The PushmipullyOud

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– a review of Amouage The Library Collection Opus XI

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but my mind is a strange place. I imagine all sorts of scenarios about perfume materials, not because I don’t like them, but because I wonder. A scenario like this one, for instance:

One day in the Neolithic era in a remote rainforest in tropical Asia, a tribe decided they needed a new canoe. So they managed to fell an aquilaria tree of just the right height, girth and shape, only to discover that the heartwood of the tree was diseased, attacked by a mould we know today as Phialphora parasitica. No matter. They scraped it out bit by bit, and threw chips of heartwood on the fire. Lo and behold, a fragrance unlike any other in the world rose with the smoke to the sky above.

Lo and behold, that otherworldly, haunting stuff we know today as agarwood, or more commonly in perfumery by its Arabic name oud was discovered.

Natural oud is not only one of the rarest and most costly of perfumery materials on the planet, it is also one of the most temperamental. There is no such thing as a consistent ‘oud’ odor profile.

Oud can be floral, fruity, intensely animalic, medicinal or indolic. (To put it mildly.) The quality varies from tree to tree, which takes the whole terroir discussion to a whole new level of complexity, depending on location, growing conditions, weather or type of aquilaria tree.

We have Indian oud, Malaysian oud, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian oud. They smell nothing alike in the slightest in a way even my oversized vocabulary struggles to describe.

It is so prohibitively expensive that it is also one of the most adulterated perfumery substances of all. Not so many years ago, we in the West wised up to what the peoples of the Middle East had known for thousands of years, and so oud – more ‘oud-a-like’ or synthetic than natural – became the material du jour, with every niche perfumery jumping on the trend bandwagon to release oud perfume A, B and Z in their hundreds. Due to the ever-increasing demand, aquilaria trees – and mainly, aquilaria malaccensisare now among the most endangered species of wood on Earth, and the price keeps moving in one direction: to the ionosphere, if not all the way out to the Kuiper Belt.

Efforts have been made to create aquilaria plantations, but the infections are not consistent, and the results are still somewhat inconclusive as to whether or not this will mean natural oud will be saved from extinction.

I for one won’t hold my breath. Of all that can and does go into the perfumes I love and adore, oud is without question the note I struggle with the most. Most pure ouds turn me an unfashionable shade of green as I head screaming for the hills to scrub and scrub and scrub, but I hasten to add that my experience has been rather limited.

Handled carefully, oud is a majestic Thing of Beauty. When I think of oud, I think of my own favorites containing oud: Aftelier’s breathtaking Oud Luban, my gateway oud, Neela Vermeire Créations Trayee with its numinous oud note, or Amouage Epic Woman, which especially in frosty weather takes many winding twists and turns towards the stupendous drydown to land on yet another supernatural oud, or the stellar discontinued Yves Saint Laurent M7, to name but four off the top of my head.

But generally speaking, I can’t stand the stuff.

Yes, I’m the Big Bad Oud Philistine. Feel free to throw eggs and tomatoes. No, I probably haven’t met the ‘right’ oud yet.

If I want barnyard, I know just where to go – a stable not too far from here with all the horse droppings and horses any horse-mad girl could ask for, never mind my own schoolgirl olfactory memories of mucking out the stables of the horses I took care of twice a day.

Animalic? Readers, I adore castoreum, labdanum and musk notes in perfumery. I also curated a spectacular perfume project that utilized all of those. Sexy does it.

I’ll be getting back to that one.

Which brings me to the latest from Amouage’s Library Collection, Opus XI.

Unlike the previous volumes VIII-X of the Library Collection, Opus XI slants emphatically masculine. Maybe I should have written that with a capital M, because quite frankly, my chest is far too lumpy and nowhere hirsute enough for Opus XI.

What I’ve long suspected about the Library Collection has since been confirmed by far better perfume writers than I – that in the creation of its volumes, Creative Director Christopher Chong gets to metaphorically let his hair down a little and play/experiment with perfumery ideas.

If the main and side collections of Amouage are the seven-movement polyphonic symphonies and four-act operas of the perfume world, the Library Collection perfumes are the sonatas and etudes, every single one of them made without sacrificing a nanometer of the ‘drop-dead haute couture-grade hand-woven, petits mains-embroidered silk brocade’ brand aesthetic of Amouage, which to my mind is no small accomplishment.

Even  – or perhaps especially – Opus XI.

Opus XI was created in collaboration with perfumer Pierre Negrin, and before I incriminate myself further, it’s really and utterly all about the oud, if nothing like what most perfumistas and all oud lovers associate with that word.

It contains what could be the shortest note list of any Amouage to date (which says something); marjoram, that polite, well-mannered cousin of oregano, oud both natural and synthetic, a Firmenich compound known as leatherwood which so far as I’m aware combines the best of both notes, and a sly, smoky styrax.

All told, it sounds rather simple. Yet Opus XI is one of the strangest and most confounding perfumes I’ve smelled to date, for reasons I’ll explain.

As stated before, I have Major Oud Issues. I’m the Big Bad Oud Philistine. You may as well just kill me now and be done with it.

For the first few seconds – and it’s only a few seconds – I get a violet vibe, as in the flower and the color. And then. And then, the oud comes roaring out of the gate. Not a barnyard, indolic oud, nor a floral, a fruity or even an animalic oud, but the scent of what could be the most exclusive, expensive band-aids money can possibly buy.

Billionaire band-aids.

In this case, it’s schizophrenic billionaire band-aids. Opus XI  is medicinal bordering on clinical, but the biggest surprise is the extraordinary tension between a silky-smooth natural oud and a synthetic, sharper, edgier oud where neither gives an inch to the other. Marjoram gilds these two with greener, fluffier outlines as time passes, but these two ouds are, to misquote Oscar Wilde, dueling to the death, and neither  will go. Not in the first five minutes, not in the first five hours, nor even in the first ten.

This is an Amouage. It stays the course.

Around the eleventh hour (see what I did there?), the billionaire band-aids sigh, if such a thing were possible, and shift, and leatherwood and that sly, smoky styrax slither in, adding a glossy sheen and lots of cohesion to those ouds that finally expire some time around the eighteen-hour mark.

If that sounds strange to you, it gets even stranger. Not so long ago when the Dude was still around, I rolled out my mastery of rhetoric to persuade him to try it on his (masculine, hirsute) skin. Mr. Ardent Fougère Lover was not easily persuaded. Had this been Bracken Man, I would have had to hide the bottle. But after about an hour of my most diabolical demonstration of logos, ethos and pathos to date, he finally caved in.

Willingly or not, his skin brought in that justly celebrated sexy oud. Make that Sexy Oud.  Somehow, some way, there was no tension and no duel to the death, just one of the smoothest, sexiest perfumes his skin had ever encountered, as indeed it has encountered quite a few.

Luckily, he had to leave, or he might not have survived. And just to set the record straight, he did not like it. At. All.

This Bactrian camel, on the other hand, could have walked several miles in hot, lascivious pursuit for a chance to sniff that Sexy Oud again.

Opus XI is, as I’ve written above, one of the most confounding perfumes I’ve sniffed this year. Like the exceedingly rare creature the pushmipullyou of Dr. Doolittle fame, it’s hard to determine if it even can move.

Which is why I call it the PushmipullyOud. A most exceedingly rare creature indeed.

Notes: Marjoram, oud, leatherwood, styrax.

Amouage The Library Collection Opus XI is available as a 50 ml eau de parfum directly from the Amouage website.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Amouage. This post was not sponsored, and my opinions are my own. With thanks to the Very August Personage.

Should your curiosity about oud be killing you, Ensar Oud comes highly recommended by some of the best noses I know.

The Color of Wonder

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– a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele

In a day and age when mass transportation has made travel to anywhere on Earth not just possible, but attainable, imagination has to fill in the spaces for when travel meant not just adventure and opportunity, but also danger. Most people never left the villages and towns where they were born and raised.

Ships could sink in a storm, caravans could be robbed by thieves, and at every turn, hostile natives or malevolent bugs large and small could lay waiting for the unwary.

Yet human curiosity burned bright and hot enough to send the intrepid Magellan and Sir Francis Drake around the world, caravans traversed the Silk Road from west to east and back again, and everywhere ‘elsewhere’ great discoveries awaited; revolutionary ideas, marvelous merchandise, peoples, faiths and histories without number.

The lucky ones who returned with tales of faraway, fabled places set the European imagination alight with their stories of unimaginable splendor, unfathomable wealth, and ancient, sophisticated civilizations vastly different than their own.

Three fearless Frenchmen, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a jeweler and merchant, François Bernier, a physician and Jean de Thévenot, a linguist and botanist, all of who lived to return to France and tell their tales, set off at the behest of first Cardinal Richelieu and later Louis XIV himself, to find themselves in that fabled land that fanned the tallest flames and tales of all: India.

Like all true travelers everywhere, their own lives would be forever changed, and they themselves would change others’ lives as well, not least through their published stories of their travels, which were translated into several languages and lit up the imaginations of generations of armchair-traveling Europeans to come. At different times in their lives, the paths of all three men crossed. De Thévenot and Tavernier hoped to travel overland together from Isfahan in Persia to India, and Bernier and Tavernier met in India.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier was the Harry Winston of his day, buying and selling gems as well as Persian and Indian textiles. He became especially famous for bringing home the ‘French Blue’ diamond, a centerpiece of the French crown jewels, before it disappeared in 1791, only to reappear recut in 1830 as the diamond we know today as the Hope diamond.

François Bernier went to India to become first the court physician to Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, and later, to Dara Shikoh’s younger brother and successor Aurangzeb and the Mughal court. In an age where there were very few reliable travelogues to the Orient, his Travels In the Mughal Empire, based in part on accounts of officials at the Mughal court as well as his own first-hand observations, became a European sensation. Bernier also became the first – and for a long time, the only – European to travel to Kashmir.

Jean De Thévenot, an independently wealthy scholar and linguist fluent in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, also published his own travelogues, as well as making considerable contributions to botany through his travels, observations and botanical collections through India in 1667-8.

These three gentlemen and the stories they wrote of their travels became the inspiration for Neela Vermeire’s 2016 release Rahele, the Persian word for ‘traveler’, yet Rahele has a twist in its tale. Here, you’ll find no associations of ‘East-meets-West’ so much as ‘West-meets-East’, with an open mind and an absolutely marvelous sense of wonder.

Often, our associations of the Mughal Empire are somewhat, well, tainted by Victorian-era letters and books, written from that lethally close-minded Victorian (and imperialist) viewpoint, which sadly makes us forget that in Tavernier, Bernier and de Thévenots day in the 17thcentury, attitudes towards other cultures and perhaps Mughal India in particular were very different and far more open. Believe it or not, this expansiveness is very much reflected in Rahele the perfume.

As always, Rahele was created in that flawless pas-de-deux of Neela Vermeire with the perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. Six peerless perfumes later, it becomes very clear that Neela Vermeire knows precisely how to push the justly celebrated M. Duchaufour’s work higher and farther than it has ever been before. She has never compromised on her creative visions of what she wants her perfumes to embody, always held out for the best and most elevated concept of her exquisitely articulate ideas, and Duchaufour has shown an uncanny and profound understanding of precisely what it takes to get both of them there in essence and absolute.

Rahele – the Traveler – speaks to the adventurer in all of us, even those of us who can’t travel beyond our armchairs. We are all of us on the road to somewhere, but Rahele reminds me of a description of the Tarot trump The Chariot – travel in luxurious circumstances. And such a journey lies ahead …

From its beginnings, Rahele is a chypre born and bred, that most uniquely perfume-y of all perfume families, and in my chypre-biased opinion the most difficult to execute. Rahele opens big, spicy and jungle green, with its unmistakeable Duchaufour cardamom and a grassy violet leaf and green mandarin kick that tells you you’re definitely not anything near the Paris of the seventeenth century.

This is a wonder of a very different order, everywhere apparent in Rahele’s floral heart. Osmanthus takes center stage, but this is not your usual osmanthus of apricot and leather, this is an altogether grander bloom. This is an osmanthus veiled, kholed and bejeweled with its intimations of rose, violet, jasmine and a lemon velvet magnolia to tame osmanthus’ fruity sweetness and make it stay the course.

Some long time later, well before osmanthus has overstayed its welcome, a deep, silken cloud of cedar and sandalwood – if not Mysore, which it could be, then some alchemical sleight of hand that achieves the precise same effect, with glove leather and sotto voce whispers of patchouli and oakmoss.

I’m reminded of a pivotal moment in another context, when I realized that the inlaid flowers of the Taj Mahal are made of precious stones set in white marble, and the world was never quite the same again. Rahele has that same effect; its flowers embroidered in liquid to bloom forevermore.

The overall effect is the perfume equivalent of the embroidered muslin pantaloons worn by the ladies of the Mughal court; sophisticated, beautiful, as opulent as silk brocade yet  as transparent as gauze.

Like all Vermeires, it lasts a surprisingly long time – I get at least 8+ hours, but Rahele’s sillage wears close to the skin after the first hour or so, and will not overwhelm either your own nose or your surroundings.

I found myself dreaming often about those three Frenchman wearing Rahele. Thinking of what it must have been like to experience that jaw-dropping awe in the face of the Mughal reality, when suddenly, the world – or rather, their understanding of what ‘the world’ encompassed – grew and grew like some revelatory Rajasthani sunrise, broader and far richer in all senses of the word than anything they ever knew in the Sun King’s realm.

Call Rahele  the color of wonder. And call yourself lucky to exist in a world where such marvels may still be discovered.

Notes: Green mandarin, cardamom, cinnamon, violet leaf, osmanthus, rose, magnolia, jasmine, iris, violet, cedar, sandalwood, oakmoss, patchouli, leather

Disclosure: A sample was kindly provided for review by Neela Vermeire. For which I thank her from the bottom of my heart. My opinions are my own, and no posts on the Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored.

Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele is available as an eau de parfum at LuckyscentFirst in Fragrance and directly from Neela Vermeire Crèations.