Tom Ford’s Fleur de Chine (2013)

Tom Ford Fleur de Chine, 50 mL
Tom Ford Fleur de Chine, 50 mL

I remember having dinner at my sister’s home when I was a kid (there’s a big age gap between us), and my brother-in-law brought out a very tiny dish of “something” from the kitchen and asked me to try it. I took a small piece, but immediately didn’t like the texture. I tried to be polite and said I liked it. He said, “it’s marinated duck tongues. If I had told you you would not eat it.” Really, they were not for me, and I thought I just had my lifetime quota of duck tongues filled.

I told my friend about this story and he definitely had a funny reaction. His sister owns a small “Chinese restaurant” mostly for take-outs in a small city next to Toronto, and a majority of her customers are white folks. The restaurant’s most popular dish is chicken balls, which basically are small pieces of chicken dipped in some batter and deep-fried to balloon-up the size. Of course, it is not chicken ball if it is not served with a heavy ladle of sweet “red sauce” poured on top. The red sauce is made with sugar, vinegar, corn starch, red food coloring and nothing else, and according to my friend, they drink it up.

Chicken ball is not really an authentic Chinese dish per se, but in the eyes of Westerners, I think it is now. In fact, I once suggested Chinese for dinner to a white friend and his first response was, “yeah, good idea, I haven’t had chicken balls for a long time.”

So what does this have to do with Tom Ford’s Fleur de Chine? Well, if Fleur de Chine were a Chinese dish, it’s chicken ball with an extra bowl of red sauce on the side – a scent for the Westerners. Really, I am not complaining, I dig this perfume. It does smell oriental to me (oriental as in Asian, not Middle Eastern or spicy), and even resembles a tiny-teeny bit of my favorite perfume, Arpege, but it is obviously a French interpretation of a Chinese perfume – if it exists. The scent is quite fleeting, and it’s the tea and mandarin orange note that tie the very light hyacinth, wisteria, magnolia, peonies and jasmine scents together in a small, intoxicating, smooth, floral package.

I sometimes wonder what American contestants would answer if they are asked to name the most common Chinese flowers in the game show “Family Feud.” I can name a few quite right off my head for I have seen countless generic watercolour paintings in Chinese restaurants with a flower subject – peonies, orchids, plum blossoms, chrysanthemum, lotus, rhododendron, etc. They are all pretty, but scent-wise, I think except peonies and lotus have a noticeable and distinct floral scent, not too many are particularly fragrant. If the perfumer of Fleur de Chine really sticks to using only “Chinese flowers”, the perfume might not be as good?

Amouage’s Interlude for Women (2012)

Amouage Interlude for Women (100ml)
Amouage Interlude for Women (100ml) © Victor Wong

There’s a time when everyone talks about how strong and uncompromising Interlude for Men smells; how it is not for everyone, but if you like it you are a perfume connoisseur. Or how people around you might get offended if you wear too much of it; and how fun it was to “accidentally” wear 20 sprays and kill everyone in Sunday church. Probably those are the reasons why men want a bottle, to tell the world that I am a bad boy, I am a nonconformist.

I won’t dismiss the excellent quality of Interlude for Men, but I can’t say I get pleasure wearing it – it’s an inextinguishable incense factory industrial fire. Me, being your everyday nonconforming nonconformist, I, chose to investigate Interlude for Women instead. And just to prove how cool I am, I bought a bottle of Interlude for Women. (No, just kidding, it smells good to me.)

What’s in Interlude for Women? There is only one note: magic pencil. Some people said it smelled like Jolly Rancher, I think they are crazy, because it clearly smells like a magic pencil to me – it’s dense, dark, rich, a little sweet and a little floral and woody like a pencil. (Note: upon research, most pencils are made from “incense cedar”.)  I went to Fragrantica in glee to verify my guess, and holy moly, it said it had bergamot, ginger, lemon, marigold, incense, rose, jasmine, tuberose, walnut (really?), coffee (didn’t get it), kiwi (what?), honey, immortelle, sandalwood, opoponax, vanilla, leather, oak moss, amber, frankincense, tonka, musk and guaiac? Hey, these ingredients all have very distinct personality, but when the perfumer of Interlude blended them together, it’s almost too hard to tell them apart, like I can’t believe mayonnaise is made of egg, vinegar and oil.

Interlude for Women is one of the heaviest scents “for women” that I have encountered. It doesn’t break down, it smells the same from start to finish and it wears me down like a heavy coat. After wearing Interlude for Women for more than five times, the magic pencil note finally unravelled a little bit. I focused and could detect the incense (that’s almost a given for an Amouage perfume), honey and guaiac. It will take me a while to recognize the other notes. But I need strength to wear it.

Frederic Malle’s Iris Poudre (2000)

Frederic Malle's Iris Poudre (100ml)
Frederic Malle’s Iris Poudre (100ml) © Victor Wong

Many years ago a date told me that I was not a romantic person. I wasn’t amused, but I knew he was right. (He asked for a puppy on our third date and I said no.) I suspect my friends secretly appreciate that I am not romantic, too – I’ve told them no gifts for my birthday, just show up for dinner and cake, and also no Christmas gift exchanges, etc. (Yes, I consider this a sort of romanticism.) I also told my partner no need for tall roses on Valentines for the cat will knock the vase down. (But I do buy him gifts; I am not a cheapo and/or heartless person.) Now that I have confessed, I might as well tell you that I tested my Frederic Malle samples while sitting in a loo.

Three years ago when my niche perfume obsession had just begun, I didn’t know much, except department stores would not give out samples unless you bought a bottle. I ordered my Frederic Malle samples from eBay, and strangely they were shipped from Poland. Anyway, I was too excited when I received them in the mail, but suddenly I needed to use the washroom, and I took the samples there with me to test. Frederic Malle should take this as a compliment, for I was so eager to test them.

To tell you the truth, at that time, I didn’t find any FM samples particularly impressive, or I should say, they didn’t blow my mind, and it had nothing to do with the aura inside the bathroom. There were some samples that I found interesting, but the one that left me with a strong impression was Iris Poudre. “Wow, this is so granny and simple. It’s just iris and baby powder. It’s nice, but I can never wear this.” I put it back in the bubble envelope.

In fact, after three years of buying countless perfumes and samples, I still have not forgotten Iris Poudre. It is still “granny smelling” to me, but I have never encountered an iris perfume as beautiful and as straightforward as Iris Poudre. When I say straightforward, I mean there is no mistake that iris is the star of the perfume.

To me, Iris Poudre would be a heavy floral if the perfumer didn’t add a hefty dose of aldehyde in it. Powdery amber, musks, carnation, rose, ylang, vanilla, sandalwood, they are all beautiful and sensual, Victorian-esque, decked-up-doll-face-feminine and rich. But with citrus and aldehyde, the perfume suddenly smells airy and atmospheric, like giving life and airiness to some dull egg white by whisking it vigorously.

In retrospect, I don’t enjoy Frederic Malle as much possibly due to the fact that I am not romantic. Frederic Malle’s perfumes are very elegant, non-adventurous, fine-tuned, proper, classically designed, and yes, some quite romantic. If you are a woman who dresses for the occasion and you are wearing Iris Poudre, I can’t imagine any man wouldn’t find you elegant and sophisticated. But between “romanticism” and “please tell me a horror story”, I choose the latter; however, there are exceptions, and Iris Poudre is something that my mouth says no, but my heart says yes.

P.S. I bought my bottle of Iris Poudre in 2016 and I think it’s not as strong and “granny” as the sample I tested years ago. It actually smells “younger”. Maybe a reformulation has given it a facelift.

Guerlain’s Nahema (1979)

Guerlain Nahema Extrait (30ml)
Guerlain Nahema Extrait (30ml)

If you have watched enough TV commercials, you probably remember Disney telling everyone that their classic animation on DVDs like Dumbo or Bambi are going to the “vault” and you will never be able to buy them again…until the Blu-ray versions come out. I think Guerlain employs a similar tactic for their less popular perfumes – they discontinue them, but a decade later they re-release them with some fancier packaging. Of course the problem is, can you wait a decade?

Recently they rang the alarm bell again and the newest victim is Nahema extrait. I never imagined they would do such thing, for I see Nahema one of the last remaining pillars of their great classics (Mitsouko, Shalimar, Jicky, L’Huere Bleue, Chamade, Vol de Nuit & Nahema)I am not a huge fan of modern Guerlain, to be honest, but I plan to collect their classic extraits, for their bottles are beautiful and Luca Turin praised them like they are the epitome of classic French perfumes.

I had already acquired a bottle of Vol de Nuit extrait, and I planned to get Chamade next, but the news destroyed my plan. Guerlain’s extraits have always been so damn expensive, when I paid for my bottle of Nahema extrait at the Guerlain boutique, I absurdly requested a big sample of Nahema extrait because I didn’t want to open mine (completely nuts and illogical, I know). And The salesperson actually found that very understandable, and she prepared a 5ml decant for me.

I love Nahema. It’s an uncontaminated jammy rose perfume made in the 80s before the oud pigeons immigrated from the Middle East and started pooping oud droppings in every rose-based perfumes. (You realize I recently said I loved Ex Idolo’s 33, a rose/oud perfume right? I am just being an ass here.) What’s so strange about Nahema is that it also smells strangely synthetic to me, but in a good way, like blue colour slushies and grape sodas. The opening is fresh, green and peachy, and shortly after you see a forklift without a hand brake crashing towards you like in the movie The Omen, and it hits the rose jam shelving units behind you and you are covered with rose and passion fruit jams like Winnie the Pooh. Nahema has some massive and ambiguous florals, almost nose-shriveling sweetness, and an unforgivingly heavy-handed rich base with vetiver and resinous and vanillary peru balsam. You can either smile or take a shower, but not both at the same time.

Ironically, Guerlain discontinues Nahema extrait because it has too much real rose and that makes it non-IFRA compliant. I’ve always thought that the rose in Nahema is synthetic, but oh well, good to know.

Roads’ Graduate 1954 (2015)

Roads' Graduate 1954
Road’s Graduate 1954 © Victor Wong

“Oh this is Tobacco Vanille? No way I am going to wear it! It smells like my grandpa! And who is Tom Ford?”

That’s probably what your grandkids will say 50 years from now. They will say the same thing about all the oud perfumes and the expensive brands that we die to have at the moment.

After smelling different perfumes from different eras, (Lanvins, Carons, Guerlains, Diors, Tom Fords, Le Labos, etc.), I have come to an easy conclusion that perfumes are like fashion – the older the style, the more awkward it is to wear them (unless they are really, really classics). Torn jeans from the 90’s are still acceptably hip in 2015 but gigantic shoulder pads from the 80’s and bell-bottom jeans from the 70’s are now completely comical. It is occasionally fun to wear a vintage piece, but if you are wearing them everyday, people may think  there is something “awkward” or “wrong” going on with you.

Perfumes, on the other hand, are more “forgiving” because it is not visual, but still, in the most abstract way, people somehow can tell if you are wearing an old-style perfume, just like my coworkers love to say that Chanel No.5 is horribly grandma-smelling. (Disclaimer: I wear whatever perfume I like.)

My first sniff of Roads’ Graduate 1954 at a department store brought me a big smile and I thought, “This smells like some hand-me-down perfumes from someone’s grandma who has just passed away, or a mysterious no-label perfume you found in a flea market.” What’s more ironic is that the packaging of this perfume house is uber-modern and minimalistic  – making it more obvious to me that this scent wants to pay homage to vintage perfumes. In this case, I guess, perfumes from the 50’s.

There is also a revelation after smelling Graduate 1954, and it is that vintage perfumes don’t smell old because the contents have deteriorated; instead, they just smell that way because it was trendy at that time, like how a lot of perfumes from the 2010’s smell of synthetic oud, amber and caramel candies. In the case of Graduate 1954, I suspect the combination of rose, muguet, heliotrope, clove and moss/patchouli gives you a soft, feminine, and slightly uneasy scent, for the florals are ambiguous and the clove and heliotrope are having an odd interaction. It also represents the smell of a bygone golden era that I am not familiar with. It is amusing to see that it is a colorless synthetic perfume delivering such feelings instead of a dark ambery juice made out of real perfumery ingredients and aromachemicals that had not yet been banned.

Robert Piguet’s Blossom (2012)

Robert Piguet's Blossom (2012) 100ml © Victor Wong
Robert Piguet’s Blossom (2012) 100ml © Victor Wong

Robert Piguet’s Blossom (2012) sounds like it’s made out of many different flowers, but in fact, it’s a very simple, demure, “you don’t like to talk much, do you?” orange blossom perfume. Well, it has more than just orange blossoms, but also neroli (which is also orange blossom but smells a little different), petitgrain (bitter orange leaves), and orange itself – practically almost the whole orange tree. If I were an orange tree in Robert Piguet’s orchard, I would shit all my leaves and run.

Blossom is soft and quite elegant, but I wouldn’t say it’s sophisticated. It’s balmy and fleeting, but not invigorating, because the base is a bit resinous and slightly sweet. Now let me destroy the romanticism by saying a citrus cologne is to Orangina as Blossom is to a diet orange smoothie.

But I want to appreciate Blossom from two different points of view.

  1. From a target audience’s point of view: Blossom is part of Robert Piguet’s “Pacific Line” trilogy (Blossom, Chai, Jeunesse), which caters to the Asian market. My sister and my long time girlfriend living in Hong Kong both told me that Asian women prefer simple, fresh, and quiet perfumes (Crabtree and Evelyn, anyone?). You don’t want to wear heavy-plated armour perfumes such as Angel, Opium or Poison in a perpetually hot and crowded day in Asia, because people will probably stab you all over the body with piercing eyes as you walk down alleys and streets. So it’s understandable why Blossom is relatively simple and quiet.
  2. From an artist’s point of view: Here’s my imagined scenario of the owner of Robert Piguet talking to Blossom’s perfumer, Aurelien Guichard: “I like your work. I want you to be the perfumer of my perfume house and create 20 perfumes for me over the span of 5 years. Make me and yourself proud.” Aurelien Guichard has so far been Robert Piguet’s only perfumer, and he has created a few hits for them already – redesigned Fracas and Bandit, Visa and Knightsbridge, all are very complex, heavy and bombastic perfumes. I imagine Aurelien as an “artist”, given the trust to create a rather big library of scents for Robert Piguet, would like to create one or two perfumes that are different, a little out of his typical style for variety’s sake. In my opinion, Blossom and Casbah (an incense perfume) are his indulgence and small break – minimalistic and ghostly.

I guess I have been thinking too much. Yeah, Blossom is a nice orange blossom perfume.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976)

 Van Cleef & Arpels' First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong
Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong

In a hospital ward, a bunch of sick kids are lying in bed. The days are long and boring, and the pain and moaning are real. The sun is shining bright and cheery everywhere but the hospital rooms, and the hateful fluorescent lights on the ceiling are always on.

Seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, a notable and elegant woman, dressed in white, not known to the kids, walks into their room. She has moist, gentle eyes and a kind, discreet smile. She says a bunch of encouraging words to each kid and leaves. Perhaps the most memorable thing about that woman is the scent that she wears and how it follows her around. It’s comforting, powdery, beautiful, floral, and tender, just like her. She is wearing Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976).

That’s my impression of First and my vision of who would wear it very well. It’s so beautiful and approachable, yet so elegantly distant. Fruits, flowers, ambers, aldehydes and musks all converge into a prism and exits as a glowing white aura. Who would wear it nicely? The cute Starbucks barista who serves you coffee? Not too sure. The female coworker who is beautiful and plays hard-to-get and toys with people’s hearts? No. Maybe Princess Diana? Just a thought.

I also find the title of the perfume interesting. What does it really mean? Yes, it’s Van Cleef’s first perfume for women, but does it imply there will be many more to come? Or that it should be your first perfume? Or first in class? The name also reminds me of the video game “Final Fantasy” from 1987. The Japanese videogame maker had used up all their capital and thought that the game they had just finished would be their last video game, so they sarcastically named it Final Fantasy. It turned out to be a mega-hit and many sequels followed.