sheikh Nefzaoui’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ which so delighted Sir Richard Burton and so dismayed the Victorian mind. I am neither deterred or dismayed – my own disposition is many thousands of leagues removed from the Victorian.

Then, some time later, you do shock me. For after that glorious, gold damask opening comes…not visions of the chic of Arabie, not the romance of a limitless desert sky nor even the sensuous secrets revealed by a hakim to an all-too willing pupil…but something so utterly unnerving, my words fail to quite convey the degree or extent of my dismay.

As I stated above, I’m no stranger to shock. But to quote the amusing American idiom…


For what follows is best described by the image below:


Yes. Wet dog. Not just any dog, but a hunting hound abandoned for hours in the driving, icy rain as its fellows bounded on with the horses elsewhere while it located a scent trail far more to its liking than any fox could muster.

To be fair, this sorry canine comes with an impeccable pedigree and a hundred generations of perfect temperament and training at the least. This is no mere back-alley dog. This is a Guerlain dog, and so more refined, more elegantly delineated than lesser-esteemed hounds, nevertheless, a wet dog is a wet dog, and a wet, cold and hungry dog – as surely this poor, unfortunate creature must be – is the sorriest, wettest, most miserable and thoroughly wretched creature of all.

At this juncture, I despairingly consult my notes as well as other, far more discerning noses of other, far more refined perfume bloggers, and all to no avail – the wet and wretched creature remains perched in the air above my skin with its reproachful brown eyes and its distressing, apologetic stance, and this irritates me no end.

You see, M. Wasser, I am a dedicated lover of cats – indeed, I’m owned by two – and by this time, more peeved than you can possibly imagine that this conjuration of a very luxurious perfume orchestrated by your magical hands and nose has incurred some cataclysmic shift in my perceptions, and with a creature I could appreciate quite fondly had the circumstances been rather better. Say, in real life, bounding through the meadows throwing sticks to catch, not wafting out of an opulently decorated and very hard to obtain perfume bottle, never mind perched on my wrist, dripping its melancholy, well-bred raindrops all over a priceless Ikea rug.

I refused to believe the obvious. It couldn’t be you. It had by necessity to be me, and my own pathetic limited, unsophisticated nose playing its tricks and practical jokes on my mind. So I gave it seven more tries on seven other nights that grew longer as time passed.

Now, I had eight wet dogs dripping all over the carpet. My cats…well, I’m sure you can imagine the unfortunate consequences. I had to draw the only conclusion I could. It wasn’t me. It was you.

Or else it was simply that this milquetoast wan exemplar of Scandinavian design not in flat packaging  and ‘d’un certain age’ didn’t have the pedigree, the breeding, the politesse to appreciate either the perfume – or that sorry dog in the bottle.

So I shall do my best to perservere as well as I can – through the remainder of Les Deserts d’Orient. I shall forgive you – for now. I shall even forgive you to such an extent, the friend who sent me this doomed dog has tempted me with something blue, brand-new and altogether more to my liking, and yes, M. Wasser, you made this one, too.

As for this malodorous endurance test, I shall attempt my own worst impersonation of the Gallic shrug you so excel at, and quote your own august self – again, with yet another fitting American term of opprobrium tinged with a little black humor unrelated to any the dogs might have brought in…

Shit happens.

Yours sincerely,

Tarleisio, the Alembicated Genie

Notes for Encens Mythique d’Orient: Aldehydes, neroli, moss, saffron, Persian rose, ambergris, musk and frankincense

The Les Deserts d’ Orient line is available from the Guerlain flagship store in Paris, the Place Vendôme Haute Parfumerie, Harrods and Selfridges in London, and in many locations throughout the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

With thanks to that perfumed friend – and an apology to the ghost of Edith Wharton.

Image of wet dog: Alex Romanov.