The Cat’s Pyjamas

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– a review of Jean Patou Collection Héritage Chaldée

Sometimes, it happens that curiosity will kill a cat. In April this year, during lockdown, my curiosity was literally killing me.

I had an upcoming birthday. I had a perfume collection I dearly loved and still do. Except my collection was feeling a bit tired. I felt – it’s always a feeling, more than a fact – I needed something new, something revelatory, something I wouldn’t ordinarily consider.

For that, imagination is required.

Not long after, I found myself on an online retailer specializing in cosmetics, toiletries and perfumes. Beelining straight for the perfumes, I found the perfumes of Jean Patou, or to be more specific, the Collection Héritage, a series of recreated/resurrected Patou classics that once upon a storied time in the Eighties were dubbed Ma Collection. My trackpad skidded to a stop.

I had no particular relationship with Patou perfumes. My perfumaniac mother once wore Joy for a time, and although I can see what made Joy so great, that epiphany was not for me. Nor Sublime, nor even 1000.

Pulsing gold and black on my screen was another Patou in an elegant, rounded bottle, a Patou, I came to discover, with a storied heritage and a drop-dead aura, at a price even this dinosaur student pauper could afford for her birthday. Something nudged my intuition with a cattle prod, something triggered all my best or worst history/archeology nutcase urges.

It was Chaldée.

In less time than it takes to say eau de parfum, I was all over Google searching for reviews and opinions and research.

Two reviews in particular gave me pause for thought, both from reviewers I sincerely respect and always read. The first was Colognoisseur, whose review with comparisons between the vintage and the recreation made me very, very nervous.

The second was Persolaise, whose rapturous review was no help at all. It wasn’t the first time one of his reviews awakened all my lemming dragons, and I’ll bet it won’t be the last.

This was a perfume itch I really needed to scratch. So I bought it. My country was still in lockdown at the time, I was bored out of my gourd with Google Meet classes, and more than a little jittery at the thought of two huge impending (virtual) exams.

On the day it arrived, I suspect you could have smelled me from the moon.

Chaldée – or Chaldea, as it’s known in English, was once the storied province between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, whose capitol was Babylon, and a province that by association became famous for ancient, arcane secrets and magic. Indeed, the three wise men of the Nativity were known as Magi, a class of priests and conjurors native to Chaldea renowned throughout the ancient world. It is a land of searing heat, history and duststorms, temporally remote enough to conjure up any number of ancient, arcane secrets and reveries.

Let me take you through time, now to the seminal year and late summer of 1924, when Coco Chanel created a scandal by returning from a vacation “as dark brown as a sailor”, as one journalist stated at the time.

By 1925, fashionable ladies everywhere were working on achieving that all-over golden summer glow. Which was around the time Jean Patou – a designer no less influential than Mlle Chanel – decided to do something about it. He had by that time invented what we know today as sportswear, bathing suits emphatically included, and concocted a suntan oil which he gave to his clients. By 1927, those same clients were begging him to turn that delicious suntan oil into a perfume, and with the help of his perfumer Henri Alméras, Chaldée the perfume was born.

You have to remember, these were decades before beachy perfumes were a thing. There was no Bronze Goddess to anoint yourself with (never mind SPF 50), no Azurée, no Bobbi Brown Beach, no Fire Island.

Chaldée was a smash success. So much, that when the line was relaunched in the early 1980s, Chaldée was one of the fabled Patou perfumes they chose to resurrect.

Finding one of those 1980s bottles today will cost you a small fortune, if you can even find one. I’m not one to dismiss makeovers of either persons or perfumes, and this review, just to be clear, is based on the current 2013 iteration.

Another jump, hop and skip through time brings us to 2013, when the perfumer Thomas Fontaine created the fourth incarnation of Chaldée.

The Chaldée I bought blind as a treat in an unnerving, lonely time. Surrounded by a nebula of Chaldée, something in my world made sense again. I would conquer history, I would conquer pedagogy and teacher professionalism, hell, I’d just go right out and conquer the world!

The one note that gave me pause for thought was opoponax. Something about that note turns Shalimar into scorched, acrid rubber on my skin, not, alas, in a way I can appreciate. Would Chaldée do the same?

To begin, Chaldée smells unmistakably and distinctly French. In the same way you can recognize a Chanel perfume blindfolded or even a Guerlainade, the overall impression of Chaldée is an emphatic French perfume, dreamed up in Paris. Where Italian perfumes have a definite exuberance about them, much like the Italians themselves, French perfumery has a touch of restraint, of something held back in reserve to unnerve you with later. Right away, there’s what I could describe as a pulse – now you smell it, now you don’t – of that opoponax-laden base, but before you know it, you’re wiped sideways in a swoon of floral fabulosity. The opening has a certain aldehydic, high summer bergamot sharpness, but we’re nowhere near aldehydes. The narcissus and orange blossom are the most prominent to my nose, but the overall impression is abstractly floral, feminine, and drop-dead classy in a way only the French ever achieve perfectly on point. Those abstract flowery ideas bloom and billow thoughout Chaldée’s long 10+ hour development, but the base beats underneath, singing sotto voce of skin and sand, sun and sultry.

The level of sophistication in its execution means I can’t recommend this to perfume ingénues. It demands, like many perfumes, a certain level of maturity to appreciate. I’d say it skews feminine to me, but don’t let that stop you.

In the far drydown, Chaldée takes on a subtly salty-sweet vanilla-marzipan feel, like sun-warmed skin softened by a memory of salt water without once venturing into anything at all marine. I find no clichés, no tired old perfumery tropes, and nothing in the slightest vintage-feeling. This is a modern and most unusual perfume, both elegant and casual in feel at the same time. You could wear this anywhere at all, and never feel out of place or less than your most fabulous, fragrant self.

Your mileage may vary, of course. As a perfume, it is a far cry from my usual favorites, which may be why I love it so much. It’s not at all what I’d usually gravitate towards.

Yet love it, I do. With all the searing heat of that Chaldea of my heart, that heart that claims so many arcane secrets and magic of its own.

As they said in the 1920s, it’s the cat’s (beach) pyjamas.

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A ravishing Jean Patou swimsuit, ca. 1928.

Notes (via Fragrantica): Bergamot, orange blossom, narcissus, rose, jasmine, opoponax, vanilla, tonka bean. Perfumer: Thomas Fontaine.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I bought online from a EU-based retailer. No posts in the Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Christmas in July

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 – a review of Serge Lutens’ Des Clous Pour Une Pelure

Once upon a time, around the time the pomander above was made, the world was such a foul-smelling place the well-to-do would carry around either these beautiful silver-gilt containers of oranges (an exotic, costly fruit at the time) studded with cloves, or else just the clove-studded fruit, to protect them against pestilential smells and miasmas. It was a commonplace assumption at the time that bad smells led to bad things – the plague or malaria (which literally means ‘bad air’).

It was also a status gesture – cloves were an imported spice from India, oranges were another import, and both together implied a) you had money to burn and b) you knew what smelled good, even as the world reeked to high heaven.

Thanks to sanitation, hygiene and deodorants, we no longer need to carry around our own Smellavision antidotes, and pomanders have been relegated to Christmas/December celebrations in my part of the world.

I haven’t had a Christmas tree for almost nine years, but every year, I stock up on cloves, oranges and ribbon, to make my own pomanders, for no other reason than they scent my entire apartment throughout December with a heavenly perfume.

And then.

Along came Serge Lutens and completely upended my assumptions on clove-studded oranges with Des Clous Pour Une Pelure, which translates as ‘nails for a peel’, or more freely as ‘studs for a peel’. Des Clous Pour Une Pelure – henceforth named Des Clous  – was released in May of 2020, as part of the Les Eaux de Politesse line of Serge Lutens perfumes – dyed a stunning shade of teal. In the video on Serge Lutens’ Facebook page, that bottle glitters like a sentient emerald.

Since receiving my discovery set of Les Eaux, I’ve struggled to find an English-language equivalent of politesse, even with my oversized vocabulary. The Italians came closest with their own approximate equivalent, gentilezza. If you could somehow wrap up the concept of politeness, class as a positive adjective, a more formal style and uncommon courtesy, voilà – politesse.

Which is another way of saying that I suspect the Les Eaux collection is the Serge Lutens version of eaux de cologne, except in eau de parfum and elevated not a few tiers above mere cologne. For most diehard Sergeoholics, that might seem like a step down from his indisputably and justifiably elevated position as the creative director who reinvented Occidental orientalism in perfume with his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake.

When L’Eau launched in 2010, it led to a lot of head-scratching among perfumistas. Seriously, soap? Yes. The proprietary soap of a small and impossibly chic boutique hotel in the Marais, the kind of soap it would be worth one’s while to stash in a suitcase before checking out.  A whole genre of perfumes can be labeled soapy. This is not a derogatory term. It simply means fresh, clean and ready to meet your day with a minimum of fuss or bother because you damn well have better things to do with your time.

And yet. Since 2010, our perceptions of perfume have changed to an incredible degree. Millenials and Gen Y gravitate toward barely there, discreet, unobtrusive scents, if they even wear perfume at all. More and more people are becoming highly sensitized to perfume, and some work environments have banned it completely.

I may have no issues wafting Arabie on a hot summer day, yet many do. For those who don’t want to pack in their perfumista cards on days when even the air conditioner has given up, there’s Les Eaux de Politesse.

Des Clous – for all its pomander associations – fits right in this collection.

What? I hear you ask. But pomanders have that warm, lovely orange+clove ambience! They do – even the Yankee Candle labeled ‘Spiced Orange’ I bought off Amazon in a fit of pique at 3 AM not so long ago.

Des Clous does indeed smell like world-class, fragrant orange peel, and yes, that world-class orange is studded with likewise premium clove. I can’t promise you won’t have any associations of clove oil and dentists, but I certainly don’t.

Instead, it’s cool bordering on chilly. I was instantly reminded of another hot weather favorite, and dug out my mostly empty bottle of L’Eau Froide to compare. There was a note common to both of them, and it drove me mad trying to place it. That note was incense.

A cold, bitter, herbal, ashy frankincense that could only originate in Somalia. So I hauled out my stash of raw Somali frankincense and compared. I could swear – the notes list notwithstanding, and with every Serge Lutens perfume, the notes list is a bit sketchy – I smelled incense. Orange. Clove. Nutmeg. That couldn’t possibly be the whole story.

I wasn’t the only one. In his own review, Persolaise stated that incense was the bridge between the orange and clove, and I suspect he nailed it. That incense is the reason Des Clous vibes so cool, calm and collected, and makes it one of the best liquid air conditioners I have had the privilege to sniff since, well, L’Eau Froide, a summer staple these past nine years, which would explain why my bottle is now down to micro-drops and vapors.

Des Clous can’t be too far behind. This summer, I’ve battled erysipelas of the face (not fun) not once but twice. Massive quantities of MRSA-grade penicillin messed with my nose to such a degree, I couldn’t wear perfume at all, for fear I would associate the perfume with the condition.

Yet I could spray Des Clous into the air with abandon, and I was instantly transported to a much happier place where I could go outside and not scare small children, or look in the mirror without wanting to howl.

At some point, I noticed a facet of Des Clous I have no explanation for at all. Many years ago, a dear friend – and perfumer – sent me a small bag of patchouli leaves from her garden. Somewhere in the far drydown, I detected the merest whisper of minty-green-fresh patchouli leaves. A whisper that adds a touch of intrigue and interest and ties it all together – the orange, the incense, the clove and the nutmeg that serves less as a separate note and more of an olfactory ribbon accentuating the spice of the clove into the perfume that it is.

I guess there really is such a thing as Christmas in July.

Call it – nails for a peel. Or Des Clous Pour Une Pelure.

Notes (via Fragrantica): Orange, clove, nutmeg

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample I paid for. No posts on The Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored, and all opinions expressed on The Alembicated Genie are my own.

Serge Lutens’ Des Clous Pour Une Pelure is available at many online retailers and directly from the Serge Lutens website.

 

Perfume in the Time of Plague

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– with apologies to the (dearly adored and admired) ghost of G. G. Marquez

Since I last wrote on this blog, the world tilted on its axis, a virus still ravages the planet, the news from my other country, USA, became and still is a Thing To Avoid Because Sanity Also Matters, and perfume seemed so superfluous. Why care about perfume when the world is on fire? Why care about art, literature, science or even the human condition when it’s glaringly obvious we’ll all be fighting for survival soon enough?

Well.

Once upon a time, I can hear myself saying to grandchildren some day, the world was a different place. People… mingled.

The Extrovert’s dilemma

We went to concerts, exhibitions, the movies. We arranged potluck barbecue parties with our fifteen closest friends, and hoped the weather would cooperate. We would sometimes turn to each other on the street – an old and dear friend, a perfect stranger, a potential flirt – and smile. We hugged, if you can believe it. We even kissed each other on the cheek!

We struck up conversations with people we’d just met a few minutes before at wine bars over a delicious glass of Blauburgunder. We paid for theater tickets and went to see plays, ballets and operas on that Human Condition. If we got lucky, we even went home and told everyone else about what we saw, where we went, whom we met.

Not once did we ever stop to count our blessings. Not once.

Four months on, I find myself wondering whether the world will ever be the same again, even after reopening. I’m not sure it ever will be – the same. For this happy extrovert, lockdown was torture. I was one of those idiots who looked forward to school every morning. I dreadfully missed my history teacher, since the lockdown meant we missed nearly an entire semester of his eminent teaching, and we still  had to hand in our history didactics theses and  have our final oral exams. I missed the cheery smiles and hellos of my other teachers these past three years and I missed joking with the canteen ladies.

I also missed writing, and I certainly missed writing about perfume, except that my minuscule perfume collection was looking a bit … tired. I loved what I loved – that hasn’t changed – but in all other respects, I needed an epiphany or two, and those have been relatively thin on the ground lately.

So to celebrate my birthday, cheer myself up and maybe find a new olfactory epiphany, I bought a perfume blind.

Things only perfumistas know

Lemmings in perfumista terms are those pangs of desire we feel when something is described so beautifully, we want to toss ourselves over that cliff, try it for ourselves and all consequences be damned. That was how I felt after reading Colognoisseur’s review of Jean Patou’s Collection Héritage Chaldée, and Persolaise’s rapturous review was no help at all. When I located it on a perfume discounter website at a price even an impecunious student could afford, I bought it. I thought that if I hated it, I could always sell it on.

Dear readers, I fell like a metaphorical large pile of bricks.

Opoponax was listed as a note, and that made me nervous. I suspected it was the opoponax in Shalimar that turned it to scorched, acrid rubber on my skin, and that’s no way to feel about one of the 20th-century Greats.

That didn’t happen with Chaldée. At all.

I’d tell you what did happen, only that’s an upcoming review. Stay tuned.

A ghost in the bottle

Wearing perfume, you are always playing a free association game. Wearing AND writing about perfume, the free association game becomes a habit. I’ve found myself writing posts in my head while shopping, while out for a walk, while doodling in a notebook during class, or even on the train home from school.

Last September, a supremely dear fellow perfume writer and friend died suddenly. The kind of friend who would gossip with you on Messenger, the kind of friend who posted the best jokes, the kind of friend you’d dearly wish lived much, much closer than Puget Sound, the kind of friend whose death had me bawling in the rain on a train platform one morning on my way to school. Someone so full of life, his life force encircled the entire solar system, I’m sure of it. His writing was quite often lemming-inducing, but for whatever reason, nothing got my lemmings hurling faster than his review of Perris Monte Carlo’s Ylang Ylang Nosy Be. I’ve been most thoroughly impressed by the Perris Monte Carlo line. Ylang is one of my favorite notes. So when he described it as the ultimate in tropical escape juice, I’d clutch at my metaphorical pearls and considered buying a decant. I even once ordered a sample, but for whatever reason, that order didn’t go through. Curiosity would definitely kill this cat.

Then, on a FB perfume group, someone had a bottle for sale at an outrageously great price. I bought it. Only to discover that damn-it-all-to-hell, Robert – you were right!

He was in the bottle, too. I wore it for my (virtual) history exam. Surely, on that Thursday afternoon, the ghost of Robert Hermann was sitting on my shoulder whispering “work it, girl!” So I did. And I like to think – this being my final as a history teacher – I did him proud.

I’ll also be reviewing the Ghost of Robert/Ylang Ylang Nosy Be.

The scent of summer

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Sometimes, in summer, you long for Great Big Orientals just to antidote all the light and flighty ‘fumes. And sometimes, light and flighty is fine so long as it’s an interesting ride.

I’ve been a devotee of Hermès Jardin line since I discovered Un Jardin sur le Nil. Not all of them – Un Jardin Mediteranée didn’t work for me at all. But enough to be at least curious. But one tugged at my heartstrings and stuck in my mind. That one was Le Jardin de Monsieur Li.

I’m not much of a cologne-y person. I like my perfumes full-bodied, thank you. At EdT strength, Monsieur Li won’t swipe your surroundings off the floor, but it is substantial, complex enough to be interesting and it uses kumquat as a main note, and how often does that happen?

Better still, it’s the epitome of summer-vacation-in-a-bottle. A villa overlooking the endless blue Paleokastritsa bay of Corfù, say, nestled behind kumquat and lemon trees. I can’t afford the real deal yet, even if I can travel again, but in the meantime, I’m not complaining.

The Big Back 40 Backlog

A few days ago, I came across a Perfumes To Be Reviewed list from last summer on my workbook. And promptly realized I had missed two big ones – Neela Vermeire Créations Niral, and Amouage’s Portrayal.

I’m not going to give you my l-o-n-g list of excuses, but I did have two massive exams which didn’t leave a lot of time for too much else.

But you’ll have those to look forward to, too.

What has been exciting YOU lately? Let me know in the comments. And I hope you are all weathering these extraordinary times as best you can.

More madness later?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A heart washed with noon

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– a review of Rogue Perfumery’s Chypre-Sîam

To use a British expression, of all the things that can get a perfumista’s knickers in a permanent twist (and they are legion), nothing cuts closer to the bone than the dreaded IFRA. IFRA, so we like to tell ourselves and each other, has ruined perfumery forever-and-a-day by banning our beloved oakmoss and replacing it with ‘tree moss’, limited bergamot and in general wreaked havoc on everything that gotus into this flaming fragrant passion to begin with.

Once beloved perfumes are still sold under old names in hugely limited circumstances, many altered to such an extent they’re not even shadows of their previous, gloriously deep, evocative selves, thanks to either a dearth of raw materials, which is entirely plausible, or else, and more commonly, to shambolic, indifferent reformulations, which sadly has become the rule and not the exception.

For years and years, on Facebook perfume groups, on Messenger and Twitter DMs, we’ve railed against them and wished it were possible to just bang a sticker on proper perfumes laden with all things forbidden to alert for any allergies, and just leave it to the customer to decide.

Meanwhile, with the ever-increasing avalanche of perfume releases, we’re spoiled for choice. There’s something for everyone, whether you like your orientals opulent, your greens fluorescent, or your florals divalicious. No matter which way you waft or slice it, great, grand and glorious perfumes are still being made in spite of it all.

And yet. And yet.

One fragrant family has been left in the IFRA lurch above all others. Sadly, it’s my favorite of them all – the chypre.

What I worship and adore so much about chypres is precisely their ‘perfumeyness’. They’re abstract, richly textured, decidedly intellectual constructions that smell less of something and more like liquid, instrumental music, evoking feeling, aura and mood much more than material. Of all the perfume families, I sincerely believe that chypres are the hardest to create precisely because of that intellectual abstraction principle.

A truly great chypre is so much more than the sum of its parts, and in fact can be nearly impossible to parse. It is a feeling, a sensibility, a mood or an aura of something just beyond the reach of words, something found nowhere in nature and for long periods of time throughout the twentieth century, everywhere in civilization.

Contrary to popular opinion, chypres are nothing at all new. François Coty did notinvent the chypre in 1917 when he created Chypre, he simply took a very, veryold perfumery idea that originated in Cyprus in antiquity, and turned it into a massive, game-changing, world-wide success.

The word itself – pronounced ‘sheep-ruh’ with a very short last syllable – is French for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where perfumes have been made for at least 4000 years, well before even Egypt became famous for its scents. Interestingly enough, some of the perfumes manufactured on Cyprus in antiquity could not have been too far from the structure we understand as ‘chypre’ today: that trinity of bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum that leaves so much room for added magic; florals, woods, animalics and resins.

Here in the twenty-first century, chypres have fallen from grace in popular perfumery. The younger generations find them grandmotherly or ‘old-lady’-ish if they even think about them at all. Perfumistas hoard their vintage Cotys and count their blessings. Those of us who own other famous vintage twentieth-century creations, such as Guerlain’s Mitsouko, Piguet’s Bandit, Grès’ Cabochard or, say, Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum to name only a few, count our own, and dread the day those bottles run empty. No more glorious oakmoss, no more bright bite of bergamot or the slow, slinky burn of labdanum, just pale imitations of pallid intimations – of chypres.

Enter Manuel Cross of Rogue Perfumery. A self-taught perfumer located in California, well out of reach of the IFRA police, he decided to do precisely what so many of us wished someone would – let the customers decide for themselves. He would create politically incorrect perfumes with all the oakmoss, all the bergamot, all the nitromusks (!), with everything, in short, we Europerfumistas moaned and groaned for, with no apologies and less remorse.

I first heard of Chypre-Siam through two of my personal favorite Youtube reviewers; Wafts From the Loft. Naturally, that review spilled over to perfume discussions on perfume groups on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram, on Basenotes and Fragrantica. One night in early April, a fellow perfumista friend (and longtime reader of TAG, bless her) generously offered to send me a small decant of Chypre-Siam, because she thought – knowing not a little of my own perfume inclinations – it was something I might like. It arrived on my birthday on the 23rd, and promptly blew my mind and my proboscis to mossy, bossy chypre smithereens.

Before I start gushing about just how great this stuff is and just buy it already, people!, let me state I have never experienced the original Coty creation, and even if I had, it wouldn’t be fair to either the late, great François Coty or to the very much alive Mr. Cross to compare them. Chypre-Siam is very much its own creation, but it has its pedigree in order, and indeed, the original Chypre was the inspiration for Chypre-Siam.

While researching chypres, Chypre and Chypre-Siam for this review, I came across a thread on Basenotes concerning nitromusks and musk ketones. One commenter stated he wouldn’t try it, because nitromusks and musk ketones are considered carcinogenic. (Well, they would be if they’re all a poor lab rat gets to breathe.)

So I grabbed that thread by the horns and asked Manuel Cross – as a service to my readers – if Chypre-Siam did contain nitromusks and/or musk ketones. He quickly replied that indeed it does – at a concentration of just under 2%. He also wrote – by way of comparison – that the original formula for Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower contained a whopping 5% musk ketones. Should that be an issue for you, then simply spray a handkerchief or scarf with the perfume instead.

If not, then thank all the perfume gods who ever lived for Manuel Cross, for Rogue Perfumery and for his Chypre-Siam. Because this is what perfume should be, and more to the point, what the art of perfumery should be, just like any other art; free from restriction, from policing, from political correctness.

From the oakmossy green growls at its edges, its jungle-green makrut lime and basil opening, its hot, tropical floral sunshine glow of ylang ylang and a stunning jasmine tinted ever so slightly pink like the O’Keeffe painting I’ve used to illustrate this post, the long, slow burns of sandalwood and benzoin and a faint dusting of civet that gives it a vintage silk velvet texture, Chypre-Siam encapsulates everything I love about chypres and epically spectacular perfumes. It is seamless, containing a very high percentage of natural ingredients, and has all the lasting power of those classic vintage eaux de toilettes – and then some. Three sprays this morning have lasted 12 hours of gorgeousness, and only now, I’m left with a plush, soft, mossy whisper.

I’ve worn that decant very often this past spring and summer. Not one of my fellow classmates has stated at any point in time that I smelled like a grandmother, bless their twenty-something hearts. At this rate, a bottle looks not at all unlikely, and better still, even attainable for a poor teacher-to-be on a student grant.

Most of all, I’m reminded of a poem by the British poet Cecil Day Lewis I found again this morning:

Summer has filled her veins with light

And her heart is washed with noon.

Which is exactly what Chypre-Siam does. It washes my heart with noon.

Illustration: “Pink Tulip” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1926

With thanks, love and deepest gratitude to Tora, who made this review possible, and to Manuel Cross, who graciously shares his creation with the world. Thanks to my sister Stephanie, for a champagne bubble conversation that knocked me out of a funk. And to Perfumeshrine for writing the ultimate guide to chypres.

Notes for Chypre-Sîam: Makrut lime, basil, spices, jasmine, ylang ylang, oakmoss, sandalwood, benzoin, civet

Chypre-Sîam is available as an eau de toilette at Rogue Perfumery on Etsy.

The Inimitable Mr. Chong

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 – a retrospective of Christopher Chong’s twelve years at Amouage

The story of the perfume business of these past twenty years or so goes that there are three basic business models for indie perfume houses.

The first is to build your brand to its maximum potential as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you can sell to Estée Lauder, Coty, Unilever etc., and live comfortably off the compound interest for the rest of your days.

The second – a great deal more demanding, not to mention uncertain – is to put the capital I in ‘indie’, and just damn well go for it or die trying. Stick to your unique, creative vision. Do your thing. This approach has been known to work, especially if the juice at least matches the ambitions of the one(s) who made it as well as the tastes of those who bought it.

But there’s also a third option. This one, too, is not for the faint of heart. And to the best of my knowledge, it has succeeded precisely once, for reasons I’ll get back to in a bit. But first, a little time travel.

Once upon a storied time, the perfumer Guy Robert was approached by a new Omani perfume house with an unusual name: Amouage. From the Arabic am-Waj, The Wave, as in a wave of emotion. There was no budget, no constraints, simply a desire to make the greatest, grandest of all g-words perfume, add the frankincense with the mostest as a salute to Oman’s fragrant past, and call it Gold.

Goldis precisely that: a finger-woven, hand-embroidered, multi-layered silk brocade of a perfume, gold of course.

So he did. It became a very inside secret, a molten gold of perfume in a jewel box of a perfume house in Muscat.

But what if that wave could be more? What if it could swell across the world? What if it were the byword of a perfume company known across the globe, in stores of its own and in other stores too, a name associated with drop-dead luxury (before the word itself became meaningless), glamourie, and complex, fragrant stories? What if maybe, just maybe, Amouage were just a little more inclusive? What if they wanted to write literature in perfumes? Or music? Or heartbreak? Or beauty?

What if?

What if heard the question, and twenty-five years later, answered the wish.

As of this writing, I don’t know whether or not David Crickmore, the now former director of Amouage, or Christopher Chong was hired first.

Yet once again, it makes a great story: Man has random conversation with stranger in airport while waiting for a flight. Got a job before he landed. Begins job. Sets perfume world on its ear and keeps it spinning. And whirling, And wondering.

And writing.

He wrote movies, shot ads and promotions, did the endless round of interviews and magazine spreads and questions about ‘inspirations’. It could be anything: movies. Operas. Literature. Music. Life.

Always, there was music in the backstory and music in the perfumes. Along the way, the music changed as it played, the perfumes began to breathe their own unique stories on unusual skin, the kind always and only satisfied with the best, because there isno other kind.

With his past as a model, he had no problems with photo shoots or cover shoots, whether in jeans and an Adidas jacket at his desk, or serving drop-dead, stop-traffic Des Esseintes unrealness in a lilac suit so sharp, my eyeballs bled from just looking at the photo. Yet that too, was part of the job description; to be the spokesperson, the Idea Guy, the dedicated Perfumaniac with a capital P andthe Marketing Makeover Marvel Man.

If you think about it, all of the above is several jobs in one package called ‘creative director’, but where some creative directors are rather casual about their jobs, you never forgot Christopher Chong, who was never, evercasual about his. He became the focal point of an industry and the poster boy for we legions of perfume writers and aficionados great and small. And as one, we held our breath for the next release, and wondered as we waited.

This was how luxury perfume was done right, from the first rumors on Basenotes to the perfume writers at their laptops tearing out their hair, teasing out the stories from the perfumes, and sometimes, vice versa.

Back in the early Pleistocene era ca. 2011, we were a gaggle of gal- and guypals who wrote about perfume, and some of us had written about Amouage. I would always pretend I wasn’t listening in on their conversations. Amouage was too rich for my blood and always would be. Therefore not for me, thank you.

Those ladies persisted. “Oh, you just wait for it, girl. Once you go, you can’t go back. Etc. Etc.”

Then, one day, Christopher Chong’s face popped up on Facebook in a link to an interview on his latest perfume. For whatever reason, I was ordering samples to try that day. I read the interview. And blew 22€ on two Amouage samples, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed.

The first sample was Ubar. I came home from work one day, tore open the package, and out rolled Ubar as if ordained by kismet. I sprayed a tiny spray on my wrist. Whereupon I had to sit down, or I would have hit the floor. This was the most opulent, outrageously textured, dense, drop-dead perfume I had sniffed in my life. From across the room, a gargantuan red human grizzly bear grunted his approval.

I had to write about it, just for kicks. Just because. I think that was the night I located the Oxford online thesaurus.

Thanks to Christopher Chong, I would need that thesaurus. For two days later, I sat down with my notebook, my laptop and Ubar. And wrote a tale of a courtesan, a perfumer/conjuror, of time travel and traveling through time, of self-definition and of rediscovery. There was no rehearsal, no warning, no research sessions or note-taking, no noodling around in a notebook, even. I wrote as if by ghostly dictate, and would come to learn, sometimes, the hard way – that was the way and the wave – of Amouage. Always, I would be bereft of words, overwhelmed with something, in the grip of something – something I had to try to articulate, or die trying. And always, the stories seemed to come easiest and smoothest, when I simply sat myself down and sniffed/listened to what they were trying to say.

And the wonders kept on coming, with Epic, with Lyric, with Jubilation 25 (now, simply called Jubilation), the first perfume Christopher Chong unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Memoir (either version) still blows my mind when I sniff it, Beloved feels like another skin.

Which is another thing with the perfumes he created. They could each and every one make the most mundane Mondays in mom jeans seem haute couture occasions, as if the world just wasn’t grand enough for you.

He began in glorious fashion with Jubilation, but he continued on with perfumes huge in their scope, their sillage and their storylines, playing on some grander, more refined stage at an operatic pitch he seemed to conclude with Fate.

There was a nudge in other directions before then, when he launched Opus I-IV in 2010, and used the Library Collection to tie himself closer to literature, presenting the perfumes like precious tomes, which of course they were. But the Library Collection was, I believe, also where he got to play with other inspirations and unusual ideas. A blood note? Civet! The Tragic Case of the Missing Iris Galbanum? Billionaire band-aids? Read all about ‘em, people!

I sensed a shift away from that now-famous operatic pitch some time around Sunshine Woman, and even found something of a shift in Fate. Fate – another two masterpieces – was softer and dare I write it, fluffier than previous releases, as was Sunshine Woman. When Journey arrived in 2014, it seemed a bit less histrionic (nothing wrong with histrionic) than earlier Amouages, as if it played out in a more intimate, subtler key. I felt that with Journey, Christopher really hit his stride as a perfume storyteller. The Secret Garden of Lilac Love, Blossom Love and Love Tuberose (who doesn’t?) bloomed forth and conquered hopeless romantics everywhere.

On it went, that march of time, and on they came, the Myths and the Figments, the Brackens and the Beach Huts. They came to new Amouage stores and more Amouage stores and many, many other stores. Christopher Chong was everywhere in the press, in a newspaper, in linked interviews on Facebook groups and pages, on Instagram. Always twinkling in the light, spreading the magic and the glamouriearound as we all waited with bated breath for the next, new and often confounding Amouage.

I’m not a fan of the “West-meets-East” explanation for Amouages singular aestethic as expressed in their perfumes, and mainly in the perfumes Christopher created for them. I find it overly simplistic at best and insulting at worst, trying to pigeonhole geography and cultural stereotyping to explain the contents of a perfume bottle. I’ve read descriptions like “if Middle Eastern perfumes were made in Paris” to explain Amouage’s appeal, and they always make me want to scream.

Why not just … experienceit, and judge it for yourself? Just open your mind, park your preconceptions around the back, and breathe it in. The perfume itself will tell you everything you need to know.

If the perfumes themselves weren’t so breathtaking – even today in an increasingly overcrowded niche perfume industry – then all the PR razzle-dazzle in the world would not  have made them sell, but sell, they do, and not for cheap. One interesting thing I’ve found in exploring other stratospherically priced brands is how quite a few try to recycle his many ideas – and fail.

Around 2016, there were murmurs in the underground of Planet Perfume, mumbling that Amouage had gone mainstream, big time. As if it were the most cardinal-red of sins.

As if Christopher Chong had somehow slipped his halo a little by becoming one of the biggest smash success stories of the perfume industry of the early twenty-first century and was personally responsible for Amouage losing a little of their ‘knock-‘em-out-of-the-ballpark’ luster simply for being  and above all things else, creatinga success story. Breaking the rules, shaking things up, rattling all our cages that persona, perfume and PR could co-exist so seamlessly, so elegantly embodied by the one man who cooked it all up and served it to a public ravenous for opulence and richness, for texture and story.

Except I strongly suspect that no matter how large he loomed in interviews across both print and digital media, he could never have succeeded from such a cold start without a lot of help.

It gives me a great deal of pause for thought that David Crickmore, the former director of Amouage, resigned his position around the same time as Christopher Chong. For if Christopher got the PR ball rolling, David Crickmore surely knew a thing or two about how to keep that ball rolling in all the right directions. If that sounds spurious to you, then consider this: there are now over 70 Amouage stores worldwide. They are sold everywhere, including in Copenhagen, which really messed with my mind when I found out. Amouage is the brand it is today because of Christopher Chong, and also because David Crickmore gave him the support and the framework to do it in, and so did everyone else at Amouage.

As for me, it seems a tad sacrilegious to write, but simply put, I feel a bit like Perfume Elvis Has Left The Building. No one else has done what he did, and in this new and changing landscape, I doubt anyone could.

Christopher Chong took his cape and his magic with him, and I wonder what he’ll do with it, and where it will take him. Wherever that may be, I thank him for all the dreams his work has set alight in my own perfume writing these past eight years from the bottom of my black and twisted heart, and wish him nothing but the superlative best of absolutely everything. Which was the gift he gave to all of us; writers and bloggers, aficionados and newbies alike.

A gift, from the inimitable Mr. Chong.

With thanks to the Very August Personage. For everything.

Photo: Amouage. Used with permission.