Samsara, launched in 1989, is considered today as the last of the classic Guerlain perfumes. The 1990s, in general, weren't a good decade for Guerlain. LVMH started buying stake in 1994, and the only major releases were the masculine Heritage (1992) and the now discontinued Attrape Coeur (1999), and the decade ended with the first bunch* of the Aqua Allegoria perfumes, which should tell you all that you need to know about what happened to Guerlain. But back in 1989 and the early 90s I didn't like Samsara. I didn't even appreciate it. Someone I knew back then and wasn't exactly a model of class and elegance wore it as her signature scent, and the original advertising campaign (above) somehow rubbed me the wrong way. Don't ask me why. It's a quarter of a century later and I have absolutely no idea why my 19 year old self who still wore most of her high school clothes and didn't leave the house without applying four spritzes of Paloma Picasso, thought this Guerlain ad lacked refinement.
It took me a couple of decades to discover that the massive jasmine perfume I remembered as a brain-piercing nuclear mushroom was actually a cuddly yet luscious beauty. Part of my problem with Samsara has always been the jasmine. It's still not the first note I will list when I finally have a bespoke perfume made for me, but I've learned to enjoy it when sweetened and vanillified, as well as in the company of rounder notes and creamy flowers, especially ylang-ylang. Samsara, indeed, opens as a round and slightly buttered fruit. Some sources list peach, and I wholeheartedly agree, though it's absent from the one below which comes from the 1997 Perfume Handbook (Second Edition) by Nigel Groom. The very fleshy peach is probably another one of the elements that made me dislike Samsara for so many years.
The fruity, fleshy beginning of Samsara leads it into a golden early afternoon of leisure and luxuries. It is mostly sandalwood, over a recognizable vanilla-tonka Guerlain base, a true oriental, even if it feels much heavier than the smoky-animalic base of Shalimar. Samsara is all about the sandalwood, which is why bottles from the last several years smell so different than what we call "vintage". The original had a hefty percentage of real Mysore sandalwood, an ingredient that is no longer available due to over-harvesting. At its best, Samsara is plush and almost comforting in its soft bear hug. Yes, it verges on larger-than-life, especially when you employ 1980s spraying techniques (spritz a lot, and then some more), but why not live a little?
It seems like there were several iterations of Samsara reformulations, and they also vary by concentrations. I've smelled some that were particularly shrill and harsh, but rumor has it that the newest batches on the shelves are improved. I haven't tested this theory, so I can't confirm.
Notes: sandalwood, jasmine, ylang-ylang, rose, narcissus, violet, orris, amber, vanilla, tonka bean.
*to be fair, these were the best of the Aqua Allegoria range, all but one now discontinued.