~by guest writer AlbertCAN
Etymology: Sanskrit saṁsāra, literally, passing through
: the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma
—Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary Definition.
Years later I’m still surprised by the paradoxical creature known as the original Guerlain Samsara marketing campaign (1989). Although the fragrance itself has now recognized as one of the diffusive bombshells of the 80s (partly contributed by women who unabashedly applied reapplied ad nauseum back then), the concept was infused with a subtle ironic tone which few had recognized to this day—tongues firmly planted in cheek from day one. In fact, the overall concept can be interpreted in so many different ways that, combined with the subsequent urban legends, I have no choice but hail the whole thing as a marvel. After all, how can a seemingly innocent tale of oriental incarnation points(slyly) to the truth about the eventual corporate fall of venerable perfumery house, in ways that I suspect few still fully comprehend?
Few may dismiss my claims until one realizes that the development process of Guerlain Samsara was a grand departure from its predecessors, for it was the first project which utilized fragrance marketing. (Yes, I understand how vulgar the “m” word may be to some Perfume Shrine readers—but read on.) Before Guerlain Samsara the fragrance formulation was the exact opposite: juice first, concept second. In fact, the developmental processes of classics such as Jicky, Mitsouko, Shalimar were not fully indebted to their romantic muses, be it personal anecdote (the British Jacqueline who couldn’t marry Aimé Guerlain), heroine of a novel by Claude Farrère (homage to the heroine of "La Bataille"), or the Mughal architecture wonder in Lahore, Pakistan (a.k.a. “the abode of love” in Sanskrit). No, the business model in the pre-Samsara era was akin to home-style pasta cooking: if it was any good the fragrance would stick.
However such a R&D method was not a mean of effective business management in the post-Opium era, especially since other designer fragrances such as Givenchy Ysatis (1984), Chanel Coco (1984), and Calvin Klein Obsession (1985) were dominating various markets while Guerlain Nahéma (1979) and Guerlain Jardins de Bagatelle (1983) flopped, especially in the North American market. With this in mind Guerlain did two unusual things when developing the next massive launch: requested submissions from the Big Boys and initiated a project with a fragrance brief. Eventually the name Samsara was officially chosen as the name of the fragrance.
By now most people probably have seen the following PR write up: "Jean-Paul Guerlain was so moved by a woman whose inner beauty evoked a serene sensuality, he created a perfume just for her - Samsara. A fragrance that embraces and intoxicates, it is a seductive oriental made for a woman who conveys harmony and spirituality. Jasmine combines with the warmth of sandalwood, while powdery and vanilla notes magnify this blend".
The statement above is almost a direct contradiction to the official definition of the Buddhist term! In fact, when Samsara was launched in Asia it received its share of puzzled looks: in my memory serves me well one of the spiritual writers from the Mandarin-speaking regions (林清玄) actually published articles about how the newest fragrance illustrated the lure of the material world and the emptiness it implies. (I read that article once back in 1990 so please do not quote me—still, I remember the author’s view on Samsara was less than stellar because of its supposed connection to the “harmonious reincarnation”.) To be fair Guerlain did not do itself any favour when it announced (upon its Asian launch at least) that the perfumer (supposedly Jean-Paul Guerlain), was “enlightened” after praying for hours in a remote temple…So why the whole fuss? If Guerlain wanted to appease its Asian market wouldn’t it be easier to call the scent Nirvana? (Remember, the grunge band didn’t its first album until 1988.) Well, the questions ultimately point to the basis of Buddhism: while explaining the paradigm of Buddhism is beyond the scope of this review I shall offer a part of my understanding since it ultimately points to an interesting truth.
One of the major issues that many religions need to address is the sufferings experienced by mankind: how can one elevate from the everyday spiritual sufferings? Legends have it that Buddhism originated when Prince Siddhārtha Gautama, upon meeting his subject for the first time, discovered earthly pains associated with aging, disease, and corpses. Since he father forbid the prince to study all spiritual matters the young man later set out to uncover the root
of the problem. (It was prophesized upon Gautama’s birth that the prince would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader: naturally the king forbid his son to study spirituality.) Of course, Siddhārtha Gautama later gained enlightenment and became Buddha.
What Gautama supposedly envisioned during his meditation right before the enlightenment is worth repeating. Under a Bodhi tree, Gautama witnessed the human cycles and the consequences as a result: a perpetual motion of greed, jealousy, hatred, all of which are caused by ignorance. In fact, finding to starting point of such suffering is futile, much akin to finding the starting point of a circle. The cycle of such troubling human experience, of course, is samsara.
At this point you might be wondering how the first photo featured in this post fit into the grand scheme of things—it is, in fact, a samsara wheel, complete with all the states associated with the phenomenon. Of course, samsara is not merely reincarnation or karma: from my understanding the pains of repeating oneself due to karmic bonds and/or debts that allows the samsara cycle to continue...(for more information on the stages within a samsara wheel, as well as the meaning behind various depictions within the thangka above, please refer to the excellent interactive guide here.) Well, does the projected image much more akin to nirvana? Not exactly—in fact I think nirvana will be a fairly poor choice upon examining the official definition by Merriam-Webster:
Pronunciation: \nir-‘vä-nə, (,)nər-\
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: Sanskrit nirvāṇa, literally, act of extinguishing, from nis- out + vāti it blows — more at wind
1: the final beatitude that transcends suffering, karma, and samsara and is sought especially in Buddhism through the extinction of desire and individual consciousness
2 a: a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality
The real essence of nirvana isn’t the equivalent of an oriental heaven, full of exotic pleasures. (Such earthly thoughts create more earthly delights until the karmic force runs out, remember?) Instead, nirvana is the cease and the decease of earthly desires, thereby wiping out samasara. All of which makes nirvana, by definition, an indescribable state—since nirvana is beyond the use of the five senses or even the duality-driven state of the human experience. Yet, Buddhism advocates that such surrender is merely a choice to go beyond the transient entertainment of the human experience and realize that the greater truth is the integration of everything in life—thus can only be experienced, not said in words since describing the state requires choosing one’s words, thereby separating some experiences from others . In the end, I suppose Guerlain can’t pick a name that implies the cease and the decease of the consciousness!
Aside from the incoherence of between the projected image and the name the olfactory theme of Guerlain Samsara couldn’t have been more appropriate. Jasmine and sandalwood, aside from producing a sensual oriental alliance when expertly combined, actually capture the imagination of many Asian countries despite the cultural differences within the regions. While Helg has kindly explored the use of jasmine in perfumery in ways that I can never imagine in her excellent jasmine series, it’s worth noting that to many Asians the flower serves as spiritual shorthand of the various cultures within this region—there’s more to jasmine than, for instance, the vital ingredient in the classic jasmine tea. For instance, the iconic Mandarin folksong “Muo Li Hua” (茉莉花), taught in Chinese elementary schools as soon as the second grade, becomes the symbol of Asian aesthetics. (It is even used by Puccini as a theme in Turandot, most prominently in the middle of Perché tarda la luna? in Act I. More recently the famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou had used it liberally when directing various events related to the Beijing Olympics.) I’ve heard of many versions of this melody and to demonstrate the phenomenon I have a YouTube concert highlight featuring the Vienna Boys Choir (the pronunciation and intonation are quite spot on, by the way). I think all this indicates how the jasmine has become to represent oriental aesthetics.
Jean-Paul Guerlain’s source of inspiration might turn out to be different from a Buddhist temple after hours of meditation. Michael Edwards reported in Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances that Jean-Paul was set out to seduce Decia de Powell, an English woman who shared his passion for equestrianism. Upon being asked what fragrance would she like to wear, Decia supposedly asked for a concoction of jasmine and sandalwood as far back as 1985—and the final result supposedly contained up to 30% of sandalwood extract, one of the precious perfumery ingredients due to the diminishing population of the sandalwood tree and its slow-growing nature. (Jean-Paul also added, among many other things, Sandalore in order to create a powerful sandalwood effect.)
But the perfumery industry can readily reveal contradictory stories and this is where Samsara’s story starts to take on a colourful spin: did Guerlain ultimately picked Jean-Paul’s submission for Samsara?
While nearly all official Guerlain PR material back up the master perfumer fully for years the perfumery industry members whisper among themselves that Guerlain Samsara might have been the first Guerlain fragrance created by an outsider. (Quel horreur! C'est absolument incroyable!) The story is even more bizarre when CNN reported nearly three years ago that nose Jacques Chabert was the nose behind Guerlain’s Samsara (and Chanel's Cristalle)…, further adding confusion and complexity to the urban myth…
Of course, Guerlain isn’t completely innocent in this regard: when Mathilde Laurent joined Cartier a few years ago the creator Shalimar Eau Légère (2003) strangely became Jean-Paul Guerlain after the master perfumer supposedly “optimized” the fragrance with citrus oils such as bergamot according to the Guerlain PR team. (How can the original be short of hesperidic top notes is still beyond me.) Champs- Élysées (1996) might have received a similar treatment since the olfactory strokes  are a bit different compared to the classic Jean-Paul Guerlain creations. (My guess would be Dominique Ropion after sampling Une Fleur de Cassie by Frédéric Malle, though the depth of the latter is unquestionably better honed.) Mostly interestingly, many Guerlain sales associates are still taught that L’Instant de Guerlain (2003) was created by a Guerlain family member despite the fact that Maurice Roucel was officially credited as the nose behind the project—the training documents supposedly indicated otherwise in some cases...
Sure, many people have attributed Guerlain’s recent perfumery downfall from grace to the corporate greed of LVMH—but I feel that there must have been something wrong in the first place that caused the family to sell the corporation to the conglomerate. After all, as opposed to the Givenchy takeover (hostile in nature by all accounts) LVMH bought the brand upon years of mismanagement. I don’t believe for a second that it was simply a case that someone spending too much on guaranteeing the supply of costly essences, not after knowing the factors behind the failure of Nahéma, for instance. Management problems existed before the LVMH takeover—it wasn’t simply a matter of under finance that plagued many French luxury firms.
Years ago I read a short paragraph that ended up saying more to this day than many sources could articulate. Cathy Newman, a reporter for the National Geographic and the author of "Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent", once interviewed a noted industry member. While the man didn’t go into the specifics he indicated that the Guerlain family was a group of “octogenarians” who constantly “squabbled” over money and other matters. The traditional Guerlain management structure used to dictate the separation to duties among siblings and/or cousins, which potentially created strains even during fragrance formulation (as Jean-Paul Guerlain said during some interviews) as the cost of material may exceed the limits imposed by the other departments…
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not indicating that the Guerlain legacy less than it should have been—but to say that the family dynamic was a smooth sail and placed the LVMH acquisition squarely to the lure of the global corporation was not exactly correct either. Guerlain got sold not because the audience didn’t get the fragrance masterpieces—Guerlain got sold because the namesake family couldn’t identify the effective management strategies. (Interestingly enough, LVMH is still looking for ways to properly manage the Guerlain portfolio, as many perfumistas will sadly tell you. I suppose history does repeat itself.)
So the fragrance that was released 100 years after the launch of Jicky said so much more with its name than it should when the Sanskrit word originally described the sadness associated with karmic bonds: suppose Samsara also indicated all the emotions that the Guerlain (corporate entity) must have gone though over the centuries?
Fragrance-wise Samsara is arguably beyond just a simple combination of jasmine and sandalwood. Dr. Luca Turin once commented how the classic Guerlain compositions used quite a bit of Provençal herbs such as thyme and rosemary: Samsara subtly opens with lemon and tarragon, although the jasmine-sandalwood alliance can be strongly felt from the get go—making the bouquet largely powdery with a 80s lilt. (Peach is also mentioned as a top note in some sources, although to me it isn’t a prominent player—at least not in the famed Mitsouko context.) As the scent progresses ylang ylang further supports the jasmine idea with a spicy touch, concurred by carnation and rose. The overall aesthetic is round and smooth—as if invisible hands are arching the elements into concentric spirals, leaving an interesting sillage—sophisticated but strong-willed before the fragrance settles into the typical Guerlain balsamic-amber base with the aforementioned sandalwood as the main lead.
(I hate to say this…but I wonder more than once if Catherine Deneuve used Samsara during the filming of Indochine, for the complex love story can certainly be described as heavily karmic in nature! )
As for the famed packaging Michael Edwards reported that the pagoda-shaped bottle was in fact inspired by a Cambodian dancer statue displayed at Musée Guimet: the legs forms the outer shape of the bottle as the head forms the stopper…(no prize for guessing why red and gold are chosen as the colours).
Helg talked about how Guerlain’s model profiling in its ads and her theory certainly bears some interesting truth when considering the following ad:
So I urge everyone to re-examine this creation more than a blast from the past—the stories behind the creation itself are more than what one can bargain for!
Notes for Samsara by Guerlain: jasmine, ylang ylang, narcissus, sandalwood, iris, tonka bean, vanilla
Samsara is available wherever Guerlain perfumes are stocked. Two " discontinued "flankers that bear no olfactory relation are Un air de Samsara and Samsara Shine.
 Although the concept would be considered very foreign to the non-French speakers, Guerlain’s problem with the North American market might also have to do with its refusal to deliver extra sales incentives, a practice that was commonplace in North America. In short, I don’t believe it’s simply the diffusive juice that ultimately caused the failure of a juice: after all, as we all know a terrible juice can be quite profitable if managed properly (much to the horror of perfumistas).
 I’m not a Buddhist and an even lousier student in religious matters: my little write-up on Buddhist terms only serves as an illustration to the terms associated with this fragrance.
Similar to writers and painters perfumers (especially the established ones) do have their olfactory styles, mostly due to their preferred ingredients and aesthetics. People who are highly trained can even conduct personality tests based on the olfactory signatures. According to Sophia Gorjsman the perfumers actually recognize each other’s olfactory signatures upon smelling a fragrance.
The Tale of Genji, the world’s oldest novel by Murasaki Shikibu, certainly attribute the protagonist’s often futile (and nearly incestuous in some cases) relationships with various female leads as deeply karmic.
Pics via Wikimedia and Fragrances of the World.