According to Guerlain, Shalimar was inspired by a love story of Shah Jahangir and his wife, Mumtaz Majal. Upon her death, Shah build a mausoleum in her honor, which is Taj Mahal. The fragrance was named after the Gardens of Shalimar, so beloved by Mumtaz Majal. Whether the story is true, or just an example of clever marketing playing upon the contemporary fascination with the exotic, the magic of Shalimar is indisputable. Ever since it was launched in 1925, it has been an important trendsetter for so-called oriental fragrances, perfumes inspired by the aromas of the East.
The initial sensation is of cool citrus burst that quickly melds into a rich floral heart. The undercurrent of dark sensual pervades even the initial chilly note, setting the stage for the warmth of the base. Vanilla stands out rather strongly against the backdrop of bergamot, which while fading by the time fragrance dries down, nevertheless maintains its pleasant astringency. The interplay between cold and hot is the most magnificent aspect of Shalimar. The eau de toilette and eau de parfum are lovely, but the extrait de parfum is incomparable, as is the case for most of the Guerlain fragrances. Bergamot is much softer, while the dry down is remarkably luminous and rich.
For a similar idea, but different aura, Jicky is my preferred fragrance. In fact, many perfumers think that Shalimar was created when perfumer Jacques Guerlain added a heavier than necessary doze of vanillin to Jicky.
Shalimar Eau Légère
Imagine sitting by the pool and eating lemon-jasmine sorbet. The wind is carrying the scent of blooming orange groves and briny sea air. Unlike traditional Shalimar, Eau Légère, introduced in 2003, skips the leather-balsamic portion of Shalimar and juxtaposes the cool lemon with creamy vanilla and woods. It was created by Mathilde Laurent, a young in-house Guerlain perfumer, however in 2004, Jean Paul Guerlain slightly changed the composition. Shalimar is the full blown fin de siècle decadence, resplendent in its radiance. Shalimar Light is like its reflection in the water. It is still an ornate Guerlain composition, but far more restrained. It is lighter as the name suggests and less complex. Nevertheless, it is an interesting take on the beautiful classic Shalimar. Eau Légère, on the other hand, is effervescent and lighthearted, yet preserving the seductive quality of the original.
On Reformulation (added 12/17/10):
Out of all Guerlain reformulations, Shalimar appealed to me the most. It has the character of the original, with the dark, rich, oriental accord still intact. Of course, it is missing the radiance of ambergris and some natural animalic notes in the original, but frankly, if it is a choice between a nice perfume and ecology, I will take the latter. The genius of the effervescent bergamot juxtaposed with the dark, rich vanilla still amazes me, despite this idea being used extensively in many fragrances created since 1924. I also compared the parfum concentration and the available eau de parfum. The leathery-castoreum notes are not as pronounced in the EdP, but the essential Shalimar structure is in place. For the richness and complexity, I prefer the parfum.