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 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.

An invasive species

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 – a review of Amouage Bracken Man

Are you rubbing your metaphorical hands in anticipation? Looking forward to another Amouage “story”, where the perfume is used as a starting point for a short story that may – or not – tell you something about this perfume and set your own imagination alight? In which case, I apologize in advance for disappointing you. This won’t be one of thosereviews. But it very much will be a review of something I’ve literally been dying to try since its release in 2016.

Because … fougère! Because … Amouage! And last but never least, because this review is the mother and father of all avoidance actions. I have things to read, notes to take, empirical material to organize according to theoretical models and premises and other hazards to my sanity, and even an oral exam to prepare for in a week’s time. Screw all of that.

I’m reviewing a perfume, damn it!  To keep myself sane in the midst of academic anxiety. To retain the five readers who haven’t given up on me – yet. Because … perfume.

Damn it.

Amouage Bracken Man was released – along with its feminine counterpart, Bracken Woman, which I have yet to try, along with every other Amouage release since Myths – in 2016.

The reception was a bit more tepid than usual with Amouage releases, and since then, in remote corners of perfume discussion boards and other places where Planet Perfume tends to congregate, some members have come to dismiss Amouage altogether as a brand for committing that Cardinal Sin: going mainstream.

As evidence, they offered up all the floral Loves; Lilac, Blossom and Tuberose, as well as Beach Hut, Imagination and Figment. And of course, Bracken in either permutation.

These are the people who can’t get perfume avant-garde or edgy enough, ‘new’ enough, or perhaps I should say conceptualenough in order to applaud it. If it utilizes a raw material only obtainable in a tiny patch of rainforest accessible by two weeks in a canoe in some undisclosed, remote location on Borneo to capture the headspace before two weeks’ journey back to Port Moresby, say, or glorifies creosote, gunpowder, asphalt, or industrial-grade concrete as a perfume to wear, so much the better.

Serious perfume houses should be serious, damn it. They should push the envelope and the limits of what perfumery can do, and basically forget about, well, the basics; creating something beautiful, and if you’re (very) lucky, liquid literature, perfume someone like you or me would actually want to wear.

I have no particular interest of any kind in wafting industrial-grade concrete or creosote in my wake as I go about my day in classrooms, study halls or the library, but that’s just me. (You do YOU, readers!)

Most of the time, I just want to waft enough fabulosity to cut through the fug of ubiquitous Marc Jacobs Daisy whatevahs. Because by Golly, life’s too short for such ‘target demographic’ juice. Again, this is me.

It’s not that they’re horrible, because they aren’t. It’s that they’re – and this is where I show my own perfumista stripes – so goddamned ordinary and devoid of vision and creativity, transparent as chiffon in that millenial-pleasing, unobtrusive way. And Generation Y and Z buy them, wear them in their megagallons without so much as a smidgeon of irony, and search no further.

I would never in a gazillion alternate realities categorize the justly celebrated Amouage brand as ‘mainstream’. They have since Christopher Chong’s inception as Creative Director in 2007 indeed pushed the envelope and created perfumes that were liquid literature, fragrant epiphanies that had – indeed, still has – Planet Perfume in a swoon.

In terms of material quality, presentation and olfactory heft, you very much get what you pay for with Amouage, and if all you’ve known of perfume is the mainstream, you are really in for a visceral shock, which also applies to the price tag.

Mainstream pays nowhere so much attention to detail, but then again, you pay for that, if and as you can afford it. I can’t on a student grant, and it pains me infinitely more than you know.

So … does Bracken Man smell mainstream? Unobtrusive? Devoid of vision? My personal TL; DR version of those questions in that order would be yesno and depends on your perspective.

That may sound like a prevarication. Let me qualify.

Bracken Man is a fougère, by concept and association. Fougère = fern, bracken is the most ubiquitous variety of fern, therefore it follows that Bracken = fougère, that most ubiquitous of masculine perfume genres.

What many people tend to forget is that ubiquity tends to occur for a reason. Starting with the great revolution that was the original Houbigant Fougère Royale, and even more since the masculine fougère’s 1970s heyday, the green, spicy, herbal and earthy fougère has a lot to answer for. Barbershops. Shaving cream. Late nights in smoky clubs with super-obvious-scented ‘manly’ men who try those fatal nanometers too hard to impress. (These days, younger versions of those men who also fancy themselves perfume connoisseurs search for guaranteed panty-droppers. Argh.)

Those guys. The ones who wore Polo, Aramis, Azzaro pour Homme, or YSL Kouros to name but a few – all variations on the same overall, Fougère Royale-inspired theme of bergamot, lavender, spice and earth. Or to paraphrase Guy de Maupassant’s comment on the original 1880 Fougère Royale, an abstract representation of greenery, rather than a literal interpretation. And the fact is, that ‘abstract representation’ smells fantastic, not just to, but on very many people.

Many reviews on Basenotes and Fragrantica name Fougère Royale as a direct relative to Bracken Man, and even before you sniff it, one glance at the notes list confirms just how much DNA they have in common. It shows in the structure, if not the evolution, of both perfumes. To my nose, they are alike, but different, like brothers who share both parents.

My own bottle of the reorchestrated Fougére Royale – now reduced by the Dude’s heavy usage to fumes and a few droplets – is heavier on the bergamot, geranium, cinnamon and lavender. It is most emphatically g-r-e-e-n, a humid, well-manicured and maintained jungle green.

In contrast to Fougère Royale, Bracken Man is far dryer, more austere and pared back, without sacrificing any of the rich satisfaction of a) smelling a superlative-quality perfume or b) one fougère, flawlessly executed. Cypress – which could explain the dry feel of Bracken Man – and clove haul out the big guns for the lavender and nutmeg, and once you’re done for, the patchouli wraps you up for a soft, earthy landing in the bracken. Provided, of course, that you like fougères – and like how they unfurl as elegantly as any fern on you or on someone you care about.

If that reads as ‘mainstream’ to you, so be it. When the Dude took it for a five-spray test drive last Monday, he reported back on a lot of compliments from both men and women. Many more than he was used to wearing (my press sample) Opus VI.

Unobtrusive? As if. Amouage is NOT a brand for the perfume commitment-phobic. If your maximum attention span is below 10-12+ hours, stay well away from Amouage – anyAmouage, even this one. It will be noticed by your surroundings. It will remain on your sweaters for d-a-y-s, and your coat for weeks. A little goes a long way. Although Bracken Man doesn’t have the drop-dead sillage of Epic, Fate, Memoir or Lyric, and nestles closer to the skin after the first two hours or so, it still packs a mighty punch.

In unwrapping and dissecting Bracken Man, I also researched the name – or should I say, researched the fernPteridium Aquilinum, or Common Bracken. Common Bracken is considered one of the most common – and invasive – species of plant on Earth, and grows on every continent except Antarctica. We might admire them for their lush, green fronds, or their aura of fin-de-siècle curly excess, but they’d take over the planet if they could. Much like hairy-chested, gold-chain-wearing masculine fougères took over the 1970s Planet Perfume, only then, no one dared complain.

Devoid of vision? As I wrote above, that would depend on your perspective. If you’re coming from an avant-garde perspective, if you’re searching for industrial-grade concrete/creosote/gunpowder and ground-breaking, earth-shaking conceptualism, then yes.

It’s just a fougère.

On the other hand, it could also be that the original vision for Bracken Man was quite simple: Make a fougère. Make it inspired by the first of them all, but make it its own thing, give it its ownspin on ubiquity.

So they did. In so doing, they created their own kind of invasive species. And made it beautiful.

Like something people would actually want to wear.

A very, very special thank you to Ali Saif of Illum in Copenhagen, without whose kindness and enthusiasm this review would not have been possible. Find him on Instagram as @itsalisaif – he’s one of us.

Notes for Amouage Bracken Man (via Basenotes):Lemon, berganot, cypress, lavandin, nutmeg, clove, geranium, cinnamon, cedarwood, sandalwood, patchouli, musk

L’Incasta Diva

callasbyhirschfeld

– a review of Amouage Opus IX

Whether by accident or (infernal) design, I grew up in an opera-mad household. Family Christmas traditions included (among other things) at least one viewing of Milos Foreman’s Amadeus (because Wolfgang was the household god) and if my mother the histrionically addicted opera buff could get tickets for it, an Xmas ticket to another Christmas tradition at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen – a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade. One year, the ticket gods conspired to send Maman, her mother and both her daughters to see ‘Maskarade’, and my sister laughed as the orchestra struck up the overture and my giddy anticipation was painted all over my face.

Since I’m also the only one of my family to play a musical instrument (classical flute, violin and viola) and I did not run away screaming for my first live opera performance (Monteverdi’s Poppaea, not exactly entry level stuff), she hauled me to many, many others throughout the years, on the stage of the Royal Theatre (too many to count) as well as opera cinema – Carmen, Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, Bergman’s indelible The Magic Flute, and (my all-time favorite opera and opera film) Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni. Her one hesitation was hauling me to a one-time only performance of Wagner’s Parzifalbecause Wagner!”, and six hours of bum-numbed, utter flabbergasted stupefaction later, I still wasn’t sure I’d ever forgive her.

All of this is by way of saying that a) I’m no stranger to opera, live OR recorded and b) opera is the plural of ‘opus’ not to mention c) when you initiate your first-born into the opera lovers’ club, be prepared for the consequences.

Among them was our shared propensity for arguing about opera divas. Maman, you see, was a diehard Maria Callas fangal, and I… was not so much. So she would bludgeon me with ‘Casta Diva’ (from Bellini’s Norma), and I’d bash her right back with Kiri Te Kanawa’s Arabella. Or when I really wanted to get her goat: Renée Fleming.

This elicited one of two responses. Either I’d get frozen in the headlights of a Scorpio Glare (trust me, it’s a Thing) before a lecture on how altos (that would be me) never did see the point of sopranos out of spite since all the best female opera parts are always, always written for sopranos (true), or else, she’d haul out her trump card:

La Traviata.

You don’t argue with Maria Callas’ interpretation of Violetta. You. Just. Don’t.

Apparently, neither did Christopher Chong of Amouage when he cited La Divina Callas’ Violetta as his inspiration for the latest in the Opus line of Amouage perfumes , Opus IX.

My experiences with the perfumes of the Opus line have been a bit like singing a blonde bimbo version of Wagner’s Parzifal: I know I’m looking for something but I’m never sure what it is, and I’m always asking all the wrong questions and looking in all the wrong places. Opus V was an instant love, and so was VI. VII has to be my most confounding moment in my five years as a perfume writer, and VIII was… I’m still not sure. The Jasmine That Ate Manhattan?

Here and now, we have one of the most famous voices and characters on Earth, bottled. So how does it smell? Does it conjure up images of divinity, sublime musicality and all the fabulous ferocity and staggering beauty Maria Callas called her own?

Well, I’ll begin with the big one: Opus IX belongs to what I call The Brunette School of Perfume, meaning it will likely do wonders for the hordes of jasmine-fanatic brunettes out there.

Ms. Hare – a brunette, a Leo and rabid Amouage fangal – borrowed it for nefarious purposes and was quite pleased with wafting a fantastically fragrant, flawless honey-sweet jasmine sambac F over C# along with the not at all sotto voce animal growls of those nefarious purposes.

Try as I may, I can’t argue with skin chemistry, and you, dear reader, know as well as I do that genetics, diet, temperature and mood all have their parts to play in how to make a perfume sing on the stage of your skin no matter what the press release copy/libretto wants you to believe. My theory of what I’ve come to call the Brunette School of Perfume is this: certain types of grandiloquent Oriental perfumes smell infinitely better on brunettes.

Yours truly – a pale, buxom, vertically challenged dishwater blonde Taurus – tends to pull perfumes in a greener, more bitter direction, which goes a long way towards explaining my lifelong love of green floral chypres and fougères.

Opus IX is no chypre (In my demented imagination, if chypres sang they’d be altos out of spite!), but a great, grand, 24-karat whopper of an Oriental Diva with a scintillating Capital D.

Camellia is listed as a note and a reference to Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias which in turn inspired the plot of La Traviata, but so far as I’m aware almost all camellias are scentless. Not something you could ever say about jasmine sambac, which in this instance is dusted with pepper, a slightly powdery puff of an imaginary fragrant camellia and curled around a woody, fiery and sweetly leather-flecked heart.

Don’t be fooled. This jasmine can s-i-n-g, hitting that fabled F over C smack bang on those bright, pulsing quarter-note dots of beeswax and ambergris.

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Ecce La Diva

Ecce La Diva.

If you’re looking for the kind of drop dead glamourie that sweeps up its audience in a swoon, this is emphatically it. I’ve never smelled anything like it, and after this I don’t know why I’d even bother. The opening reminds me of those famous lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias, but with a twist:

Sniff on this art, ye mighty, and despair.

And then comes a slinky, silky feline on not-at-all stealthy paws and begins to purr, growl and roar right along with the jasmine in a duet to the death where neither will back down an inch. Ever.

The notes listing has ambergris (quite apparent) and civet, and I’ll come right out and say it: if you dislike civet, this will not change your mind. Civet happens to be one of my two most favorite animalic notes, but I’ve never, ever met a civet base note quite so lascivious? Lecherous? Licentious? as this one. This jungle cat is on the prowl looking for a decidedly different kind of carnal dinner for a fantasy blue movie rated a whole lot more than triple X.

Which is where Opus IX remains on this bathetic blonde for well over 24 hours. It’s the jasmine that gobbled up Manhattan before devouring Milano, Venice, Paris and London, until the civet jungle cat challenged her to a duelduet where they’ll both go down in fragrant flames – or crimes – of passion that might explicate the faint whiff of melancholy I detected in the far drydown.

Violetta expires – ah! The tragedy! – in the third act of La Traviata, right when all possibilities are opened up, when Alfredo returns, ‘Gran Dio … morir si giovane’, ‘Great God, to die so young…’, and just as the tragic Violetta, La Diva Callas, too, left this world far too soon, leaving behind, as all great artists do, a legacy of superlative musicality, a voice unlike any before or since and drop-dead, deathly intimidating glamour on top.

Some long, long time later came a perfume fully worthy of everything Maria Callas was and all she did – called Opus IX.

But somewhere between Maria Callas, my operatic memories and Opus IX, I have an urge to call it something else. A spin on another of her immortal arias, and with all due apologies for mangling the beautiful Italian language.

I’d call it ‘L’Incasta Diva’. ‘The Unchaste Goddess’.

Gaze upon her work, ye mighty, and despair.

Amouage Opus IX is available from First in Fragrance, Luckyscent and directly from the Amouage website.

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Notes: Camellia, jasmine, black pepper, gaiac wood, leather, beeswax, vetiver, ambergris and civet.

Disclaimer: A sample of Opus IX was sent by Amouage for review. With thanks to the Very August Personage. And the ghost of a diva.

Illustrations: Caricature of Maria Callas by Al Hirschfeld, 1958. Photo of Maria Callas in the Royal Opera House 1958 production of La Traviata. Photo of the Library Collection Opus IX, Amouage. Used by permission.

The Epiphanies of 2014

C4crown

  • the thrills and spills of the past year in perfume

It’s that storied time of year again when I finally sit down and decide on my favorites of (the thankfully passé) 2014. In spite of a frantic year that was frantic for all the wrong reasons, and in spite of far too much to review and not nearly enough time to write about it, I did indeed, thanks to dear and generous friends and my own initiative, get to stick my nose in not a few things I loved this year, many I very much liked and a few I absolutely loathed.

This time, instead of posting three separate lists, I’ve decided to mix things up a bit on one ultra-list, otherwise you and I will be here ‘till Doomsday, and I don’t know about you, but I have a long to-do list this year…

Another thing I feel compelled to point out is that many of the perfumes that have made it to this list have yet to be reviewed. Some because… well, that’s a surprise I’ll be getting back to in a bit. In so doing, that violates a principle I have about only including the things I reviewed, but we all have things to do. Some will be reviewed here on TAG, and others… well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The Worst of 2014

We might as well get the bad stuff over with.

Which means that whoever is in charge chez Parfums YSL will be the first to go down in flames in my revolution dream. It evidently wasn’t enough to slaughter one of the greatest perfume heritages of the late 20th century in terrible/lazy/rushed refomulations, nor even to pour ‘PVC+phthalate doll accord’ into the dregs of (badly reformulated) Paris and call it ‘Parisienne’. But did whomever-should-be-shot-with-current-version-Tabu stop to think about how we would perceive Black Opium? Because it is neither ‘black’ in the slightest, nor Opium in the least particular. It’s as forgettable and unremarkable as last year’s haute blondes. Henceforth, I shall proceed to call it (“perfume”) Methadone, except it neither alleviates Opium withdrawals nor the nostalgic pangs of prior highs. When Hedi Slimane, chief designer at YSL, finds it necessary to dissociate himself from it in a press release, you know it’s one terrible idea. Horribly executed. Alas, not fatally.

Oud

Perfumers and perfume houses: I have a announcement for you:

I. Am. So. Over. Oud.

And yes, I do like oud, except not so much the barnyard stable ‘fierce’ ouds, and certainly not the synthetic oud that passed for the real thing this past year. This is a trend that needs to die. You still have flowers, woods, resins, plants, all with their own languages to explore and their stories to tell. Start listening.

Hyperinflation

True luxury, stated a friend of mine in the know, is always inclusive. Meaning that inflating an already hefty price tag on a niche perfume, pouring gold dust all over the bottle (or whatever gimmicks are used to justify the price tag) and marking it all up by at least 5000% is not, in fact, luxurious at all. It’s simply, as I see it, pandering to the lowest audience of all: those who are too unsophisticated and too rich to know better. There are far too many ‘hyper-luxe’ sheep masquerading as big, bad wolves worth their prices. If I ever have 1000€ to spend on perfume (because I can dream!), I hope to spend it where my business is properly appreciated, not where I leave with a big, fat “SUCKER” tattooed in risible ink on my forehead. Roja Dove and Diaghilev extrait, here’s looking at you, and I say that because Diaghilev in extrait is literally flawless. And forever and always out of my reach. Damn it.

Flankers.

Because they display a distinct lack of inspiration or ambition, and I can’t decide what’s worse. Maybe both?

Worst idea:

Guerlain Shalimar Souffle de Parfum. I spent the better part of two hours trawling through a large Copenhagen Sephora this Christmas on the first day of the sales, and lo and behold, there was Shalimar and Souffle, and I thought I might as well live a little. While I was certainly impressed with the original current-version Shalimar (although I much prefer the amped-up vanilla frangipane of Shalemur), this was a baby-faced powder puff girl desperately trying to look about 30, because that’s, like, old. Or mature. Or something. I wonder whether the marketing department of Guerlain has a huge THINK YOUNGER neon sign somewhere. The problem is, those ingénues don’t have the cash to go to town on perfume. We gens d’un certain âge, on the other hand, do. Grow up, Guerlain! Thierry Wasser – you’re better than that. And you know it.

Worst trend:

Before I shoot myself in the metaphorical foot here, let me start by saying this is me. Your mileage may vary. Yet for all I adore consuming both chocolate and coffee, sometimes together, I’m emphatically not a fan of wearing either of them. (There are a very few exceptions.) It could be my skin chemistry, it could be something else, but as soon as I try, virtually all the perfumes I’ve tried with either note just grows and grows and grows into an espresso-choc Godzilla, the second before I’m eaten alive. Argh!

The Best of the Best

Biggest Overall Unexpected Surprise:

Jardins d’Écrivain’s Junky.

Please forget that I’m a perpetually immature overgrown teenager who took an inordinate amount of glee in wafting Junky a good deal of this past summer and fall, and then laying it on my unsuspecting audience when they asked what I was wearing. But Junky – just as the other things I’ve sniffed so far from Jardins d’Écrivain’s line – is a super-seamless unisex green floral I can’t get enough of whatever the season or the reason. I’m hopelessly addicted. You can bet your vintage My Sin I hope to explore the rest of Jardins d’Écrivains in detail, tout de suite!

Best Seamless Floral, Part One:

aroma M Camellia Perfume.

If your heart belongs to that grand age of perfumes à la Française, if Coco Chanel had a few great ideas in perfumery at least, if you like your flowers bold and luxurious, if you also love the glories of frankincense all wrapped up in a bow of Parisian Ooh la la!, if in short you’re a nostalgia freak like me, then you might love aroma M’s stupendously beautiful Camellia Perfume.

Best Perfume I didn’t expect to like, but did:

Parfums Serge Lutens Borneo 1837

It smells like unearthed secrets and undiscovered sins of the most glamorous, Baudelairean kind. A dry, dusty, ever-so-slightly rose-flecked, cocoa-dusted patchouli that shouldn’t work at all, but does. This past autumn, I’ve been rereading J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature and The Damned. I suspect Des Esseintes would be all over Borneo, just as Huysmans would be all over Parfums Serge Lutens, when the paradox is actually the other way around!

Honorable Mention: I’m ashamed I haven’t tried this one before now, even considering I’m such a fan of leather perfumes. But Chanel’s Cuir de Russie has been growing on me like a fungus, and the more I wear it, the more I love it. Who knew?

Best Mainstream releases:

Even in my backwater part of the world, miracles happen. Such as the time I discovered Dior Homme Parfum

in my local chain shop. Since I consider the original Dior Homme (and Dior Homme Intense) among the greatest masculines ever made and I wear them whatever the label, I had to sniff this one. I was not disappointed. François Demachy, you have almost redeemed yourself. I dreamt about smelling this on the right kind of man for days. Lacking that option, I’d wear this super-sexy film noir beast, too.

Balmain Ivoire Eau de Parfum:

The original (I have a vintage eau de toilette) Ivoire is such an all-star favorite of mine, it was the very first true perfume review I wrote. There is neither a season, a reason nor an occasion when it is less than perfectly satisfying, perfectly lovely in its green soapy-sappy-aldehyde aura and perfectly appropriate. So I was expecting another hot-mess reformulation when Balmain launched the eau de parfum in 2014, only to find they’ve kept virtually everything that made the original so great except the oakmoss base. And speaking of…

Best “We’re not worthy!” perfume, Part One:

Every so often, it happens that a perfume launches I suspect Planet Perfume isn’t entirely prepared for. In 2014 came Bogue Profumo’s MAAI. Holy St. Mary Magdalene! Antonio Gardoni took tuberose, that most erotic of flowers, and super-glammed and super-sexed it up, and up and up and UP. No Superman would stand a chance against this perfume Kryptonite. It is as luxe, as grand, as velvety-plush, as mossy, as heady and did I mention s-e-x-y? as anything the Eighties ever dreamed of. I’m saving that sample for a date night with definite ulterior motives, presuming that ever happens. As they say, hope springs eternal, and Signor Gardoni – I’m not worthy! Of either hope or this perfume, I can’t quite decide… 😉

Best New Perfume House:

Aedes de Venustas. AdV, the storied Greenwich Village perfumery store, has a very special place in my black and decadent heart, because once upon a time, their printed catalog provided all the perfumes I had – to dream about. Some time later, my sister brought me back a modestly priced perfume from Aedes, and whoever sold it to her was also sweet enough to provide samples for a severely aesthetically and perfume-starved woman. I never forgot it. So when Robert Gerstner and Karl Bradl launched their own perfume line in 2012 with their eponymous Aedes de Venustas, naturally I sat up and paid attention. Fate had plans when I was sent samples of everything AdV and they all blew me away. The running theme of Aedes de Venustas is incense – heartstopping, sacred, swoon-worthy incense, in unexpected combinations that both intrigue and hugely please this jaded perfume writer. I’ll be getting to those marvels in future posts. On that note…

Best Resurrected Floral, Part One:

Why carnation has such a fuddy-duddy, dowdy reputation is completely beyond me. I can’t get enough of carnation; peppery, rosy, clove-ish, fiery, feisty, thick, sweet and utterly delicious. Carnation sprang into my awareness with a bang when I had the chance to try a brand-new carnation (or so I thought) through a perfume split of Aedes de Venustas’ Oeillet Bengal. I bought a decant blind and promptly… adored it. Oeillet Bengale – actually, the name of a rare China rose – is a peppery, rich, rosy incense-laden wonder that shot to the top of my Hotly Coveted FBW wishlist, especially since that decant is going, going…

A Rose is a Rose is a Marvel… a.k.a. Best We’re Not Worthy, Part Two:

Not many perfumers can claim to have not one perfume that doesn’t do me any favors. The one who does like no other is Vero Kern of vero profumo. Heaven help me, I love all her work in any version: Rubj, Kiki, Onda (Onda did take a while) and Mito. So Vero gave us Rozy, her fragrant tribute to Anna Magnani in ‘The Tattooed Rose’, and just when you thought there was nothing new to say about rose, here is Rozy: emphatic, dramatic, sensuous and earthy, with a honey-flecked sweetness that shows a true maître’s effortless hand. I’ll have a time-travelling tale for Rozy’s crimson glories, but more on that one later…

Best Heatwave Antidote/Best Re-Release:

Tauer PerfumesCologne du Maghreb.

Bless dear Andy Tauer for re-releasing this instant 2011 classic, for it subverted much I thought I knew about Tauers and everything I assumed about colognes, mainly that most of them are boring, as Cologne du Maghreb never, ever is. It is sparkling, subtle, intricate, cooling, distinctively different and utterly delicious, and over several sweaty weeks of a summer heatwave, it kept me and my composure as cool as a glass of chilled cedary lemonade. I think of ‘July’, and I think of this cologne. Because It’s That Good.

Best All-Round Unisex:

Olympic OrchidsBlackbird.

‘Fruity’ – as in ‘berry’ – and I don’t get along that well. But Ellen Covey’s perfume for Seattle store Blackbird is an exception to that rule. This wondrous green concoction with a heart-of-darkness is an ode to the blackberry bushes (something of a plague) of the Pacific Northwest, and if you think blackberry and balsam firs don’t mix, think again. Many of Ellen’s creations have an extraordinary sense of place, and Blackbird’s verdant ode to where the sweet wild things are has been known to make me sing in the dead of night and high noon too, showing just how much one of my favorite perfumers just keeps on getting better and better. And better.

Best Bottled Gothic Autumn:

Neil Morris Fragrances’ October & Chasing Autumn.

Neil Morris is another perfumer whose nose has an exceptional sense of place, and never more dexterously demonstrated than in his two tributes to the beauty of a New England fall, October and Chasing Autumn. Everything I love and adore about autumn is here: the scent of apples on trees and on the ground cradled by leaves, burning leaves and bonfires, the breath of forest trees breathing their seasonal farewells as flaming leaves dance a timeless measure to the forest floor. I do mean everything. If October is mulled wine, apple cider and all things sweetly great on a peerless Sunday October afternoon, then Chasing Autumn is a forest… of Halloween bonfires and eerie shadows in the dark beyond, a resolutely Gothic ode to all things autumnal with no signs of that fabled new England restraint. Nathaniel Hawthorne could do them justice. I’m not sure I could. I’ve never come across anything quite like either of them, and since they’re Neil Morris creations, I know I never will.

Favorite Perfume Experiment:

Sometimes, instead of simply chasing after the Next New Things, it can be good to take a deeper look at what you actually have. The results may surprise you. I was very surprised to learn I owned no less than 22 different Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake creations in varying degrees of full bottles, decants and samples. I then proceeded to wear each of them consecutively over the course of about two weeks, and gained a whole new artistic and aesthetic appreciation of all of them. It goes without saying I don’t have nearly enough of any of them, and wish for at least eleven more…

Happiest Perfume of 2014:

Amouage Sunshine

On rare occasions on Planet Perfume, a concept, the execution of that concept and the final result come so seamlessly and perfectly together it’s all you can do to keep your cool before you surrender with a helpless shrug and a laugh in the face of such beauty. Sunshine arrived with impeccable, supernatural timing at a time when I was seriously considering to pack it in as a perfume writer and just give up the ghost of ever trying to capture the ephemeral art through words. Yes, I reviewed it. No, my words didn’t convey what I had hoped they would. But a few scant days later, I held my daughter as she made me a grandmother to a lovely little girl, and since it was the only thing I had with me at the time, I gave her Sunshine. To see the joy on my daughter’s face as I did was all the sunshine that cold night in November needed. To experience the arrival of a new generation perfect baby girl was all the immortal sunshine I needed. Apropos finding the right words…

Proudest Moment in Prose, 2014 edition:

Amouage Journey

I’ll be honest – Christopher Chong made it very easy for me. Shanghai in the 1930s, Chinese film noir and all things grand and great (noblesse oblige!), wrapped up in the two parts of Journey Man and Woman, one a fiery gold Chinese dragon, the other a sublime osmanthus song, my story of Journey counts among my finest – and hardest – hours as a perfume writer. It took me into new and wondrous places in my research and made me wonder at that story’s continuation of ‘a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was an improbable fiction anywhere else but here’. You’ll find no clichés in either Journey, but just as all the best journeys do, you’ll be a changed person when you return home. Whenever I wonder at why I even bother to write about perfume, which happens at least once a day, I look to Amouage. Oh. Yes. That’s why.

Greatest Shapeshifter Perfume of 2014:

Aftelier Palimpsest.

Mandy Aftel’s Palimpsest, inspired by the layer-upon-layers-and-lines of ancient manuscripts, is without question the greatest shapeshifter I encountered in 2014. I’ve never experienced a perfume containing the Australian firetree before, which partly explains it, but this thick, honeyed animalic-peachy-ylang-ylang growl in a bottle did two spectacular things: It completely flummoxed a perfume writer of four years’ standing, and shape-shifted entirely from ‘dead-wildebeest-wearing-ylang-&-jasmine-wreath’ on a blonde semi-vegetarian to a sumptuously sexy come-hither Mae West on Ms. Hare, the carnivorous brunette. Which only goes to prove the artistry of Mandy Aftel and also the maxim, written through several layers of parchment… chemistry is everything.

Best Resurrected Floral, Part Two:

DSH Perfumes Scent of Hope

Among vintage perfume lovers, a select few perfumes stand out for their greatness of execution, their scope of imagination and their sheer, jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand artistry. When perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz was given the bespoke assignment of recreating one such perfume, Jacques Fath’s fabled 1947 Iris Gris for a private client, she apparently succeeded beyond all imagining and expectation. Luckily for those of us who don’t have access to the Jacques Fath original (and being an iris lover, trust me, it’s on my list!), Dawn decided to make it available for the rest of us, and if the original Iris Gris is even 10% of this, then by Golly, it deserves its reputation. Scent of Hope is the apex of Great, Grand Perfume and the perfumer’s art: a peerless, perfect contradiction of everything you’d suspect an orris-centric perfume could be, warmed by the caress of a sun-kissed peach. I thought she outdid herself with Iridum, another of her iris perfumes, but Dawn has had an astonishing creative year and Scent of Hope is among the stratospheric best perfumes I’ve ever encountered. In my life. Why my fixation on the art of perfumery? (Also) Because miracles like Scent of Hope happen. Stay tuned!

Best Floral Reinvention:

Envoyage PerfumesFiore di Bellagio

Readers, bear with me. I tried. I truly did. I tried to think of something else, tried to stir things up a bit, tried to come up with alternatives and be a little different this year. Only to have to give up the ghost, shrug in surrender and kowtow to the spectacular talent of Shelly Waddington of Envoyage as she once again blew my proboscis to smithereens with the companion perfume to last year’s no less spectacular Zelda. Fiore di Bellagio, her ode to Ernest Daltroff’s 1927’s Caron classic, Bellodgia, is neither Zelda nor Bellodgia, but something altogether otherwise and resolutely one of a kind. If you could somehow wrap up all the glamour, all the glitz, all the decadent fun and all the flowers of a 1920s summer day in a luxurious villa at Lake Como, you might come up with something this great, this grand and this glorious. Or, if you love carnations, summers, epically great perfumes and all those words imply, you could take the easier route and head straight for Envoyage and buy a vat of Fiore di Bellagio, the instant before you plant Shelley Waddington on an onyx pedestal in the Perfume Pantheon of Fame and crown her with 20 carat diamond-studded dianthus blooms. This was another high apex of 2014 perfumery for me and although I realize I’m repeating myself (and an army of other perfume bloggers and writers), but there is method to my madness: I recognize greatness when I smell it. That’s all. Go buy it!

My Greatest Perfumers of 2014:

I can’t even hesitate here, and if you’ve read this far, this is a foregone conclusion. But with everything I’ve stuck my nose in this past year, I’ll have to hand it to two. Understand that even the names that made this (overly long) list are at the very top of their game, but these two outdid themselves and their justly deserved stellar reputations:

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz & Shelley Waddington

I’m not quite sure what to say about Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, since I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Dawn has had the most amazing, productive and creative year. Whether it’s her tribute to the Impressionists in her Passport à Paris collection, her Cannabis Culture Collection (review pending), her Brilliant Collection (ditto) or the utterly flabbergasting Scent of Hope (likewise totally ditto), Dawn should be right up there will all the Great and the Grands of perfumery, indie and otherwise.

Shelley Waddington nearly did me in. After taking my breath away with Zelda last year, she pulled another epic rabbit out of her proverbial top hat with Fiore di Bellagio. I had some intimations of what I was in for. Only to find that they weren’t nearly big enough. But Shelley Waddington certainly should be. Make it so…

A Waft of Things To Come

Anticipation is part of the pleasure of writing about perfumes. I’ll never know what pleasures lie ahead. But apart from spending this winter catching up on my review backlog and returning full-speed as a perfume writer to the best of my capabilities, I anticipate becoming acquainted with two ‘new’ brands that have been on my radar for a while: Oriza L. Legrand and Stéphane Humbert-Lucas’ 777. Stay tuned!

Another thing to anticipate is the arrival of not-your-usual perfume book at some point in the year. If you appreciate my perfumed fictions, you might like this book, which will feature not just the Greatest Hits, but also ten brand-new perfume stories, some of which have not been reviewed yet. Watch this space for a book by yours truly with the salacious title: Stories of L’Eaux.

Rumor has it that Neela Vermeire Creations (another all winner line for me) will launch her newest perfume later this year. Are we excited yet? I know I am!

So what are you, dear readers, anticipating in the year to come? What took your breath away this past year, what do you hope to try, what floats you out the door in a cloud of scented bliss?

Tell me all about them in the comments! And have a happy, healthy, fortuitous 2015, too!

With special and perpetual thanks to my greatest enablers and loudest encouragers: Val, Portia, Lucy, Shelley, Dawn, Maria, Neil, Ellen, Andy and Mandy.

Photo: The crown of Danish king Christian IV, 1596.

A Catholicon for November

amouagesunshine

Today was one of those days that reminded me of nothing so much as a particular kind of 1870s French novel, say Emile Zola’s Thèrése Raquin – a dismal, dank, dreary, lead-colored day drenched in chill rain so fine, it felt more like the raspy pinpricks of a dust storm than actual H2O.

In other words, a very typical November day in my obscure corner of Niflheim. Of all the twelve months of the year, November is the month I loathe the most/like the least. The weather worsens by the day unless it simply remains dire, dismal and drenched. Daylight oozes away drop by drop in the dark spaces between the days until all that’s left at the end of the month besides the hollow echo of my bank account is just over six all too short hours by which time, I’m so crabby even my cats avoid me.

Crabby isn’t the word I’d use to describe my mood this Wednesday. In fact, I was rather upbeat for a big change as I headed through the mist for the post office to collect a package. Having recently blown money on books I’d long been dying to read, I was looking forward to nothing more electrifying than literary edification and maybe a little inspiration of a kind blocked writers know all too well.

Yet it wasn’t J. K. Huysmans ‘Là-bas’ that smoldered on the post office counter this afternoon with all its diabolical syntax and perverse pleasures.

Instead, it was another kind of pleasure and an altogether different kind of weather report – a sample of Amouage’s new limited edition release from the Midnight Flowers collection – the aptly named Sunshine.

When I discovered the return address on the label and spluttered my habitual (and unrepeatable) epithet reserved for Amouage packages, I got my usual response: for a few seconds, the queue ground to a halt, an angel walked through the room as we say in Danish, and everyone else probably wondered what was in that package to deserve such a loud, spontaneous reaction and a sashay in my step nowhere in evidence when I walked in the door a few minutes before.

Sunshine is a part of the Midnight Flowers collection that also includes the matching candles and room sprays named Hope, Love, Happy and Smile. A portion of the proceeds of this collection is donated to a charity to support guide dogs for the visually impaired.

Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong has, so far as I can tell by the evidence everywhere supplied by Fate, Opus VIII and Journey, been on an upward-bound mood swing.

Sunshine is an exuberant, bubbly and yet sublimely elegant perfume from its effervescent top to its delicious base and best of all to this aldehyde-phobic perfume writer, not one aldehyde was fleeced in the making of this perfume.

Normally, an Amouage perfume is a demanding haute couture-clad operatic diva to parse and interpret. It takes time, consecutive tries and not a little effort to appreciate its complexity and for me to coax whatever genies and/or stories from within the bottle. This is precisely why I love them so much – they keep me on my toes in all the very best creative ways.

Yet Sunshine – for all it’s very much and most emphatically an Amouage – is nothing like any of them. This was an instant, split-second coup de foudre bolt-from-the-blue, love at first sniff, and we’ve only just met …

So dear readers, bear with me as I try to calm down and make sense of something that makes my heart sing in ways sadly lacking this November. I rushed home from the post office, shushed the cats, and applied a cloud of it.

Such a cloud it is – a bright, bouncing laugh as sweet as a dolce far niente day spent in a hammock with a good book. If this brings to mind casual clothes and bare toes, a juicy, green crème de cassis vibe will tell you that’s exactly right.

Yes. I did say that. A casual, laid-back, chillaxing and positively groovy Amouage, which would be both a paradox and an oxymoron if it weren’t so true.

Go right ahead and laugh just because you can.

But wait! There’s far more joy in store!

How do you like your flowers? Sweetly heady with a faint blush of marzipan and vanilla? That’s the large box of Ladurée macarons glowing on the table at your side in this warm and summery shade, only these are flavored with a seamless bunch of osmanthus, jasmine and creamy, lemony magnolia so you can live it up not a just a little but a lot.

Live it up you surely will, because everywhere you go there you are, bathed in your own beam of sunshine exuding all the promises and boundless optimism of a delicious, ravishing love at first, second and thirty-second sniff.

You’ll find no November here, no doom, leaden clouds or literate gloom, only a far-off powdery poof of verdant, green patchouli and sweet tobacco as that life-enhancing light slants towards the horizon and the memory of a flawless, sunshiney day that will stick with you for weeks, months and years to come.

That one perfect day when sunshine was all you needed to have hope, feel loved, be happy and smile.

I dare anyone who wears this not to.

About the only pain I feel – and trust me, it is very much a pain – is that not everyone will be able to feel those gold-perfumed rays for themselves. Sunshine is a limited edition 100 ml eau de parfum exclusively available at the seventeen Amouage boutiques worldwide until February 2015.

As for me, buried alive and wrestling the Muse in the dire, obscure depths of Niflheim, I think that everyone should have a chance to breathe in the Sunshine.

It’s the perfect antidote, panacea (even for debilitating writer’s block!) and cure-all for autumnal blues and blahs.

In other, lusher, brighter words, a catholicon for November.

amouage-unshine-2

Notes: Artemisia, blackcurrant, almond, osmanthus, jasmine, magnolia, vanilla, juniper, patchouli, papyrus and blond tobacco. The perfumer is Sidonnie Lancasseur. 

Images: Paisley Sun by Tessa Hunt Woodland, Fine Arts America. Photoshop modification by yours truly. Image of Amouage Sunshine presentation courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission.

Disclosure: A sample of Sunshine was provided for review by Amouage. I was not paid, bribed or in any way intimidated for this review. But I thank the Very August Personage for his help in smashing through a massive wall (and long draught) of severe writer’s block that melted away like ice cream in a ray of sun. 

A Sunrise and A Soft Goodbye

shanghaijourney

One Last Sunrise

– a story and a review of Amouage Journey

The Peace Hotel, The Bund, Shanghai, late July 1937

He could never remember afterwards how long he stood at the French doors watching the sky above the Bund and over the China Sea bloom from its dark midnight blue to the paler, opalescent, star-flecked hues of gold and violet of impending sunrise. This would be his final sunrise in Shanghai, the last time he would stand by this balcony with this view of a future he could scarcely have imagined on the mean, narrow alleys of Kowloon where everything began so long ago.

How could he have known in that other life, when all he had been was the second son of a simple woodcarver from an endless line of artisans, Cantonese who came to Kowloon hoping to find better, richer, more prosperous lives than their hallowed ancestors?

Look at me now, Father, he thought to himself as the sky above the Bund grew ever lighter, look at me now with my flawlessly tailored suit and my movie star haircut in Shanghai’s most elegant hotel, watch me walk out the door of this hotel suite with my expensive suitcases, watch me as I walk up the gangplank to the SS Aurora with my first-class passage to Valparaiso and onward to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, see me as I leave this old and tired and uncertain world behind with my new name and my new life shining all its unknown and very modern promise in front of me.

He had come so very far from his old Wong Tai Sin of Kowloon self, today would go farther still, for today would be the day he left his old self and old Shanghai behind. Already, rumors and not so idle talk flowered in the teahouses behind Nanjing Road, already people pointed their fingers and their fears towards the Japanese in Manchuria, and it was time to leave his past and his cares behind him while he still could.

Big Earned Du would kill him as mercilessly as only he knew if he ever discovered how his affable, mild-mannered ‘left-hand-man’ had been skimming a quarter-inch off the books of four of his night clubs on Nanjing Road for over three years. If he knew how Left Hand Man scrubbed his loot and his conscience as sparkling squeaky-clean as any Chinese laundry at the baccarat tables of a very private gambling club in the French concession, a club not even the renowned Du Yuesheng, who ruled all of Shanghai and most of its vices with an iron hand in a silken glove would ever dream existed. He wouldn’t know about the many deposits to an account at the American Express offices or the other accounts at Rothschild’s Bank, have no inkling of the thousands of American dollars sewn into the lining of his steamer trunk as a safety measure.

Above and beyond all things else, Big Eared Du would never, ever know about his left hand man’s reasons or rhyme, or just how much the favorite torch singer of Ciro’s nightclub had been responsible for it all. She was the one who cooked up the plan along with her friend, she showed him how to cover his tracks, she taught him to feign Eastern inscrutability as his weapon to hide what his own, darker netherworld of Shanghai should never, ever know.

Or was it rather… that even an woodcarver’s son from Kowloon could leap free of all conventions and expectations, could come at the world roaring like the dragon of his birth year with all his Oriental fire, spice and essence?

Was it that a man like himself, so underestimated, overlooked and unappreciated could throw all tradition, convention and propriety to the wind for a woman who would have made his prim and proper family recoil in horror?

She was a thoroughly modern, audacious blonde South American contralto who sang Cole Porter and George Gershwin for the smart set at Ciro’s. She was the toast of Shanghai and a favorite of his boss, and yet – in a town that knew every secret and every vice everyone wanted to conceal, not even the boss suspected she belonged to his left-hand-man, although it would be far truer to say this: Big Eared Du’s left-hand-man belonged to her.

He had seen enough Hollywood movies to know that a man such as he, a woodcarver’s son from the wrong part of Hong Kong, Chinese to his core despite the Western clothes and his Clark Gable hair cut, would never be a hero, would never get the girl, never be anything else but a cardboard villain in a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was its own kind of outrageous fiction everywhere else but here.

Today, he was about to disprove all of them. He got the girl. He had the getaway. He had the promise of a new life ahead under the new name printed on his impeccably British passport, a passport that opened all the doors not even Big Eared Du could knock down.

He stepped out into the first rays of the rising sun. As he breathed in the morning, he breathed in his old self, the Bund and even Shanghai deep into his lungs and pores one last time in this one last sunrise, to say his bold goodbye to all he had been and a bolder hello to all he would become.

The bold, green bite of bergamot and a hint of the orange blossom perfumes she so loved all wrapped up tight within a dim sum totality of Shanghai spice and fire, the waft of burning incense and juniper berries from a passing temple on his way, the rich scent of tobacco from his cigarette case, a faraway musky bitter smell of leather as a portent of what lay ahead on another side of the world where Du would never think to look.

It was too late for regrets and second thoughts. He breathed everything in with all it promised this one last sunrise, held it deep within his heart, his senses and his lungs before he exhaled it back out over the Bund and the city, right before he made a wish on his birth dragon that whatever his future in a faraway land might hold, it would be a journey and a new beginning to a life the left-hand-man would never have dared imagine.

Yet a life the John Lee of his new passport – audacious, modern, a cosmopolitan man of the future – in his Uruguayan exile would never once have a single cause to regret.

TheBund1935

Notes for Amouage Journey Man: Bergamot, Szechuan pepper, cardamom, neroli, juniper, incense, geraniol, tobacco leaves, tonka bean, cypriol, leather, musk.

 

hudie

A Soft Goodbye

The French Concession, later that morning

“Are you sure you’ve packed everything you want to bring?”

She turned away from her view of the tree-lined boulevard toward the voice and the question.

One of China’s most illustrious faces laughed back at her as she indicated all the self-evident chaos of impending departure.

“Well, my clothes, obviously, jewelry, silks, presents for my brother and his wife, a few mementos… I’ve arranged with Lin to have the opium bed, the screen and the cabinet shipped tomorrow, but of course, I’ll be gone by then.”

It was time to close the chapter on her five years in Shanghai.

Five years as a runaway bride from an arranged marriage and a daring escape with her dowry to keep her, only in Shanghai, a purloined dowry and a pretty face was never enough for anything she ever wanted to do.

In Shanghai, what you were and what you had mattered far less than who you knew.

Yet luck had surely been on her side that night four years ago when China’s reigning celluloid Butterfly paid a visit to Ciro’s and introduced herself simply as Hu. That night, a burgeoning friendship was born between the chanteuse with her broken, halting Shanghainese and the celebrated movie star, a friendship that weathered all the storms two women with such vastly different backgrounds could create between them.

Even so, before the movie star, before the nightclub singer, before their respective histories even, they were simply two women and two instant friends, no more and never less.

She came to Hu and poured out her heart when she found herself eyeing the dashing stranger at Ciro’s who came every night with Du and eyed her right back, she told her friend everything there was to tell of seeming chance meetings on Nanjing Road and later clandestine dinners on her Sundays off in humble Nanshi restaurants where Du was never welcomed and she was not known, where no one would think to look and fewer would care to question the presence of the courteous, immaculate Chinese gentleman and the laughing blonde chanteuse.

She had never been one to give her heart away lightly, always kept her distance with a smile when those audaciously modern Shanghai dandies tried to dazzle her with promises as florid and enticing as their extravagant backstage bouquets.

Her left hand man was far more bold for being so discreet, for surprising her with the other, secret Shanghai she had come to know and to love through him.

One hot August night he presented her with a small, delicate sprig of blooming osmanthus and told her to breathe it in, all the way in, when somehow, all she loved about this mythical, mad city of contradictions and mysteries and sins both real and imagined came wrapped around this glowing little flower the hue of a Shanghai sunset.

This was their secret, this sweetly scented flower that laughed its fruity, honeyed path through the teeming streets of Nanshi, past the spice merchants shops and the unexpected surprise of a jasmine bursting out of its pot on an apothecary’s counter and sharp, sunshine puffs of mimosa, when the whispers of a lacquered cedarwood cigarette box told her sotto voce what depths he contained, when that little sprig of osmanthus stole her last objections and her heart away and never gave them back.

She told Hu everything, told her own celluloid story of a romance that could never happen, should never happen, and Hu, as all true time-honored friends would do, began with her help to weave a story of how to make it possible, how to make it happen, how to make her own love-struck movie so infinitely much more real than any flickering black and white dream in the dark.

Away from all of this, away from Shanghai, over the oceans and far away back home to Montevideo, away from her best friend and an uncertain future that loomed like a storm cloud over the western horizon in Manchuria, but how uncertain could her future ever be going home with the man she loved, a man who gave her his priceless gift of a sprig of Shanghai osmanthus?

“Oh, Hu…” she turned away from the balcony with a pang in her heart, knowing this would be a farewell, and who knew when they would see each other again in these precarious times?

“Do you think?”

Hu laughed outright, a laugh that all of China loved, laughed to see the question in her best friend’s face.

“Do I think you will escape, do I think our mad plan will succeed, do I think you’ll get away with it?” and four years of secrets shared laughed their own champagne bubbles beneath her words, “In Shanghai, everything is possible!” Hu walked to the balcony and reached out. She plucked a small sprig of osmanthus from the bush that bloomed in its porcelain pot on the balcony and tucked it firmly into her friend’s lapel beneath a jade brooch.

“I don’t believe. I know! It’s time to go – your ship sails in an hour!”

They hugged with all their history between them, hugged as hard as best friends would, before Hu marched her to the door and said:

“Now go with the Gods, darling. Go home – and say your soft goodbye to Shanghai.”

AmouageJourney

Notes for Amouage Journey Woman: Apricot, osmanthus, nutmeg, cardamom, jasmine sambac, mimosa, honey, cedar, tobacco, saffron, vanilla, cypriol, musk.

Created by Alberto Morillas and Pierre Negrin in collaboration with Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong. .

Amouage Journey Man and Woman is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage e-store.

Image of Amouage Journey courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission.

Much invaluable research came via The Chinese Mirror and the Ling Long Magazine archives of Columbia University.

Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of Amouage. I thank the Very August Personage from the bottom of my storyteller’s heart for making this review so incredibly hard to write yet such an endless joy to research.

Also thanks to Ms. Hare, who kicked/shamed/double-dared me to finish it. Or else.