A naked woman with bird wings for forearms reading a poster about birds in an abandoned classroom
Return to Perfume Home

I developed a craving for Shalimar during the pandemic. It's a comforting smell that you can cry into, like the shoulders of someone wearing a fine fur coat. It was in my house growing up. I was having flashbacks of standing next to the cabinet at home, turning the Shalimar bottle over in my hands. That bottle didn't move when I did, I left it with my mother. I decided to follow the impulse to finally get my own bottle.

Shalimar is ancient and powerful. Guerlain released it in 1925 and it has been in more or less constant production ever since. Realizing that its 100th birthday is five years out from now is a wakeup call. If I start a Shalimar Jar now, I'll be able to buy whatever limited edition thing Guerlain does to celebrate. Shalimar has been reformulated and repackaged many times during the past 95 years. I want to take a tour of the different formulations and concentrations one day. Time is running out on that. The limited supply of the earlier, truer formulas dwindles every day, lost to use and age. But for the purposes of going home in my mind, I focused on finding the formula I was familiar with. I used the guide to Shalimar bottles at Kafkaesque to ID the bottle in my memory. It was a late 90s-era eau de toilette. That was what I ordered.

The bottle is based on the Baccarat crystal bottle that Shalimar originally came in, the 'bat bottle'. The EdT atomizer bottle is flatter, taller, and lacks a pedestal, but has the same swooping ridges and scalloped cap. The ridges are suggestive of bat wings, hence the name. They make me think of ruffled potato chips. "Shalimar-r-r has ridges!" It is certainly not Baccarat, least of all the cap, which is 100% genuine plastic. The gold Guerlain Paris signature on the cap is molded in, or embossed or something. It's not just painted on. I feel like I remember the signature having rubbed off the old bottle. That doesn't seem likely to happen here. The atomizer is metal and delivers a fine yet powerful mist.

The 90s EdT opens with a sharp kick of bergamot. It's blunted soon after spraying by the metric fuckload (it's French, they don't use the imperial fuckload) of vanilla that comes in right behind it. It's buttery, but it's not a pastry. There are strings of flowers riding close to the skin which, unless I have my nose directly to my wrist, are very hard to pick apart from the base notes of leather and civet. They're like a layer of powder over the base. And man, I love that base. It's rich and intimate and precisely what I had been missing so badly. I'm certain I got my vintage right. Altogether, it was exactly what I remembered.

There are two stories behind Shalimar. One is that Jacques Guerlain got a bunch of ethylvanillin, perfumery's strongest and most addictive vanilloid, and was all like, "Hey, I wonder what would happen if I put a metric fuckload (I told you, French) of this into Jicky?" But then there's the ad copy story. That one says the composition was inspired and guided by the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, which were built as a love gift by Shah Jahan to his consort, Mumtaz Mahal. Mughal gardens are retreats with vast flower beds, pools, and orchards wide open to the wind and and the light. How could that inspire a perfume that's so indoors? Leather, wood, vanilla, citrus furniture polish, the whole thing is a literal picture of a room. And that's good! Feeling safe in a lovely home is why I always liked Shalimar, and if that was all I ever got from it, I'd have been delighted.

But then I found it. I found the garden. It took 15 years, but I found it. I sprayed Shalimar shortly before going out to fence. The warmup did its job. My body heat rose, and with it came the heart notes of rose and jasmine I always knew Shalimar had, but couldn't properly grasp. More than just powder, the flowers were living, sweet, palpable things around me. They had always been there, but there was a way to unshackle them that I had never tried before. The composition was absolutely shimmering. The experience is distracting. It puts me into art instead of into focus. That's not great for attentiveness drills. It also slashes the duration of the perfume in half because I'm burning it off. But goddamn, it's worth it.

My mother's bottle of Shalimar was smaller than the one I bought myself. She had a half ounce or ounce bottle. I went for the 1.7, anticipating that I'd use it up. I haven't pulled that off yet, given it's only been a couple months and I have other fragrances in rotation, but I've made a noticeable dent. I don't plan to ration it. There's one thing that might slow it down, though, and it's that I'm already considering what other formulations I should pick up in the future. I'll be back when I've made my choices. Or for the 100th birthday party. I've already put some money in the jar.

- 10/12/20