L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Piment Brûlant (2002)

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Piment Brûlant © Victor Wong
L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Piment Brûlant © Victor Wong

Back in 2013, I tested a bunch of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s samples and I could clearly remember my reaction to smelling Piment Brûlant (Burning Pepper) – “Oh, it’s a bell pepper perfume? How peculiar! Definitely not for me though…” A few months later I traveled to Europe and one of the stops was Hungary. Hungary is a major exporter of paprika peppers to the world (or pimento peppers, but some people say they are not the same), and their cuisines are famous for incorporating this spice. Not to my surprise, I saw many beautiful, glossy air-dried paprika bunches hanging inside souvenir shops in the tourist area. It’s only when I returned home and started organizing my photos then I realized Piment Brulant was a perfume that featured the paprika note.

It’s very clear to me that Piment Brulant isn’t L’Artisan Parfumeur’s bestseller. I occasionally visit their site to see what’s new, what get re-released, but I don’t ever recall seeing Piment Brulant on their site. I assume it has been discontinued and the public interest for that scent is not strong. The reason is quite simple in my opinion – it’s a fine fresh scent, almost like a cologne, but infused with  pepper oil. Not white pepper, black pepper or pink pepper, but fresh fiery hot pepper that you use for, say, a Vietnamese dish, and if you’ve touched the seeds and touch your eyes accidentally, you die.

I imagine mad genius perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour couldn’t stop at a perfectly fine cologne and looked around his lab frantically for something to enhance his creation, and a poor paprika walked by the window and he grabbed it and stuffed it in the flask and yelled “Viola”. Despite the craziness, the amount of pepper oil used in this creation is perfectly fine-tuned so that it doesn’t overwhelm, but yet I am able to detect traces of it from the beginning to the end. Bored with cologne but only wear cologne? Give this one a try.

Eau D’Italie’s Bois D’Ombrie (2006)

Eau D'Italie's Bois D'Ombrie © Victor Wong
Eau D’Italie’s Bois D’Ombrie © Victor Wong

My French vocabularies have been growing very slowly through osmosis since I started collecting perfumes three years ago. Now I can tell what “eau”, “noir”, “amour”, “poivre” and “bois” mean instantly. (And that’s about it.)

So when I read the words “Bois D’Ombrie” (Wood of Umbria) on a perfume label, I knew it’s a woody scent. But what I didn’t expect was the rather unusual aspect of woodiness that I got from this scent by Eau d’Italie. (Ironically the perfume name is in French, not Italian.)

“Bois D’Ombrie” reminds me of three things, all related to Chinese cooking ingredients – giant lotus leaf, giant winter melon (both commonly used in summer soups to help “suppress the fire” in your body) and bitter melon. Bitter melon has a more poetic and lesser-used nickname in Chinese, and it’s “Half Life Melon” (not carbon dating half-life). Chinese people say that commoners usually don’t like to eat dishes cooked together with bitter melons (because it’s literally bitter tasting), but when you start to like bitter melons, it also means that half your life has gone. A pretty scary thought, but it’s also an indicator of midlife maturity, a change of attitude towards things in life.

Those three ingredients I just mentioned share similarities in smell – very dark green, damp, earthy, bitter and vegetal; if it is a juice I don’t want to drink it. And that’s the opening of Bois D’Ombrie. As the opening dissipates, the fragrance morphs from a bitter melon to a carrot-flavored cigar, together with a resinous, earthy leathery base. The unusually deep green and soil colored scent probably is not for people who are new to the fragrance scene who wants a crowd pleaser scent. Rather, it’s very moody and introspective, like walking in a forest at 5 pm in the evening with an worrisome love letter in your jacket. It’s special, and I like it, but don’t ever think I will be crazy about it, but maybe I will, just like I have started to like eating bitten melons.

Diptyque’s Oyedo (2000) and L’eau de L’eau (2008)

Diptqyue's Oyedo and L'eau de L'eau © Victor Wong
Diptqyue’s Oyedo and L’eau de L’eau © Victor Wong

Oyedo

I have never eaten or seen a real yuzu orange, but its smell is never a stranger to me, for I had eaten a lot of Japanese hard candies when I was kid, (I wish I didn’t, but it’s too late, I am obese) and yuzu flavored ones were always in the assorted mix. It’s hard to describe what it smells like if you have never smelled one before; the frustration is almost like telling you a grapefruit smells like an orange but not exactly.

Smelling Diptyque’s yuzu-based Oyedo is a pure joy for me, for it’s refreshing, tart, candy-like, minty, citrusy, my childhood, and has even a little hint of petroleum. The quick evaporation of the scent and the citrus oils burn my skin like no other perfumes, but strangely that makes it a great unisex chilly summer perfume if you don’t mind a little moaning after the application. If you have Japanese kids, they will like you more when you wear it.

L’eau de L’eau

L’eau de L’eau is Water of Water and water of water is no super water but a pomander perfume. A pomander is the corpse of an orange after torturing it to death by pushing a lot of cloves in its body and hanging it high and dry. It is supposed to smell amazing if you manage to keep it from growing molds. (I will try that unsaintly thing this Christmas.)

I wasn’t interested in this perfume because 1) It has two L’eaus in the title and l’eau means cologne to me and cologne has a secret name, Eau de Yawn; 2) It has a lot of oranges in the box art and I have some orange perfumes already. But, I didn’t see the cinnamon bark hiding in the illustration before and I am glad that I gave it another try in the department store – it’s powdery, spicy with cloves and cinnamon, rich with lavender, geranium and ginger, and finally a lot of citruses to make this fall and winter scent suitable for a summer wear. It smells quite amazing, I must say.

Frederic Malle’s Vetiver Extraordinaire (2002)

Frederic Malle's Vetiver Extraordinaire © Victor Won
Frederic Malle’s Vetiver Extraordinaire © Victor Wong

A few years ago I joined a Hong Kong tour to Japan. Our tour guide was probably the most memorable part of the tour for she had told us many captivating stories while we sat in the bus going from point A to point B. She told us a story about the head of Japan Tourist Board who paid an official visit to Hong Kong to promote Japan: on his first day, he was graciously welcome by the representative of Hong Kong Tourist Board, who took him to a very fancy Chinese restaurant for dinner. They had a great meal, and the check was of course taken care of by the Hong Kong host. The next day the Japanese man did not know where to go for dinner, so he went back to the same restaurant, and asked for the same dishes he had yesterday without checking the menu. When the check arrived, his heart almost jumped out of his chest for it was a 5-figure bill (USD).

He probably had no clue what he had eaten – the abalones were not ordinary ones but some rare giant ones from the deep seas, the ginsengs used in the soups were some hundred-year-old ginsengs gathered from the top of some steep mountain, and shark fins from a giant shark that probably had killed the wives and puppies of many fishermen… and they all came with astronomical price tags. (The tour guide said that one night a drunken man left that restaurant and threw up in the street, and that pile of puke probably was worth $50K.)

Now, my questions: can you tell if you are consuming something really really good that probably costs a lot? (Assuming things that are good don’t come cheap.) How often do you say something is vastly superior after knowing it has a high price tag despite the difference is subtle?

Frederic Malles’ Vetiver Extraordinaire boasts that it contains the most vetiver one can find in a perfume, and the vetiver used has gone through molecular filtering to remove the undesirable aspects of regular vetiver essential oils. Personally, I can’t single out and tell if the special-treated vetiver in Vetiver Extraordinaire is that marvelous that it deserves a high price tag, but to me, the overall smell of the perfume is quite uncommon due to the huge dosage of vetiver used.

If loving vetiver is loving unhealthy food, Vetiver Extraordinaire is a no-salad fried chicken buffet with mini cheesecakes for half-time. If you don’t like vetiver, please skip this perfume. It is so masculine and spicy, the opening of the citrus notes cannot douse its smoking hot base. Compare to most vetiver perfumes I have smelled, It’s an alien atmosphere with more oxygen than nitrogen, making it borderline too much for me. I once took a sample of VE to work for my coworkers to smell, and a female coworker said it’s one of the sexiest perfumes she had ever smelled (and not to mention both she and her boyfriend are crazy sexy, anything they wear or don’t wear is sexy). She wanted to buy a bottle for her boyfriend but when she googled the price of Vetiver Extraordinaire, she screamed across the cubicle at me, “You are mean!”

MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube (2006)

MDCI's Promesse de l'Aube © Victor Wong
MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube © Victor Wong

In my last year of high school in Canada, my ESL (English as a secondary language) teacher was deeply in love with the book “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, and she made us read it for assignment. The novel is about four Chinese mothers and daughters and their poignant, and sometimes tragic personal histories that happened in China and America. Two years later, the book was adapted into a movie, and I went to see it in the theater. The movie was deadly sad and had a killer Chinese string ensemble soundtrack. I could hear sniffing and sobbing from the audience in full surround sound throughout the whole movie. Later my sister told me that her friend had also watched it but he wasn’t moved by it at all. He told her, “it’s one of those typical stories, a Chinese mother drowning her baby girl because the family wanted a son instead. Everyone asked me to watch because it’s sad. I didn’t shed a single tear.”

So what if someone tells me that there’s a movie that would make me cry, and I don’t feel a thing watching it? what does that imply?

1) I don’t understand why it is sad.
2) I have seen enough of this kind of melodrama and it can’t move me anymore.
3) I am a dick.

I recently bought a bottle of MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube because of a 5 star review. The reviewer says, “The tune of this fragrance may not be hugely original, but the orchestration will bring tears to your eyes.”

Because of this review, I was ecstatic when I found out the city I live in finally have a niche perfume shop that carries MDCI. The first bottle I sniffed was, of course, Promesse de l’Aube, but I was disappointed – nothing was wrong with that perfume, and that’s wrong. It’s like watching a TV sitcom where every actor is pretty but none of them I find attractive. Also, where’s the drama? The second time I smelled it, I thought I kind of get it. The opening was more beautiful than I remember, the floral notes smelled real instead of synthetic, and they are well blended. But again, where’s the drama? The actors are staring at each other not saying anything because the commercial break is coming. The third time, I decided to buy it because the shop was going to raise the price and I wanted it in my collection so that I could study it more.

Promesse de l’Aube is a chypre designed by Francis Kurkdjian. It smells quite like Acqua di Parma’s Nobile Iris, which is also designed by Kurkdjian; instead of iris, we have jasmine. On my skin, the dry down smells a bit sour, green, rosy and dusty. In less than an hour, the scent is gone. “Promesse de l’Aube” means Promise of Dawn, and dawn is beautiful, to some it’s so beautiful that tears may roll down the cheek when they see it. I think it’s beautiful too, but that’s all.

Afterthoughts: Of course, I didn’t expect to react the same way as the reviewer. Or any reviewer. The reviewer is Luca Turin in this case, and he never says “the orchestration will bring tears to your eyes” in any other of his reviews. I was intrigued. I wanted to experience that perfume that he thought highly of. I wondered, not seriously, if it was as good as he said to be, or do I have the “nose” to tell if something is that good. Now I think about it, it’s a fun but silly exercise – there are no conclusions.

Lubin’s Gin Fizz (1955, reformulated 2009)

Lubin's Gin Fizz © Victor Wong
Lubin’s Gin Fizz © Victor Wong

I don’t enjoy drinking any alcohol beverages, and never have a craving for any, yet I have a vivid memory of me having a good time drinking gin mixed with 7 Up with my elder brother when I was a kid in the early 80s. My elder youngest brother, the “bad son” in the family (yet most beloved by my father) who never liked to study but bring explosive troublesome news to my parents, found out from a party that it was super cool to mix 7 Up with some Gordon’s London Gin and canned DeMonte fruit cocktail together and called it a “punch”. He smuggled a small bottle home and skipped the fruit cocktail part and let me have a glass. The gin portion was little and I didn’t get drunk at all, but I remember it tasted strange, somehow fragrant and bitter, and my brother had a handsome smirk on his face, which ultimately got a girl and her parents to come visit our home a few years later, for a matter my mom told me, “none of your business”.

Fast forward 30-or-so years, I was at a department store testing some Atkinson perfumes, and the British sales lady told me that the perfume 24 Bond Street had juniper berries in it, and the British absolutely loved it because juniper berries are used to make gin, and gin is the favorite spirit of the British. I carried this little piece of information with me and suddenly I understood why Penhaligons’ gin perfume was called Juniper Sling.

Later I became a bit obsessed with Lubin perfumes, I came across a few bottles on eBay called Gin Fizz (1955). According to Wikipedia, “a fizz is a mixed cocktail drink with some acidic juice (such as lemon or lime) and carbonated water. The fizz became widely popular in America between 1900 and the 1940s. Known as a hometown specialty of New Orleans, the gin fizz was so popular that bars would employ teams of bartenders that would take turns shaking the drinks. Demand for fizzes went international at least as early as 1950…” So here’s my wild guess: the “gin fizz” craze spread to France and Lubin created the hip and trendy Gin Fizz in 1955.

I thought it was fun to own a gin-themed perfume and I bought the modern reformulated version of Lubin’s Gin Fizz (2009). A spritz on the skin, I get a very refreshing gin note (juniper berries, lemon and lime), which I think it’s perfect for the summer (not sure if it is best for work), and quickly the gin gets shuffled to the bottom deck and the “perfume part” of the perfume kicks in, and it smells classy, floral, light, teasing with a little bit of warmth (jasmine, lily, iris, benzoin, oakmoss). While I definitely enjoy wearing it, it is most perfect if you are really at the bar scene wearing it; if you are a lady, I recommend walking in the room in an open back black dress and a good many sprays of Gin Fizz.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu EDP (2001)

Yves Saint Laurent's Nu EDP © Victor Wong
Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu EDP © Victor Wong

Guess what impresses me most about Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu? The bottle – wait, not the space age silver cylindrical box that belongs to the Men In Black movie, but the surface of the chrome box – it leaves no fingerprints. How crazy is that? Nowadays you have to pay more for kitchen appliances with no-fingerprint chrome surfaces, but Nu, a perfume released in 2001 is already doing that. Well thoughout little details, kudos to the packaging design team.

To me the name “Nu” suggests something new and radical; to a certain degree, the perfume does smell quite unconventional in 2001. (It smells like a niche perfume now.) Nu is a mildly creamy and sweet, cardamom-heavy, woody and incensey perfume that’s warm and slightly exotic. It wakes me up because the spice is quite strong, and that’s the ironic part. Rather than smelling cold and android, it uses some of the oldest perfumery ingredients (cardamon, incense, jasmine) to create a supposedly space age perfume to be worn by women in cool shades. Instead, it should be a candidate for a Opium flanker. The confusion is like slicing a spring roll diagonally in the middle and plate it vertically and call it an Asian Fusion dish.

As a perfume collector, I bought the vintage version of Nu because of the packaging. I became aware of it when a sales lady from the perfume shop that I visit all the time showed me the EDT version of Nu, which came in a simple blue bottle. (Mine is the EDP.) The scent didn’t leave a strong impression and neither did the bottle. She told me that she wished she could show me the sold-out first version (the one I have now) because it was so cool. A few months later I read about Nu in Roja Dove’s book “The Essence of Perfumes”, which has a big section dedicated to the most notable perfumes and bottles. Then one day, to my surprise, I saw a brand new bottle in a perfume shop that I rarely go to. The quasi-clueless owner sold it to me for an excellent price and the EDP version was definitely stronger and memorable than the EDT version the other shop had shown me.