The house Guerlain owes much of its glory to the oriental character of its perfumes. The association of Guerlain perfumes with tales of the Orient is therefore a given, and Samsara (Guerlain, 1989)—Sanskrit for the ‘wheel of life’—is no exception. For Samsara, the marketing at Guerlain also twisted this Buddhist reference of perpetual rebirth into a story of serenity and harmony.
But, in fact, what is far more interesting than such a woven Oriental tale is the conception of Samsara. It is a known fact that a passion of perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain is dressage. And, through their legendary horse trainer Patrick Le Rolland, he met Decia de Pauw in 1985, a Belgian woman of English origin who would later inspire the creation of Samsara. She had the habit of perfuming her bath with two essences, jasmine and sandalwood, which are of particular affection to her. Therefore, Jean-Paul Guerlain, with Gérard Anthony playing a part, created a perfume around these two essences—it was the first time that Jean-Paul Guerlain employed this accord. He would often go to India to acquire the particular jasmine and sandalwood that he wanted. Madame de Pauw also recalled that Samsara was very recognisable at the time and once people on the streets of Vienna would accost her just to inquire what her perfume was.
The answer, perhaps, is still Samsara. It debuts with the classic freshness and brightness of bergamot. The invigorating freshness contrasts nicely with the rich development of its floral and oriental aspects. Already a radiant and diffusive sandalwood note of Polysantol appears early and resonates throughout the duration.
Then, the florals of Samsara unfold. The duet between plush sandalwood and narcotic jasmine serves as the centrepiece. Its heady depth is provided by a damp brushstroke of narcissus, whilst its spicy floral character comes from ylang ylang and rose.
The ornamented centrepiece rests on the softness of powder provided by orris, vanilla, and tonka bean. This harmony lingers for about an hour. The sandalwood-jasmine complex becomes warmer and richer, transforming along with orris, tonka bean, and vanilla into the famed praline-like Guerlinade accord.
Samsara might have set a new standard with the highest dose of sandalwood oil, but that alone cannot entitle its classic status. The time when Jean-Paul Guerlain could afford some 20% Mysore sandalwood oil is long in the past, and the sandalwood note has been supplanted by Polysantal brightness. Yet, it is the way Jean-Paul Guerlain weaves the sandalwood-jasmine richness into the distinctive Guerlinade to engender a unique yet familiar personality that makes Samsara so enduring.
A note on the concentrations: In the extrait de parfum, the rich florals are lavish with rose petals, narcotic jasmine, spicy ylang ylang, and powdery orris so much so that it reminds me of Chanel N°5 (1921). The focus on Guerlinade, likewise, makes no mistake that this is a creation of Guerlain. The eau de parfum, meanwhile, shifts the focus towards the ripe florals so that it recalls Arpège (Lanvin, 1927). In this formulation, I enjoy equal attention from the ripe flowers and the Guerlinade dry down. The eau de toilette is the brightest with a dab of Guerlinade; the sharpness of Polysantol can be slightly dissonant.
Sources: etsy.com, makeupalley.com, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, noblesseetroyautes.com reportage Alexandre Cousin.