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Post-modern choreographer David Gordon gave a lecture at my university in the early 1980s. His advice to young choreographers was to steal. Steal anything, steal often. Acknowledge the source material or don’t. Take what you steal and do whatever you care to with it. His point was that there is no such thing as a new idea, and if there were, so what? Citation of sources, intellectual property rights and plagiarism are irrelevant—-ideas are shared. Granted, Gordon was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, whose dissection of traditional forms had a strong element of sabotage to it. Still, the notion is interesting.
So, did Jacques Guerlain steal from François Coty’s Emeraude when he created Shalimar?
Emeraude preceded Shalimar by 4 years. There are strong similarities in their olfactory profiles. Bergamot topnotes and floral heartnotes enveloped in vanillic-amber bases would come to define the historical “oriental” genre. Sweet, resinous, nearly-gourmand qualities made both perfumes rich and heady but the musky, powdery base kept them from becoming desserts. Due to the preponderance of durable, resinous materials (benzoin, labdanum, vanilla, tonka, oppopanax, sandalwood) the perfumes of this era and genre have a long arc that plays out over hours and days. I think of these perfumes as speaking with a drawl.
If these two perfumes were competitors over the years, Shalimar is the clear winner. It has been kept in excellent trim by Guerlain and is a mainstay of the brand. Guerlain have quoted (and flanked) Shalimar many times over the years, but the references have been thoughtful, if not always well-received (see: Shalimar Parfum Initial). Emeraude, poor dear, left the building sometime during the Coty brand’s slow fall from grace after the company was bought by Pfizer in1963. Emeraude, along with l’Origan, l’Aimant, la Rose Jacqueminot and the other seminal early perfumes composed by Fançois Coty were notoriously gutted by cheap reformulation. They became the ‘old and in the way’ models you had to pick past to get to Coty Wild Musk, Stetson and Aspen at the local drug store.
I’ve smelled a few vintage versions and concentrations of Emeraude over the years and while there are differences, they are largely the same perfume. I’m currently sniffing a bottle of the Eau de Toilette Concentrée from the ‘60s. The materials that define the ‘oriental’ genre have distinctive, recognizable scent profiles. Bergamot’s tartness counterbalances a warm, ambery vanilla base, creating a particular dynamic. The unfolding of the topnotes into the heart is quite similar in both but over time the perfumes diverge. Shalimar becomes both sweeter and more animalic. Emeraude veers away from its initial sweetness and leans into the rubbery aspect of amber materials to provide a more leathery drydown. The nitro musks that were in use at the time gave amber perfumes a strolling pace. They added endurance to perfumes, but more importantly they added depth and dimensionality. They kept olfactory tones distinct and allowed perfumes made from hundreds of materials to resist becoming porridge. Emeraude smells tart, powdery and leathery at the same time. Smoothness is balanced by angularity, making the perfume interesting from top to bottom.
So who robbed whom? I understand linking Shalimar to the Coty perfume, not only for their olfactory similarities, but for the cliché orientalism that both brands perpetuated. (* Again, Shalimar wins.) Shalimar is better understood as a riff on Guerlain’s benchmark citrus-over-coumarin/musk perfume from 1889, Jicky. Jacques Guerlain simply stole from his younger self. Shalimar has unmistakable similarities to Emeraude, which came first, but it’s likely that Emeraude cribbed from perfumes that preceded it.
The abundance of fairly similar oriental perfumes doesn’t point to mass larceny. It’s a valuable demonstration of how olfactory vocabularies develop and are shared. And even if it were stealing, David Gordon says it’s OK.
* Guerlain’s interestingly broad notion of orientalism: