Sunday, January 31, 2010

Frequent Questions: The Many Versions of Shiseido Zen

When the same name for a fragrance is used through the decades to denote varying scents, things get entangled. Zen by Shiseido is one such characteristic example. To disentangle them here at Perfume Shrine we try to shed some light on what differentiates each version.

There are actually three Zen fragrances, all by Shiseido, in different packaging and smelling rather differently from each other.
The original Zen Eau de Cologne (and parfum) from 1964 comes in a black bottle with hand-sketched gold flowers on it. It's a green spirit with fangs which bite hard! Unsettling and completely unbefitting the serene name, it makes for a thunder entrance: Bitter and sharp, white floral in the heart in the manner of gardenia chypres of old but quite angular still, and with an incense twist somewhere (smoky), while the base is all mosses and bitter leather. Excellent on a guy! In fact probably better than on a woman maybe. The re-issue available at Nordstrom's right now is supposedly very close to the original daring formula and is termed Zen Classic to differentiate it from the following versions. I have also come across an Eau de Parfum mist version of it online.

The chronologically intermediary Zen was encased in a pretty white bottle with rounded, friendly contours in a white box with beautifully tactile, subtly shiny surface. The fragrance was presented in Eau de Parfum Aromatique (that's what it says on the box). Less bitter, more fruity floral with a lovely rose note which Shiseido tells us was allegedly grown in space (the product of careful tending by astronauts aboard the space shuttle), it has no leather-mossy feel but ample musks & woods in the base. It's a soft and lovely rendition which approximates its name much more convincingly than the original version, was completely in tune with the 90s in both concept and visual representation (half pebble, half high-tech gadget) and the general Shiseido aesthetic and has been loved by many. It's now discontinued but still available online.

The new version of Zen was incarnated in a cube bottle, architectural, designesque and downright fancy in 2007. The smell however is nothing like either of the older ones. Modern Zen has a fruity-fresh opening, instead of the characteristic bitter green of the original, seguing to spicy and ambery (ambroxan)-patchouli notes. Although the base is generic and rather non distinctive, the spicy accent is quite pleasant, redeeming it. Still, in a sea of ambery patchouli fragrances with fruity notes it's not marking its territory in any significant radius.

There's also a flanker to that one -i.e. a 4th Zen, affectionately called Zen White- in a different coloured cube, supposedly for summer and more metallic-citrusy in tone. Finally there is Zen for Men in a greyish-blue bottle that follows the cube-shape of the modern Zen for women. Its scent is centered on spicy woods and musk.
All the modern Zen versions are available at department stores wherever Shiseido is carried.


  1. Very interesting article! My grandmother wore the original Zen Eau de Cologne and I have Zen White. I find Zen White to be very nice (plus as a bonus, it supposedly has special notes with soothing properties meant to relieve stress). Funnily enough though, my sister always thinks I'm wearing Elle by YSL (which is one of my all time favorites) when I have it on.

  2. Thanks for clarifying this one, E. I was wondering about the new version, and now I know to give it a pass. I like both the classic Zen and the (old) white Zen. Why must they confuse us this way?

  3. Mystic Knot13:11

    I liked old Classic Zen and the black bottle is very interesting compared to the new blocky cube bottle ( not very handbag- friendly either ) I know it was inspired by Japaneses tea rooms but I am trying hard to see it myself! :D I also find new Zen quite linear though it is very wearable.

  4. Jamie,

    thank you! How very interesting! Both about your grandmother and about the comparison between ZW and Elle. Now I have to test them side by side, you know, enabler!!

    Have a great day :-)

  5. M,

    you're welcome, it's quite annoying, I agree. They could at least introduce numbers or something to differentiate, since I understand that keeping the name has to do with copyright issues etc.

    The modern Zen is nice (do try it just for the heck of it) but unremarkable; lacks some backbone. The summery one is quite refreshing.

  6. MK,

    I think (but might be wrong) that the design with the rather zig-zag lines reflects the various panels which are slided in those rooms to hide and reveal things. (somewhat like doors, but more delicate) I might be just imagining things, though, don't mind me!
    Yeah, wearable and linear sums it up well. Thanks!

  7. Anonymous15:50

    I've tried Zen Classic and "unsettling" describes it perfectly. There's really nothing else quite like it. The current Zen White is very refreshing, I've been meaning to get a bottle. The new version is nice but yes, generic. Your article has inspired me to give Zen Classic another try. Thanks!


  8. Dagney,

    thanks, I was puzzling on how to characterize it laconically and it seemed like the proper summation.

    I guess every company needs to have some utterly confusing line of similarly named of fragrances!Do try the classic again, I think it's terrific in the intense heat and in snowy weather too. (it loves extremes)

  9. I used to wear the original and what a lovely bottle that was. Needless to say I never kept them. I am not a "bottle person" - some people just buy a scent for the bottle ! That is not me.
    I find the new ones lacking .
    Did you ever smell their Inui that was around that time too?
    It was just the best "green" . Sadly we don't get that anymore either.

    1. Anonymous16:56

      I still use the original black bottle Zen and also Inoui. I was disappointed when Inoui was discontinued. In Macy's one day I was given a small sample of perfume on a tester. Smelled familiar but did not buy it. Finally hit me that it reminded me of Inoui. It was Jessica Simpson's Fancy Love.

  10. M,

    indeed the drawing of the flowers was ever so delicate and the boule cap was even more precious (the spray lacks this).
    Innoui I briefly recall as spectacular. I han't leaped when I had the chance and now it's long past my chance....Oh well!

  11. Anonymous21:58

    Talk about synchronicity! Last week, I was trying to remember the name of the bowling-pin-shaped bottle that my mother had in her perfume collection in the early 1970s. Someone on Makeup Alley correctly identified it as the original Zen, so for nostalgia's sake I promptly went to my local Shiseido counter on Saturday to try the new Zen in the square bottle. It was a dry, spicy fragrance, but it was markedly different than what I remembered from 30 years ago. I do, however, like the ume plum note. It's very subtle and lends an appropriately Asian flair to the overall composition.

  12. Anon,

    what a fabulous story!! Yes, the fact that there is the same name attached on different versions creates something of a loss of how to appreciate each for its own merits. I like the spiciness of the newest Zen. I just wish it persisted more and had a more "singing" or challenging base.

  13. I'm glad you went through and delineated the different versions of Zen! I was in Macy's today smelling things and came across these different versions at the counter. I picked up the Cologne and was instantly entranced. I couldn't take my nose away from my hand- it was the weirdest, most interesting thing I've smelled in a long time. I instantly bought a bottle- and so cheap! Now I understand why the different iterations smelled nothing alike...thanks!

  14. hi,I have a question,I BOUGHT zen perfume but its lasting is about 1 hour,how can I UNDERSTAND IT IS FAKE or not?!!!!

  15. Jared,

    you're welcome. I can see how the different versions would be extra confusing!

  16. Shokoofe,

    I guess there's no easy answer. It all depends on packaging, typefaces etc. and of course your own "tenacity" of skin: do you usually have this problem? I don't think it would be viable for anyone to counterfeit the old versions and honestly, is the new one a best-seller which would justify that? Usually that happens with very popular fragrances.

    Then again, if it smells off or it lasts only a few minutes EVEN when spraying on paper or cloth, then something is fishy. Hope that helps.

  17. Anon,

    that's amazing info!!! (re: Shiseido Inoui=Jessica Simpson Fancy Love) I'd never imagine it so.
    I DO know that Fancy (the original) has LOTS of fans and should be a great fragrance and am no perfume snob, but wouldn't have pegged them to go after a long-forgotten "green".
    Goes to show you, one should smell everything, after all.

    Thanks again for bringing this here, it's worth exploring!! :-)

  18. I know nothing about perfumes, but I think the "intermediary Zen" might still be in production. I am currently living in Kyoto and got a bottle from Takashimaya—a major department store—for my mother. The lady in charge of the Shiseido section offered three bottles, the New Zen, Intermediary Zen and Rosarium, describing them as combination of Western smell and Japan, Japan-like smell and rose smell respectively. When asked about it, she stressed that the Intermediary Zen has a very soft smell that does not last the whole day. I think the ones found on the internet might actually be Japan imports, as none of the major stores I know seem to stock it, but it can be found on Ebay at four times the price it is sold at here.

    1. Excellent information, Ink, thank you so much for bringing it on here!!

      Yes, the prices asked are quite illogical sometimes. Vying for the obsessed collector pays handsomely I suppose.

  19. Anonymous19:17

    My Classic Zen is all that I have worn for the last 45 years. My Uncle got it for me as a Christmas gift when I was 15 (I will be 60 on the 20th of this month). My first experience was with gift set my Uncle bought. Sadly all they manufacture now is cologne. Where have all the other products in the Classic line gone??? And what is the closest fragrance in the market to it? PS... just a quick question, what is a perfume that is closest to the smell of star gazer lily's??? Thanks! I am in love with the classic!

  20. Anonymous15:38

    50 years ago, I was working in the cosmetics dept of a major dept store (now owned by Macy's) when Shiseido was first introduced in this country, (early 1970's). I worked the aisle it was sold on, so was given training by Shiseido company reps prior to its debut.
    As I recall, Shiseido is billed as the oldest cosmetics company in the world, having grown out of Kibuki theatre tradition. I loved black bottle Zen, but never kept any of the bottles. At that time they also had a much stronger, more "modern" fragrance in a red bottle, named after a famous Japanese fashion designer, but her name escapes me. It was a lovely line of products.


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