An exquisite floral beauty worthy of a queen in a bygone era. That is Shem-el-Nessim, a fragrance from Grossmith London that harkens back to the very best of grand perfumery, with a strong resemblance to vintage L’Heure Bleue in parfum form. Rich neroli orange blossoms swirl together with geranium, roses, deep bergamot, orris, and plush patchouli greenness to create an opulent, luxurious floriental. I find it truly beautiful, carrying the full weight of its 108 year old history in its powdered floral start, but ending with a very timeless, perhaps even modern, finish of creamy neroli-vanilla mousse. Shem-el-Nessim is not for everyone, and most definitely not for modern tastes. But for women who bemoan the loss of the vintage greats, it is a fragrance that they must try.
Grossmith is a very old British perfume house that was originally established in 1835. It has a truly fascinating history, from its time as a favorite of various European royal families, to its troubles following World War II, and its eventual 21st century return as a family business. It is a story of rise and fall, of formula ledgers seemingly lost forever in the London Blitz, of an accidental genealogy discovery, and the intervention of two modern royal families to help in a rebirth. It almost seems like the stuff of legend. So, if you’re interested at all, you can read the history in my review for Phul-Nana, a famous Grossmith scent from the Victorian era that was the Chanel No. 5 of its day. (It also has a Downton Abbey connection involving the Dowager Countess Grantham.)
To return to the issue of Shem-el-Nessim, it is a fragrance that originally debuted in 1906 and was returned to life with essentially the same exact formula in 2009 by Trevor Nicholl. Like its siblings, it was released in both eau de parfum and extrait de parfum concentrations. This review is for Shem-el-Nessim Eau de Parfum.
Grossmith describes the fragrance as follows:
Arabic for smelling the breeze
An Arabian Spring time festival celebrated in
Egypt on the Nile
The current trend for orris comes full circle with the rebirth of Shem-el-Nessim.
This fragrance reprises the original orris formula, using Florentine iris, known for its rarity and expense, costing three times more than gold bullion.
Originally created in 1906, this rich, luxurious creation typifies the L’Origan style with its warm, soft, powdery, floral aspect. A scent which personifies the Edwardian era in which femininity was fêted.
According to Luckyscent, the notes include:
Bergamot, neroli, geranium, jasmine, rose, ylang ylang, orris, musk, patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, heliotrope and vanilla.
Shem-el-Nessim opens on my skin with rich, sweet bergamot and very spicy, neroli orange blossoms, all infused with mossy greenness and piquant geranium. On their heels follows streaks of a pale, pink rose, sweet jasmine, and velvety ylang-ylang.
There are a lot of things that are interesting about Shem-el-Nessim’s opening. Take, for example, one of the central notes in the perfume: the neroli. It can sometimes feel very pungent, green, and more bitter than the flowers from which it is distilled. In fact, distillation methodology is the only thing which actually separates “neroli” from “orange blossoms.” Here, the aroma lies midway between both elements. There is also a tiny touch of woodiness, too, as if petitgrain (the twigs of the orange tree) had been used as well. The overall effect is of very spicy, extremely dense, very lush, neroli orange blossom that is both purely floral and sweet, but also green and spicy at the same time.
The other thing that is interesting is the green streak in Shem-el-Nessim. The neroli is one small reason, but the geranium and patchouli both amplify that impression. Here, the patchouli is neither the original, brown, spicy kind, nor the modern, purple fruitchouli molasses, but a very mossy, dark plushness. It merges with the strong bergamot blast in the opening to consistently evoke something about the chypre genre for me. If you didn’t look at the notes, you would really wonder if Shem-el-Nessim had a touch of oakmoss in it.
Yet, at its core, Shem-el-Nessim is primarily a floral oriental. Grossmith may talk extensively about all the iris in the fragrance, but the scent on my skin is consistently about the spicy orange blossoms, first and foremost, and from start to finish. What follows after that seems to depend on the quantity that I apply. The smaller the dose, the more the jasmine is the second trailblazer, infusing Shem-el-Nessim with a narcotic sweetness that I find hard to resist.
However, the larger the quantity that I apply, the more the rose steps forward as a key part of the perfume’s opening hours. At first, it is pale pink and merely sweet, but it is soon dusted by orris makeup powder along with sweet vanilla. As regular readers know, I’m not particularly a fan of powdery perfumes, but Shem-el-Nessim is a complete exception. One reason is that the orris powder doesn’t really evoke lipsticks for me. Another, and more important one, is that I truly don’t think Shem-el-Nessim is all that powdery. This is no Lipstick Rose or, even worse, Oriza‘s Jardins d’Armide. This is a sweetened powder that is heavily infused with vanilla and heliotrope. The latter doesn’t appear on my skin in any distinct, individual form, but it works indirectly with the other notes to create something very similar to Guerlainade, the signature base for many Guerlain fragrances.
That brings me to one of the most important things you should know about Shem-el-Nessim: it’s got a incredibly strong resemblance to L’Heure Bleue in all its vintage glory. I love that Guerlain fragrance with a passion, our relationship goes back over 20 years, and its haunting beauty has always moved me. I’ve been very bitter about its reformulation, which I find has sapped L’Heure Bleue of much of its soul. Smelling Shem-el-Nessim takes me back to the first moment I smelled L’Heure Bleue. Oh, how it takes me back.
Yet, there are differences, too. Shem-el-Nessim isn’t as melancholic, reflective or blue as the Guerlain can sometimes be. I find it brighter, sweeter, less powdery, and greener. Shem-el-Nessim also has none of L’Heure Bleue’s heavily peppered bits or its anisic nuance, and I think it actually has less powder. In terms of the current L’Heure Bleue formulation, I find it to be rather woody on my skin, with a dryness that Shem-el-Nessim lacks. The old version of the Guerlain was very floral, but the new one is less so. Most of all, it lacks a plush richness in every aspect or element.
Shem-el-Nessim steps into the breach. My word, is this luxuriously opulent, especially at the start. The florals are rich, and there is real depth to the concentrated bergamot flourish at the start. I’m not hugely enthused about the more rose-centric element that appears on my skin when I apply a greater quantity of Shem-el-Nessim, but the jasmine is truly lovely when I apply a lesser dose. And, throughout it all, its main mix of narcotic orange blossom headiness and spicy, green neroli is stunning.
As you will see later, Luca Turin‘s highly positive review for Shem-el-Nessim brings up Coty‘s vintage L’Origan as well as L’Heure Bleue. The Coty fragrance was released in 1905, while L’Heure Bleue came out in 1912. Shem-el-Nessim was released in 1909, midway between the two, so it must owe far more to the influence of the very famous Coty scent than to the Guerlain one. I’m afraid I’ve never tried L’Origan to know. All I can say is that Shem-el-Nessim is a lovely substitute for the woes of modern, reformulated L’Heure Bleue.
From afar, Shem-el-Nessim in the opening hours is a seamless blend of florals dominated by the neroli, then lightly sprinkled with heliotrope-orris powder. Up close, you see the layers of orange blossom, the feminine powdered roses, the touch of green geranium, the concentrated bergamot, the sweet jasmine, and the vanilla-scented powder. The flowers feel almost narcotic in their headiness, and are flecked by a touch of wintergreen which hints at their indolic nature.
Yet, unlike Phul-Nana, these orange blossoms never evoke heated flesh, quivering bosoms, or half-dressed courtesans for me. The perfume feels too formal and elegant, verging on the regal. This would a scent for Lady Astor, Queen Alexandra, or any number of formidable, social leaders whose bosoms were covered with a veritable blanket of diamonds. On Season 3 of Downton Abbey, Lady Edith bought Phul-Nana for the Dowager Countess, something which always struck me as a rather odd choice. I see her far more in Shem-el-Nessim, as it has a more obviously feminine nature than Phul-Nana with its stronger dose of masculine geranium and is aromatic fougère opening.
Shem-el-Nessim isn’t a hugely complex, twisting, morphing fragrance. On my skin, it is largely split into two main phases. The opening which I’ve described here only changes by subtle degrees over the next few hours of the perfume’s development. At the start of the 2nd hour, Shem-el-Nessim becomes softer. It is a blur of spicy florals dominated by the neroli, infused with sweetness and heliotrope-vanilla powder, and lightly flecked by wisps of greenness and bergamot. The rose continues to trail behind the orange blossoms, but it is starting to weaken. Over the next hour, it becomes much less of a distinct, individual presence, and sinks into the general “floral” haze along with the jasmine. At the same time, the vanilla begins to grow stronger, and the powder lessens.
The second and final stage of Shem-el-Nessim is beautiful in a very different way. The powder vanishes to a trickle, and the creamy vanilla takes over. By the end of the 4th hour, Shem-el-Nessim is a simple duet of orange blossom neroli with vanilla, lightly dusted with a faint trace of sweetened heliotrope.
When the 9th hour rolls around, the silky vanilla has thoroughly infused every part of the orange blossoms, and frequently dominates them entirely. The result is a delicious, airy, frothy, and completely silky vanilla mousse with a microscopic touch of bright orange fruits amidst a stronger streak of delicate, slightly green orange blossom flowers. The powder is minor, and certainly nothing like hardcore Guerlainade. Instead, you have a rather timeless, perhaps even modern, neroli-vanilla cream. It’s incredibly smooth, and as soft as silk. It is also surprisingly rich in nature for such a delicate, discreet wisp of a scent. In its final moments, Shem-el-Nessim is nothing more than creamy sweetness that is vaguely vanillic and floral.
All in all, Shem-el-Nessim has good longevity on my skin, but very soft, discrete sillage. When I applied the equivalent of 2 big sprays from a bottle, the perfume lasted just under 13 hours. However, when I sprayed on less, I had only 9.75 hours. I think. It’s hard for me to be certain because the sillage is very low on me after its very rich, heady opening, and I really had to apply a greater quantity of Shem-el-Nessim to detect it without difficulty after the 7th hour. When I used a small quantity, equivalent to 1 spray, Shem-el-Nessim became a skin scent on me at the end of the 3rd hour, while 2 sprays increased that number only to 4.5. It may feel like a super rich scent, but it’s not a powerhouse in terms of projection, and is almost airy when taken as a general whole. Others, however, have a very different experience, as you will see, and some even describe the sillage as “extreme.”
The first time I tried Shem-el-Nessim was at Jovoy Paris, and its orange blossoms caught my attention from the very start. I thought it was beautiful, and wanted to buy it, but had to see how the sillage and longevity would be. I used two tiny spritzes from one of their bottles. By the time I left, four hours later, the sillage had dropped significantly enough that it felt almost like a skin scent. Even the Jovoy manager with whom I had been conversing to notice how discreet it was on me. However, an hour later, a friend of mine could noticed it when he brought his nose right to my skin. He loved it, and thought Shem-el-Nessim was the chic-est thing out of all the various perfumes that I had on my skin, but, then, he’s French, loves the classics, and prefers very soft, intimate scents. He said, “that’s the one! Go back tomorrow and buy it.” Unfortunately, Jovoy was closed the next day (Sunday), I was leaving on Monday, and I was dubious about both the price and the sillage which wasn’t (and isn’t) Wagnerian on me in the way that I prefer.
I’m still dubious about the sillage, but I sometimes wish I had bought Shem-el-Nessim in Jovoy, especially as the price has gone up considerably since then. It is such a beautifully golden scent, with such enormous plushness that it oozes sophistication, opulence, and elegance. Most of all, it feels romantic. Some admirers on Fragrantica talk about fairy princesses or Marie-Antoinette, so I’m not the only one to find a certain regalness to Shem-el-Nessim. Its opening certainly feels formal and extravagant. Plus, how is someone like me with my love for vintage L’Heure Bleue going to be immune to a brighter, sweeter version which eventually turns into creamy neroli vanilla mousse at the end?
It may be very appealing for me, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend Shem-el-Nessim to everyone. Not by a long shot. You have to love classic perfumery, the romantic aspects of the vintage style, L’Heure Bleu, and some powder to enjoy Shem-el-Nessim. If you don’t appreciate all of those things, then I suspect you’re going to be screaming “old lady.” In fact, one person uses precisely that word in her comment on Luckyscent, where the reviews are mixed, but mostly negative.
It’s the opposite story on Fragrantica where the majority of posters seem to love Shem-el-Nessim and find it very beautiful. I wasn’t surprised to see that 21 people voted for a similarity to L’Heure Bleue. However, I was a bit taken aback to see the votes for main perfume notes.
The geranium led the pack by quite a margin (41), followed by the heliotrope (27) and the orris (21). The neroli doesn’t come close. In fact, for one commentator, the entire first stage of Shem-el-Nessim was focused largely on the geranium, before turning to a “sweet, powdery vanilla” on an animalic base that she found to be “skanky yet elegant, sensual, warm, sweet.” (I’ve never seen anyone else call Shem-el-Nessim “animalic” in any way.) For another Fragrantica poster, her “overall impression [was]… a soft, powdery, fluffy, hazy, ethereal blend of rose and violet.” Several people found the sillage to be “extreme,” so I suppose I was merely unlucky in that regard, or perhaps I have a different definition for the term. In terms of other elements, a lot of people talked about the powderiness of Shem-el-Nessim at the start, but several add that the fragrance veers away from that after a while, and mention the “soft, creamy base of vanilla.” One person writes that Shem-el-Nessim “is the only perfume I have tested that I believe allows me to know how perfumery was once.”
The weight of the past is something that comes up in every single review of either Shem-el-Nessim or its siblings in Grossmith’s Classic Collection. For Caro of Té de Violetas, a friend who loves feminine florals, the Belle Epoque feel was not a bad thing. In fact, Shem-el-Nessim made her want to weep with joy:
Upon application, Shem-el-Nessim doesn’t fail to satisfy. A powdery floral cloud surrounds me, almost threatening to permeate my every pore. Once the initial blast subsides, I am able to fully appreciate its many subtleties. Bergamot and geranium are responsible for the initial tingle. The fragrance later acquires a decidedly floral character, when honeyed notes of jasmine, rose and ylang-ylang infuse the blend with their sensuality. While individual notes are easy to identify, the transition between them is seamless, continuous and the overall feel is one of refinement. Orris graces the composition with its aristocratic presence, but feels unusually warm, almost golden, since it is paired with heliotrope, vanilla, sandalwood and musk.
This delicate, powdered beauty makes me want to weep and cry with joy at the same time (cry with joy? how improper!), unlike current L’Heure Bleue which only makes me want to cry. The only drawback I can think of is that Shem-el-Nessim eau de parfum doesn’t have much longevity on my skin. [¶] I will dream about the magnificent parfum version until I am able to purchase a bottle.
Luca Turin shares our enthusiasm for Shem-el-Nessim, and gave it Four Stars in his recent Arabia Style magazine series. I’ve quoted his entire review verbatim, altered only by paragraph breaks to make it easier for you to read:
Long experience has taught perfume lovers to regard revivals of ancient fragrance houses with the deepest suspicion. Sometimes the house never existed in the first place (Rancé), sometimes a name has gone through so many hands that any pretense of continuity is a sad joke (Houbigant). Occasionally (Crown Perfumery) an honest effort is made, but the perfume composition firms usually devote so little time to small brands that the fragrances are hasty lash-ups or old dregs in drums rescued from a warehouse and sold to the naïve client as painstaking recreations.
Which is why Grossmith deserves to do very well: these guys, astonishingly, appear to be the real thing. The firm demonstrably existed since 1835, and was successful in its day. It is now in the hands of a descendant of the founder. The revived Grossmith — was there ever a brand name less evocative of fragrant refinement? — began by re-issuing three classics from the early years of the 20th century. Reassuringly, they smell exactly as they should, i.e. solid, voluptuous, expensive and terribly old-fashioned. But you could say that of a Rubens and it wouldn’t make it any less desirable.
The best one, in my view, is arguably also the least original, Shem-el-Nessim. Named after an Egyptian Spring festival, literally smell-the-breeze, it is none other than an enthusiastic copy of François Coty’s magnificent 1905 L’Origan, which begat L’Heure Bleue and countless others. Grossmith did not waste time and released Shem-el-Nessim in 1906. They are touchingly candid about this, which makes me like them even more. Bear in mind that the real L’Origan is long gone, and that the reptiles at Coty make money with fragrances named after minor celebs instead of their classic masterpieces. Given that, Grossmith becomes Plan A, particularly since everything from fragrance to bottle to packaging is of exquisite, painstaking quality. Well done. [Paragraph breaks and bold font inserted by me.]
Grain de Musc, however, was wholly disdainful, summing up all three fragrances as “ghosts” who should stay dead and whose “séance” she’d rather not attend. For her, the issue seems to be the richness of their scents and their dated feel. She writes, in part:
The result is the olfactory equivalent of tight-lacing: a surfeit of rich notes which manages to be both as stifling as the corsets of the women who wore the perfumes back in the Belle Époque and as flaccid as their flesh when they removed it. Sensuous in an overbearing, costume-drama way that might appeal to tastes frustrated by today’s skinny juices the way a pastry cart will make a dieter drool…
The reason why she hates the fragrances is exactly why I enjoyed Shem-el-Nessim so much. “Sensuous,” dramatic, full-bodied, and with a “surfeit of rich notes” is my idea of what fragrances should be like, and, in fact, precisely why certain perfumes like those of Roja Dove are so popular. (By the way, Roja Dove played small role in returning Grossmith to life as a perfume house and served as a sort of mentor in the re-issuance of the classic scents like Shem-el-Nessim. I think his influence shows.)
As Luca Turin says, there is nothing edgy, revolutionary, complex, or even remotely original about Shem-el-Nessim by today’s standards, but I think it smells luxurious and old-school in the best way possible. I would absolutely wear it if one of the “cheap,” regular, non-Baccarat bottles ever fell into my lap. Yet, something consistently stops me from buying the perfume for myself, and it’s because the prices are steep at $295, €210, or £170 for a 50 ml bottle. I’ll be frank in saying that I think they’re a little too steep for the scent in question. For all that I love the L’Heure Bleue similarities, for all that the real Guerlain scent is so lacking in its current reformulation, and for all that Shem-el-Nessim feels beautifully lush, I seem to have a real mental block towards paying the money in question.
However, price is always a subjective, individual valuation, so if you like fragrances that have the feel of vintage Guerlains with some of the richness of a Roja Dove perfume, then I think you should at least give Shem-el-Nessim a passing sniff. As I wrote in my review for Phul-Nana, these are scents that would appeal to perfumistas with more ornate, dense tastes, and who are fed up with the diet of “today’s skinny juices[,]” as Grain de Musc put it.
In contrast, I think young women used to modern fragrances with their “clean, fresh” notes, white musk, fruitchouli, and/or gourmand gooeyiness are going to find Shem-el-Nessim to be their grandmother’s scent. They shouldn’t bother going anywhere near it, and should stick to their Eau Chance and their Flowerbombs. In fact, anyone expecting an edgy, complicated, morphing, modern scent will be completely disappointed in Shem-el-Nessim. Same with those who don’t like “dated” scents. You can’t expect a perfume based on a 108-year old formula to smell fresh, bright, and different. It’s simply not possible.
Shem-el-Nessim skews firmly feminine, in my opinion. I think a really confident man who loves vintage Guerlain florientals (and L’Heure Bleue in specific) could wear it, but I would steer everyone else towards Phul-Nana which has a more unisex edge, thanks to its geranium, neroli, and aromatic fougère qualities. I truly cannot see the average male perfumista wearing Shem-el-Nessim. It is simply too floral and powdery in nature.
All in all, I’m damned impressed by this Belle Époque old lady and her opulence. I don’t usually agree with Luca Turin, but I do here. I think he’s right in everything he says about Shem-el-Nessim, right down to his Four Stars. Or, perhaps, it should be Five…