Review: Jubilation XXV by Amouage

scrooge-mcduck-money1
How rare it is to find a perfume with an accurate name. Certainly, Amouage are a company that trade in opulence. But unlike their price-tier brethren (e.g. Parfums MDCIFrederic MalleSerge Luten‘s “cloche” series), you won’t find any stuffy elitism here. Just the loudest, most lavish party imaginable. Indeed, Jubilation XXVmakes me think of Chanel No. 5, both in richness and overall effect. Both juices conjure up a bright golden form. But while No. 5 is smooth and sculptural, Jubilation is explosive and, let’s just say it, jubilant. It’s like a lava eruption that you want to hug. Or a mosh pit (remember those??) full of golden muppets.

The opening doesn’t pop like a gunshot. Instead it loosens up and unfurls like a great street band, radiating pure energy before you even know what hit you. And Jubilation’s composer Bertrand Duchaufour (the closest thing the smell world has to a rock star) knows how to unobtrusively fill a room. It’s not a swooner, but it is a shot in the arm.

The stylized smell of what I think is supposed to be ambergris–I’ve never smelled the real stuff–comes in like a sea breeze, albeit a sea breeze carrying some notable funk. Still, it’s light and sexy. I might even say it’s suggestive more than it’s outright animalic. I for one, begin to think naughty thoughts once the dry down hits. But that might just be me.

Jubilation is generally considered an “oriental fougère” (i.e. a fougère first and an oriental second). And while it packs the requisite goods to satisfy fans of both genres, I am most drawn to the fougère components. Those of us who want the heft and expansiveness of fougères without the fuddy-duddy-dad trappings common to things like Rive Gauche Pour Homme will love Jubilation. It’s certainly not made with the young man in mind, but it’s far from reserved and straight-laced. In fact, combining fougère pleasures with the hot lashings of resins and spices begins to seem quite daring.

Still, this is a perfume built for pleasure, not for dissection. Like many of Amouage’s other offerings, it’s built to last. I can even smell it 24 on, well after a hot shower and a solid night’s sleep. Spray it on and party hard.


*I’m working with a older bottle here, which I purchased. Not sure about the actual vintage.
Photo credit
Advertisements

Duft Sprechen I

good-conversation-emperor-penguins-snow-hill-island-antarctica1

Daniel  “Ginger Thunder” Kumatz is my brother in scented arms. Nobody else can have a decent conversation about fragrance. Luckily, he works for LA’s Scent Bar, and has access to stuff I’ve never even heard of. He keeps me on my toes and in excellent form. Some of my best ideas come out talking with him, so I decided to start sharing some of our (very informal) conversation. Some bits have been removed because I didn’t feel like typing them. I’ve also cleaned up my grammar. And my filthy mouth. 

SMELL DORADO: Fate Woman is so sexy.

Ginger Thunder: I love it. People don’t go crazy for it, though. I’m kind of baffled.

SD: Baffling.

GT: I love how leathery it gets.

SD: It makes me feel ALIVE.

GT: Yeah, [a coworker] conceded that the drydown on my skin was really good.

SD: I actually wore it two days in a row. Which I almost never do.

GT: What happened??

SD: I dunno. Just got a bug up my butt about it.

GT: I wore Mitsouko last night and that bitch is BIG. Like a beast. I don’t know if it’s gotten stronger, macerating in the bottle. But two sprays is PLENTY.

SD: I think I only wear two sprays. It’s pretty amazing. My only problem is that it feels like it’s got the spirit of a lady. Even though the smells work great on a man. It’s just got the soul of a woman.

GT: I feel that. But it struck me as a lady from another era last night. Did not feel contemporary at all. And way more angular than I remembered. That peachy softness wasn’t happening so much. Its bones were poking through the whole time.

SD: It’s sure bony.

GT: It’s still going pretty good this morning.

SD: The softness of it is in the spot where most chypres are sharp. But you are totally right. There is an angularity to it in other places. It’s so hard to pin down. That’s part of what makes it so great. This conversation should go on my blog!

GT: Wait. What?


Photo credit

Review: L’Heure Perdue by Cartier

caraxin-holymotors

Spraying L’Heure Perdue on this morning in my pajamas, I was tempted to curl up in a sunny spot and call it a day. Not only was the stuff giving me a serious case of the ol’ swoons, but it played just fine with my tatty jammies. Certainly, you could rock it with a fancy outfit. Perhaps not full ball gown/black tie, but you never know… Unbelievably, it also smells great with jeans and a t-shirt, certainly a luxurious choice, but never costumey or demanding. When was the last time you smelled something that hit all those marks?

Best of all, L’Heure Perdue is both deeply weird and cuddly. Just like the best of Chanel, when I get a good whiff I feel a wave of pure pleasure, right down to my molecules. My mom, a smell novice with great taste, had the same reaction. To top it all off, L’Heure Perdue is beautiful and complex and impressive enough to appease even the most finicky of perfume nerds. The only problem is the price tag.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’d actually like to quote the blurb from the website. I’ve never read any copy that was both so apt and so honest.

Voluptuous and intimate like the scent of familiarity, L’Heure Perdue owes all to science so clever in posing as natural when in fact it is a feat of alchemy. The fragrance explores the artificial through a precipitate of large synthetic molecules, particularly vanillin.

They even declare proudly that the stuff is heavily synthetic! Along with its many other lovely contradictions, the fragrance smells like a synthetic but behaves like a natural. It is smooth and soft, and never outstays its welcome.

The name suggests a reference* to Marcel Proust, whose À la recherche du temps perdu (I understand from Wikipedia) deals with smell and recollection. All of that would be obnoxious if it didn’t fit the overall effect of the fragrance so perfectly. Smelling L’Heure Perdue conjures up memories and associations that refuse to find a solid form. Instead they shift and reverberate, casting ever longer shadows. Don’t sleep on this one, my friends.

 


*I also wonder if it’s a reference to Guerlain‘s epochal but now gutted L’Heure Bleue.
Photo credit

my smellnifesto: or, now I know how the vegans feel

049

At a party, or a job interview, or on a dating app, or any random venue for perfunctory small talk, someone will ask me what I do for fun. I mumble something about biking and swimming (both true), about reading and writing (true-ish), but when pressed I’m forced to admit that my real gig is perfume. Who knows exactly what people think when I say that. Maybe they imagine something untoward, like this silly movie (Ben Whishaw’s contributions to hotness and acting, notwithstanding). Or something just plain creepy, like a besotted Mark McGrath having nosegasms in the aisles of Sephora.

Occasionally, I’ll get a pitying look that says, “oh bless your heart, but couldn’t you have picked a more impressive hobby?” More often, people just get plain confused, and behave like my mother would if you mentioned that you just got really into BDSM. (For the record she’d be really polite, and stiffly but sweetly say things like, “Wow, you make it sound so fulfilling!” and “It sounds like a very supportive community!”)

It can get a little lonely. Not only do so few people care one jot about perfume, fewer still want to talk about it. Among that handful probably two or three really can jam. To be fair, I’m super picky. I don’t get too far into the weeds picking out notes*. I don’t care about silly gimmicks or stories that some overeager PR intern shoehorned into the press release. I don’t care where the ingredients were sourced. I don’t necessarily care who composed it. I’m a tough crowd. A tough crowd of one.

What I do care about is the ideas. Luca Turin (who should really be considered more a cultural theorist than a perfume critic, at this point) refers to it as a “message in a bottle”: the full piece and what it ultimately means. Every smell has a meaning. When you smell a blooming flower or a rotting apple that smell is a message, encoded into what we perceive as smell, telling us to come closer or stay away**. When you add up a bunch of smells you either get incomprehensible mud or something that means more than its parts. Only decent perfumers, working with evaluators and artistic directors, can create a cogent story. Far fewer can create something important, let alone something that moves you.

That’s why I get so excited when I smell something great. Not only is it rare, but it’ll set me alight like nothing else can. Unlike music or books or even traditional art, perfume rides the highway straight past my brain and into my heart***. The best stuff illuminates and awakens. (Take Sarrasins, which, with no intended overstatement, is like an ancient poem transcribed by modern means.)

It can get awkward. You’re not going to make any friends bugging out in the aisles of Neiman Marcus. (Or I haven’t yet at least. I don’t know who hires their sales associates, but I never quite feel welcome there.) Not long ago, a friend and I breezed into a Cartier store, and inquired after L’Heure Perdue. The sales associate looked shocked. As we holed up in the cramped back corner where they chucked some of Mathilde Laurent’s finest, we were watched over by a bewildered security guard, who I caught casting us glances as we geeked and proclaimed.

But looking back, I don’t think I’d change a thing. Those of us who get it are like astronauts. And so few people have been to space. A few lonely hours on earth are certainly worth it to touch the veil. And that’s what this life is like.


*Most perfume geeks love digging around for individual notes the way that turtlenecked oenophiles do with wine. It’s not the same. Perfume is designed to be perceived as a single voice, in the way that a painting or a really good burger is a single entity, containing–in the best cases–multitudes.
**Yes, I’m the guy walking around working my nose like a dog. Every smell has something to say.
*** Contrary to what Tania Sanchez would have us believe, connecting our nose to our brain is not the problem. Who ever wanted to “think” more about art? Blech.
Photo credit

F for Fake

bianca-del-rio

I was tempted to call this post The War on Nature, since all these Stalin-esque IFRA restrictions seem bent on wiping affordable and complex naturals from the face of the perfumery world. If things get any crazier, we might see a return to the all-synthetic stadium fillers of the 1980s. Sure, the Synthetic 80s gave us Poison and Boucheron, but egads…just start burning books again, why doncha! Restricting citrus and lavender and jasmine and oakmoss smells suspiciously like a ploy to dilute or decimate on those legacy perfumes that people still (understandably) buy in droves.

Of course, natural materials are tricky and expensive. There can be variability in crops and batches. And since naturals include a mix of hundreds or thousands of molecules, it can be harder to know exactly what’s in them. It takes an expert hand (i.e. an expensive, experienced hand) to handle them properly on a big scale. Synthetics are only a few molecules, sometimes just one. You can control costs and predict behavior much more easily.

In the wrong hands, synthetics are boring, and, worst of all, hold forth at the same forehead-melting frequency and volume for much longer than you’d like. Using plenty of naturals won’t ensure a rich and complex result, but aiming for something rich and complex using only synthetics requires some seriously heavy lifting.  Still, there’s reason for hope. Two high-end brands are currently killing it with heavily synthetic, heavily brilliant perfumes. Both Amouage and Cartier have the best perfumers in their stable and invest enough money and time in a formula to regularly turn out a good product.

Amouage’s Christopher Chong has big ideas and the money/muscle to put them on the shelves. When he puts out something like Opus IX the nerds and the fanboys take notice. Sure, it’s massively synthetic, but it’s also ridiculously complex. It may not be wholly successful, but it got me wondering if Chong isn’t seeing the writing on the wall, and embarking on a new era of manmade marvels. With any luck we’re in store for years of perfumes as big, strange, and beautiful as his previous high-water-mark Ubar

If the idea alone of synthetics turns you off, consider this… They’ve been a part of Western perfumery for more than 100 years. The history of French perfumery is the history of synthetic perfumery. And above all, synthetics allow you to introduce a truly novel idea. I’ve been wearing Christophe Laudamiel‘s S-Ex for S-Perfumes quite a lot lately, and that Rakim-level accord of leather and alien new car smell would be inconceivable without synthetics. Without ’em you’re left with a drastically restricted palette and very little hope for the future.

Still, it’s no excuse to go medieval on our noses with a bunch of silly regulations. Restricting materials in the name of allergy restrictions doesn’t hold water for a couple of reasons. First, the studies that IFRA used to determine offending materials had–to put it delicately–issues with their sampling practices. You can’t decide to wipe out 75% of perfumery’s legends because a few Danes got a bit of a rash. Second, the process was far from methodical. Restricted materials seem to have been chosen at random. Or extremely strategically, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, which I am. None of it would pass muster given any oversight or peer review.

The only reason to roll back IFRA’s restrictions is–you guessed it–money. IFRA is made up of the most powerful names in perfume, the leaders of the Big Five: Symrise, Givaudan, Robertet, IFF, and Takasago; designers and producers of essentially all of the world’s perfume. New restrictions mean brand owners have to come back to the firms for a new formula, and pay handsomely for it. It also means that the firms have another opportunity to sell their clients proprietary or “captive” materials, their major cash cows.

In an industry as secretive and insular as perfume, how are you supposed to fight back? Sometimes the little guys do pull it off. Niche perfumers are turning out their own versions of the classics, just as the originals are reformulated beyond recognition. Stateside, where you can still put practically anything you want in a perfume–may it ever be thus, Amen–perfumers are yet to really capitalize on their freedom. Admittedly, those perfumes could never be sold in the EU. But guess what, who cares? The fastest growing markets are in Asia and the Middle East. If France is willing to set fire to the Louvre (so to speak) then fuck ’em. As Etienne de Swardt said, perfume is dead, long live perfume.

Photo credit

 

“Genderbender”

sheriff-pepper-live-and-let-die

Unisex perfumes are having a moment. They may never catch on in mainstream fragrance, but over in the niche market (i.e. generally more adventurous perfume with limited distribution) unisex is the de facto marketing strategy. It may have started with Serge Lutens, who, possibly for artistic reasons, doesn’t distinguish between perfume for men or women*. The rest of niche perfumery followed suit. You’ll hardly ever see any reference to gender on a bottle of niche perfume.

Unisex is fine, but I’m more fascinated by the rare beast that alternates between masculine and feminine. I was reading an article about Chanel‘s new release Boy, composed by Olivier Polge. The author stated that Polge had once again turned out a “genderbender,” the others being Florabotanica and Dior Homme. It caught my attention because I’ve always considered Dior Homme feminine, even though it obviously smells like a dude’s perfume. Dior Homme partakes in a fascinating push and pull of opposites and paradoxes. It smells like a barbershop, yet it’s both powdery and luxurious. It is undoubtedly sweet, but never dopey. It smells great on a woman (I gave some to a friend of mine and she loved it) but it perfectly captures that slinky, fashion wraith that Dior Homme’s then creative director Hedi Slimane loved so well.

At this point you’re probably sick of hearing me drone on about Lyric Man. It’s a rose for men, but there’s nothing terribly new or daring about that; men in the Arabian peninsula adore rose. Lyric Man takes it a step further: it smells like a feminine but behaves like a masculine. That brain breaking sentence aside, while it may seem a little odd at first, wearing it is effortlessly pleasurable. Where most masculines shout, Lyric Man radiates and shimmers. Even the most “masculine” bits (e.g. the woodiness and humid quality) are rendered tenderly. Every time you reach a conclusion on Lyric Man, it changes.

Ultimately, how a perfume behaves is more important than the notes it contains. I have a hard time imagining Montale’s Black Aoud as anything but a masculine. And yet it contains enough rose to make an Estee Lauder diehard recoil. Amouage’s Gold Man is an abstract floral of the old style with cool sheets of clean incense and the volume turned up to 11. A woman could certainly wear it, but its carriage and tone make it a great choice for the guy with a fat wallet and nothing to prove. How something cozies up (or doesn’t) with your own funk is all you need worry about when picking a fragrance, perfume “gender” be damned.

Imagine a power-suited hedge-funder wearing Apres les Ondee. Or your fancy aunt wearing Azzaro Pour Homme. The surprise is half the fun. Perfume has always been a place where people play with gender and expectations. In the 1980s, the gentleman’s foghorn Drakkar Noir was adopted by lesbian culture. One sales associate confessed to me that he has a sizable male clientele who surreptitiously buy a bottle of Montale’s Roses Elixir every year without fail. Wild juxtapositions done right make the component parts seem more interesting. Splash on some No. 5 under your grandpa flannel. Coco would have approved.

*What constitutes feminine or masculine in a fragrance is a massive, and often problematic discussion. I’ll leave the meaning of those descriptors up to the reader. However, you can read a snippet of my take on the conversation here. 

Photo credit

Regarding your terrible perfume

fergie-compressed

It’s really not your fault. The choice was made for you by cynical marketers and money grubbing brand magnates. You can’t know better because they don’t want you to smell the good stuff. When you pump out that Flowerbomb from its weapon-fetishizing bottle, it feels like a cloud of childlike joy compared to the stuffy juice your mom used to wear. Never mind the fact that tens of millions of other people wear it. Forget that it’s basically Angel without the wit or charm or originality. For you, it does everything a perfume should do. It makes you feel young and fancy. It is pure, decadent pleasure.

The thing is…I kinda like it. Let me be clearer. I don’t like it, the it being the perfume itself, although technically it’s reasonably well-executed. I like that you’re wearing it. That I get to smell this stupid, ludicrous thing. That it makes me think and critique and question my assumptions and my prejudices. Then there’s the pure sensation of it. Because, like it or not, it does work. It’s like being in a club, and it’s late, and you’re loose and sweaty, and some dopey Katy Perry song comes on, and it’s PERFECT. 

Sometimes, just sometimes, any music is better than no music at all. To paraphrase the tremendous Simon Doonan, bad taste is like a dash of paprika. Every needs at least a little. And who knows, maybe some day you’ll graduate to something really great. You might stumble upon a bottle of 100% Love or even a classic something from Chanel. I’m a firm believer in gateway drugs.

Here’s my only piece of advice: buck the dang system. Don’t just shop at Sephora or Nordstrom or Macys. Give my friends a call at Scent Bar at let them send you a few samples of something truly surprising and beautiful. You’re not going to find unless you dig. Patience is key. Wear it a few times. Be critical. Don’t listen to anyone’s advice. Trust your gut. Put the stuff through its paces. Make sure it holds up and smells good right up to the dry down. Make those perfumers and sales associates work for your business. After all, you’re going to live in this stuff. Settle for nothing less than swoony.

Photo credit

Am I crazy?

cc-carolchanning-millie-youreaboob

Whether you know it or not, you probably already have an opinion of Edouard Flechier‘s godzillian Poison for Dior (1985). I smelled it on plenty of people growing up. I even remember waiting for my mother in the back of a yoga class while at least one attendee radiated Poison’s plummy tuberose right up to the ceiling. Not so long ago, it was so popular and so reviled that it was banned from restaurants. But thirty years later, amid louder, loucher faire, I was almost tempted to dismiss it as quaint.

The opening is furious and huge, like a jolly purple explosion. And yet, no one tells you that Poison is also intensely tart and woody. I once smelled a freshly cut eucalyptus tree, and it was so sharp and insistent that it smelled sad, like a single note in a minor key sustained on a violin. Poison carries some of that woody lament, employed to offset both the tone and the density of the fruity florals. That juxtaposition rang a bell somewhere deep in my associative memory: I had smelled something very like it before.

The connection struck me from the most unlikely of places: Serge Lutens. While not known for his quiet perfumes, Lutens seems demure and taciturn next to Poison’s day-glo Fran Drescher swagger. Still, there’s no denying the parallels between Poison and the candied woody florals that put the Lutens line on the map. Start by featuring a prominent tangy cedar, sometimes dry, sometimes syrupy sweet and add in a dose of rich florals, amber, fruit, or vanilla as the case may be. That fabulous cycle of fragrances that began with Femininité du Bois (Shiseido, 1992) and included Bois de Violette, Un Bois Vanille, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, and Bois et Fruit all spring from that same theme.

In particular, I’m thinking of our old friend Sarrasins, Queen of Moonlight. I’d even wager that Poison directly inspired Sarrasins, with its potent clash of sweet florals (especially the osmanthus core) and balsamic woodiness. It’s as if Sheldrake and Lutens transcribed that unforgettable melody of Poison into a new key and time signature, thereby rendering it practically unrecognizable. Of course, Sarrasins rounds off the composition with that impeccably swoony leather base. It’s also refined, elegant, and mysterious, where Poison has all the subtlety of a Gallagher act. Imagine if Björk admitted Cyndi Lauper taught her everything she knows. Or if Hillary Clinton took public speaking cues from W. Bush.

In the end, the association comes to benefit both Lutens and Flechier. Lutens because he sussed out a brilliantly portable idea in such a distinctive composition, and Flechier because that distinctive (and great) composition has proven to be more influential than we thought. Not just because it paved the way for so many other lovely loudmouths like Angel (also 1992). Unfortunately, Poison is so laden with memories and associations that it’s harder to pull of these days, especially on a man. Still, what’s the point of playing the game if you can’t break a few rules? I wear the Poison eau de toilette from time to time, until I can find an affordable bottle of the pure parfum. If you’re ever in San Francisco, visit Tigerlily in the Mission. They have a wall of vintage formulas, including Poison parfum. For a smell nerd like me, it’s practically worth the whole trip.

Photo credit

How to (not) smell like a dude

articles_fartsinmovies

The first perfume I wore was my dad’s bay rum. Like every other boy, I put on way too much. People near me must have perceived a brownish aromatic cloud with a tall mop-haired boy at the center, gleefully unaware of the smell-carnage in his wake. Some years later, at a department store perfume counter, I picked out my very first fragrance: Versace Dreamer (1996). By then, I already knew how I wanted to smell, and it was nothing like those droning, barbershop perfumes with a horn section that I can only describe as Wagnerian.

If the idea of a Wagnerian perfume conjures up the image of a florid, puffy-chested man with small eyes and a big, fancy watch, you’re not alone. These were not the men I wanted to emulate. When I bought my first perfume, I wasn’t looking for something for the boardroom or the bedroom. I was looking for something that felt luxurious and sophisticated. Something just for me.

Revisiting Dreamer (or at least a version of Dreamer; it may or may not have been reformulated), it doesn’t exactly hold up. But it does take me right back to college, when a little puff from that bottle with the frosted medusa head was all it took to make me feel like the proverbial million bucks. While it doesn’t smell especially classy or romantic to me now, it is miles away from the sporty dreck you might smell in a locker room. Dreamer is a smell to curl up to, its sweet muskiness neither bracing or boastful. It is a perfume for pleasure.

I still look first for that physical pleasure in perfume. Doubtful though I was at first, I regularly put on No. 5 when I need a little extra comfort. Nothing was ever that lovely and just plain gobsmackingly beautiful. I’m not advocating a splash of that famous lady for everyone out there, least of all the men, but it does make me wonder what other men want from their perfume. It’s fine to want to smell nice. I’d even acknowledge the value of smelling nice to impress someone. But doesn’t it sound much nicer to wear perfume for that moment of eye-rolling, posture-melting pleasure that only the best of them provide? It’s out there, gentleman, and it’s not too late to look for it.

In America, at least, how you smell seems to be an embarrassing topic. No matter what I wear (and I’ve worn Secretions Magnifiques to the office, my friends) no one ever comments on it. It seems most people would rather forget that you smell like anything than face the fact that you may be wearing something strange, interesting or–perish the though–beautiful. Perhaps that’s why so many men opt for the blustery male enhancers, which proclaim virility and no sense of humor. If smell, let alone perfume, is to be an uncomfortably intimate subject, then a man’s perfume must speak loud and succinct enough to end the conversation.

These days, I wear mostly feminine perfumes. I’m not willing to give up their inventiveness and romance just to play it safe. I won’t be shutting up about Sarrasins any time soon. Joy (the pre-2010 version) is probably the most generally satisfying perfume I know. Sofia Grojsman’s 100% Love is a mysteriously wonderful combination of the alien and the familiar. Jasmin et Cigarette (just like the name says) is a brilliant idea executed beautifully. All of them pack a hefty wallop of what I’ll call the swoon factor. But what about masculines? Isn’t there something out there to make all you straight-laced dudes weak in the knees? Of course. The few below are a great place to start.

Patricia de Nicolaï’s New York is probably the warmest and friendliest masculine perfume ever. Even in its current reformulated state it still makes me sigh with pleasure. Like all of de Nicolaï’s finest, New York exudes and generosity and approachability that would be plenty satisfying if it weren’t far surpassed by the inventiveness of her compositions and the richness of her materials. She’s one of the original niche perfumers, and she still does the majority of the composition and production under one roof. If you want class and old world style, look no further.

Chanel was late to the game in releasing a “boutique” range of fragrances in 2007. But no one minded when they trotted out the six original bottles in the Exclusifs range. The first Exclusifs masculine Sycomore contains a serious dose of vetiver, but like nearly everything in the Chanel range, that most distinctive of ingredients is transformed into exquisite abstraction. It smells exceptionally natural, with vetiver and sandalwood running the show, but there are far more pleasures under the hood. Then again, you’ll probably just want to kick back and let it wash over you. Let no one say that pleasure is hard work.

Amouage aren’t known for their masculines but Lyric Man is among the best out there. Composer Daniel Visentin cooked up a curious mix of opposites and contradictions. Lyric Man is at once bracing and quiet, spacious and intimate, fresh and humid; and that wondrous central accord of rose, sandalwood, and frankincense is both comforting and odd. Like its sister Lyric Woman, Lyric Man turns the unsettling into the radiant. You may not fall in love with it as quickly as Sycomore or New York–creative director Christopher Chong famously said that his perfumes don’t reveal themselves on the first wearing–but once it gets under your skin it’s there for good.

photo credit

Arabia Felix

darthprada

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.