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Restoring a masterpiece: The Shalimar Odes

 The timeless elegance of Guerlain's Shalimar flacon
The timeless elegance of Guerlain's Shalimar flacon
image via perfumemaster.org

Shalimar Ode à la Vanille Eau de Parfum

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Thousands if not millions of words have been written about Guerlain's Shalimar, one of the most popular fragrances in the world. Its name is known even to those who know nothing about perfume, as recognizable as Chanel No. 5 and Joy. Uncounted bottles of it have been sold since its debut in 1925, and a number of lighter-bodied flankers have been launched in recent years in an attempt to capture younger customers. They need not have bothered; the customers themselves need to grow into Shalimar, for it will never be an ingenue's scent. You must earn the maturity to wear it, lest it wear you.

I must confess that when I was younger I never liked it, and not necessarily because it was not a good fragrance, because it is obviously a great one. My problem was that I did not smell what I thought I should be smelling when I tried it. Its signature has always been the lemon in the top notes and the vanilla in the base, but I did not get any lemon from it and the vanilla was murky and buried beneath the heavy ambery notes. Of course, back then I did not know that many perfumes have been reformulated over time, and it would be rare indeed for something as old as Shalimar to escape that fate. I finally came to terms with it on its own merits a few years ago once I had learned to appreciate ambery fragrances in general, and decided that I did like it, but I never bought a bottle.

In 2010 Guerlain made what I believe is one of its best decisions in many years and launched a limited edition Shalimar variant named Shalimar Ode à la Vanille. When I first smelled it I immediately thought that this was what I had been waiting for all along – the much-vaunted vanilla was there in full force, and it was wonderful. To me it was what Shalimar should have been all along and probably was at one time. The other notes also seemed brighter and more distinct, as though a painting darkened by age and varnish had received a good cleaning, revealing the original vibrant colors. In 2012, this was followed by Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la route de Madagascar. The theme was now apparent; Guerlain was using vanilla essence sourced from the most famous vanilla growing regions of the world to produce these perfumes. This one was also really great, albeit very close to the original Ode; I am not entirely certain I could tell them apart in a blindfold test. However, 2013 brought us yet another Ode – Shalimar Ode à la Vanille sur la route de Mexique. To my nose it is the most distinctive of the three, because the lemon is back, so prominent in the opening for a few minutes that it's almost refreshing. Other notes have been added that are not in the original Shalimar, namely incense, caramel and chocolate. This gives the fragrance a sensual smokiness and delicious depth that's irresistible. The genius of Jacques Guerlain's original creation is apparent here; the vanilla, though rich and sweet, is not at all “foody”and the current house perfumer, the enormously talented Thierry Wasser, managed to retain its essential character even with the addition of caramel and chocolate in judicious doses. This is not a gourmand perfume, it is still the iconic Oriental style classic by which all others are measured, and these adventures in making variations on the theme are most welcome. They have my vote – after all these years, I finally own a bottle of Shalimar, in the form of Ode à la Vanille sur la route de Mexique, and I am hoping that there are more Odes yet to come.