Guerlain Samsara New and Vintage: Perfume Review

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Samsara

Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

The old Mughal palaces have a very peculiar scent of wet wood, old books and dried roses. Drawn to the decaying glamor of the past, I have spent a fair bit of time exploring them, and the scent is what I tend to remember the most. Over time I have realized that the closest olfactive equivalent of my own Indian fantasies, both real and conjured by my imagination, is Guerlain Samsara. Guerlain has a long tradition of paying tribute to India at its most romantic, but Samsara goes even further by serving as a gold standard for sandalwood fragrances, the most quintessential Indian perfume. What follows is not just a review, but also a guide to vintage perfume hunters curious to smell Samsara in its former reincarnation.

The Myth

Samsara is among the legendary perfumes for many reasona. It made innovative use of natural and synthetic sandalwood aroma-materials and engendered a woody trend in feminine fragrances. But to me, it is also special, because it marks a new phase in Guerlain’s history. It initiated many new changes in how Guerlain created its fragrances, not the least of which was the involvement of perfumers other than Jean-Paul Guerlain. There are many myths surrounding the creation of Samsara. Some say that Guerlain did not create it at all and that it was not even developed in-house. Based on my research and interviews with those who worked at Guerlain during the time of Samsara’s creation, it is without doubt a Jean-Paul Guerlain’s brainchild. While Gérard Anthony was Samsara’s co-author, a fact that Guerlain does not hide, Samsara owes a lot to Jean-Paul’s sensual aesthetic.

Jean-Paul Guerlain noted in an interview with Elle Magazine that he created Samsara with a muse in mind. “I met a woman named Décia de Pauw, a wonderful horsewoman. I fell instantly in love. I had one desire: to offer this woman a perfume that would reveal her own intimacy, her unique sensuality. She liked sandalwood and jasmine, so I made her a perfume named Samsara, which is Sanskrit for ‘wheel of life.” The sandalwood that forms the core of Samsara is splendid—it combines the rose petal and cream aspect of natural sandalwood with the brightness of Polysantol, a sandalwood synthetic. The harmony between the two materials is what makes the sandalwood of Samsara seem gilded and radiant. Although natural sandalwood is one of the best raw materials available to perfumers, it is a heavy, opaque material that tends to suppress the top notes and make the fragrance stay too close to the skin. One inhale of Samsara will prove that it is anything but a wallflower. For those who like statement making perfumes, it is one of the best that there is, and those who love opulent oriental blends, should definitely make a point of sampling it.

The Fragrance

The opening chords of bitter citrus and green buds set a sparkling prelude, which serves as an excellent counterpoint to the heady richness of jasmine and ylang-ylang. A dark streak of licorice gives a teasing gourmand sensation to the floral notes, while the coconut and vanilla sweetness lace the woody notes. Woven through its body are the references to the great Guerlain classics—the luscious almond warmth of L’Heure Bleue, the leathery narcissus of Vol de Nuit, the opalescent freshness of Chamade. Nevertheless, Samsara is so flashy and dramatic that it does not fit easily into the suave elegance of the classical lineup. On the other hand, it is so bold that the epithet of “grand parfum” fits it perfectly.

On Reformulation

The heart of Samsara was composed of prized Mysore sandalwood, and the original formula used a very high percentage of it (from 30-40% depending on whom you read.) Currently, due to the overharvesting of sandalwood, this material is severely restricted. While I fully expected that Samsara would be a complete disappointment, Samsara is still radiant, opulent, with an amazingly strong sillage and a seductive character. Compared to the original in all of its concentrations, it is sharper, brighter and crisper. If in the original the creamy roses of sandalwood formed the main impression in the late drydown, the current version is heavier on vanilla and licorice. As I compare my Samsara parfum purchased at various times over the past twenty years, I can see how the formula has been altered time and again. At any rate, the current iteration is well-balanced, and the screech of sandalwood synthetics that I noticed in Samsara a few years ago is not evident. In the Samsara parfum I smell very nice natural citrus oils and its warm rose-sandalwood core is inviting and smooth. The drydown is a bit flat, heavy on vanilla and almond scented coumarin, rather than woods. By contrast, the drydowns of the Eau de Toilette and the Eau de Parfum are animalic and dark. The EDP has a delicious peppery note that fits well with the rose-sandalwood theme. Compared to the other concentrations, it is muskier and warmer, and it is my current favorite concentration.

Samsara Family

Guerlain Samsara exists in extrait, Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette, and several body products. Guerlain launched two flankers to Samsara, which were very good. My favorite is Un Air de Samsara (1995), the jasmine and sandalwood of Samsara embellished with a bright streak of green notes and mint. Less exciting, but pretty and coquettish is Samsara Shine (2001). Its tart accents of pomegranate and apricot play up the ylang-ylang and rose notes of the original, resulting in a joyful, sparkling fruity-floral blend. Although these fragrances have been discontinued, they can be found online and at TJ Maxx at bargain prices.

Hunting for Vintage Samsara

Strictly speaking, it is not quite correct to call a fragrance launched only in 1989 vintage. However, in order to differentiate between the current formulation and the earlier ones, I will use this adjective.

As I mentioned above, Samsara has been reformulated on several occasions throughout its lifetime, and having an old bottle is no guarantee of having great juice inside. However, since Samsara ages really well, given its large proportion of woody notes and since older bottles are widely available, it is possible to find it at reasonable prices. Here are a few notes to the vintage perfume hunters.

The original extrait de parfum introduced in 1989 (1988 in Europe) was available in 7.5ml, 15ml, 18ml and 35ml bottles. The current size is 15ml (red glass bottle) and 10ml (rechargeable spray.) Also, smaller sample sizes of 2.9ml are no longer made, but they still can be found on Ebay, thus offering a glimpse of the original.

In 1990, Guerlain unveiled Samsara Eau de Parfum, and it was the first time that Guerlain has used this appellation. Eau de Parfum has replaced the Parfum de Toilettes in all of Guerlain’s fragrances–a useful thing to keep in mind for one’s vintage perfume hunts of other classics. The current Eau de Parfum is sold in a semi-transparent red bottle (50ml and 100ml) and rechargeable gold encased spray (50ml and 75ml.) The original Eau de Parfum bottles were available in various sizes, from 30 to 100ml, but the bottles were nearly identical—transparent bottles with a gold band and golden caps. Larger sizes can also be found in splash style bottles, which are no longer used.

The Eau de Toilette was launched in 1991 in bottles similar to those of Eau de Parfum, minus the gold band. They were also available as splashes. The current Eau de Toilette is available in both the red bottle like that of Eau de Parfum as well as the gold-encased rechargeable flacon. So, if you are after the older Eau de Toilette, the transparent bottle is the best bet.

Sample: my own 1989 bottle of parfum and 1992 bottles of other concentrations; current samples from Bergdorf Goodman Guerlain boutique.

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39 Comments

  • Andy: Such a pleasure to read such a comprehensive review! October 11, 2011 at 6:30am Reply

  • Victoria: Andy, I'm glad that you liked it! I love Samsara, although I started out by being lukewarm about it. As I fell in love more with woods, it also became a favorite.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile October 11, 2011 at 8:51am Reply

  • nstephens@beachcroft.com: Thank you for such a generous and informative review. I remember when Samsara was first released (in the UK), the mother of a friend of mine wore it and when I visited them I would sneak sniffs of her bottle which she left in the bathroom. It fascinated me so much that I bought a bar of Samsara soap (all I could then afford). Not much of a hardship though since after bathing using that soap I smellt wonderful (I believe)! I would like to add a small amount to my current collection so it is good to know that it has stood the test of time (and reformulations). Nicola October 11, 2011 at 8:54am Reply

  • Victoria: Nicola, oh, that soap was amazing!! I had a very old bar that I used to keep in my clothes drawer. It perfumed my sweaters so nicely.
    In the mid 1990s Samsara was sharper than it is now. I compared the parfum with the newest one from Bergdorf, and I can see that. The best parfum is from the early 1990s, but even back then Samsara relied heavily on sandalwood synthetics. Today, it is accented differently, but it is still very good.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile October 11, 2011 at 8:59am Reply

  • Marylizette: I love Samsara. Is it worth it to splurge on the parfum or is the edp just as good? Ty! October 11, 2011 at 10:03am Reply

  • Victoria: I prefer the current edp!
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile October 11, 2011 at 11:51am Reply

  • OperaFan: Samsara is all sandalwood to me – all dressed and styled, that is. It’s such a big and distinctive fragrance that I never dared to wear but love to smell.
    I love Un Air de Samsara and that one is among my favorite summer scents. As a co-worker once remarked – “it’s very discreet….” It bears the soul of Samsara but behaves in a lighter, more breezy manner. Never tried Shine, maybe I will.
    Samsara I prefer to use the body and bath products. Lovely to wear to bed. Thanks V – for your wonderful write up. October 11, 2011 at 12:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: Glad to hear of someone else enjoying Un Air de Samsara. It definitely has a heart of Samsara, minus the bling. :)
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile October 11, 2011 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Joan: I love the idea of Samsara, but my contemporary bottle just smells sickeningly artificial to me.

    I’ll try it again though, after your advice. October 11, 2011 at 10:53pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: I hadn’t smelled Samsara, so was delighted recently to find, for a mere $8 at a thrift store, two 15ml spray refill bottles (designed to fit the rechargeable flacon) of the Samsara EDT. Less delighted when I got home to find the scent merely pleasant — very light and short-lived (2 hours or less). A closer look at the bottom of the bottle showed Samsara written in the same widely-spaced font as I’ve seen on picture of the current bottles/boxes. I don’t know when Guerlain started using that type-face, but it is another clue to vintage. I will definitely try the EDP as I would love to experience the richness you describe. October 12, 2011 at 12:09am Reply

  • Mihika: Long-time reader, first-time commenter :) I tried Samsara once at a department, but for some reason it gave me a headache; I think I may have sprayed too liberally! The name too is not very appealing, it has connotations of suffering (the endless cycle of rebirths). I do love sandalwood though, my mother has a little figurine carved from sandalwood that she purchased in India and twenty years later it still smells beautiful! October 12, 2011 at 12:21am Reply

  • Eric Brandon: Before I was born, my dad would fly to Paris maybe twice a year and each time, he would bring my mother back a bottle of Nahema parfum de toilette. Twice a year. However, one time he went up(this must be right at the cusp of Samsara’s unveiling), he brought back a bottle of Samsara EdT. My mom hated it and never wore it.

    Then, when she was moving almost a year ago, she found a shoebox, with that Samsara and I think 4 bottles of the Nahema PdT (she wore Ralph Lauren Rocks, then. I’ve since switched her to Un Jardin Sur la Nil). Needless to say, she gave them to me. The Nahema I adore. The Samsara… well, if anyone wants to make an offer….

    It’s really a stunning perfume, very smooth and sleek, with a sort of elegant detachment, a demure warmth. But I’m not really moved by it. Maybe it’s the powder foundation sweetness of it, or the WRIT LARGE sillage. Maybe I should invest in a sample of the vintage extrait, but I dunno. October 12, 2011 at 1:16am Reply

  • Eric Brandon: Not to be a lame boat and reply to myself, but as I was reading, I sprayed a tiny spritz in the crook of my arm to remember it. So I was skimming back over the review and I stopped when I saw the almond reference. Then I sniffed and, wow! I realized that Samsara and Fleur de Cassie are like sisters. I prefer the Guerlain, but that’s not saying too much. Just wanted to see if you found them similar as well.

    /walloftext October 12, 2011 at 1:52am Reply

  • annemariec: Oh good lord! Four left-over bottles of Nahema! Did she not like it, or could she not use it fast enough? Two bottles a year sounds like a lot. October 12, 2011 at 6:10am Reply

  • Eric Brandon: Yes, she couldn’t use them fast enough. She tells me she wore it until about 1999-2000, though I don’t associate it with her at all. But while he did eventually stop having to make the trip, she did have a surplus. Now she can’t stand it though. :P October 12, 2011 at 7:03am Reply

  • Victoria: It is not the most natural smelling perfume, and it never was. I did not even like it that much when I first smelled it, and it is still not one of the top 5 favorite Guerlain fragrances. I do admire it though for its daring, dramatic character. October 12, 2011 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Victoria: The packaging has been changing over the years, and you are right about the font. The EDP is easy to find in stores, which is a good thing. October 12, 2011 at 12:06pm Reply

  • Victoria: Welcome, Mihika! What a nice blog you have (those chocolate almond cookies seem so appealing–I love the combination of chocolate and nuts.)

    One spray too many, and Samsara will haunt you! :) Definitely a fragrance to be applied lightly. October 12, 2011 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am using the term vintage very liberally here, of course, since it is hard to call something vintage when it was launched in 1989! It is just to differentiate between the newest version and the original. At any rate, if you can smell it someplace, it would make for an interesting comparison.

    I agree though that Samsara lacks the nuance of the earlier Guerlain classics. I have been on the fence about it for a while (or rather, I felt a detached admiration.) Over the past year or so, I find it more and more striking and alluring. October 12, 2011 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Victoria: I need to smell them side by side, but Fleur de Cassie has so much mimosa and cassie that have all of those great almond nuances. Plus, jasmine, as does Samsara. Moreover, Samsara influenced so many woody orientals for women. One of its copycats that I’ve enjoyed the most was Laura Biagiotti’s Venezia. October 12, 2011 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Victoria: My mom feels the same way about Diorissimo! I have such a nostalgic attachment to it, whereas she cannot stand it after wearing it for many years as her signature fragrance. October 12, 2011 at 12:14pm Reply

  • glitteralex: Thank you for a brilliant and informative review! October 12, 2011 at 11:18pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are most welcome! So glad that you liked it. October 12, 2011 at 11:24pm Reply

  • Eric Brandon: I really don’t remember her wearing it, though. I do remember the refillable 90′s gold Guerlain bottle, though. :3 October 16, 2011 at 2:06am Reply

  • Eric Brandon: Considering I was born in 1990, I find 1989 to be vintage. Not to flaunt my youth or anything, but it was literally before my time. It’s weird, though: my bottle’s box is copyright 1988.

    Samsara really makes me question whether I’d like sandalwood or not. Even though I appreciate it, but it really isn’t my cup of tea.

    A funny story: the night my mom gave me her old perfume stash, I liberally sprayed Samsara. My friend smelled me and said, “Why do you smell so bad?” I wasn’t in love to begin with, but wonder if that colored my opinion at all. October 16, 2011 at 2:19am Reply

  • Victoria: 1988 is when the box designed was filed and copyright accorded to Guerlain. Makes sense as these developments take place way before the launch.

    I can see how such a comment could color your opinion! Ouch! October 16, 2011 at 9:19am Reply

  • nikki: Such an interesting review! I like that the name of the muse has been revealed: while the ads featured a lovely brunette, the original muse is blonde….I always thought of Samsara as a fragrance for dark haired women, but this opens up a whole new vista! March 22, 2012 at 1:12pm Reply

  • Rose: I love your blog! And I loved this perfume. One whiff and I was back in Kerala in a temple or at dusk at one of my Hindu friends home when they light a lamp and do a small Pooja for the official winding down of the day. The older generations would bring out their religious texts and do their chants and everyone including the visitors would get a touch of sandalwood paste on their forehead( if they have taken a bath right before)! No bath then no blessing from God :) I am def getting this to have India bottled up right on my dresser. Thank you for the very interesting lesson. May 1, 2013 at 5:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: So beautifully put, Rose! Samsara as “India bottled up right on my dresser” is definitely it. :) May 2, 2013 at 7:17am Reply

  • Lavanya: Samsara was the first Guerlain I liked and the only one that I liked on first sniff.. V- do you know what the year on a Samsara PDT would be? I have the chance to purchase some that is supposed to be 1970s-1980s but if it was introduced only in 1989 I don’t see how that is possible. Any idea? August 30, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I really don’t know. At one point I obsessed with dating Guerlain bottles and tracking down specific years, but I don’t remember anything about a PDT for Samsara. If the seller claims such a weird date, he obviously didn’t do his research. August 30, 2013 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Little Red: This was my first Guerlain thus it has a special place in my heart. I bought it the first time back in 1998 and wore it the next two falls and winters. I got tons of compliments on it and my closet would smell divine from the scent clinging to my sweaters. I love this stuff! I should stockpile the vintage stuff in the clear glass bottles. November 8, 2013 at 9:46pm Reply

  • C. Cross: does perfume get old? I buy Samsara..my favorite perfume ever over the internet and don’t know if it is a different smell from the original new. Any comments? C C November 30, 2013 at 1:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: It certainly does, and depending on how it was stored, it might go rancid much quicker than usual. November 30, 2013 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Michaela: I am glad you love it too! Samsara used to be my only perfume for so many years! I have to say I lved it so uch and found so complete joy in wearing it that I just stopped of testing anything else for soe gooyd years. Igave it up obce they changed the bbottle to the red one: the juice was changed too and I immediately felt something was wrong, as it is to the day. It has lost its transparency, it is now more bland, more opaque, no longer a scintillating perfume but a block of strong aromas. Occasionally I test it and I think the current edt is closer to what edp used to be prior 2002… The current edp is warmer and bitter then I remember it. It used to be a somehow cold (if that makes any sense) combination of jasmine/sandalwood and ylang with a dash of crispy narcissus. That cool crispiness is gone and we are left with a monolithic sandalwood that is both warmer and bitter and no longer evanescent. It is not just the sandalwood that is changed, the whole formula smells blander and bleaker. It used to be one hell of a perfume, una senzatione! Now it’s just another heavy oriental. I still mourn it…. March 8, 2014 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for your comparisons, Michaela! It’s helpful for all of us to take notes and see how the perfumes change. Not that it’s comforting. I still love Samsara, though, although I agree that it has been altered. March 8, 2014 at 7:12pm Reply

  • Mahesh: Just managed to find the 1990 edp in a local chemist shop here in London. It was a blind purchase but I’m in love….

    Love the sandalwood accord, synthetic or not.
    Find the whole thing very calming and reminds me of temples in india like some else has mentioned. April 29, 2014 at 9:40am Reply

    • Victoria: What a great find!
      I also think of Indian temples whenever I smell Samsara, probably because there is so much sandalwood in it. April 29, 2014 at 10:22am Reply

  • Truehollywood: I tried the EDT version yesterday and I can’t get the amazing scent out of my head. I may have to buy a bottle. May 15, 2014 at 12:34pm Reply

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