Shiseido Zen Original: whispers of a Bandit

The term original next to the name of this perfume has both meanings: it was the original perfume bearing the name and it remains a true original. Launched in 1963 and discontinued later to be followed by two more reincarnations. Today Zen remains as beautiful, calm and mysterious as it was when it was first released. Under a seemingly old-fashioned opening of lemon, delicate flowers and hand cream a bitter, dark heart of galbanum and violet comes into play to cast the shadow of doubt on what the opening was heralding. The middle-aged serene face smiles but the eyes speak of memories that will remain unspoken. In the drydown smoky vetiver creates the illusion of a shiny, dark green leather: the glove that makes a barren hand look perfect, a tight-fitting boot supporting tired steps, a locked box full of photos.

Zen is a perfect showcase of the duality seen in fragrances like Chanel No19: a play of light and shadows. Light hearted flowers and austere greens combine to tell the story of a lifetime. Hopes and regrets, innocence and memory, strength and shelter. There are no peaks in the Zen wearing experience. Everything rolls quietly but pretty soon one realizes that the pace is picking up and they are moving down a rabbit hole of introspection. In a market where the term “noir” has been overused to preconceive audiences towards thick, sweet, woody fragrances Zen shows that green can be very “noir”. It is always light footed but never light hearted. You can slip into it and forget about it, then go back and sniff the cool aloofness.

If you wait for the hand cream note of the opening to calm down this classic feminine fits a man like a tailored suit. Green always wears well on a man and the smoky, subtle leathery base is a treat. Although very different in terms of end result Zen reminds me of Piguet Bandit in the way it is composed. Another feminine green leather that has become a perfume men like to steal for themselves. Where Bandit screams and shouts its dark beauty Zen whispers its enchanting mantra. Josephine Catapano, the perfumer who created Zen is also the person behind legendary Fidji and probably Youth Dew.

Notes from Fragrantica: mimose, carnation, violet, orris root, jasmine, rose, narcissus,sandalwood, amber, musk, oakmoss, cedar

Notes from my nose: lemon, hyacinth, hand cream, violet, galbanum, leather, vetiver

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.


  1. smellythoughts

    Sounds fantastic! No begins the mad hunt to track it down. I don’t like Bandit’s raw screech – and I have far too many leathers, this sounds like I’d love it.

  2. Although I won’t be tracking this down (simply because I have a surfeit of samples and decants right now), you make this one sound so compelling, Christos, with your poetic images.

  3. I have to tell you, this is the most beautiful and evocative fragrance review I have ever read. You had me in another world, cinematic and truly noir in that meaning of the word in film. Brilliant. Now I have to find this elusive beauty and see if we can start something memorable together.

    • Although discontinued it is still quite easy to find and quite cheap. At some point it has been relaunched. What I like about it is how you can’t tell from the start where it is going: starts off very innicent and reserved and ends up very sophisticated

  4. I tried this only yesterday, Christos, and really liked it. My sample was from a vintage bottle, and I was struck by the “aquatic”-demeanor of the opening (nothing like recent aquatics…) and the classic soapy iris-galbanum drydown. I wonder how different the reformulations are from what I smelled…

    • Supposedly each “formulation” has its own bottle and I think the original was recently re-released in a limited edition. Perfumeshrine’s article has a full listing of formulations and bottles. As far as reformulations within the same version, your guess is as good as anyone’s.

      I didn’t get the aquatic opening as such but you are right. It has a diaphanous quality that follows through most of the development. I have a soft spot for all those green, leathery perfumes of past decades.

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