Of all the classic perfume genres orientals are probably the most flexible. Most chypres have that instantly recognizable bitter tang. Fougères smell more or less like something your dad would wear. Florals pile on the requisite flowers and woods the requisite woods. But orientals are a dizzyingly diverse crowd, from spicy/sweet earthbound ambers (e.g Ambre Sultan) to boisterous oddballs like Thierry Mugler’s Angel. Many of them are painfully boring: you smell one, you’ve smelled them all. Orientals are the dance music of the perfume world. Among the bubble-headed dreck and perfunctory crowd pleasers you’ll find a growing list of innovative fragrances using the basic oriental blueprint to achieve wonderfully strange results.
Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue by Matilde Laurent may open with sweet, powdery loveliness, but things get weird quickly. The main accord smells like some combination of balloon rubber and gluey, pulpy paper. In other words, like no natural material I know. And yet the fidelity suggests a top-quality natural material. You’ll also find an overripe fruit smell (à la Amouage’s Lyric Woman) adding a spooky dimension to an already odd fragrance. But while Laurent’s brilliant composition strikes out for brave new territory, it is always comforting. The plush sweetness helps the strangeness go down easily and provides a sturdy backbone on which to hang the more peculiar flourishes.
You can’t talk about orientals without mentioning Serge Lutens. There’s the landmark Ambre Sultan, my favorite straight-up “amber.” And Borneo 1834 which does magical, evocative things with patchouli. The real heart of the collection, however, lies in the mystical and semi-mystical compositions, including La Myrhhe and El Attarine, which practically vibrate with mystery and suggestion. (More on El Attarine in a future post.) The melodies may be simple, but they cast a big shadow.
And then there’s Amouage, purveyors of some of the biggest, loudest and most complex perfumes I know. The majority of the collection falls firmly in oriental territory, but the best examples are so big and ambitious that they transcend the genre entirely. Take the inimitable Ubar. Calling it a floral oriental (which is not inaccurate) is like calling Kanye West a rapper. Like Mr. West, Ubar is decadent, complicated, and loud. But precious few perfumes holding forth at this volume have something so enchanting to say. It’s the smell equivalent of a shimmering golden sandcrawler, blasting Mahler from top-range speakers. It’s also packing a glorious dose of ambergris: salty, musty, and deliciously skanky. If you’re looking for grand splendor look no further. The prices are steep, but rest assured, there’s nothing else like Amouage on earth.
Not everyone cares to try out Etat Libre d’Orange’s Lars-von-Trier-in-a-bottle Secretions Magnifiques. And for good reason: people hate this stuff. For some it’s a slightly odd, metallic/salty/creamy floral. For others it smells like blood, semen, and breast milk. Very few people dare to smell it and far fewer can do so without recoiling. (Yes, there are even horror stories of Secretions-induced vomiting.) Fortunately, the team here at SMELL DORADO is brave enough and foolish enough to give it a shot. For an entire day. Watch below to see what happens…
I’ve never known anyone who wore Chanel No. 5. My mom wore L’air du Temps. My grandmother wore Opium. Plenty of my mom’s friends wore Poison. I grew up mostly unmarked by probably the most famous fragrance of all time. That’s probably why I have no trouble wearing it. Sure, the smell of aldehydes (those soapy sparkles in the top notes) and jasmine on a 6’2″ bearded dude is a bit of a stretch. But with something this good, it’s definitely worth the gamble.
No. 5 now comes in four different concentrations: eau de toilette, eau de parfum, eau premiere, and parfum; the parfum being the closest to Ernst Beaux‘s original formula. I recently scooped a vintage bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy, which I like to think of as The Rolling Stones to No. 5’s Beatles. Both Joy and No. 5 are quite abstract, although No. 5 probably more so. But while Joy has a notable dose of civet and a crisp tang that promises danger, No. 5 is serene, demure, and utterly pleasurable.
In the past, I’ve had little use in my collection for “comforting” perfumes. Jean Claude Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan kicked that door open for me and it wasn’t long until I was completely under its spell. No. 5 offers a similar sense of uplift, both heartening and optimistic. It’s also devoid of the funk and filth that I usually seek out in florals (see Joy, Sarrasins, you name it). And I wasn’t sure how well that creamy pillar of refined femininity would jive with my Lebanese man funk.
Surprisingly, I found No. 5 completely wearable. Daubing a few drops on my arm from that exquisite glass stopper I fell prey to complete bliss. Never have I smelled anything so heartbreakingly beautiful. Familiarity with the excellent eau de parfum and even the peerless eau de toilette concentrations had failed to prepare me for the dizzying loveliness of the parfum. Luxury never felt this good.
The No. 5 parfum feels more complex than its siblings, the similarly luscious Bois de Iles and the strapping Cuir de Russie, all of which were composed by Ernst Beaux and debuted in the 1920s. The aldehydes in No. 5’s opening are undeniably lovely, but in the parfum they are rendered smoother and more seamless than in either the eau de toilette or eau de parfum, adding sparkle to the rest of the composition’s golden form. No. 5 is a real presence in the room, never overbearing or distracting, but fully real. I recently smelled it in passing and felt that familiar sense of comfort and delight. Some things are so beautiful that they make you feel more alive. No. 5 is one of them.