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.

How To Be A Perfume Writer

GerhardterBorchWomanwLetter

 – some thoughts on returning to the fray

All my life, I’ve always been considered a bit … strange. Whether caused by an early childhood playing alone with my teddy bear and a rusty tin can in a cemetery among the headstones, or evolving into the dreamy, geeky, bookworm teenager I later became, never mind the pint-sized over-the-hill irrelevance I am now, weird has always been my unofficial middle name.

Yet nothing – and I do mean nothing – shuts people up faster when they ask about what I do, and I tell them among other things that I’ve been writing about perfumes these 8+ years and counting. A l-o-n-g pause ensues. Next thing I know, the punch line arrives.

“Why?”

Well …

And if not why, they ask me how.

I’m never sure what to reply to that question, either.

I just do it.

Meanwhile, erudite seminars are held at EsXence in Milan on the language of perfume, hosted by none other than the eminent Michael Edwards. Also meanwhile, scores of people who have never attended any expensive seminars on perfume writing in their lives (or if they have, they’re very discreet!), are posting YouTube reviews or comments on those reviews, or writing reviews for perfume blogs, or perfume books, or writing about perfume on one or another of the many perfume groups on Facebook, sharing their experiences with perfume A, B or Z.

Perfume nutcases/people are strange. Strange for no other reason than they’re trying – and sometimes failing – to articulate what to all intents and purposes is a wordless art. Our sense of smell is one of the most rudimentary and in evolutionary terms one of the oldest of our sensorial input methods, and for that reason, olfactory impressions bypass the cerebral cortex – home to abstract thinking, logic and other hazards to our sanity – entirely and head straight for the hippocampus, the gateway to memory.

In less time than it takes to type this sentence, we are mid-memory and in the grip of an emotional response, and this, boys and girls, is the essence of the invisible, indelible art that is … perfume.

Back to the why

Why do I write about perfume? Once upon a time, I was so destitute, I had no perfume at all. By which I mean – no perfume. At all. For someone who throughout her adult life always had at least five in regular rotation, this was akin to torture. Soap and water are all fine and dandy thank you, but not being able to establish a presence (by which I’m not referring to sillage, but simply presence) when I already felt increasingly invisible, was a horror I couldn’t handle.

So as a cruel exercise in contemplation, I landed myself on Makeupalley one day by accident, ca. 2003. It blew my mind. People were discussing perfumes I had never heard of, from brands I’d never heard of, in ways I had never imagined.

Top notes? Heart notes? Drydown? Had someone been messing with the English language?

When the first perfume blogs arrived ca. 2006-2007, I set about educating myself with everything I didn’t know. Materials, evolution, perfumers, perfumes, perfume families (thank you, Michael Edwards!) – something in my own brain was coalescing as I read. But I wasn’t quite there yet.

‘There’ arrived on the night of August 5th, 2010, at about 2 AM. I was still reading perfume blogs. I was also fast approaching the finish line of my first finished novel, and I needed a break from my subject matter, something with an aesthetic dimension, something, well, girly.

That night, after the third glass of white zinfandel, or it could have been the fifth, I thought, well, I could always start a perfume blog. Just for me. As a writing exercise. Before I went to bed, I had emptied the wine bottle, signed up for Blogspot, created a blog called Scent Less Sensibilities and called it a day.

By that time, thanks to my then mother-in-law (and fellow Taurus), who got my desperation, bless her forever, I owned three perfumes. They were Balmain Ivoire, Lancôme’s Magie Noire, and Caron’s Bellodgia, all hunted down by me at online perfume discounters for bottom basement budget prices for several birthdays and Christmases in a row.

My first review was Ivoire. I tried to write a straight-up, non-interpretive review, really, I did. Except I didn’t.

For lo and behold, someone in the ether had found my writing exercise, liked what they read, and left a comment. (Those were the days when people commented!) A comment stating something about ‘my unique voice’.

Whaddaya know, I did become a better writer. I learned by observation from the best of the best: Ida Meister of Cafleurebon, Lucy of Indieperfume, Elena Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine, Angela, Beth and Donna of Now Smell This, and the beyond wonderful, irreverent Perfume Posse, all of whom brightened my far less than happy existence.

I learned about pacing, about writing things out, about trusting my instincts and my voice. I learned to edit and pare things down in ways that are still with me to this day.

More than anything else, above the writing exercise/girly outlet/aesthetic dimension, I wrote about perfume to give myself some micro-degree of success. From 2010-2013, my life went from not-great to smoking ruins. I was too “old” to be hired anywhere, too over-qualified for the jobs I could get, and likely just too outright weird. I had no social life, no friends, and very little family.

Suddenly, I found community, commonality, and dare I write this – virtual friendships, too. I could scarcely believe my luck.

In April of 2019 with The Alembicated Genie, I still can’t.

Listen up, padawan

That’s me. Maybe you’re the one who thinks this could be something you could do. While I can’t tell you anything about your particular ‘why/how’, I can tell you something about writing.

Writing is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the better you get. Anyone can learn to be more articulate and precise in their writing. Which, I hasten to add, is not at all the same as saying that if you do it long enough, you’ll turn into the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the perfume world.

Anyone can learn to write, yes, but not everyone will do so equally well. Some people are articulate in person, while others need to think things through. It follows that having a certain degree of eloquence helps, as well as access to a good thesaurus. I use the Oxford online thesaurus, but you may prefer something else.

Like any other creative human endeavor, talent also enters the equation. Everyone can write – or learn to do so – but some people have an aptitude for language, and some don’t. Yet talent matters not at all unless you keep at it. That’s what gets you noticed. Consistent effort over time. The End.

Nuts and bolts

Still there? Now, we’re at the part that separates the wannabes from the survivors. First that maxim stated above: consistent effort over time. I’m not kidding. Second, if not in terms of importance:

The prose.

Generally speaking, perfume writing tends to land in one of two categories. There are the straight-up reviews.

This is what perfume X, Y or Z smells like, these are the notes and how it develops, this is what I think.

In other words, the kind of reviews I wish I could write, but can’t. I know, because I’ve died numerous agonizing deaths trying to do just that, and my twisted brain has other ideas. My admiration for those who can is boundless.

Remember, experiencing a perfume is a wordless act. Here you are, tearing your hair out, trying to communicate a sensory experience in words. A bloody thankless task, if you ask me. As they say in book publishing: if everyone could write a novel, they would. Yet relatively few people do. By the same token, not everyone who writes about perfume will do so equally well.

Then, there are those other perfume writers. I count myself – vain as I am – in this second category. They are usually of a literary persuasion, meaning they read, they keep informed, and have a laser-sharp eye for the well-turned phrase, the polished metaphor, the rhythm and flow of words. They use their knowledge from other culture-vulture areas for their reviews; art, history, music, literature. Given that our vocabulary in describing perfumes is severely limited, we resort to metaphor and simile, tricks of rhetoric and semiotics to get the point across, provided we even succeed. You have to be aware that when you write about perfume, you won’t always get it right. Put another way, sometimes a review will state everything you wanted to say, and sometimes, it won’t matter what you do. You still feel as if you’re falling at the fences if not being catapulted straight across them (to use a show-jumping metaphor). That’s OK, too.

I became notorious for turning perfume reviews into literature. Instead of writing a review, I’ve written a short story, a whole, short, self-contained world, to better convey my impressions of a perfume. Sometimes, that approach worked. Sometimes, it didn’t, usually when I neglected to trust my own instincts, or simply tried to force a story when I should have settled for an ‘ordinary’ (my version) review. Don’t forget, I’m also a novelist, and everything and everyone is grist for that literary mill, even – or perhaps especially – perfume. Jean-Paul Guerlain, who once famously stated that perfume is liquid literature, would be thrilled. Those reviews are my personal favorites and among my best writing anywhere, and I’d give my eyeteeth for a chance to turn them into a book of their own. One day, I will.

The YouTube conundrum

What if you’re one of those people who don’t like to read? (And read. And read.) Or for whom the idea of banging out 2000 words on latest release A, B or Z causes a) bad memories of school assignments and b) severe orthographical and/or grammatical anxiety?

Perhaps your personality is so naturally gregarious, charming and extrovert, you could become a YouTube reviewer?

Well, you’re going to need to invest in a better camera than your laptop, some good ambient lighting and a proper microphone, to start. You’ll need to become familiar with video editing software. In television production, a rule of thumb is one minute on screen equals one hour of work. Put another way: a five minute video is five hours of work. In comparison, I usually spend between two to four hours on a review, but a few have taken me up to a calendar month to write.

And above all things else, it helps heaps to have some general ideas of what you’re going to say beforehand. So you’ll also have that to consider. There’s nothing wrong with ad-libbing or spontaneity, but you’ll likely soon discover that what looks easy, spontaneous or natural on screen in reality is anything but.

I have an exceedingly low opinion of most – but not all – YouTube perfume reviews. I find them repetitive, lacking in imagination and often redundant. Nine out of ten bore me to tears, but there are definite exceptions. Who knows? You yourself might even become one of them.

The Social in Media

Writing a post/uploading a video is just the first step. You’ll have to do research on the brand, on the perfumer (presuming one is named, and they aren’t always), on the inspirations behind the perfume. For a written review, you might need an illustration or photo. You might need to invest in your own unique domain name, web hosting, plug-ins. You should think about reading up on other reviews of the same perfume to check your impressions against others’. Not because it will influence your own review, but because other people will often have a perspective that might help your own.

Should you be so vainglorious you want hits or views – as indeed most of us do – then the single most important thing you can do for your blog/vlog is establish a presence. And for that, you’ll need social media, a terminal case of what I call the fuckits, and a complete lack of shyness in tooting your own horn without being obnoxious about it.

So from the top …

Comment on your favorite blogs/vlogs. Nothing delights a reviewer faster. I lurked on all my own favorites for years before I ventured to comment, and that didn’t happen until I realized no one is expecting you to be 100% brilliant. Just be yourself. State what you appreciated, what stokes your curiosity, where you disagree – or not. This is called engagement, and engagement is (also) how you get a reputation for your reviews.

Do not, no matter how desperate, bludgeon your audience over your head by promoting your blog all the time, or even half the time you’re interacting on social media. Most people usually get it the first time. Leave it at that.

Courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

It’s that simple.

Next, you’ll need Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Post links to your blog/vlog to your FB profile, tweet about it, post your illustration on Instagram, and tag everyone relevant to your post. (This is reputation building, step two) This means following brands on FB, Twitter and Instagram, interacting with them, and tagging/hashtagging everything you possibly can. Join a few perfume groups on FB, and participate in the discussions you find there. Have Twitter conversations with perfume people. Again: courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

You will guaranteed encounter a brand that ignores you, if it’s even aware you exist to begin with, no matter how frequently you tag/hashtag them. This could be caused by that brand being narrow-minded (you’re not influential enough/you don’t have a big enough presence, followers or enough engagement, say), but could also be caused by your particular review not being ‘right’ for that brand – they can’t use it for marketing purposes. That is their prerogative to choose, not yours. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s them. Move on.

The Good Ship Relation

My inbox, meaning my email/Messenger/DM, blows me away on a daily basis. Many of the most touted/celebrated/platinum-coated-with-pavé-pink-diamonds/award-winning names in perfumery can be found in it, not because I’m so bloody bleeping fabulous, but because I’m a fellow human being and relate to them as such.

In writing about perfume, you are building relationships with the brands you review whether you realize it or not. Again – courtesy, gratitude and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing, and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t. Neither does indiscretion. You might be given access to privileged information, snark on other reviewers or super-juicy industry gossip. This will be a test of whether or not you can be trusted to be professional. So your reputation among brands – and trust me, if you keep it up, you’ll get there – will also be based on your ability to keep your mouth/keyboard shut when appropriate. Pick your battles wisely. Nurture your relationships with those people. You might be surprised at what you discover; friendships, common ground or interests, a shared sense of the ridiculous. Even a life-long friend or two. Or forty.

Brands are not the only place to establish relationships. Share your love of other blogs/vlogs. Send an email/comment/PM/DM to those colleagues you appreciate. Link to them. Social media is often predicated on the principle of mutual back-scratching. They might – and often do – the same for you.

Which brings me to …

The (not so) free lunch

If you’re venturing into perfume reviewing for ‘free’ bottles or samples – since many bloggers/vloggers review new releases – Stop. Right. There.

Walk away. This business is NOT for you.

First of all, there’s never, never, never ever any such thing as a free lunch. If a brand offers to send you samples or bottles (as opposed to you outright asking for them, or worse, demanding them), bet your vintage no. 5 extrait they want some bang for their buck. And no samples arrive without strings – a sliver of hope for a review at the least.

Those samples represent a substantial investment and cost, in terms of shipping, the man hours required for decanting, packaging, postage etc compounded to whatever costs the brand have in raw materials, research, marketing (when applicable), bottles (which are expensive) and perfume development. Should they offer you samples, it will be due to two things: a) they’re interested in your particular perspective, aka. The Best Case Scenario or b) they’re just shooting samples at any blogger/vlogger who moves because they have a new release and they need the PR. Option a) is something you will have earned by your consistency, your reliability, your discretion and your professionalism.

But it must be earned.

I’ve been alarmed by stories – yes, by perfume brands you know and love – of bloggers contacting brands and demanding full bottles for reviews. Should you be or become one of those, you will be ignored and deplored. The perfume industry is relatively small, the niche/indie part is even smaller, and word will and often does get around.

Think about it.

Likewise, bloggers attending industry events such as EsXence or Pitti Fragranze have been handing out price lists. Want a review? It will cost you XXX€.

If that’s your thing, by all means go for it. Just be aware that if you choose that option, in effect that brand is hiring you for PR. You may be fine with that.

call it corporate whoring.

Having said that, quite a few perfume bloggers have written copy for brands in other contexts and places. Even me. Yet when I have, I’ve done so under my real name and not as The Alembicated Genie. You’ll find not one sponsored post on this blog.

Not one.

One option is to buy your own samples. I’ve done this on a few occasions and never regretted it. For one, it demonstrates a definite interest in the brand and a commitment in cash. For another, it’s marvelous for keeping reviews honest. And lastly, it frees you from all commercial interests and agendas, to write what you choose.

Should I choose to review a perfume, you can be assured it’s for one reason only: to provide my own perspective. Period.

As an EU citizen, I’m not required to give disclosure for review samples, but a large part of my readership is international, so I always do.

On very rare occasions, I’ve been gifted with bottles. Notice the ‘gift’. Those bottles are considered and given in the spirit of appreciation and respect, and treasured accordingly. My entire current income is a student grant which is barely enough to live on, never mind buy perfume with. The irony of my perfume blog’s existence is that I can’t afford to buy what I review at all.

It happens I fall in love with something utterly beautiful, only to wail in despair once the sample goes. Two examples that come to mind are Palissandre d’Or and Sunshine Man. Notice they haven’t been reviewed, for no other reason than I’ve literally loved them to death, fumes and micro-droplets, and it was painful to see them go. Two hundred+  euros is my entire food budget for a (good) month, and I need to eat more than I need perfume, alas. So those ‘free’ bottles – which are actually earned the hard way, by writing and writing and writing about perfume – are treasures beyond rubies and emeralds. They shall never be sold, provide huge amounts of goodwill and heartfelt gratitude but will be drained to the last drop. While thinking fragrant, warm and fuzzy thoughts about the people who sent them. Because those incredibly kind and utterly generous people are worth it, and wonder of wonders, they thought I was, too.

Danger Zone

Some long time ago, a super-famous (and super-smart) feminist writer once wrote an essay about the dearth, comparatively speaking, of women artists. She had grown tired of all those who airily dismissed them as being afraid of failing. As she saw it, it wasn’t so much the fear of failing that held women back as artists, but the fear of judgment.

Things may have changed in countless ways since that essay was written in the 1970s. I’d say that they certainly have. Yet I would also say that she was right then, and right now.

Put your neck out, state your case, have an opinion, by all means. Just be prepared to be judged and found wanting. Since the advent of internet anonymity, any Jane or Joe Schmo can castigate anyone at all for any reason at all – real or perceived. They have nothing to contribute except their own negativity, and take it from me – that’s no way to live.

We call them trolls. They’re out there, and they are out to get you. Be prepared to stand your ground if you have to, and should you walk this perilous path of perfume reviewing, you will have to.

A few years ago, I received so much vitriol for my reviews I almost gave up writing. But that would mean they won.

Enter the terminal case of fuckits. Do it anyway if you dare, and this enormous post hasn’t completely discouraged you.

I see plenty of room in the perfume community for whatever type of reviews you choose. One form is no better than any other. Each has its own merits and drawbacks, and more to the point, each and every writer on this planet has his or her own unique voice. With just a little practice, that voice will out. Let it.

With super-special thanks to Margo and Liz for the spirited FB discussion that inspired this post.

Painting: Gerhard ter Borch, Woman Writing A Letter (1655)

Three Odes to Osmanthus

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three osmanthus-based perfumes for Spring

This morning, as I trudged to one of the few open grocery stores for milk for my coffee, something very obvious hit me on the way.

It is (still) a glorious, calm, bright blue, perfect Spring day. The sun is blazing away, there’s a hint of actual warmth in the air, and after being blasted by a wicked Easter nor’easter for over a week that kept the garret nearly arctic, the contrast is intoxicating. Somewhere in that shriveled black, cynical heart I call my own, all that daylight through my opened windows is wreaking havoc with wintery pessimism and however-shall-I-survive-exam-season-with-my-integrity-intact speculations. I might actually survive exam season, after all. (Especially if I read up!)

There might even … dare I write it … be possibilities for a perfume writer of dubious repute?

Because it’s Spring! And what better way to celebrate Spring than by wearing a flower that blooms in August and September? Anyone?

The flower is osmanthus fragrans, or as it’s known in English, sweet tea olive. Osmanthus the flower (last sniffed at the CPH Botanical Gardens in September) is a whole, opulent perfume in itself. It somehow manages to exude floralcy, fruity-apricots-with-a-tinge-of-marzipan and animalic leather/suede all at once.

So once I returned this morning, I hauled out three odes to osmanthus. They all contain differing interpretations of this humble little flower with the big odor profile I so adore, and few florals exemplify Spring quite so nicely.

The fruity flower

Parfum d’Empire Osmanthus Interdite (2007)

Perfumer: Marc-Antoine Corticchiato

A very long time ago, I blind-bought 10 ml of an Osmanthus Interdite split on the theory that a) I loved osmanthus and b) Marc-Antoine Corticciato has never, to my knowledge, made a bad perfume.

I’m not familiar with all of Parfum d’Empire’s perfumes, but of the ones I have tried, they are rather spectacular and highly unusual. I could write volumes on Azemours Les Orangers‘ orange grove perfection (and wail that my decant is practically empty), but Osmanthus Interdite  – another fast-diminishing decant – did not prove me wrong with either a) or b).

Inspired by the Forbidden City of Beijing, Osmanthus Interdite puts the flower front and center with an epic green tea note – a sibling of that other green tea note I once loved allthe way to discontinuation in Bvlgari’s ground-breaking Eau du Thé Verte. It begins with airy, lemony osmanthus, who introduces herself and slyly retreats as the green tea steps forward. Half an hour later, she makes another, grander entrance, bolstered by a hint of rose and jasmine, and now, we can sense her for what she truly is: a stunning, fruity floral for sophisticated grownups, blowing juicy apricot kisses to the adoring crowds, bridging the gap between smell and taste, which is smaller than you think.

The rose and jasmine hold her in place for the duration (6+ hours on me), and accentuates a hint of the soap she also conceals in her orange-yellow depths, before she finally drifts off on an exquisitely tanned suede accord to gild her edges.

I say ‘her’, since osmanthus in general strikes me as very much a feminine note, and Osmanthus Interdite  – ‘forbidden Osmanthus’ is very feminine to my nose. But don’t let that stop you – this would be fantastic on a man with the fortitude to thumb his nose at perfume conventions. Feminine, yes, but not frilly and with no perfume-y flou in sight, just a beautifully rendered osmanthus perfume that is always – again, a hallmark of Parfum d’Empire – always sophisticated, flawlessly delineated, and perfectly rendered.

Notes for Osmanthus Interdite:

Osmanthus, green tea, apricot, jasmine, rose, musk, suede

The Sultry Blooms

Perris Monte CarloAbsolue d’Osmanthe(2016)

Perris Monte Carlo came to my attention about two years ago when a perfume writer friend of mine reviewed their Ylang Ylang Nosy Be so beautifully, I wanted to forfeit a rent check and just buy it already. So I ordered a few samples from First in Fragrance, but for whatever reason, my order for a sample of Ylang Ylang Nosy Be didn’t go through, nor did my comment requesting it on my order. Absolue d’Osmanthe, however, arrived instead. If it’s any indication of the quality of the rest of the line as I suspect, then I’m done for.

Creative Director Gian Luca Perris took a very different tack with this osmanthus. This osmanthus is sourced from Guinan in China, famous for the quality of its osmanthus absolute.

Quality is the operative word here. Absolue d’Osmanthe exists in two incarnations – as do the other members of the Perris Monte Carlo Black Line – as an eau de parfum, and as a hyper-luxe extrait. Although I only have a sample of the eau de parfum, you’ll hear no complaints. As it is, Absolue d’Osmanthe has heft and sultriness to spare.

Sultry, I hear you ask? Sultry! Is my emphatic reply, for M. Perris avoided all the obvious traps of airy-fairy, girly osmanthus and decided to accentuate the, ahem, sexier side of osmanthus, by pairing it with the animale hidden within sandalwood, tolu balsam, vanilla (a dry and very woody vanilla without sweetness) and tied it all up with a pretty jasmine sambac bow. Voilà! Sultry osmanthus. I would never have guessed that sandalwood and osmanthus could sing such a duet, but sing, they do. The osmanthus is apparent right from the start, apricot and marzipan tones all accounted for, but the sandalwood makes the heart beat faster – in both the wearer and the perfume, before the tolu, labdanum and vanilla sashay in on orange-tinted sunbeams to show you just what osmanthus can also do. It is easily unisex and would be spectacular on the right guy. It lasted a full day through all its many twists and turns, and that, too was a surprise. Now, I have to hunt down samples of the rest of the Perris Monte Carlo Black Line (to start). Damn it.

Notes for Perris Monte Carlo Absolue d’Osmanthe: Osmanthus, jasmine sambac, sandalwood, vanilla, tolu balsam, labdanum.

The Silken Suede

Parfums Serge Lutens Daim Blond(2004)

Perfumer: Christopher Sheldrake

My gateway osmanthus is remarkable for not listing any osmanthus at all, but a not-at-all abstract representation of its listed notes that somehow, some way, all add up to an elegantly restrained, decidedly chic flower I shall henceforth refer to as ‘osmanthus-with-extras’.

Daim Blond came under my nose by way of a sample courtesy of the superlative perfume writer Lucy of Indieperfume, and it was – and eight years on, still is – love at first and four-hundred-and-fortieth sniff. I’ve worn it a lot this past winter when I needed to be reminded of alternatives to blustery, frigid days, or simply something besides my January disillusioned self.

It gets stranger still. One of my most loathed perfume notes in nature – the smell of flowering hawthorn, which induces instant, all-encompassing nausea – is listed as a top note, and although I can detect faint traces of hawthorn, I don’t care nearly enough to make a fuss about it, since the rest of it is simply glorious.

Apparently, Daim Blond is quite divisive, if the reviews on Basenotes and Fragrantica are anything to go by. Some smell a derivative Feminité du Bois, some a reworking of the great Iris Silver Mist, some a truckload of ‘tamed’ Arabie (a criminal thought!), and some just complain that M. Lutens was simply repeating himself and his famous Orientalist aesthetic. YMMV.

Yet I named Daim Blond my gateway osmanthus, because it was the first osmanthus-tinged perfume I encountered that I actually loved, enough to remember it when a friend asked about a birthday present and I suggested Daim Blond off the top of my head. Since it arrived, it has remained in constant rotation for the past three years, appropriate whether April or August or January, whether a school day of linguistics for ADHD students, or a night out in Copenhagen.

Like most masterpieces of perfumery and a few humans too, it exists between the spaces of its contradictions. Just as the odor profile of osmanthus itself, it is simultaneously fruity, floral and suede-leathery all at once, and this suede has the texture of melted Isigny butter. Wherever that suede came from, I’ll wager that was one exceedingly pampered goat/pig/cow.

But I would be hard pressed to name notes as such, for no other reason than on my skin, I get osmanthus in all its orange-gold glory, a smidge of a very discreet musk, and that flawlessly prepared suede. That’s all, and that’s already more than I deserve.

Notes for Daim Blond: Hawthorn, cardamom, iris, apricot stone, (iris?) pallida, musk, heliotrope, leather.

The osmanthus may bloom in August in Guinan, but few flowers put quite so much Spring in my steps as osmanthus. If you like yours bold with a side of opulence, I recommend Amouage Journey Woman. There is another fragrant traveler in my test drawer, but that one gets its own review. Stay tuned!

A Violet Tsunami

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– A review of Guerlain Insolence eau de parfum

On my way to purgatory/school every morning, the train passes through a series of beechwoods that line a deep river valley – the ‘deepest’ (we’re not talking a gorge here) in Denmark. And every morning, I keep my eyes peeled for the sheltered, south-facing spots beneath the trees and under the bracken, a telltale patch of tiny, round, emerald leaves. From what I’ve seen, it won’t be long before one of my personal favorite things about Spring arrives – the tiny, unassuming and deeply fragrant wood violet.

Pity the poor violet. Already, I’ve written unassuming. One hundred and twenty years ago, violet was arguably one of the most popular soliflores, adored by dandies and debutantes, grandes dames and ingénues alike, for its innocence, its lack of assumption, its sweet, green floralcy, and if not the violet, then its leaves, exuding grass and haricot vert, both flower and leaf containing the promise and the deliverance of spring.

I’ve loved violet for a long, long time, ever since a wax sample of Bois de Violette landed on my desk and for all its autumnal woody swags and flourishes, it brought me back in an instant to the beechwood floor and a tiny, purple-white bloom.

Violets and roses share common notes, and in combination give us the impression of expensive lipstick. Later, the heartbreaking violet note in another Lutens/Sheldrake creation, De Profundis, came along to blow my proboscis to smithereens, and yet another passionate violet-tinged love affair began, before I was gifted with a vintage mini of one of the greatest and grandest of them all, Germaine Cellier’s Jolie Madame for Balmain, which not only brought back indelible childhood memories of my mother’s perfume and the fur coat it saturated, but just about did the adult perfume writer mein, for being so perfectly rounded, delineated and composed.

You may have Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée at the top of your purple passions (I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it), but for me, Jolie Madame is at the very top of my own as one of the three Last Words On Violet(s).

It may be that to your mind, violets skew feminine or girly. Not so. Oriza L. Legrands Violettes de Czar is a very elegant, nostalgic and highly refined masculine, broad-shouldered violet that all but twirls its metaphorical Edwardian moustache, and if modern violet is your jam, I recommend Mona di Orio’s staggering Violette Fumée, an easily unisex, surprising twist on everything we thought we knew and not a few things we didn’t – about violets.

We have Italian violets in Borsari’s Violetta di Parma, and the sugary, sweeter violets of Toulouse in Berdues’ violet perfumes.

To the extent they have any common denominator, it’s that these violets – all of them justifiably famous violets – tread lightly on the ground. These are not insistent violets so much as insistently – and consistently – great violets, each with their own qualities, profiles and personalities.

Then came Insolence. If it came with an epithet, I could call it the Beast (of a) Violet.

Insolence, created in 2006 in a collaboration with the great Maurice Roucel and Sylvaine Delacourte at Guerlain, began life as an eau de toilette, and went on to encompass seven different flankers, one of which is the bottle now sitting on my desk in its dark purple bottle – the eau de parfum.

The eau de toilette – despite all our wailing that Guerlains no longer have any longevity (debatable) whatsoever – was a raspberry-violet-orange blossom bombshell with jaw-dropping sillage, created like most Guerlains these days for the ‘modern young woman’, but no ‘modern young woman’ – I personally know fifteen below twenty-five who fit the bill – would ever dare to be quite so … audacious in these perfume-phobic times. They’re all about blending in, whereas I am far past caring, and by Golly, if I want to be audacious, then audacious it is, and let them think what they may.

That attitude may be why I finally pulled the trigger at an online discounter last fall and bought a bottle of the eau de parfum in the ‘dirty dishes’ Serge Mansau bottle, and to hell with all consequences.

The first surprise was Ms Hare, who heard herself saying: “But this is good!” Later that same day, when I confronted the Dude with it, the second surprise was his reaction: “That smells delightful!”

Delightful? Seriously? Have I become so accustomed to perfumery avant-garde that I’m shocked when my immediate surroundings actually like my perfume?

Well … yes. Because it took me – a perfume writer these eight years and counting – not a little time before Icame around to Insolence. It was a bit like your first trip to the beach after an endless winter. You know the water will be cold, so you take in the ocean one toe at a time before diving in. For a long time, I took in Insolence one teeny spray at a time for fear my neighbor, the check-out girl, my study group, my teachers, the canteen ladies and my entire class of teachers-to-be would complain.

Loudly.

An inappropriate TL; DR way to describe Insolence compared to the rest of the Guerlains would be this:

Imagine Après l’Ondée has had her heart broken –again. One fatal night, she downs an entire bottle of 180-proof methyl ionone in her despair, and calls up her BF Tonka Imperiale, who drops everything and comes running over, all friendly concern, TLC and one forlorn, secret hope. And that was a whole bottle of 180-proof methyl ionone. Nine months later, Insolence arrives as a souvenir.

Accurate or not, this is not how perfume writers are made.

Insolence starts her life with a fog horn of an opening. I do mean – fog horn. Violet – this one is emphatically not shy, not unassuming, not, in short, anything like any violet tropes you might think you know, but loud AND proud – is hitting up the town with her friends raspberry and orange blossom, and this night of all nights, they’re all more than a little … tipsy. By the time iris and tonka bean arrive to chaperone them home, violet is still dancing on the tables to hoots and acclamation singing Piaf as she does into the table lamp, raspberry and orange blossom have long disappeared with two highly disreputable gentlemen, and everyone wakes up with a hangover the next day.

The iris adds deep, powdery facets, but we’re nowhere near baby powder territory here, this is a hard-to-obtain-even-in-Parisian-pharmacies face powder, which makes me suspect a smidge or two of damask rose deep within those purple depths. Some long, long time later, that violet is still in party mode, dancing her pas-de-deux with tonka bean, somehow becoming more true to her sweet, woody origins.

If Insolence contains any Guerlainade, I’d be hard-pressed to detect it, but being a Guerlain, crème patisserie always underpins the whole. It’s sweet, but not quite cloying, not quite over the top, not quite entirely… vulgar. It walks a line between extreme sophistication (I’ll get back to that) and outright brash vulgarity, but lucky for us, never dives all the way in.

Which brings me to my other main peeve.

Whoever among the marketing department of Guerlain came up with ‘modern young woman’ (because screw les femmes d’un certain age) should be shot on sight – or sniff. Just as I’d never recommend L’Heure Bleue to an ingénue, I hesitate to recommend Insolence to anyone below the age of twenty-five. It takes a kind of audacity to wear only achievable by age, and a degree of sophistication obtainable only by experience to appreciate. So I’ll go with ‘modern woman’, and ingénues need not apply. One way and another, I came around to Insolence, for all I wanted to loathe it. It’s precisely that tightrope between sophisticated and vulgar I so admire – and precisely why I think it’s brilliant. That too, is not something I’ve had to say about any newish Guerlain in a very long time.

A word of caution. If the eau de toilette was a bombshell, the eau de parfum is a violet H-BOMB. Meaning a little goes a l-o-n-g, long and LONG way. Three sprays have been known to last a full 16+ hours, something I’ve only experienced with certain extraits, most Tauers and all Amouages. The violet remains from topnotes to base notes, and that’s another first. Don’t wear this to a fancy dinner, darlings. Or if you do, apply lightly. Bring a decant. You can always apply more before hitting up that club, where you’re known by another name.

The Violet Tsunami. Take care it doesn’t sweep you, too, far, far away.

Notes for Insolence eau de parfum (from Fragrantica):Red berries, violet, iris, African orange flower, sandalwood, tonka bean, woody notes.

Insolence was originally created by Maurice Roucel and Sylvaine Delacourte for Guerlain in 2008. Available at perfume discounters, but be aware of the bottle – all previous Guerlain eaux de parfums in bottles of separate design are since 2017 sold in the “bee” bottles. I own the purple “stacked dirty dishes” edition shown below. Comments on Fragantica claim Insolence has since been reformulated and is now weaker and less tenacious.

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