Despite the attractiveness of the name (I live in the zen temple of Japan, many of the structures and their precincts just down the hill: some with such an extreme beauty just sitting in their gardens is mind and body-altering ) I have always thought of Shiseido’s first internationally launched perfume as being the prototypical – and I don’t usually use this denigratory word – ‘granny perfume’. Though obviously a vintage lover – I have long extolled the virtues of the floral woody aldehydic and wear them regularly – just last weekend I wore the extrait of Nina Ricci’s Farouche and fell in love with it properly for the first time, visiting an old park in the rain next to a lake with a bridge dating back to the thirteenth century over arching; the scent adding melancholy and internal atmosphere; I adore Calèche, Calandre, and so many others – but there was always something about the musty, fusty musk/oakmoss finish at the bottom of this scent that made it more than slightly outdated – a flower print hot summer nylon dress and tights at the back of the bus. My feelings of this gerontological edge to the scent (we all get there in the end, but may not necessarily wish to hasten the process), may also be just because I literally gave a bottle of the Zen cologne – lighter, more masculine, a bit Hai Karate and not nearly as good as the parfum that I have only just discovered at a cheap Yokosuka thrift shop – many years ago, when back home from Japan, not long before the end of her life – to my own grandmother. I can see the bottle, in my mind’s eye, gathering dust, in the chintzy, fiftiesy bathroom up the creaking carpeted stairs, with its old lacey Spanish flamenco dolls from their beloved trips to the Costa Del Sol; ceramic bambis with their overlashed eyes; the plastic flowers; the fake feather birds. Zen nested amongst all this, next to my grandad’s unused bottles of Tabac; my nan, when I kissed her hello and goodbye, when she remembered to put some on, would sometimes give off a heartwarming, soft aromatic cushion of Zen from her slightly bristly skin, a scent from a powdered cheek that was pleasant and homey (smelling the bottle of cologne, which cost next to nothing, the other day, I had a real jolt of remembrance and association).
The parfum, however, which came wrapped in some cellophane tossed together with the cologne in an old bargain bin, is another question altogether. I don’t think I have ever encountered the vintage formula before in my time here, and it is a very pleasant surprise indeed. In this concentration, Perfumer Josephine Catapano (Cinnabar; Youth Dew, Fidji – you get the drift) blends the expect flowers, musks and balsams that you get in every fragrance of this light-floral-chypre type, but in the extrait, which I came home to last night after a long, tiring – if quite enjoyable – week of work and applied and sighed to for a while, there is an extraordinarily sentient jasmine note in the vivid top accord, shaded by greenery and a clutch of hyacinath, violet, rose, mimosa and narcissus in the background scintillating quietly, before the more dated, muskier notes make their appearance a little bit later that is delicately beautiful. The scent, overall, is something of a delight in fact – not dissimilar to Van Cleef & Arpel’s First, or the original Nina by Nina Ricci – and a revelation to me. Though only a small bottle, I think I will now keep this little gem in the kitchen next to the lamp stand where I found it the other day as a perfume of ‘momentary pleasure’, one for a moment’s respite when I need to detach. Nan (wherever you are now, RIP) : Nice though it was, I am sorry I short changed you with the cologne. I should have definitely have bought you the perfume.
23 responses to “ZEN by SHISEIDO (1964)”
The gorgeous presentation is worth the price alone!
A Japanese client gifted me a bottle of Ever Bloom a few years back and I received Rose Synactif as a gift with purchase at the Cle de Peau flagship store in Singapore. Both are rather wispy and ephemeral aquatic florals with a nod to nostalgia that are sadly short lived. They are in the “I don’t want to offend anyone” division of my fragrance wardrobe.
Exactly: I have picked up several Shiseido modern florals over the years – I think they have a yearly ‘eau de parfum’ like a vintage of wine , and they are almost all acidically polite and chemical.
Their older perfumes, though definitely quite as I say old fashioned to the modern nose, are quite beautiful in their own way. I agree about the bottles – they are very nice, especially these original top of the range ones.
A truly beautiful post. And the packaging is such a delight.
Thanks very much. And yes – it is always such a pleasure to be able to put up a nice image in tandem with the words.
I think I came across this as a result of one of your posts, maybe indirectly, a year or two ago. Love at first sniff so I bought up as much as I could online—the bottle in your last photo. One of those rare ones that feels so completely right that it goes straight into the top five without any intervening climb. I guess that makes me an old lady. Thank you!
You’re welcome !
Wearing even the cologne last night, I see now that I really was only experiencing the final notes on my grandmother and that that was how I had mentally processed the scent – even the cologne I put on smelled gorgeous yesterday: it’s as though I have gone all these years without realizing how beautiful the flowers in the bottle are. There is some kind of herbal kick that works so perfectly with the jasmine. I am delighted you also love and wear this one. In what moods does it work best?
I have to say the mood has to be “special”. I would dearly love to be one of those people who can wear their favourite perfumes at any time, so that I don’t die surrounded by a zillion unused bottles of magic, but this Zen is so good I can’t bring myself to wear for everyday. On a recently holiday I spilled some decanted Zen when the cheapie spray canister broke, all over my clothes that I now can’t bring myself to wash. Accidentally is the only way I’m going to get through my supply. So: daytime or nighttime, but something special has to be happening—brilliant sunshine and a trip into the woods, a peaceful vista, a birthday/anniversary, an evening with friends, a stately home visit, a day trip, etc. Zen can’t be sullied by the mundane. The mood is deep, rich, utterly happy, “this is me and I’m doing what I love after having been macerated in flowers”, and not necessarily nocturnal. Is there oakmoss or something in it? What is it that makes it so aromatic?
I wonder. But there is definitely a green, herbal aspect that contrasts beautifully with the jasmine. I love your descriptions here of how this makes you feel: extremely evocative. Do you ever get comments on it, or is it just ‘your’ thing that you float about contentedly in?
I wonder how somebody, 50 years from now, in 2071, will describe, say finding a vintage bottle of some very popular perfume at a market, perhaps VANILLA DIORAMA.
“She was always just Billie to me, I still remember how she lived in that white house with the white walls, and her few pieces of black leather furniture from the early 21st C. She bought her first place in 2009. There was not a single book in her home, just white walls everywhere, and 6 flat screen televisions hung in every room. The development where she lived, in suburban Southern California, was behind a busy highway with fast food restaurants and gas stations. She drove everywhere, even across the street to go for her daily walk. Her house always smelled like vanilla, and there was just one poster on the wall, because Billie spent all her money on her health care. She always wore VANILLA DIORAMA, and she had one type of outfit she dressed in, black spandex pants, black spandex top, black spandex jacket. And sprayed over her was always VANILLA DIORAMA, that vanilla just oozing out of every pore. I miss her. She died at 39 from diabetes, having battled it after she left In and Out Burger to retire. “
Hilarious and straight out of nowhere.
I’ve never tried the original Zen, but I was a big fan of Zen 2000.
Was that the one in the white bottle? I had that and it was strangely transporting even while smelling typical of the era. A woody blinding whiteness.
Yes, that’s the one!
Hi Neil, fun reading, as always.
For some heavier reading, here is a link: https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613%2820%2930277-1
Full title is: Human Olfaction at the Intersection of Language, Culture, and Biology.
Bob in Chicago
In reply to Neil, no-one has commented; but remember, I’ve practically been in lockdown for the past 20 months. My husband can’t distinguish smells at all, and my adult children are mostly away. That sounds quite sad, but I don’t feel that way; the community is online and I’m surrounded by so many bottles of loveliness that yes, I just waft about happily in my own cloud. I’ll test public reactions when the cheek-kissing dinner parties start up again!
20 months is horrendous! When will you consider going back into the world again?
I misdecribed it—I’ve been out in the country and towns, but not really socializing much and not in the usual crowded places I love too, and working from home. So not many people actually smelling me! My husband? No special reason—the same one, probably, that means he can’t tell if I’m wearing something new or not, or whether I’ve change my hairstyle at all in the past 25 years. He has other qualities! I don’t think he feels detached at all—his passions just lie elsewhere, and he can certainly cook up some good flavours…so it’s probably just a matter of interest, if we accept the nose and the palate are related…
And can I ask: is your husband’s lack of smell from Covid, or something else? He must feel quite detached from things I would imagine.
That was such a lovely post.
I worked for Shiseido back in 1990 and I remember smelling both the extrait of Zen and the eau de cologne and they were like night and day. I cherished the little black bottle, the one you have in the photos, but sadly used it up decades ago. It is terribly hard to find it on eBay at a reasonable price, but I will keep checking. I adore the creations of Josephine Catapano, and this one is no exception.
Yes – always so full and poetic. I love hearing about your days working for perfume companies as well. .. .x
Oh, I loved working for all the companies I worked for. My favorite times were working for Christian Dior, Guerlain, and Orlane. It would be so different now though, it’s a changed world, with cheapened tastes.
I wish to know if this ZEN BLACK NARCISSUS is till avsilable.
You mean the original Zen ?
I think so – in those black bottles still.