Celebrating Guerlain’s Shalimar

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  • “There’s a myth surrounding Shalimar,” reveals Thierry Wasser, the charismatic perfumer charged with creating the next generation of fragrances for the Guerlain family. “Everyone thinks it was launched in Paris in 1925, but it was actually created in 1921 and wasn’t a big success. Maybe it was too bold and extravagant – it was the very first Oriental fragrance, after all. But Raymond Guerlain’s wife loved it and wore it on the Normandie cruise liner on her way to New York, and caused a sensation – even the ship’s orchestra composed a song named after it! American high society loved it and it became a huge hit.”
    Indeed, Shalimar made its name in the States and it was only launched to success back in Paris four years later at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs exhibition, where the iconic bottle won first prize.
    Behind almost every perfume created by Guerlain lies an enchanting love story. Sanskrit for “Temple of Love”, Shalimar was the name given to the gardens in Lahore built 370 years ago, and inspired by the love between Indian Emperor Shah Jehan and his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. After she died in childbirth (her 14th pregnancy), the Emperor had a shrine built in her honour, the Taj Mahal.
    This heart-rending story captured the imagination of Jacques Guerlain. He’d been offered a new raw material called ethyl vanillin (the creamy sensual note that makes vanilla smell like custard) and the story goes that, when weighing out the formula of his father’s fragrance Jicky, he poured a little into the mix to see “what would happen”. Shalimar was born. Perfumer Ernest Beaux, who created Chanel No5, famously said: “When I use vanilla, I make crème anglaise; when Jacques uses vanilla, he makes Shalimar.” Today, the fragrance is still the perfumer’s reference for all Oriental perfumes.
    Now, it’s the job of Thierry Wasser to continue to cultivate future Guerlain fragrance classics. It’s a prospect he relishes. “Every step of the creative process is an encounter with inspiring daily incidents that trigger something. You need to be open to everything around you.” This has resulted in the next chapter in the Shalimar story – Parfum Initial.
    “My 17-and-a-half-year-old niece begged me, ‘Can you do me my Shalimar?’, and then she bugged me and bugged me. She drove me insane! So, in the end, I did.”
    So began Thierry’s own unique vision for Shalimar. “I’m a romantic. I took the manuscript of the original Shalimar and worked on it.”
    Even so, reinventing a classic perfume was an intimidating task. “First, I felt that the leather note – the seduction and darkness of Shalimar – might be too much for a young girl, so I took it out. Also, Shalimar is very floral, and by pulling out the leather, it revealed all the Egyptian Jasmine, which is very animal-like, so I took that out too. However, rose and orris are both in the Guerlinade, which is in every Guerlain fragrance, so it meant by keeping them, I could change the shape without changing the feel. Orris butter gives a fluffiness I like, and rose centifolia gives that young feeling, which is perfect.”
    The end result is a brighter and enlightened version of Shalimar: fresher yet still womanly and sensual. And Thierry’s niece loved it. Shalimar Parfum Initial, £37 for 40ml EDP, available exclusively at Selfridges now.

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