A few years ago before I became a perfume obsessive, I traveled to Morocco. I'm glad I had enough presence of mind to go to the perfume section of the ancient souk in Fez and pick up scents with the kind of quality and concentration you'd have to pay an arm and a leg for elsewhere: sandalwood, sandalwood oil, amber oil, dried rose petals, frankincense, and myrrh, just to name a few things I snagged. If I'd known better, I would have searched out much more: oudh, ambergris...(Read Lucy of IndiePerfumes' account of our visit to Enfleurage in NYC where you can get all these things and more.)
At one point, the perfume seller lit what looked like a sparkly rock. (I know now it was frankincense.) The fragrance it emitted is one I will not soon forget: spicy, warm, sweet, and vanillic. It was magical.
With this in mind, I was looking forward to my Miniature Perfume Shoppe shipment of Samsara, Guerlain's ambery Oriental perfume highlighting jasmine, ylang-ylang and sandalwood with a warm tonka and musk base. Alas — disappointment.
Top notes: Bergamot, lemon, green note, peach, tarragon
Heart notes: Jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, orris, carnation
Base notes: Sandalwood, vanilla, benzoin, amber, musk, tonka
In terms of making the most of its Oriental notes and expressing in perfume form the Buddhist notion of "samsara," (the endless cycle of birth and suffering and death and rebirth), Guerlain's strangely inert and wishy-washy Samsara is a missed opportunity. How do you mess up (and messing up includes the cardinal sin of being boring) a perfume with such rich ingredients and such an evocative name? Perhaps it was perfume by corporate committee, a bunch of suits putting together ideas and notes intellectually but without passion?
Samsara is a polite jasmine scent with with a slightly spicy Oriental base. Maybe it's just me, but I really don't get much else. Not every fragrance has to have a story or a mood — but a personality would be nice.
At once rough and smooth, good sandalwood oil (not unlike patchouli) has a kind of tough beauty that is characteristic of woody scents. As I sniff my Moroccan bottle now, I can see why, for a while after I came home, I'd put this oil straight onto my skin, its smooth spicy sweetness lulling me to sleep some nights. (It starts smelling a little acrid after a while, though, so it's better in a blended scent.)
In Buddhist thought, samsara has a number of meanings. It can be the inevitable chain of birth, life, death, reincarnation, or it can signify the cycle of suffering Buddhists believe occurs as a result of our living trapped in delusions, endlessly seeking gratification and pleasure.
If Samsara had been more interesting, it could have used its interesting notes in some way to express one or more of these meanings of samsara — either by contrasting decadent notes with austere ones to represent the pleasure/pain of samsara, or by overloading on decadent notes to signify samsara's indulgent connotations.
Instead, Guerlain decided to make up its own Bizarro World definition of samsara. (Samsara as "serenity." Really, guys?). Even with that revision, I'm not sure how the perfume's notes signify or play off each other. Just to get a sense of how bland Samsara is — pick up any Serge Lutens Oriental fantasy fragrance (Chergui, Arabie, Muscs Kublai Khan) and compare it to Samsara. It's the difference between "meh" and "Oh, my God what is this?"
So you know how I feel about this perfume that's been stripped of any significance or edge, connotatively or olfactively — let's now take a look at the advertisement. Ad execs may have wanted to project "a sense of serenity," but all I see is a strangely-coiffed lady-bot who looks like she's on 'luudes. Oh, the '80s.
Here are a couple contrasting reviews from Basenotes readers to balance out my strong dislike for utter indifference to Samsara:
(TDDanae likes it): "The beautiful smell of Sandalwood and Vanilla are toned down ever so slightly with Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. It does not smell floral, but the florals are just barely there enough to take any sharp edges off the Sandalwood and Vanilla. This ends up being such a delicate oriental blend that I certainly hope they never quit making it or change the formula because it is just perfect."
(Angelica dislikes it): "Some years ago I worked at a major museum where we would have big galas, and most of the ladies who attended were very wealthy and of a certain age. They all had near-identical ash blonde heavily highlighted, big, highly coiffed, hair. A hair helmet really. We took to calling this 'international hair,' which carried with it a whole host of associations.
And so I have come to the conclusion that Samsara is the oriental for women with international hair. It is well-mannered. And lest that indolic jasmine or sultry sandalwood should offend, there is a massive overlay of orris to keep it all in place, just as a robust application of Elnett will do for your coiffure."