New Perfume Review Amouage Opus IX- The Ragged Edge of Control

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In music there is an elemental debate whether complete control and technical mastery is more important than a performance containing flaws but having more emotion. In jazz the mastery portion is represented by Wynton Marsalis and the emotion is exemplified by the late Dizzy Gillespie. One of my most treasured musical moments was seeing Wynton and Dizzy play at the Saratoga Jazz Festival together on Dizzy’s “A Night in Tunisia”. This was the two extremes brought into stark contrast as the technician and the emotive traded runs before coming together triumphantly. What I walked away from that night with was true emotion has to live on a ragged edge of control, unafraid to fall off. A recent perfume and its inspiration returned my thoughts to that as it pertains to perfume.

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Maria Callas as Violetta in "La Traviata" (1958)

Creative Director Christopher Chong of Amouage is a man of many passions but one of his most long-lived ones is that of opera. For the latest release in the Library Collection, Opus IX, he drew on that. Opus IX is inspired by one of the great opera singers of all-time, Maria Callas. Mme Callas was a top coloratura soprano in the first part of the Twentieth Century. She was more Dizzy than Wynton. Her performances were so imbued with visible emotions it would cause a fraying of some of the notes as she would reach for them. Derided by the traditionalists she was loved by audiences because of that primal connection which was made. Mr. Chong has chosen a specific performance by Mme Callas of La Traviata in Lisbon during 1958 to inspire Opus IX. The perfume is composed by Nathalie Lorson and Pierre Negrin. I use the word composed a lot when referring to a perfume but in the case of Opus IX this does feel like something which has three very distinctive phases, or acts, as the press material maintain.

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Christopher Chong

La Traviata is the opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi which tells the story of Violetta, the titular "fallen woman”. When we meet her in Act 1 she is one of the most famed courtesans in Paris. She throws a regular salon where the brightest lights of society attend. During the one depicted in La Traviata it is her first back after an illness. It is a room full of beautiful people harboring deep emotions. There is a duet between the young Alfredo and Violetta as he can for the first time try and show her the depth of his devotion. This song is called in English “Let’s drink from the joyful chalices”. The First Act of Opus IX feels very much like this duet to me. As Violetta represented by camellia is met on even terms by black pepper representing Alfredo. The camellia is also bolstered by jasmine to make it an incredibly heady floral. The perfumers have to use an equally intense amount of black pepper to find contrast. It is right up to the edge of being too much. Like Alfredo it runs the risk of taking its emotions too far. The perfumers are sure in their precision and it all stays brightly balanced like an operatic duet.nathalie lorson

 

Nathalie Lorson

Act 2 of the opera opens with Violetta and Alfredo happy living in the country outside of Paris. When Alfredo finds out Violetta is selling off her possessions to fund their country idyll. Events of the kind of missed communications rampant in most tragedies cause our lovers to end up at a party in Paris where their relationship is put to the figurative sword because of familial and societal pressures. It ends with Alfredo angrily throwing money at her feet in payment for her services. The early moments of idyll are shattered with naked emotions. The Second Act of Opus IX is a beautiful cacophony of notes delivered with all the messiness real emotions evoke. The perfumers employ gaiac wood, beeswax, and leather. These notes never seem to find a place to mesh appropriately. This kind of dynamism is going to be tough for some to take. It is very similar to the miscommunication of our protagonists. The smoke of the gaiac battles with a rich beeswax over a refined leather accord. The beeswax is the disruptor keeping apart the more easily paired gaiac and leather. It is the beeswax which maintains the separation.

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Pierre Negrin

In Act 3 of the opera Violetta is dying and Alfredo has been given the missing information he needs to understand all of her actions were because of her love for him. He rushes to her deathbed and arrives before it is too late. They sing another duet mourning the death of Violetta so young. For a moment it seems as if love, and song, has saved the day, only for Violetta to abruptly pass away. The Third Act of Opus IX has dispensed with the discord of the Second Act and now looks for new found harmony. The perfumers use ambergris and civet to represent our lovers at the end. The civet is full of deep animalic emotion and it overwhelms the leather and beeswax of the heart to bring the deeper aspects of the base into something more harmonious. The ambergris provides a fragile partner sometimes reviving only to falter under the civet. It is a deeply emotional place to finish our olfactory opera.

Opus IX has 14-16 hour longevity and way above average sillage.

If you can bring yourself to get lost in the emotion on display in Opus IX you will have a unique perfume experience. There are very few fragrances on the market that would dare this. It is not going to be universally loved, for this open sentimentality is not for everyone. As one who loves living on the ragged edge of emotion I can add Mr. Chong to Dizzy and Mme Callas as artists unafraid to fall only so that they can soar.

Disclosure: This review was based on a press sample provided by Amouage.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Reviews Elisire Elixir Absolu, Eau Papaguena, and Ambre Nomade

I am so happy to see a new perfume brand which manages to limit their first releases to only five, I realize how much things have changed. The latest collection of only five came from a brand called Elisire. The founder Franck Salzwedel spent a large part of his childhood in Asia before attending fashion school in France. He would go on from there to work on helping fashion designers navigate the world of fragrance. He would jump to New York where his career in the visual arts as a painter would take off. Like many who share the experience of painting and fragrance together M. Salzwedel sees fragrances as colors. The desire to capture that vision in a perfume led to the founding of Elisire. All five of the first collection are worthy of mention and I will do short reviews of all five over the next two days.

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Pierre Negrin

One of the perfumers M. Salzwedel chose to work with was Pierre Negrin who did two of the five fragrances. The prevailing color for one of them, Eau Papaguena, is undoubtedly green. M. Negrin opens on an herbal version of the color as tarragon and basil provide the pungent start. A well-balanced use of spearmint adds a bit of lift to the herbs. It leads to a really delicate orange blossom heart which shades the green a couple hues lighter. The colors deepen in the base with vetiver, cypress, and incense heading for the center of the color wheel. I really like the shift from transparent to something which has a bit more presence by the end. If you like green fragrances this should be on your test list.

The other one by M. Negrin shares a kinship to the other but Ambre Nomade is like a glowing ember of pulsing orange. This also starts with an herbal duet of rosemary and sage but they are joined by a crisp apple, an energetic ginger, and a green lavender. This forms that glowing warmth which is banked a bit by some ylang-ylang in the heart which provides a bit of yellow shading. The base truly pulses with contained energy as M. Negrin combines patchouli, olibanum, vanilla, and musks to form the glowing ember. There are so many perfumes with amber in the base which are too timid. Amber Nomade is a bold exploration of amber as good as any I’ve tried recently.

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Ilias Erminidis

Perfumer Ilias Erminidis has done some tremendous work on the mass-market fragrances he has contributed to. M. Salzwedel gives him the chance to work towards a more niche aesthetic. As a result M. Erminidis takes the opportunity to create an olfactory mosaic of some of the best florals in perfumery in Elixir Absolu. It all starts with a fairly usual citrusy bergamot opening. What comes next is less common as he layers floral after floral to create a heart which always seems in motion as another floral arrives. Freesia starts it, then orange blossom, tiare, magnolia, ylang ylang, jasmine, and rose. These florals form a cohesive accord that is beautifully constructed. From this fantasia M. Erminidis goes for vanilla and sandalwood forming a comforting base note. It is the collage of florals in the heart which makes this one memorable.

I’ll conclude tomorrow with the two perfumes composed by Alberto Morillas.

Disclosure: This review was based on samples provided by Osswald NYC.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Elizabeth and James Nirvana White and Nirvana Black- The Olsens Get it Right

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There are times I am just too stubborn. If there is anything which makes me dig my fragrant heels in it is celebrity perfume or as they are called, celebuscents. Too often they are quick creations heavily influenced by focus groups who are asked inane questions like, “Which one of these do you think smells like the name on the bottle?” This is not to say celebuscents are completely devoid of quality just 99% of them. You might glean from this why when I receive a new celebuscent it very quickly gets buried. I think when Elizabeth and James Nirvana White and Nirvana Black appeared in the spring I should have given them more than a cursory sniff. While cleaning up the pile of perfumes I came across my samples again. I guess I was in a more receptive mood and this time they connected.

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Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen

The template for a successful celebuscent was laid out by actress Sarah Jessica Parker, in 2005, as she collaborated closely with the perfumers behind her fist perfume for Coty, Lovely. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen did the same with perfumer Pierre Negrin. It took over two years for them to arrive at a final version which would become Nirvana Black. I would guess that process was a learning experience; because as they were putting the finishing touches on Nirvana Black they decided they wanted a second fragrance to go with it. This time the collaboration with perfumer Honorine Blanc went much quicker and Nirvana Black and Nirvana White were released in January of 2014.

What I like about both of these perfumes is that they are very simple and that simplicity captures the goth boho chic design aesthetic of the Elizabeth and James clothing and accessories. The three note structure of both makes it difficult; for the perfumer needs to make sure those three notes harmonize well together and in this case M. Negrin and Mme Blanc did a tremendous job.

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Nirvana White is the more boho of the two as it works with two fresh florals before ending on a beautiful soft musk. The top floral is peony and the peony source Mme Blanc employs is that spring garden fresh floral version. It is uplifting until the other floral, muguet, adds a significant green aspect. Together this is an elementary vernal floral accord. What is not elementary is the cocktail of musks Mme Blanc uses in the base. With white in the name you might expect the laundry-fresh musks but Mme Blanc decides to create an accord that runs the spectrum of synthetic musks. At the end this musk accord has a soft authenticity to it that feels like a bit of an illusion.

Nirvana Black is that boho girl heading out to her favorite Goth club in the evening. M. Negrin also uses primarily three notes for his fragrance but I can see why they took so long to find the right balance. The top note is violet and there are a variety of violets they could have chosen. The one which makes it into the bottle is a rich slightly candied version. It segues smoothly into a sandalwood heart and the synergy they hit is perfect as the candied facets are bolstered by the sweeter nature of sandalwood. Nirvana Black comes to an end with an austere less sweet vanilla.

Nirvana White and Nirvana Black have 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are to be commended for taking their time and being uncompromising in getting what they wanted. That dedication shows and it is why Nirvana White and Nirvana Black stand out from the rest of the celebuscent pack.

Disclosure: This review was based on samples provided by Elizabeth and James.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Avon Calling!

My first exposure to Avon was our local Avon Lady who visited our house regularly. There were commercials with the tag line “Avon Calling!” Many of those companies which sold door-to-door in the 1960’s and 1970’s were made obsolete by the internet. Avon has not only adapted they have thrived with $10 biliion in sales in 2013. They have managed to navigate the shifting fortunes and stake out a place for themselves. As I went through the box of fragrance supplied by my friend who is a current Avon Lady I was impressed with the consistency of the collection as a whole. Current Creative Director Isabel Lopes and her predecessors all understand how to make an appealing fragrance for their customers at a more than appealing price, around $20. The epitome of Discount Diamonds. Here are five more I think are worth giving a try.

Haiku Kyoto Flower by perfumer Pierre Negrin is the latest flanker to 2001’s Haiku, whose gauzy lilting green was also good. The newest member of the Haiku family is a little more outgoing. M. Negrin uses sharp violet made greener with blackcurrant. This is very much a recognizable opening from many niche perfumes but made more palatable by keeping it very light. The heart is peony and orange blossom, pretty and more pronounced then the top notes. It ends on sandalwood and a favorite in many of the feminine marketed Avon fragrances a cocktail of the cotton linen musks. This is very lovely green floral perfume.

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Avon Femme is by perfumer Harry Fremont. M. Fremont is one of the best mainstream perfumers working currently. He definitely knows how to interpret a brand’s character and capture it in a fragrance. Avon Femme is a crisp fruity musk perfume. It starts with the snappy pairing of grapefruit and pear matched with a bit of very clean jasmine. There will be no indoles here this is fresh and pretty. Magnolia is the floral keynote supported with a bit of peach. It ends with the sheer musk cocktail I mentioned above. For those who want a skank-free jasmine fruity floral Avon Femme is a good choice.

Avon does make fragrances for men and Avon Exploration by perfumer Laurent Le Guernec is a good example. As I mentioned yesterday the men’s fragrances hew to an aesthetic of bracing and woody, Avon Exploration does that. M. Le Guernec does choose to make Avon Exploration very bracing as he fashions an olfactory slap of cardamom, sage, and rosemary. This is a very concentrated opening and it is typical of the masculine Avon fragrances. It does settle down into a sandalwood, vetiver, and non-sheer musk which is less challenging. If you are a fan of powerhouse men’s fragrances Avon Exploration is a modern version.

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Far Away Gold by Calice Becker is a special warm floral. Mme Becker knows how to build a soft warm vanilla and sandalwood base even with the more cost-efficient materials and it is that where Far Away Gold ends. Prior to that osmanthus and peach lead to a jasmine and ylang-ylang heart. A wonderful comfort scent.

Avon does have their celebuscents and one of the more interesting collaborators is musician Bon Jovi. Part of the Bon Jovi collection is Unplugged for Her by perfumer Annie Buzantian. This was the most subtle fragrance of all of the ones I tried. It was very surprising since a rock star is associated with it, although it is unplugged. Mme Buzantian uses a very opaque application of ivy and plum to give a sheer green fruity opening. Rose carries the heart but this is a synthetic rose which carries the fresh floralcy and little of the spiciness or powdery facets. It keeps it on the light side for making that choice. A cocktail of soft woods and even softer white musks close this. Very easy to wear and a perfect office scent for those who work in close quarters and still want to wear perfume.

Now let me reiterate what I stated yesterday, perfume for $20 is not chock full of essential oils. There might be a pinch here and there but this is all synthetic versions of the notes I mentioned. As you can see there are very talented perfumers working for Avon and I think they do a tremendous job at making the most of a limited budget. Enough so that if you need an economical perfume fix contact your local Avon Lady…..Avon Calling!

Disclosure: This review was based on samples provided by Avon.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Amouage Journey Woman and Journey Man- The First Steps of the Second Cycle

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My admiration for Christopher Chong has been writ large across numerous reviews of the Amouage fragrances he is the Creative Director for. His vision has made Amouage into one of the great perfume houses of this century. I believe this collection he is responsible for creating has only peers, and damn few of them. Throughout my time corresponding with Mr. Chong and the influences which motivate him I have come to “know” him, though we have never actually met. With last year’s release of Fate Woman and Fate Man “the first cycle of the Amouage narrative” came to an end. Now with the release of Journey Woman and Journey Man we begin the second cycle which will delve into Mr. Chong’s life and is subtitled ‘Portraits of a Life’.

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Christopher Chong

Mr. Chong was inspired by Shanghai Deco and Chinese film noir. The common thread to both of these is a weaving of distinctly western elements into an eastern undertaking. During the 1920’s and 30’s there were many striking examples of art deco buildings erected in Shanghai. When I look at this purely western form of architecture it is striking to me how well it meshes with its eastern surroundings. There seems to be no disconnection. The same can be said of Chinese cinema over the last 100 years as it has evolved by adding its own flair to traditional movie tropes and then, interestingly to me, these new interpretations find their way back into Hollywood releases. This is the theme of Journey Woman and Man the meshing of distinct western influences like noir and deco with a Chinese aesthetic to create something wholly unique. The perfumers Mr. Chong chose to help him bring this to life are Alberto Morillas and Pierre Negrin.

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Shanghai Park Hotel

Journey Woman feels very Deco inspired to me as it has jasmine tea, saffron, cypriol, and osmanthus provide the eastern details on the solidity of the western foundation of honey, cedar, and tobacco. When I asked Mr. Chong what it was about Deco that drew him to it he responded, “my reason for loving it is quite simple. I love the form, shape, and the period.” As a result Journey Woman is a fragrance which carries an unusual simplicity for Amouage but the “form” and the “shape” of this perfume is fascinating for those clean architectural lines.

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The Paramount in Shanghai

Journey Woman might have the softest opening of any Amouage fragrance to date, based on the opening moments I would bet many would not suspect it was an Amouage fragrance. The top notes of jasmine tea, nutmeg, apricot, and osmanthus provide luxuriance without heft. It lilts and draws you in with the intersection of so many beautiful notes precisely positioned. Honey and jasmine provides a bit more volume as Journey Woman begins to arise from the early delicacy and now begins to take more shape. The honey in particular provides a matrix for the osmanthus to blossom upon and the jasmine tea transforms into jasmine sambac in all of its full indolic glory. Cedar is used to start refining the emerging shape into eventual form. The base notes achieve the melding of west and east as tobacco, saffron, vanilla, and cypriol all flow together into a smooth montage of both sets of influences.

I suspect many are going to be surprised at this light Amouage perfume. I would encourage you to not try Journey Woman with prior expectations weighing you down. Embrace this new beginning of the second cycle and you will be heartily rewarded.

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Maggie Cheung as actress Ruan Lingyiu in "Centre Stage"

If you need something a little more “Amouage” to help you start the second cycle Journey Man will provide that transition. Journey Man feels very cinematic to me it could even have a logo “composed in Technicolor”. Mr. Chong has been a fan of Chinese movies for his entire life and he wrote to me, “I was brought up with all kinds of Chinese Cinema…for me it means entertainment and family time.” It is an almost universal thing to sit in a movie theatre watching larger than life images and losing yourself in the story unspooling from the projector behind you. Journey Man unspools in larger than life accords of Sichuan pepper, neroli bigarade, juniper berries, along with the tobacco and cypriol we saw in Journey Woman.

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Bruce Lee

The use of the Sichuan pepper in the top notes of Journey Man may feel like it is in living color but it is also very Chinese. It is also the smell of home cooking to Mr. Chong I suspect which makes it appropriate to be the opening note. It is stirred in with a very green cardamom and an incredible neroli bigarade. This creates an interplay of shadow and light flickering to life. Shadow wins for a while as juniper berries and incense take over. Geraniol and rose push back against the twilight while a haze of tobacco hovers above it all. Journey Man tells most of its story right here and it is where it lingers on my skin for many hours as the olfactory chiaroscuro continues to evolve throughout the day. The base notes are a fit denouement as tonka, cyrpriol, and ambrox finish things off.

Journey Man is much more typical of what many have come to think of as an Amouage fragrance. I found it very comforting despite the characteristic intensity. I definitely felt this biopic of Mr. Chong’s life come to reality on the olfactory silver screen.

Journey Woman had 12-14 hour longevity and Journey Man 10-12 hour longevity on me. The sillage for both was average.

I am so looking forward to the remainder of the fragrances in this second cycle. As Lao Tzu says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Journey Woman and Journey Man have taken two confident steps into this new journey of Mr Chong’s and Amouage.

Disclosure: This review was based on bottles of Journey Woman and Journey Man provided by Amouage.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Amouage Opus VIII- The Light’s Winning

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The Library Collection from Amouage started in 2010 with the release of Opus I-IV and has released a new volume every year since. 2013’s Opus VII was an excursion into darkness which asked a wearer to gaze into the equivalent of an olfactory abyss. It was one of the more fascinating releases of last year because of the introspective nature of going for that level of depth. One of the hallmarks of the Library Collection is that it is a more experimental creative process than the paired “Man & Woman” annual releases of the main Amouage line. Creative Director Christopher Chong has urged the perfumers he has hired to realize his visions to push the limits in their designs. I imagine working for Mr. Chong has to be a fantastic experience as I’m sure there are few creative directors who believe enough in their customers that they will follow anywhere they are taken. Opus VII challenged that with its downward spiral of the heaviest notes in perfumery. For 2014, Opus VIII is the opposite as it glows with a gauzy sunlight although that gauziness is the remnants of some of those dark notes from Opus VII.

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Christopher Chong

The perfumers for Opus VIII are Pierre Negrin who participated with Alberto Morillas on Opus VII and Richard Herpin who is composing his first fragrance for Amouage. M. Negrin also did the exquisitely constructed Interlude Man in 2012. M.Herpin, like M. Morillas, has spent much of his time working on the more commercial side of the business. This sets up an interesting dynamic as these two come together to realize the brief that Mr. Chong asked of them, “an evocative exploration of the subconscious dialogue between illusion and reality.” What this translates to is an incandescent opening of jasmine followed by a transition of light and dark in the heart before the darker notes bring down fragrant twilight.

The opening of Opus VIII is jasmine sambac, ylang ylang, and orange flower. The early going is all about the jasmine, it floats off my skin like a heat mirage. The ylang ylang and orange flower shimmer as energetically but from a more distant perspective. Each is used to enhance a different part of the jasmine, the ylang pulls the sweetness to the foreground while the orange flower adds a slight bump to the indolic heart. Messrs. Negrin and Herpin make this glow like a golden halo. The florals are then subsumed by a wave of saffron, ginger, and incense. The lighter notes of ginger and saffron have a more prominent part of the heart but the incense slowly increases in character until the base notes start to arrive. Bay, benzoin, and balsam signal the lessening of the light. As I said earlier this is a gauzy kind of darkness as it sort of lays a film of these notes over the jasmine, which is still going strong, and its light can’t be put out by these intruders. A solid application of vetiver turns the later phases of Opus VIII distinctly woody but the jasmine still refuses to give way as its glow remains even as darkness threatens to descend.

Opus VIII has overnight, and then some, longevity and above average sillage.

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As I wore Opus VIII over the last week I was reminded of the final line from the recently completed HBO series “True Detective”. After one of the main characters has survived his encounters he talks about the night sky and how there is an awful lot of dark between the light. The other detective replies that everything used to be all black and the existence of the stars show that the light is winning. This is what I thought of as I wore Opus VIII the light at the heart of this fragrance continues to shine even though the black attempts to overwhelm it. Opus VIII is another bright star for both Amouage and The Library Collection.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle of Opus VIII provided by Amouage.

Mark Behnke