Orientals old and new
Updated: Dec 26, 2018
I wrote this for Séduction-Magazin, an offshoot of Süddeutsche Zeitung and they did not pay me in time*, so here it is.
Jacques Guerlain, the third of Guerlain's in-house perfumers, composed Shalimar in 1925. He was then fifty years old, at the peak of his powers and enamored of an imaginary Orient —the Shalimar Gardens are in Lahore— he never visited. He was also working at a time when François Coty practically ruled perfumery. Guerlain had one shop in Paris, Coty had factories all over the world. Every time Coty discovered a new continent of perfumery, Jacques Guerlain would build something exquisite on it.
Thus it came to be that the now-defunct Emeraude by Coty was the first "amber oriental", and Guerlain improved on it four years later with Shalimar. Coty's perfumes were stark and legible, whereas Guerlain was the master of nebulous marvels. Shalimar is pure misdirection, and has since fooled generations of perfumers who tried to imitate it on the assumption that it was an amber fragrance: sweet vanilla, sweet labdanum resin, all softness and warmth.
Probably the largest single fragrance category in the word is Failed Shalimars. Everyone has had a go, very few got anywhere near it. Even today, nearly 100 years later, and with all the imitative analytical chemistry tools available, Shalimar is still the master close-up magician. Layer after layer of unrelated wonders peel off from it like silk kerchiefs pulled out from a closed fist: brilliant citrus, Provence herbs, strange putty-like resinous notes. The fact that all these things can be, so to speak, contained in the small, compact, sweet accord at its core is nothing short of miraculous. In perfumery, unlike in everyday life, an object can be hidden by another one behind it, and Guerlain mastered Perfume Physics better than anyone.
Until recently, that is, when instead of chasing Jacques Guerlain's coat-tails, perfumers discovered several new colors of amber to play with. I had practically given up on orientals after smelling dozens of heavy, misbegotten hippie concoctions when a young sales assistant at Luckyscent, the perfumista Mecca in Los Angeles, handed me a sample of Lubin's Korrigan and looked at me hard as I smelled it, as if daring me to dislike it. Fortunately for me, I loved it. Perfumer Thomas Fontaine explained to me that he composed this marvel at the urging of Lubin Art Director Gilles Thévenin who insisted on the perfume going beyond the bounds of the reasonable. The huge overdose of delicious caramel in Korrigan is properly irresistible, and Fontaine's skill ensures that it feels like the lightest thing in the world.
A similar miracle of levitation was achieved by another post-modern oriental from Cloon Keen located in, of all places, Ireland (perfumery has long ago left Grasse and become truly international). The reader who is familiar with French crème de marrons will no doubt be delighted to know that divine aroma now comes in a spray bottle, is called Castaña, and is given a bitter, stylish twist that mere dessert toppings can only dream of.
* post edited by adding "in time" to clarify the facts.
©2018 Luca Turin