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.

 

The Viridian Voice

hamadryad

– a review of Papillon Perfumery Dryad

Once upon a time some long time ago, in a house on a hill, lived a little girl with her parents. Daddy left every morning for work, Mommy had other preoccupations, and the house was so isolated, she had no neighboring children to play with. What she did have was the wood that surrounded the house on either side, and the imagination to fill it, with characters she heard about through the stories her mother read to her. In the beginning, Teddy the Bear stood in for handsome princes from fairy tales, and Raggedy Ann for all the princesses in peril, and sometimes, she would recreate a favorite story of another little girl, who lived alone in a faraway land with a monkey called Herr Nilsson, and was strong enough to lift her own horse.

But soon, she discovered other characters – the animals who lived there. The birds chatting in the trees, the squirrels who would eye her in the autumn as they came down from the trees to search for acorns and hickory nuts before deciding she was no threat to them, searching onward for their winter stash. The crafty raccoons who stole leaf-wrapped peanut butter sandwiches when she wasn’t looking and sometimes ventured close enough to talk and make her laugh at their antics. The foxes that eyed her from a safe distance and carried on dancing with their cubs, barking when they ventured too far for safety.

Towering above them all the green canopy of trees; hickory, maple and birch, wild pear, cottonwood, fir, larch and oak. She would watch the sunlight through the leaves in spring as it found the forest floor, the motes of pollen whirling towards the sun, and notice how the greens shifted through the seasons; from the spring green of her favorite crayons, to the richer, darker greens of high summer and the inky greens of the fir trees, through to the crimsons, oranges and golds of autumn, when the wild pears offered up their fruit, with the tough, bitter skins hiding a juicy-sweet treat, and next, the trees stood bare and unadorned, sleeping like the black bears she would also sometimes see. But as time went on and the little girl grew, she chatted less and listened more.

For the trees were talking, to each other and sometimes, to her, in slow, sonorous rumbles and whispers on hot, sleepy summer afternoons, and in excited, proud rustles showing off their spring finery, in melancholy, sleepy sighs on blustery, rainy autumn days, and in the occasional creak and shift of roots as winter went its way.

They were alive, this she knew, knew it in her very bones, alive precisely as much as she herself, and because she welcomed them in with no reservations, they in their turn guarded her, as she brought flowers she picked and laid by their roots, and sang for them songs she knew to sing.

The wood was her joy and her refuge when Mommy told her ‘no’, when Daddy was away too long, when the world outside the wood was less than kind to imaginative little girls.

That little girl was me some very long time ago, in a small wood across the ocean and far away, from a time I thought I had forgotten.

Except I never did. To this day, the forest – these days, it’s the beeches that surround my town – always, but alwaysgives me joy. Today, we even have scientific proof of what that little girl always knew – trees do indeed communicate in highly sophisticated ways, if only we people would learn to listen.

In that winding, whirling way of memory and emotion, in ways not even I can entirely articulate, Papillon Perfumery’s Dryad took me back in an instant to that early childhood memory, to the happiness I always felt there, and to those unforgettable trees.

Whether through the strength of those memories, or simple inclination, I am a Green Fiend. These nearly nine years of perfume writing have expanded my tastes to an increasingly catholic degree, but somewhere near the bedrock of my soul, a green burns with an emerald fury, and will never, ever fade.

When Dryad was released in 2017, I sat up and took notice. I cursed the UK postal restrictions that initially meant I couldn’t try it, and cursed my impecunious circumstances that ruled out buying a sample from elsewhere. There was somethingabout Dryad, I knew it in my bones, something I needed, something I had been seeking forever and never entirely found.

Well, I thought, singing along with Mick Jagger. I couldn’t always get what I wanted, but I got what I needed.

Until that fateful day a wonderfully kind, generous Perfume Fairy, or else one of my patronesses Freyja or Danu whispered in her ear, decided I needed to try Dryad. It came about in a perfume group thread, and lo and behold, on my otherwise not-at-all-spectacular birthday (exit the Dude, who won’t be back), an envelope arrived, (also) containing a generous decant of Dryad.

In an instant, I was all of four again, listening to the songs of the trees.

The next day, I sampled it in earnest, sat down in a swoon on my chair, and cried, cried like I hadn’t since a tiny sample of vintage Vent Vert extrait also took me far away for other, far more grown-up reasons.

Vent Vert is all sharply delineated Parisian chic and chartreuse hope emerging after long, dark years.

Dryad is very different.

Galbanum – a resin used as incense and perfume for thousands of years – is a very difficult material to work it in perfume. It can turn bitchy and evil and monstrously green. It can be a top note, a base note or a through-and-through note. But it takes a breathtaking amount of skill to make it, as indeed it is here, numinous.

I could take you through the notes as they unfold, tell you of that effervescent, citrus-herbal opening song, tell you of its softly floral heart and an unexpected and delightful apricot kiss, I could tell you tales of jonquil, that soft, voluptuous sister of narcissus, tell you how its sweetly mossy drydown some many hours later lands you on a forest floor where nettles never sting, where ants never march and vetiver never growls. I could write of all of that, and it would not be, would never be enough. Galbanum is the heartbeat and the pulse of this perfume, and it is the end and the beginning of Dryad. Rendered as exquisitely as it is here, it is nearly my undoing.

For all my love of green perfumes, I know nothing in the slightest like Dryad. I own not a few; my beloved Chêne, Vent Vert, Bandit, Antonia, Chanel no. 19, Ivoire, vintage Lauren, the staggering vintage Jacomo Silences. Ever-greens all, and ever-loved.

They are not Dryad, are not so atavistic, nor so primal, never so wild nor so bewitching, so free or untamed.

It’s as if Liz Moores set out to capture – as indeed she did in both the name and the juice – the hamadryad, the guardian spirit of a particular tree, but not just any tree, nor just any passing dryad. This is a witchy, bottled Balanos, the spirit of an oak tree, and in that spirit are echoes of other trees in other times. In Dryad’s floral heart, she left a little of her own soul, and to my own surprise and ever-lasting wonder, I rediscovered not a little of my own.

Or as a favorite, ancient poet once wrote:

When the beech prospers

Through spells and litanies

The oak tops entangle

There is hope for the tree.

(from the Câdd Goddeu)

A viridian voice that sings: wearing this, there is even hope for me.

With thanks and profoundest gratitude to the super-generous Tora, who made these words possible. And to the ever-wondrous Liz Moores of Papillon, whose magick conjured them out.

Notes: Bergamot, galbanum, bitter orange, cedrat, clary sage, thyme, tarragon, jonquil, orange blossom, lavender, orris, costus, apricot, oakmoss, vetiver, benzoin, Peru balsam, styrax.

Papillon Perfumery Dryad is available as an eau de parfum (with 16+ hour longevity, no less, at least on me) at Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and Les Senteurs.

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.