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Iconic: Shalimar, the Perfume of the Roaring Twenties

Created by Jacques Guerlain in 1921, this intoxicating perfume and its Baccarat crystal vial sated a French appetite for the Far East during the Roaring Twenties. Shalimar is now Guerlain’s most iconic perfume and its best-selling fragrance after La Petite Robe Noire, with 108 bottles sold every hour across the world.

Once upon a time in 17th-century India, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was desperately in love with his wife Mumtaz Mahal. He had the Shalimar Gardens built for her, and after her death he honored her memory with the most beautiful of mausoleums: the Taj Mahal. While looking for a new creation, Jacques Guerlain was moved when he heard this story told by a maharajah in Paris, and used it as inspiration for an excessively sensual perfume. A fragrance fit for Shah Jahan’s beloved Empress.

The perfume of the Roaring Twenties

Paris was dancing to the rhythm of the Charleston in 1921. The cosmopolitan capital was a haven for the world’s frivolity-seeking intellectual and artistic elite, who developed a taste for the Far East and the exotic. Jacques Guerlain was in search of a new perfume of the times, and decided to recreate the heady fragrances of the Shalimar Gardens.

The original harmony was born of impulse. Jacques Guerlain first poured ethylvanillin into a bottle of Jicky — another of the House’s flagship fragrances created in 1889 by Aimé Guerlain using “guerlinade”, a mixture of balms, iris and vanilla. He then added powerful eastern notes such as vanilla, opopanax, sandalwood, iris, benzoin, patchouli, incense and Tonka beans to obtain an outrageously sensual, bestial perfume. And so Shalimar was born!

Ernest Beaux, creator of Chanel’s renowned N°5 (1921), enjoyed this radical alchemy. He once said “If I had used that much vanilla, I would have ended up with sorbet or custard. But Jacques Guerlain created a masterpiece, Shalimar!” The Guerlain House compared the perfume to “an outrageously low-cut evening dress!” And of course this fragrance demanded a suitably extravagant bottle…

The bottle: Art-Deco inspiration

The artist Raymond Guerlain, Jacques’ cousin, designed an elegant bottle whose curves conjured up the basins of eastern gardens. He crowned it with a fan-shaped stopper crafted in midnight blue Baccarat crystal, decorated with silk thread and sealed with wax. The label evoked the mural patterns adorning the Taj Mahal. Hand-made in the Baccarat crystal workshops, the bottle is worthy of an art collection, and received the International Decorative Arts Exhibition Award in Paris in 1925.

Guerlain has approached leading artists for each reedition of the Shalimar perfume. Illustrator Cassandre, photographers Helmut Newton, Jean-Paul Goude, Peter Lindbergh and Patrick Demarchelier have all contributed. In Paolo Roversi’s now iconic 2008 video, the Russian brand ambassador Natalia Vodianova is filmed naked, lounging around to the sound of Initials B.B. by Serge Gainsbourg, who sings “She’s not wearing anything, aside from a little essence of Guerlain in her hair”.

Almost a century after its creation, the perfume is still inspiring others. After his niece beseeched him to reinvent Shalimar and make it more contemporary, Guerlain’s head perfumer Thierry Wasseur began reworking the sacrosanct “guerlinade” in 2011. He removed the bergamot and its turn-of-the-century connotations, the savage jasmine and the overpowering leather notes to create a more floral fragrance. Rechristened Shalimar, Parfum Initial, he softened the original perfume and continued the myth.

Article published in the December 2015 issue of France-Amérique.

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