One Thousand Scents

Monday, August 29, 2011

Complexity / Simplicity: Guerlain Samsara Eau de Toilette

Samsara was launched in 1989, and I don't know how I failed to include it in the list of things I was wearing that year, because I bought it very shortly after its debut in my part of the world, I liked it a whole lot, and I'm wearing it at this moment, so clearly it has some sort of grip on me.

Now, this is going to be very confusing, because Samsara has been changed, packaging and contents, so often that it's hard to keep track or to know exactly what you're smelling, but I'll try to lay it out as clearly as possible.

I was instantly seduced by the Samsara parfum bottle

which came in this little lacquer-look box

and is that not gorgeous? But for some reason — the cost, I suppose — I didn't buy it. I couldn't really warm up to the eau de parfum bottle

which was, let's face it, rather dreary compared to the parfum, however much I liked the contents. Instead I got the body cream

which seemed like a lot of bang for the buck, and emphasized, as creams will do, the potent base notes (or note, in this case, but I'm getting ahead of myself). The jar was approximately this shape but the lid didn't have that broad gold edge: the whole thing, not just the top, was that solid jewel red, a sort of a mutated version of the parfum box, and I liked it a lot.

When I used it up, I cleaned out the jar and set it atop my dresser to hold change and such. Then I broke down and bought an ounce of the EDP, boring though the bottle was. And I wore it and wore it and eventually got tired of it, like the fickle slut that I am, and traded it away to someone and lived without it for years.

Eventually, someone at the company took notice of the bottle's extreme and unsuitable boringness and reworked it in dark red glass with concave shoulders, essentially turning it into the larger version of the parfum that it should have been all along:

I think the EDP had the gold cap and the EDT had a red cap, as you see here:

But then a couple of weeks ago I noticed that the local hypermart was getting rid of their entire high-end fragrance section; there wasn't really a lot left to it by this point, as they hadn't been replenishing it for at least a year and probably more. They had marked most everything down to $9.94 or $19.94, and so there was not much left but the dregs, though by god there was an ounce of Samsara EDT for less than $10 (there was also a 50-mL of the EDP for $30, not worth it: the only other thing that interested me was a bottle of Eau de Star, Mugler's fascinating attempt to make Angel wearable in the summer by wetting it down with Calone and freshening it up with peppermint). I managed to resist for a few days, but then I thought, well, hell, I really used to like it (the EDP, anyway) and for $10 I can see if I like it again, and if I don't, no great loss, so I'll go see: if it's still there I'll buy it. And it was, and I did (and the Eau de Star as well). For someone who made a New Year's vow to buy nothing in 2011, I am not doing very well.

The Samsara EDT that I bought is in the updated bottle (the bottommost one), but it's in the old box (next one up), so I have absolutely no idea what the vintage might be. Not the very oldest, obviously, but also not the very newest, or it would be in the new box. Why is there not some sort of law dictating that fragrances have to have the year stamped on the bottle, like wines?

One more thing about the packaging: the EDP in both the above pictures has a removable cap, as you would expect, but the EDT has a cap that is also a sprayer, that rotates one way to lock it and another to permit it to dispense the contents. I am not sure why companies persist in doing this, but it's not a great idea, because the sprayer/cap invariably looks like a cap/cap, and so there are going to be people who try to pull it off. Most of them will succeed. (How many displays of Bulgari Black did you or I see that had the sprayer wrenched off by people doing the obvious, but unfortunately wrong, thing?) The bottle I bought had a little card-stock hang-tag around its neck showing how to rotate the cap 180° to use the sprayer: it seems to me that if you have to instruct users how to open the bottle, then the fault is not with the users but with the package design.

Now, you can go hunt down a list of the putative notes in Samsara, but it would be a waste of your time, because it won't be telling you the truth: it might be an old list from the origin of the scent, or it might be from one of the various reformulations over the years, but either way it will put ideas in your head that do not belong there. Samsara may have ten ingredients or fifty, but it smells of three things only: a trumpet-blare of bergamot, a load of slightly dirty jasmine, and a big chunk of sandalwood. That's it. These things have been tinkered with to make them surprisingly bright and radiant, but they're still pretty much the sum of Samsara. Oh, there may be some rose in there (there always seems to be rose when there's jasmine), there may be some vanilla or amber at the bottom (who could tell with all that sandalwood?), but really: bergamot jasmine sandalwood. It has always been this way; the proportions are different, as always, but the essential structure is the same. In my bottle, the bergamot is very strong, the jasmine is unpretty, and the sandalwood is potent and solid, so if someone told you that this was Samsara Pour Homme, you wouldn't see any reason in the world to disbelieve them. It's not masculine, specifically, but it's not feminine either: it's just Samsara.

At its inception, Samsara had enormous quantities of Mysore sandalwood, considered the best in the world and said to have comprised nearly a third of the perfume's formula, but these days Mysore is an endangered species — we used it all up by doing things like putting it at 30% concentration in Samsara — so the wood is certainly a cocktail of Australian sandalwood and various synthetics such as Polysantol and Ebanol. Nevertheless: bergamot jasmine sandalwood. If you like these things, then there is every chance you will like Samsara, of whatever vintage, in whatever incarnation. I suggest you go hunt some down.

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  • Hi,
    Just wanted say how much I have enjoyed reading your blog since I discovered it two days ago. I have been going through your older entries, with great relish; it is refreshing to read such well-written reviews of perfumes I actually know. :D I like my niche but I love reading reviews of largely mainstream perfumes, especially thoughtful and considered opinions as yours. Thanks for all the wonderful entries, I will be occupied reading the backlog for the next few weeks!

    On Samsara, it's a shame I hate Guerlainade! Other than that, I'd have to agree with you.

    By Blogger A, at 5:43 PM  

  • I'm doing exactly the same thing! Discovering the blog reading the entries, like meeting up with my people! Yes, I'm Canadian too!
    Anyhow, I got suckered by samsara a few times, because I recall testing it somewhere ages ago and being haunted by was one of my very first ebay perfume purchases so long ago the blogs weren't around and I was puzzled and disappointed, and more recently after a more careful attempt to find one of the sandalwood era, another ebay "gamble".

    I don't know (head shaking) ...I just want that "magic"...maybe I've changed? maybe I never really did like it? maybe I do like it? It's the number 2 one you found too ugly to lay out cash for.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2:00 AM  

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