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

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– 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.

A Catholicon for November

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Refractions in a Jasmine’s Eye

mcescher1

–  a review of Amouage Opus VIII

In over three and a half years of perfume blogging, I’ve reviewed over five hundred perfumes. Some great, some spectacular and some… not quite so much. Some reviews have come easy and some have come hard, not because I hated the perfume (although that has happened), but because in order for me to haul out The Perfume Reviewer kicking and screaming (because she basically just wants to enjoy it), I have to find an angle, a hook, bait to reel the reader in.

In all that time and with all those marvels, nothing I ever review – and I’d like to emphasize this – is ever so hard to hook, angle or locate the bait as just about any Amouage.

Once upon a storied time – how can it be three years ago? – I dismissed Amouage as being too rich for my blood, just another hyped-up hyper-luxurious brand that couldn’t possibly live up to the accolades heaped upon it. I can’t afford even one of them. I’d cover my ears and sing “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” when my fellow friends and perfume bloggers sang its praises on their blogs. Finally, I gave in to my own relentless curiosity and those verbal, knowing smirks from those same friends and bloggers and ordered two outrageously expensive Amouage samples of Epic Woman and Ubar at First in Fragrance just to knock them down to an approachable, human size.

The rest, as they say, is history. Whether I’ve surprised myself writing narratives or merely bathetic attempts to just capture my impressions in words, by all the patron saints of perfume they are, every last one I’ve tried, really… all that and so much more.

It pains me more than you know to bang my head against the keyboard and tell you their newest release, the Library Collection’s Opus VIII, is no exception to that rule. It also proves just as slippery and elusive to decline and define.

I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that the unisex Library Collection is where Creative Director Christopher Chong lets his inspirations run a little looser and freer and gives his perfumers license to write literature in essence, absolute and accords. If Opus V could be called Carnal Iris, and Opus VI Odysseys in Amber, Opus VII was a bottled Edgar Allan Poe tale all the best and sublimely Gothic ways titled Spenser’s Forest.

Opus VIII is a new tale in a new setting with countless plot twists and turns, this one as blinding sunshine bright as Opus VII was moody, magnificent darkness.

I don’t know how or even why, since it’s listed nowhere in the notes or anywhere else I could find, but on me, Opus VIII begins as incendiary green as a morning in early May. Jasmine sambac is indeed a greener, fruitier variety of jasmine, which might explain why I was kicked awake and aware by an emerald green punch of fizzy, razor-sharp Persian lime.

Lime! Not mojito, not caipirinha and not at all margarita, but a warm, bittersweet green sunrise as a heliotropic jasmine begins to unfurl and that blinding bright gilds its edges and everything begins to glow, everywhere you sniff. Was that a hint of banana leaf? No. It’s that heady jasmine. Or else it’s the sensuous sparks of saffron and ginger firing up the floral fireworks.

But instead of your usual summer fireworks imagery, see instead a jasmine sambac chrysanthemum bomb exploding in an endless hall of mirrors, some convex, others concave, and yet others flat, wavy and in varying hues of blues, golds and greens. You just don’t know where to look, never mind how to sniff. The florals are distorted and painted large on scented woody billboards advertising alternative, gravity-defying magic carpet rides of what flowers are able to do in a perfume if they’re allowed.

Once thing is certain – they’ve never quite done this before.

Ylang ylang, with those custard and banana leaf undertones dances and flirts with the jasmine in perfect step with frankincense adding its own lemony, woody allure.

Like all the Opus line and indeed most Amouages, Opus VIII is incredibly hard to parse. Just when you think you have it all mapped out, the figurative magic carpet is pulled out from under you. Up is down and down is up. Jasmine is not at all jasmine sambac, but instead a phantasmagorical jasmine, no! Wait! Orange blossom! Yes?

No… it’s this spicy, woody superstructure elevating all the flowers up and up – or is that down?

Reflections? Refractions? I could apply both words equally well to convey my impressions. I’ve worn this on at least twelve occasions and worn twelve different perfumes – sometimes, it’s that jasmine sambac core that dominates and sometimes, it’s the woody superstructure that shares certain similarities with a few recent masculine releases, notably Fate Man.

What I will have to tell you is that this journey through a sunlit hall of mirrors takes hours and hours, and as you make your way through this jasmine sambac labyrinth, you’ll never know what you may find or even how to find it. This is possibly the most cohesive yet utterly discombobulating perfume I’ve ever sniffed.

To say I’m confounded is understating the issue. I suspect that’s both the raison d’être and the modus operandi of Opus VIII. To offer up reflections of flowers – some real, some imagined – swirling around a jasmine sambac vortex suspended in a spicy, woody, deliciously bittersweet base that by both inspirations and perfumers’ sleight of hand all add up to endless and endlessly entertaining…

Refractions in a jasmine sambac’s eye.

The Library Collection’s Opus VIII will soon be available at Luckyscent, MiN New York, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage website.

Notes: Jasmine sambac, ylang ylang, orange blossom, frankincense, saffron, ginger, vetiver, gaiac wood, benzoin, Jamaican bay.

Perfumers: Pierre Negrin & Richard Herpin in collaboration with Creative Director Christopher Chong.

Disclosure: A sample of Opus VIII was provided for review by Amouage. For which I thank the Very August Personage.

Illustration: M.C. Escher.

The Scent of a Man

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE

– Of memory, madness and Amouage Memoir Man

Nothing fires up our emotions or long-buried memories quite so well as a scent. It need not even be a perfume, although I’ve come to find more often than not that perfumes obviously have a special place in my heart precisely for that instant superhighway from nose to emotion and a whole slew of associations, images, and long-buried film reels of memory and feeling rush out to greet me.

Any man or woman, but maybe perfumistas in particular, will tell you… Clothes, demeanor, appearance, personal charm – all of these are fine and good, but really, those sparks and stomach butterflies and twinges in our hearts begin with our noses.

For all our sophistication, excuses and pretenses, that much of the primeval, atavistic animal remains.

I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, but I suspect that idea might have been bubbling away at the back of my mind that November night I wrote the short story that became ‘Midnight at the Crossroads Café’, which led to a book, which led to… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the course of my nearly three years as a perfume writer and over three hundred reviews, a select few are tattooed upon my soul in indelible, never-fading ink, often becoming so much a part of what defines me or my memory, it’s impossible to say where I end or the perfume begins.

When I’m confronted with this or that new perfume for review purposes, I myself often have startling reactions to the perfume I’m sampling. The best ones often involve a streak of spicy (and unrepeatable) language, or even inarticulate sounds that also can’t be repeated, which is no way to write about perfume.

Great art, so it’s said, has to be felt. This certainly applies to one in particular, which gave me such a violent reaction the first time I tried it I didn’t know where to begin or what to do.

Violent not for being bad, but for unleashing a whole blockbuster movie contained within that sample vial, one recurring, intertwined silken thread in my own life that runs silver and black, unbroken for over thirty years. For the longest time, it was padlocked and chained away in a secret vault in my mind until that afternoon just over two years ago when a spray and a sniff blew the padlock and chains to smithereens and out came… a story.

The perfume was Amouage’s Memoir Man. The story was inspired by that other story, that one real life tale of heaven and heartbreak, secrets and sighs called… The One.

Every woman has one. The one who got away, the one who lingers on, the one you try not to think too hard about. It’s over. It’s done. You know you will never again burn so hot nor feel so much, you know how that story ends (more heartbreak), you’re all grown up now, you’re over it, such madness, such magic can never happen again.

Yet if you’re a writer, it can and it will. It comes out in unexpected ways, provoked by who knows what hidden muses laboring away in the dark – by a perfume, or by the way that perfume accentuates and underlines that story and the man who inspired it. He was and still is the only one I’ve personally known who it defines and explains so beautifully.

I will go to my grave stating that no matter what they say to the contrary on all the perfume fora and discussion groups on Facebook, when it comes to bottling up the Guy Thing in terms of high romance, cinematic scope, style and personal statement, no one does it like Amouage. No other line’s masculine-slanted fragrances slay me or my ragged, battered, bruised and disillusioned heart to quite the same degree so consistently, and for over two years, I’ve wondered, as I often do… why?

It took serendipity to figure that out, or was it something even more portentous? Call it fate…

Because last week, while bobbing along on a summery tide of Business As Usual, bubbling with plans and dreams and things to do and perfectly serene, someone had the idea to track me down.

That one. The one who got away. Someone I’ve known for well over thirty years and seen in many moods and several disguises, the one who inspired a fair-sized portion of the Devil’s personality as he is portrayed in my novel Quantum Demonology.

Call him the Memoir Man. Or L’Homme Fatal.

Throughout those thirty-plus years, we were friends, both part of a tight-knit gang who had known each other through high school and far beyond. Until that fatal party thirty years ago that made us both take a good, hard look at each other, and in an instant, all our past lives and all our shared history of friendship was scorched away by something much more dangerous.

There was no turning back after that.

Since then, many other people wandered in and out of our separate lives. Ex-wives, an ex-husband, girlfriends and boyfriends, all the detritus we humans tend to accumulate as we proceed through our lives, and yet… chance encounters just kept happening. Unlooked for meetings on the street. Catching up. We began again because we couldn’t not. We ended. And began other ends, other chances to break each other’s hearts in ways no one else could ever manage.

Our last meeting thirteen years ago was high drama and super-heated words, and as he drove away, I was so glad I’d never, ever see him again.

I would be sane, I would be sensible, I would be cured and inured and inoculated forever more. If it killed me never again to burn so hot, never again to feel so much.

I would. Damn it.

Meanwhile, a writer was born, and as writers will come to know, no experience is ever wasted. Somehow, slivers of that old, repeating story would insinuate themselves into my writing of novels and stories and even a perfume review that came unlooked for as an old, dusty padlock blew up… with a perfume. That padlock came back on after my review, locked a little tighter and with thicker chains this time around.

Yet I swore a secret oath to myself, for reasons I could never articulate, if I ever met anyone again, he would be doomed to wear (among a few others)… Memoir Man.

So it was, until last week. I was a (little too) grown-up now, I was inoculated, I was sane and serieuse and a sensational writer (at least in my own mind). I certainly wasn’t that white-hot fury of thirteen years ago.

When I received that message, I wondered how to respond. As I walked to meet him again after all this time, (don’t ask) I wondered how much havoc was wrought with both of us in thirteen years. I wondered about that inoculation. Wrapped up my heart airtight with metaphorical Kevlar before I left, just in case. I wore an Amouage. (Fate!)

Everything had changed. Some things never did. We would be sane, we would be grown-ups, we would be sensible if it killed us.

We would. Damn it.

Last night, I suddenly bounced around the room and began to upend my perfume cabinet, looking for That One to remind me. My little sample vial of Memoir Man.

Because to me, that was – and is – the scent of a man.

The Memoir Man.

Image: Robert Mapplethorpe

With thanks to Christopher Chong, who knows a thing or two about getting a girl in trouble…

________________________________________

Save the Genie! Find out more here.

Fortune’s Gates

fortuneteller2a

– Part Two of a story and a review of Amouage Fate Man

It isn’t every day an adventurer such as you has the courage to enter through Fortune’s gates, to have all the questions answered that so enflame your soul, seeking you to wander ever onward, ever forward, ever eyeing the horizon and the stories you may find there.

Did you not know that elusive far horizon moves with you as you whirl headlong through your life? Did you know that sometimes, the answers you seek are found not by moving forward, but by standing still?

Are you prepared for the secrets I shall see for you? Or shall it be you found me by a happy accident, around a corner, through an ordinary-seeming gate, to seek the answers to the questions you were unaware you wished to know?

You walked through the gates and found me waiting, thinking you were searching for me, but in fact, it was I who searched for you.

Sit, and I shall tell you of momentous things and all your incendiary dreams, all that urge you on to set your world alight, tell you all your restless heart will want to know.

What perfume shall be for such a one as you with such wings on your feet and such a fire in your soul? Indeed a perfume, for you are no ordinary mortal and I am no mortal fortune teller cloaked in faux mystique and superstition.

These are Fortune’s Gates, which only the brave ever find and none ever dare to seek, and this is where you perch on the verge between your old tales and your new hopes, this is where all your arcane secrets waft towards that far horizon that so eludes you. Like all secrets and many, many stories, this is a costly tale of uncertainties you have left behind, and all the hopes you have come to find, even as you fear them and even as you dream them into being.

Breathe them in. What do you sense in this fragrant cloud, do you see it reflected in my crystal ball?

Breathe in all your fiery hopes, inhale all its colors and its dreams. Can you sense that sunshine saffron burn, does that feisty, fruity kick of ginger lift you upward, even as an earthy whisper of cumin pulls you to the ground?

So much richness to your tale, so many secrets breathed into all the wormwood heartbeats… to go, to stay, to inspire, to wish, to instigate, to choose your path and unchoose other impossible mirages you must leave behind as you move ever forward, ever on.

To go, to do, to begin again, to start from nowhere and nothing known – that is what this scented song tells you must be left behind, if you ever want to find your far horizon.

Ah! That touched you, I can tell from the way you shift on your chair and your eyes slide to the door and your chin sets its hard and stubborn line. No one tells you where to go or what you can or cannot do?

If you truly had no wish to know what song you need to breathe or what answers you need to find, you never would have found Fortune’s Gates.

Sit still. Breathe it in and be inspired by the destiny you have come to claim. Did you ever suspect it would be so opulent or so deep? That rosy-tinted frankincense pulse that lies beneath and plays such an enticing calliope tune… this is where your game changes, this is where your time will stop an instant or two, this is where your new life begins and all your  old will fall away behind.

Crawl aboard that carrousel, do you see that gilded column of immortelle with all its sweet fragrant phantasms painted? This is what lies just beyond and straight ahead, not the clear cut answers you thought you sought, but the ever shifting, ever swirling dreams you have always denied, this the secret you never told.

The world was never meant to know you dream in such vivid colors, or scents exuded quite so sweetly.

This is the secret I tell you now – you will always paint another dream another day, always shift and change and gild it as it suits your purpose – a little more, a little less, a lavender and a labdanum shading to make it all seem more real and less a dream, but this carrousel never stops, not even for an adventurer like you, but then, there are none quite like you, yes?

It simply spins out your dreams into the ether and on to the world, out to where even your hungry soul stands still enough to build them up and make them real.

That hit you hard, I can see. Watch them as they spin out all your midnight fears, listen as they tell you as even I shall tell you that most arcane secret of all.

Nothing is predetermined, nothing is ordained just so, nothing is certain but this:

Your destiny is not a creature you can keep in a cage and feed with your dreams, your hopes and all the longing that hungry heart of yours can bear.

You shall find it and embrace it only if you set it free, only if you dare to paint it bolder still in darker hues and wrap your fragmented self in all its twilit notes, the sighs of sandalwood and cedar, the basso hum of labdanum and musk, the dulcet harmonies of tonka and licorice that urge you ever on.

Dare to believe in those calliope visions you paint so real, dare to hope for those twilit notes, stand up and face what you have never quite had the courage to face before.

Go back into the world now, go to find that far horizon that has haunted all your dreams, turn to the setting sun, breathe in all your secrets and all the courage you somehow doubt you have.

You have breathed in all your portent here. You have learned as it unfolded in your soul and on your skin, you have read its enigma as it breathed you back to the life that awaits you, a life unlike any you have known or any you can anticipate.

It is time to claim your fate.

amouagefate

Notes: Saffron, artemisia, ginger, cumin, mandarin, rose, frankincense, lavandin, immortelle, labdanum, copaiba balsam, tonka bean, labdanum, cedar, sandalwood, musk, licorice

Amouage Fate Man was created by Karine Vinchon – Spehner in collaboration with Creative Director Christopher Chong. It is available directly from Amouage boutiques worldwide now, and in the US in October 2013.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Amouage. With thanks to the Very August Personage.

Images: Amouage Fate presentation courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission. Fortune teller via Dorothea’s Closet Vintage, original hamsa via deviantart, Wheel of Fortune Tarot card via Polyvore, Photoshop reprographics, editing and compositing, my own.