Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 2)

Personally I prefer wearing mixed-media perfumes (synthetic ingredients mixed with natural ingredients) to all-natural perfumes because they are much more interesting and exciting to me. (Aldehydes, metallic notes, fantasy notes, etc.) Some time ago I have heard a perfumer say that a lot of natural ingredients are mini-perfumes themselves and not easy to finesse; and all-natural perfumes if not well-designed often smell “muddy” or “brown”.

Maybe patchouli essential oil is one good example – to me it is a mini fragrance. It is strong, full of character, herbalness, earthiness, and nuisances, but It also gives me uneasiness for I find them smelling “too close to nature” – too earthy, deep and aromatic, almost the exact opposite of smelling a synthetic white musk detergent. I can imagine a perfumer either using just a little of it in a perfume to add some character or “darkness”, or “go big or go home”, using a lot to make a patchouli-themed perfume with some complementary notes.

There is a patchouli-theme fragrance that I have recently discovered that makes me feel that the perfumer has tamed patchouli and turned this hobo into a fine gentleman – Dior’s Patchouli Imperial. The opening is smooth, ambery, sophisticated, mildly spicy, but undoubtedly patchouli, yet constrained. It is so impressive that I feel like I want to stay close and talk to him for hours, as if he has seen the world and now he is back to tell stories in tuxedo and sandals, but really, I should leave this handsome hobo alone after taking a selfie with him. As the perfume reaches dry down, there is something in it that’s really synthetic and borderline nauseating. (Synthetic vetiver, maybe?) But crazy enough, the opening is worthy of my purchase of a full bottle.

Then I rediscovered Chanel’s Coromandel (“Asian lacquered partition screen”). You didn’t know how much I disliked this perfume when I first discovered Chanel’s exclusive line of perfumes. It smells like… you are trapped in a wet, wood cabinet and forced to eat white chocolate flavored TUMS to survive. I threw the sample across the field like a quarterback superstar and hoped not to see it again. One day, while reorganizing my sample drawers here it was again, I sprayed some on the back of hand. The epiphany arrived – it’s a powdery patchouli scent. It’s as weird as avocado milkshake in a Vietnamese restaurant, but now I have seen through the unusualness and found it amazing. Hurrah for white-chocolate and patchouli flavored TUMS! (Amazing yuck.)

Chanel’s Sycomore (2008)

Chanel Sycomore © Victor Wong
Chanel Sycomore © Victor Wong

I thought Sycomore was magical when I first smelled it in a department store. It’s raw, fresh, mildly roasted, and at the same time evoked an image of an open-chested, wild-hair gentleman who is constantly perspiring some irresistible aroma. He wants to invite you to see some animals in a safari, but what he really wants to do is have a good time with you in his Jeep in the middle of nowhere under the hot sun.

That was before. Now that I know Sycomore is a vetiver eau de toilet, and exactly what vetiver smells like (I’ve bought a bottle of pure vetiver essential oil for aromatherapy), the magic of Sycomore has dramatically decreased, as if I have learned the secret behind a magician’s trick. However, the magician is still very charismatic and it’s always a joy to see him perform and tease the audience.

Sycomore is a fleeting scent, and if vetiver is removed from the formula, I guess what’s left is a scented water, or what the French call it a “l’eau”, but that is some good “l’eau” – sandalwood, tobacco, pink pepper, violet, and surprisingly, aldehyde.

Chanel’s No. 22 Eau de Toilette (1922)

Chanel No. 22 © Victor Wong
Chanel No. 22 © Victor Wong

I learned about Chanel’s products more than I needed when I was purchasing No.22 at a department store. For example, the sales lady recommended the $700 Chanel’s Le Blanc cosmetic set to help me fight my 40-year-long battle of my Asian face vs my freckles; reaffirmed that Chanel’s exclusive perfumes are the cheapest in the world, and Chanel perfumes sold in Canada are made in Paris while those sold in America are made in America. (Tsk tsk, not as good!) But what I really didn’t want to know was that Chanel No. 22 was softer than No. 5.

You see, I bought No. 22 because I wanted to pour aldehyde over my head like the ice bucket challenge. Luca Turin comically said in his review of No. 22 that it had “the largest dose of aldehydes a human can stand without fainting”. And here the sales lady was telling me, “No, No. 22 is softer than No. 5! I prefer it to No. 5.” She totally, unintentionally, violently ripped off the t-shirt with a big number 22 printed on from my body in the middle of the store. I felt embarrassed and cold. She continued, “Also, it came before No. 5.” And I asked, “Why is the number bigger if it came before No. 5?” She answered with a smile. (The correct answer is No. 22 was released in 1922. Furthermore, confirms that No. 22 is a light version of No. 5.)

I don’t know how many different kinds of aldehyde are out there, but I really like Chanel’s aldehyde-heavy perfumes; how they overdosed it like someone was tickling the perfumer as he poured aldehyde into the flask. However, when the aldehyde party is over, the base of No. 22 smells quite like many vintage perfumes that I own – vetiver, vanilla, rose and tonka. I honestly don’t care; I just want my aldehyde fix.

My hippie mountain-climbing coworker once awkwardly told me how he felt about Coca-Cola: “Nothing in the world tastes like it, but it’s so good but so full of chemical.” Same applies to the smell of No. 22 and No. 5.

Chanel No. 5 Eau de Toilette (1921)

Photos from
Photos from

I have smelled Chanel No. 5 in department stores numerous times; it’s beautiful and classic, (my coworkers all say it smells granny, their loss) but I never feel like I need to own a bottle because it is so widely available – If it were an animal, it belongs to “Least Concern” category on the endangered species list, there’s simply no urgency for me to get one. However, this might change soon…

During my 15-hour-long flight to Hong Kong I exhausted the very few movies that interested me and subsequently made me browse the international movie category. The one that immediately caught my attention was the French movie “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” (2009). It was actually a very well made and thoughtful drama, focusing on the brief and life-changing adulterous affair of Coco Chanel and the struggling Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, who was already a married man and a father of four when they first met.

Dotted cleverly in the movie are snippets showing Coco Chanel as a talented designer who can see much further than a common pedestrian, a ruthless and iron-fisted businesswoman who demands nothing but perfection from her sales, workers and collaborators, and a flawed, wealthy woman who gets whatever she wants. Of course, there’s a scene showing the birth of the Chanel No. 5 perfume – “I don’t want to smell like a rose, I want to smell like woman,” she tells her perfumer.

There is a chilling scene in the movie (spoiler) showing Coco Chanel gifting the newly created Chanel No. 5 perfume to Igor Stravinsky’s wife, Katarina. Katarina is sick and dying and she knows that her husband and Coco are having an affair. She thanks Coco for the perfume, and immediately asks her if she ever feels guilty for destroying her family. Without much second-thought, she says no. You could say Coco Chanel has broken a family apart, but at the same time she helps create Stravinsky’s shining career. (The movie ends with a short but devastating scene of Coco and Igor in their senior years remembering each other. *tears*)

A common object can become an uncommon souvenir when you have learned the story behind it and a popular perfume can become very special when you know the history behind it.

Chanel’s Bois Des Iles (1926, redesigned 1989)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I was at the post office the other day and saw some Canadian postcards on a carousel rack. One of the postcards showed nothing but blackness and titled “Canadian Nighttime”. I thought, “pluhease”. Now I imagine, if Chanel’s Bois Des Iles (Wood of Islands, 1989) were a real destination, the postcard rack would be filled with different beautiful panoramic postcards for tourists to choose from…

First, there’s a geyser shooting up a column of warm aldehyde to the sky and you can see it from miles away. Then there’s a giant nine-yard-long garden filled with the best fragrant flowers – iris, muguet, ylang, neroli, roses and jasmine. Underneath this garden is a mine where you can take a monorail ride to harvest little ores of amber, benzoin, tonka and vanilla beans for souvenir. The cart then exits into the middle of a sandalwood forest where you can sit down and take a break, for it’s easy to feel sensually overloaded.

Yes, Bois Des Iles is so awesome that I didn’t have to struggle choosing it as my first Chanel exclusive. Now, picking the second one is going to be hard…

Chanel’s Egoiste (1990)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I saw a bottle of Chanel Egoiste in a duty-free shop at the Frankfurt airport about a year ago, took a sniff, and put it down. I thought, “Nice, I will get a bottle when I feel like to in Toronto.”

A few months later, I went to my local department store and looked for a bottle but couldn’t find one. The sales person told me, “It’s been discontinued for quite some time. You can probably find one, if you are lucky, at some European airport duty-free shops.” What followed instantly was some loud dramatic lightning and thunder, casting sharp shadows of me standing like a dumbfounded moose in the middle of a road.

Later I sold a little bit of my dignity and bought a bottle from eBay.

To me, the opening of Egoiste resembles a little bit of the brilliant Bois de Iles, also by Chanel. The difference is the yummy candied fruit notes found in Egoiste. I’ve read that the vintage version is much better, but right now I am happy living with a reformulated bottle instead of none.