Well, I finally have an excuse. On a whim, I bought the discontinued Roma by Laura Biagiotti, and immediately thought: Bulgari Black, but with more sparkle and citrus. As I thought about it, though, I realized that both perfumes are referencing the ur-vanilla perfume Shalimar, so I decided to pull out all three and do some comparison sniffing.
It's a testament to what a lunatic perfume collector I've become that in my mini-Osmothèque here in San Francisco consisting of shoe boxes in my refrigerator, I somehow have Roma, Bulgari Black and vintage Shalimar on hand. For some people, this may seem perfectly normal, but considering that I've only been collecting perfumes for a little over a year, it's a bit excessive, even for me.
But on to Shalimar. It's like Picasso's portrait of Dora Maar with three colors masterfully representing not only different planes on the subject's face, but also her exquisite emotions. In Shalimar's case, the three "colors" are the bracingly zesty bergamot, the warm and sensual vanilla and the naughty raunch of civet. These should clash, just as those three colors on Maar's face shouldn't be able to create an expressive face, and yet...They combine to form something both striking and comforting.
Shalimar telegraphs opulence, comfort and decadence, and the civet note leaves the other perfumes in the dust, as beautiful as they are. What is it about civet? It lurks, it jumps out unexpectedly, it emits a low growl... I don't want to love it, but it adds a mystery to every perfume it's in. Other notes add brightness, softness and creaminess to Shalimar, but if Shalimar were a gemstone, bergamot, vanilla and civet would be the facets that the light always hit.
Top notes: bergamot, lemon, mandarin, rosewood
Heart notes: rose, jasmine, orris, vetiver, patchouli
Basenotes: opoponax, vanilla, civet, Peru balsam, benzoin, coumarin (tonka bean), leather
Bulgari Black has been called Shalimar's alien "replicant." It's beautiful, but without Shalimar's beating heart. And of course we can't discuss Shalimar without talking about its precursor scent, Jicky, the perfume that many say is the first abstract scent ever created, abstract in that it wasn't a representational soliflore but rather a combination of notes combined to create a seamless effect.
Lore has it that Jacques Guerlain was so taken with the new synthetic vanillin that he poured some into Jicky and their beautiful child was Shalimar. Perfume Shrine has an amazing and comprehensive post about the history of Shalimar, but it's her poetic descriptions that kill me. Guerlain, she recounts, wanted to use the impure vanillin that was already in the "medicinal, smoky, yellow Jicky" because its phenols and guaiacols lent "autumnal darkness" to the perfume.
And Ayala is right to say that the "Guerlinade" found in Shalimar dries down to smell like skin — well, skin that is graced with orris and a hint of heavenly vanilla! And not just any "creme anglaise" vanilla, as Chanel No. 5 perfumer Ernest Beaux joked, but Guerlain vanilla. (Guerlainade is the name of the secret formula accord of iris, tonka bean and vanilla — give or take a few notes — that formed the base that constitutes Guerlain's early, confectionary signature.)
If Jicky is the jolie laide of Guerlain scents, Shalimar is her easier-on-the-nose sister. Jicky introduces you to a complicated scent pleasure, and Shalimar asks what took you so long...