smell this: Guerlain Shalimar

On April 8, 2016 by theseventhsphinx

Shalimar is an established classic, designed in 1921 by Jacques Guerlain and still on the shelves. This fragrance has been reformulated at least once but the essential notes remain the same; bergamot, jasmine, rose, iris, opoponax, vanilla. This is a complicated fragrance with a lot of powerful ingredients, and not only a lot on paper – a lot in the nose as well. Smelling iconic perfumes is such a good exercise.  I think anyone who gets sufficiently curious about perfume will want to experience the old classics sooner or later, certain of them anyway, whether a true vintage sample or the nearest one can get.

Shalimar EDC

I have yet to have an opportunity to smell the original formulation and can’t speak to whatever butchery the reformulation represents, but to me the current interpretation has a lot to appreciate. Anecdotally (Wikipedia on perfume histories is an interesting rabbit hole) it’s the result of an entire bottle of the latest synthetic vanillin being experimentally poured into a bottle of Guerlain’s Jicky, and was launched as Guerlain’s showpiece for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, an art exhibit designed to show the pre-eminence of French taste and style that was the highlight of the early Art Deco period. There is a great history of Shalimar on The Perfume Shrine.

We are discussing the EdC here, as that happens to be what I was gifted recently. It’s strange, I have hardly ever been given perfume. My mom gave me a much loved bottle of Jovan White Musk when I was 13 or so, and my aunt gave me a not especially loved bottle of…what was it? Lady Stetson? (miles away from the awful tropico-chemical aerosol body sprays in vogue in rural Maine in the 90s, which I largely shunned for Vanilla Fields), and I’ve had a few lovely fragrances passed on to me, but I haven’t had that feeling of having a new bottle of perfume in a couple of years. I am so used to being the one who gifts fragrance, I forget it can be given to me, too. How nice it is!*


I was delighted to receive Shalimar, not because I like it [I’d only smelled it academically in passing years ago, and had only thought about it as a forerunner, a foremother] but because it is iconic, a sound addition to any fragrance library. It’s clearly echoed in later orientals, later leathers, in powdery and floral scents, in ambers and vanillas and incense fragrances…so many of these it seems could not exist without Shalimar.  That said, I do like it, though perhaps this does not translate to wanting to wear it often.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Shalimar EDC

Shalimar EdC opens with a zingy lemon and bergamot (think earl grey tea) accord, really bright, with an insistent sour note like cedar and civet (think animal musk/sweat and cat pee). The animality is strong for me, though for some it takes a back seat to the bergamot and soapy powder (highly recommend browsing the basenotes reviews of Shalimar). This moves promptly -within a few minutes – into the soapy floral heart of iris (for me dominant) and rose, which rose is never fully extricated from that original citrus. There is jasmine as well but for me it is more ‘complex heady floral that you know cannot be only rose or only jasmine’. It’s so over the top to have jasmine and rose, basically the two most expensive floral extracts and Guerlain famous for using the best. Either alone is enough to carry the day, and iris too can hold its own*, so it’s already a busy concoction, and THEN.

*Guerlain’s Apree L’Ondee, Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, The Different Company Bois d’Iris – I find iris soliflore fragrances are the best way to teach your nose the iris note, irises themselves are not so helpful, the root being the relevant thing.

On the coattails of the iris is an equally prominent note of leather, with vanilla and tonka bean creeping steadily in. For me the leather is unmistakable, though some seem to read it only as a smoky vanilla, or more like incense. Some people don’t seem to read leather at all, which to me is baffling, but the leather is the illusion, a mirage made of musk, amber, incense, and powder. The resinous note is evidently the opoponax – a note I don’t really have clear in my brain yet but which is a gum resin like frankincense or myrrh (opoponax is also called sweet myrrh) that smells luxuriously of balsamic and honey. Supposedly. I get what I would call sweet (amber, vanilla) and sour (civet, cedar) leather with a backdrop of powdery iris and incense. As time goes by, and this is a defiant fragrance that hangs around for many hours, this cocktail softens more and more, with leather, amber and vanilla waxing as the sourness and florals wane.

Shalimar will smell naggingly familiar to most, as it is still selling and still being worn, for many it is the scent worn by their mother or grandmother. Then, too, it is the ur-oriental, and all orientals are reminiscent of it. It’s had a cult following for nearly a century, the house’s flagship fragrance; innovatively sweet and exotic for the daring 20s. In addition to selling steadily in the main formulation, has spawned several offshoots or flankers, which surely sell in no small part due to the gorgeous bottle they keep re-releasing with slight variations on the original Baccarat design.


Make no mistake, to my nose Shalimar is old-fashioned. It should smell old fashioned, formulated some 90 years ago and, from my point of view, worn by people much older than myself. Then, powder to me nearly always smells old-fashioned, as do basically all orientals, orientals being amber dominant scents with rich ingredients like musks and resins along with (often eastern) spices and florals. It’s strong! Not in the brassy 70s way or the cloying 80s way, and not in the modern Tom Ford way, but in a complex everything-but-the-kitchen-sink way that a number of iconic fragrances from the 1910s and 1920s demonstrate for us (ahem, Chanel No. 5 (1919)).

The beauty of Shalimar today is that it’s at a point where it’s so old it can be new again. It’s a potent, grown-up fragrance, even in the relatively sheer EdC formulation, and I can see it reading fresh and interesting on a younger woman, say under 40. Not that age matters, but youth provides a great contrast with these notes. Worn with complete at-homeness as a signature fragrance by someone older is a great look for Shalimar as well.

It appeals to me especially in the rain (that’s the iris), and it smells about a billion times better on skin than it does on fabric. No spritzing the scarf with this one for me. I need to power through the civet-heavy opening to get to the leather/iris bit, which is the part I can appreciate. I encourage anyone smelling Shalimar to spray it on and give it an hour. I can see myself more realistically layering this with a musk I actually like to add interest (say the Kiehl’s musk oil, or this one I like that I found on Amazon), or with a straight rose (say Tea Rose, or another straight floral maybe) to add interest, such that the layering fragrance provides a new driving force and Shalimar a soft ambiance. A dominant leather could be a nice pairing as well. Hm. Let’s talk about Tom Ford Tuscan Leather later, which is perfection all on its own.


bottle image via pinterest

layering, a ModCloth challenge

On November 18, 2014 by theseventhsphinx

ModCloth invited some bloggers to talk about fall/winter layering, prompting us to choose three items (tops, from them) and explain the selection. I like this kind of style challenge, where some aspect or another is limited, controlled. The challenge for me was that so many of their tops are prints of some kind and working with multiple prints can be difficult. They are thin on basics, too, as it’s not what they do (they do cute, often retro-inspired statement pieces). So!

idea 1: sandwiched plaid

I like to keep things clean, usually, meaning solid, meaning no prints, but now and then I’ll go for one. An easy way to deal with a print, even a dramatic one, is to break it up, sandwich it between two solids. Ideally, for me, between muted and harmonious solids.

Something like this basic plaid buttoned shirt


between this sweetheart mock turtleneck sleeveless number (I like a button down with a turtleneck, and this one, sort of sheer/formal, would be appealingly strange, unexpected next to informal plaid), the color pulled from a minor note of the plaid pattern,


and this slouchy grey (read: neutral) cardigan, with really any kind of belt thrown over the whole affair, and none of the buttons done up on the shirt. A lot of colors could work here, and they have tons of sweaters.


OK, so this is a tame approach (or some might say chic! Some might say sophisticated!), but pretty foolproof. There is also

idea 2: inverse pattern juxtaposition

By which I mean some simple camisole base like this


layered with a (more or less) two tone pattern with one color dominant, like this geometric cardigan,

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layered with another two tone pattern, this one with the color that is non-dominant in the other pattern now dominant, like this other geometric cardigan (not ideal b/c white vs cream, but you see what I mean, and I often like white and cream together anyway).


If you live somewhere sufficiently cold, you know two cardigans are not unheard of. Maybe no belt on this one. Or maybe a really pale tan leather braided belt.

Just a solid color in the middle would be good there, too. Like this.


Layering gets easier and easier with experimentation as you discover what you like and begin to establish strategies to achieve it. Often your wardrobe works for you as you are often drawn to the same colors (not hard to find harmonious combinations) and, even if you prefer patterns, often prefer the same kinds of patterns. Then, too, it’s good to be open to unexpected combinations.

Imagine three layers, all plaids with some common stripe…I would like to see that. Or imagine three very different patterns, all with the same dominant color. Or three identical patterns in three different colors. Or two, with a solid between them, or three beautifully complementary solids…

This is to say nothing of accessories.

images via

smell this: Guerlain Vétiver

On August 22, 2013 by theseventhsphinx

IMG_6122I already mentioned Guerlain Vétiver in a winter fragrance picks post but it bears further mention. Summer mention.

Nutmeg, citrus, and cedar are the notes–aside from the pure, central vetiver–that stand out to me in this superb, bright vetiver. There is balance, though, and none of these dominate. Guerlain’s is known as a benchmark vetiver; what you smell to teach your nose about these indispensible grassroots. Once you learn to recognize that distinctive vetiver scent (it smells like nothing else) you will smell traces of it everywhere – it appears in the base of nearly all western fragrances.

Fresh and light, just the kind of scent I want to put on early in the morning.

Love the sillage on this; I smell it as I shift and turn all day. I had about 5 different fragrance strips sitting on my desk one day and GV was the only one I could smell at a distance. It blends well with everything. Everything I’ve tried! It smells great in every season, in every context. There is something so reliable about this scent, to me – like it would never let me down.

Ladies! Take note. This is a men’s classic (1959) but would smell fantastic on you. It has for me zero outdatedness, and age is no factor. Gentlemen, put down the stonking aquatics and try this. Everyone else: it would smell good on you, too.

smell this: Chanel Coco Mademoiselle

On August 18, 2013 by theseventhsphinx

IMG_6115Well, it doesn’t smell as good on me as it did on the guy who made me want to buy it, though I was drunk at the time I decided I would buy, and he must have bathed in it. Lesson learned in testing on self [Always test on self!]. And inebriated scent assessment.

Pleasant vanilla, citruses and rose florals anchored with patchouli –  not too sweet, esp in the drydown, so it smells good (definitely good…not quite inspiring but solidly good, I can see why it sells so well) but rather boring to my nose. Would be a fitting scent for a particularly charming baby or nursery was my initial thought [though you aren’t meant to put perfume on babies, I know]. Can layer to sweeten or temper a masculine, is how I’ve been consoling myself about it. I find that it plays very well with others, after a couple of years of experimenting with it now and then. Especially like it over something musky, like the C.O. Bigelow musk oil. This also keeps it from being so recognizable, and helps with that ideal of having a unique scent for oneself.

Though it is not my favorite I often reach for it (alone or somehow layered) when I don’t want to think too hard about smelling nice–not only nice, but ‘pretty’, nice in a sense with feminine mass appeal–and I want to speak, inconspicuously, effortlessly, to a broad range of tastes. Perhaps if I know I will be meeting new people, for example, and I’m in a rush. I almost always get positive comments.