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.
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 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.
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.
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.