Why did I buy a four-fifths-full 15ml vintage parfum of Guerlain’s monstrous/ gorgeous Samsara from a Fujisawa antiques shop yesterday when I know full well in my heart that I don’t even like it? Or rather, that I have a hate/love relationship which settles far more on the former but most definitely comprises some of the latter? The answer probably lies in the previous sentence: while Samsara, in its original eau de parfum, possibly the strongest and most outrageously spatially-consuming fragrance ever made by mankind – a scent you could literally smell several blocks away, that preceded a person like an ugly reputation, and yet clobbered its nasal recipient over the head with such force, such jasmine/vanilla/deep Mysore sandalwood voluptuosity, that you had, despite your rational objections, no way to withstand its laborious seductions……… in some ways undoubtedly an outdated relic from another age. It is, though, in its original form, as in the bottle you see above, of such quality ingredients and such unmistakeability that I knew I simply had to have it in my possession. And at £19.47 (¥3000), nestled comfortably in a glass cabinet along with Japanese inro and ivory name stamps and the like, even merely as a sheer contrast to the normality of the workday, there was no way that this wasn’t getting tucked naughtily into the front zipper of my workbag.

I have written about Samsara before. This blog is essentially an almost decade-long stream of consciousness on perfume and life, and sometimes the totems of each era make a re-appearance, either in a review by themselves, or in relation to other perfumes. I occasionally enjoy these repetitions, as a story is never quite told the same way twice, and new readers bring their own unique perspectives to the table (I do remember some amusing anecdotes being exchanged, corroborating the Stephen Hawkings levels of molecule travel through known air space and time that this perfume notoriously wields like a superpower ; those unfortunates who had actually lived with a flatmate at university who would douse herself in Samsara (one dot is enough of this stuff) and had barely – clutching their mottled throats, weeping – lived to tell the tale. My own musings, smelling the desperate warmth of the perfume emanating from the bottle yesterday, were fondly of the time I first properly encountered it, when my mum brought a bottle home from the fashion establishment that she worked in at weekends in a department store and I was utterly mesmerized by its potency and yes, in a way, its alluring fabulousness (sometimes Samsara can smell rather beautiful), even if, I also could never fail to notice that it clogged up your brainwaves and filled every available nook and cranny of the house.

Another memory is going to my friend Hillary’s house. If her mother’s Samsara, apparently just sprayed somewhere upstairs in her bedroom as I rang the doorbell, hadn’t actually penetrated the door and made its way outside through the keyhole (which is kind of how I remember it), it most definitely did assault me the moment I walked in the door, even if, Mrs Evans had not as yet, taken a single step on the carpet as she made her way down the stairs to say hello. I remember us both laughing about this semi-conspiratorially, but also good-naturedly (“She does like it”), Hil told me : : after all, we were talking about perfume, and as a teenager I was already totally besotted. But why was it that, although my mother had worn some other heavy hitters in her time (Oscar De La Renta, Youth Dew, and my favourite by far, Ysatis, alongside her usually much more demure fragrances such as N⁰19 edt, Rive Gauche, Van Cleef & Arpels’ First), there was something uniquely vulgar about Samsara, even as it glinted in its obviously luxuriant – i.e overdone – ‘Parisian’ extravagance. This was, of course, due to the legendary overdose of genuine Mysore sandalwood by Jean Paul Guerlain, revolutionary at the time, which made up 30% of the formula. Sandalwood, in itself, is already an extraordinarily dense, dry, yet moist and glistening oil that eats through negativity and melancholy with full force; the essential oil – buttery, dense, rich, erotic – lasting for days on your skin. If you then pack in loads of very sweet vanilla, musk, tonka amber,etc, along with the Guerlinade, tip top quality ylang ylang (this note was particularly singing on my skin when I attempted a little last night), layers of iris and orris, violet, peach synthetics and effervescent citrus notes fizzing in the fusillades of nose-blasting pomposity, you are really talking sillage here.

The parfum, which God in his mercy has provided in a dab format (do not spray this thing!) is not as intense in many ways as the aforementioned edp, which definitely won the missile range trophy in terms of penetrating subterfuge; the extrait biding its time a little before blooming. But even a bit on the back of my hand after I came home from work filled up the room (‘blimey‘ said D); when he hugged me to say goodnight, slightly taking a couple of steps back, saying wow, you smell so Samsara-y: I replied in turn, ‘do feel free to wear some – as much as you want – tomorrow for work. “My god, he said in return, with a look of horror on his face, ‘can you imagine? It’s so…. ……… busty“.


Filed under Flowers


  1. Tora

    Every word you just said about Samsara is so perfect. I love/hate it. I mean I love it so much but it is so hard to wear. It takes over completely. And do not get a drop on a sweater or you will have to wear Samsara until the sweater gets cleaned. There are times when I want my brain altered into a deep sandalwood state, and I don’t care about being dragged down into the Samsara undertow. It is a marvel that I am happy to have tucked away, way, way back in my perfume cabinet. Great review, Neil.

    • So glad you and I see this mutha in a similar way! I can see it working with a really rich artisanal natural sandalwood soap, and worked into, with just a little, for a natural vibe: as it IS, though, it takes over. To me, and I wonder if you know what I will mean by this, it already smells like a fully fledged persona when you smell it from the bottle. An oeuvre, not a human.

  2. I have a busty friend (who is in her 60s, I think) who says she used to wear Samsara. I haven’t smelled it, but would be glad to just to experience sandalwood properly in a perfume. I love the essential oil but usually can’t stand it in perfumes anymore somehow.

    • I feel the same way about sandalwood when it’s too pronounced in a scent. I only like it as a background or supporting note. I was gifted by a friend with Cruel Intentions by By Kilian, but I don’t ever reach for it because the overwhelming sandalwood kills it for me.

      • And probably not even real sandalwood in that one’s case. At least with Samsara, in a good vintage, you can eventually just linger in the natural santal. Sandalwood synthetics make me deeply ill.

    • I think you would die in the proximity of too much of this, although if the person were wearing a proper, solid batch of the earlier versions that really were pumping out sandalwood, you might be bustily enlightened.

  3. Haha, I too have a love/hate relationship with Samsara. I think I like it in theory, but when I put it on it always seems to eventually start to get cloying in its loud sweetness.

    • THIS IS IT.

      Exactly. Somehow you never learn your lesson. You think you love it, and you do love it in a way, because it is so…Wagnerian almost, so smotheringly ‘everything’ but then as you say, it just gets too much. And yet you know that the time will come when you will almost crave a wear of it again.

      Perhaps only for grand-ish occasions?

  4. The withered synthetic peach is what puts me off in Samsara.
    It’s like Tresor’s mummified empress dowager aunt ate cheap candy. I can handle the sandalwood overload, soiled diaper narcissus, starchy iris, powdery Dove soap, sharp cloves, and a hefty dollop of glacé Guerlainade. Anything but that dry, wizened, stale peach. Every time I smell Samsara I picture a coffin opening with the aforementioned empress dowager embalmed with the stuff. Ugh.

  5. Robin

    Although my own relationship with Samsara has always been one of ambivalence, I like everything you’ve ever written about it.

    I think that bottle was a wise investment, particularly for its historical significance and for reference. At some angles, it is gorgeous.

    As for the current formulation: it sucks. Not surprisingly, and very unfortunately.

    • I haven’t smelled it – but can imagine some thinness/brashness. Smelling this parfum in the box is enough : it has serious character, a person with a history and a whole life behind them: this can’t be easy to create in a fragrance.

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