Review: Amouage Opus X

Divine Lady

First, this stuff is great. It may even be as good as one of my all time favorite roses Lyric Woman. It may even be better. Opus X is a rose turned inside out, with the soft skin touching you and the raw flesh exposed. It is brutal, lovely, and uncompromising.

Annick Menardo is listed as co-composer, along with Pierre Negrin. Negrin, incidentally, seems to be a favorite of Amouage’s Creative Director Christopher Chong. He has worked on a number of Amouage scents, and appears as co-composer on at least four in the Library Collection alone (of which Opus X is the tenth release). Perhaps his hand gives the extra experimental Library Collection its continuity, despite occasional unevenness. But while Opus X is undoubtedly an Amouage joint, the central rose accord has Menardo’s hands all over it.

Like Lyric Woman, Opus X harbors a nearly rotten fruit effect, which at first feels uncomfortable but then shines like the ray of light coming out of He-Man’s sword. So, while Lyric woman is intimate, Opus X is a war cry. Like so many of Menardo’s other great perfumes (including the freshly-reviewed Peau d’Ailleurs for Starck Parfums), Opus X is at once familiar and alien. It is deceptively familiar.

Most rose perfumes are soft and luxurious. Many are brazen. Some are wicked. Unlike any other rose I know, Opus X is at once searing and rich, sometimes disconcertingly so. The tension between the exceedingly complex rose core and the dense bed of–among other things–oud, never quite resolves itself. It certainly belongs among Christopher Chong’s “couture” Library Collection, but unlike most of those releases, it feels every inch the proper perfume. Hard to pull off, certainly, but egad, why wouldn’t you try?

With each passing year, Amouage seems more special and more unique. I may not like all their releases, but they are never a waste of time. If even the best of mass market perfumery is the fragrance equivalent of a Kristen Stewart performance, Amouage never fail to turn in a fully-fleshed Bette Davis. And at their best, an immortal Divine.


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The Time Machine

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Leaving a place that I’ve lived for any given period of time, I’m always surprised by what I miss. When I left Austin three years ago I missed the people, and the grocery shopping (Texas really does have the best grocery shopping of any place I’ve lived, California included), but I also missed this odd little video store not far from my house. I didn’t go there terribly often, maybe two or three times a month, but every time I felt a little surge of pure bliss.

The space itself felt massive, but not cavernous like a warehouse. The owners had converted what felt like a home, while you were greeted with the familiar counter at the entrance, once you walked in the space opened up to reveal a second level. It looked more like a used book store or a library than a video store, complete with wooden shelves and a little spiral staircase. Granted, the place was shabby and scuffed. The signs were handwritten, movie posters on the wall were faded and creased, and the staff played movies on a set of crummy old TVs. Everything bore the marks of simultaneous neglect and care.

Casually strolling in the first time I stopped dead in my tracks. My nose was hit with a smell lifted intact from my childhood. It was the smell of wet earth and the sweet decay of something manmade. It was the exact smell of my childhood neighbor’s basement. Gradually, that store became a place of refuge. Not because I had such amazing memories of that basement, but because the experience of wandering those stacks, of discovery, of the opulence of that collection, and of that smell were all perfectly linked. It was a tiny, little holiday.

Yesterday, I smelled that smell again in Peau d’Ailleurs, one of three new releases in the new Starck Parfums collection: intact, dead-on, and perfectly evocative. And this is one of the great mysteries of fragrance. Perhaps, the smell I’m remember is not terribly uncommon. Even Ms. Menardo, or possibly Starck himself, may have stumbled upon it, and then composed the fragrance with that basic idea in mind. But what if those smells are some kind of natural melody? Music, as in mathematics, naturally comes to certain conclusions; some melodies just seem to happen. Composers working independently regularly arrive at similar melodies or arrangements, just in the way that the essential logic of calculus was developed independently by two dudes with no known connection. Smell and fragrance, I truly believe, work in exactly the same way.

Sometimes perfume stumbles upon (or, if we’re being generous, reproduces) what I can only call “smell truths.” The truth itself being some natural combination of individual notes which reveal themselves to be fundamentally connected. It’s like discovering that the smell of banana has so much in common with iris, or, as in Luten’s peerless Sarrasins, that metamorphosis has a scent. These connections can tell us more about how the world works, just in the way that a Brian Wilson arrangement has the precise inevitability of a scientific law.

And this is where things get really weird. Menardo’s Patchouli 24 for Le Labo pulled off a similar trick. Along with the caked-on smokiness of a day-long cookout, she added a zingy dollop of something sweet. Luca Turin rightly describes that smell as the “sweetness of…decaying old books.” Perfumery has long been enamored of the smell of decay. Indeed even our most demure flowers contain indoles, the same molecules found in rotting flesh. Perhaps Menardo is fascinated with more artificial forms of decay, paper glue in Patchouli 24, and whatever happens to old A/V equipment in Peau d’Ailleurs.

Regardless of all this heady (and possibly fruitless) talk, Peau d’Ailleaurs smells fantastic on the skin. I smell a healthy dollop of patchouli, which among other things, create that sublime smell of a freshly overturned rock. But here that smell is featherlight. It also sparkles and radiates ever so subtly, turning that beautiful smell I remember into a great perfume.

Helsinki on my mind

The last ten days in Helsinki shook me up. If my experience is any indication, the Finns are not satisfied with the merely pretty. Showmanship or flashy flourishes have little currency. Instead, you’ll find clear-eyed design imbued with exceptional empathy and civility. One particularly famous architect even designed his hospital wash basins to minimize noise, so that patients might have a more peaceful space to recover. That generosity of spirit was on display everywhere I looked.

In the fragrance department at Stockmann (a kind of Finnish Macy’s, with an excellent “food court”) the only non-mass-market line was the minimalist and mostly dull Armani Privē. The Finnish furniture icon Artek have a perfume in a similar style made by Comme des Garçons, a crisp frankincense with emphasis on the citric qualities. Superficially at least, it’s a natural pairing with Artek’s blonde wood and spare calm. Elsewhere in Helsinki perfume was hard to come by. Boutiques carried the Comme des Garçons line, if they carried anything at all.  Whenever I smelled perfume in a crowd it was either something clean and mainstream or an ambery, woody snoozer. Finland, it seems, is not perfume country.

Thankfully, Finland also has little patience for scented cleaning products. Not once did I smell my personal kryptonite of musky soaps and shampoos. Nobody smelled like a freshly-body-sprayed teenager. Most things just smelled…quiet. All this olfactory white space made the little things shine brighter: fresh berries in an outdoor market, wood polish, good wool. Everything I smelled with connected to something else. Nothing was scented in vain.

With three days left in Helsinki a vicious head cold killed my sense of smell. Not only was it a crushing bummer to not smell or taste properly, but it really started messing with my equilibrium. Not being able to smell myself was bad enough, but I realized how much I rely on my nose to get my bearings. I felt half-blindfolded walking into a new space. I kept searching around for other input, trying to make sense of where I was, but no dice. I might as well have been wearing an eye-patch.

In the customs line in Philadelphia International the culture shock was subtle but apparent. Americans are at their most American while waiting in line, and surrounded by my haggard fussy countrypersons, I felt both a little sad and glad to be back. Although certainly comforted by the familiar, I already missed the gentle pace of Finland. Helsinki welcomed me without a second thought, was never less than patient with my loud American West style. There may be a place for me there. Now I just have to earn it.