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.)

Auphorie’s Miyako (2015)

Auphorie’s Miyako Extrait © Victor Wong

The first time Luca Turin smelled Miyako, he couldn’t even. There’s nothing he could do except give Miyako a five star glowing review; and if you know what a five star review has done to Andy Tauer, you can imagine what could happen to Auphorie, or any new startup perfume house. On the day the review was released, I checked out their website – Miyako was already sold out.

I had had the greatest pleasure meeting the owners/perfumers/brothers at the AIX Scent Fair 2016 in Los Angeles a month after the review was released. They had a booth there, and on that night they won the 2016 Art and Olfaction award in the Artisan category, and just when the show was over, they were inevitably talking to the people of Luckyscent, the biggest niche perfume online shop in US.

Rewind seven hours back that day, when I first sniffed Miyako with one of the greatest anticipations in my life since my fortieth birthday, my initial reaction was, “What am I smelling? An osmanthus leather? Ok…” I wasn’t let down, nor I needed someone to carry me to the nearest bench to get my ghost back. I bought a bottle, because I needed to, for I knew while Luca Turin sometimes can be a drama queen, he was like the little kid in the movie “Sixth Sense”, instead of seeing dead people, he could see unusual things in a perfume most people couldn’t.

I have been wearing Miyako on and off since then, and slowly I think I’ve got it. It has an accord that I have never smelled before, whether it is beautiful to you or me or not. It’s a scent of musty osmanthus flower and moist leather, and it creates a strange, austere atmosphere – like someone has taken you to an unfamiliar room with Asian decor with not much ventilation. You are told to have a seat, and someone you do not anticipate will greet you soon – except that person never comes. You are sitting in the room dead silent, looking at things, breathing the weird sweet air that the room and objects are emitting, and trying to make yourself at ease. Eventually, the uneasiness subsides, and you wake up naturally, you faintly remember you just have had a dream. Let’s try again.

Sonoma Scent Studio’s Amber lncense & Fig Tree


I must confess that the name Sonoma Scent Studio preceded my discovery and love of niche perfumes. A few years ago my friend from Pittsburgh visited me in Toronto and I told him I had never smelled anyone wearing a perfume that’s actually “incensy”. (He’s caucasian and he loves everything Chinese and he lights incense joss sticks everyday and his home smells like a temple.) He highly recommended Sonoma because it’s “awesome”.

And now I can tell you he is right. My impression of this line after smelling most of their samples is that they remind me of a high-end nature store. You know, beautiful interior, decorated with big wind chimes, hangable stained glass panels, cosy all natural organic sweaters and a bird chirping soundtrack being played from all-surround sound Bose speakers.

There are so many that I like from the sample pack, and some of my favs include Spiced Citrus Vetiver (quite unexpected, because I am not a big fan of cologne and vetiver, but this blend is just done amazingly appealing), Yin and Yang (florals, amber, musks), Fig Tree, and of course, Amber Incense and Incense Pure, and ALL their rose perfumes.

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Sonoma Scent Studio’s Amber lncense (2015)

Remember in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits carry little biscuits called Lembas Bread that have magical powers of satiation; “one small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man”? Well, the amber incense perfume equivalent is Sonoma‘s Amber Incense, an all natural, powerful, concentrated perfume that can rival any extraits and it lasts for many many hours.

On first wearing, you might think you are just wearing amber and incense, because the spice, rose, oakmoss, resins are so packed tightly together, it takes some time for your nose to slowly unravel this Pac Man Power Pellet, and while you are doing that, you are invincible.

Sonoma Scent Studio’s Fig Tree (2011)

Note that it’s not “Figs”, but “Fig Tree”, and here you really get a beautiful, austere fig tree scent with ripe figs ready to be harvested. The smells of leafy greenness, woodiness, and unique fig fruitiness in this scent are naturally proportionate to a real fig tree and in that order. The touch of creamy coconuty vanilla makes this scent extra comforting to wear.

I’d say Fig Tree is an upgraded version of Diptyque’s Philosykos, the more famous mass-marketed fig scent, but Fig Tree smells stunningly more longer-lasting, natural, classy, generous and less cartoony, than Philosykos.

Olympic Orchid’s Kyphi (2011)

Olympic Orchid's Kyphi (2011) © Victor Wong
Olympic Orchid’s Kyphi (2011) © Victor Wong

Kyphi’s has saved me from a near mental breakdown.

Last week, Bat, a perfume from my own brand Zoologist Perfumes, won the Art & Olfaction Awards 2016 in the Independent category. Before the award ceremony, I had a full day to see the AIX Scent Fair at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I finally had the opportunity to meet Ellen Covey, the perfumer of Bat, for the very first time in person.

After I returned home in Toronto, a friend of mine told me to go to a Facebook fragrance group to read about some of the discussions of my brand. To my dismay, the said thread was all very negative. I had read comments such as, “Zoologist perfumes make me want to vomit”, “I don’t want it even if they are free”, “Victor is nice, but such and such scents are just nasty”, etc.

It would be the biggest lie if I tell you such comments didn’t hurt. In fact, they hurt so much that I couldn’t sleep and eat for a whole day, and they lingered in my head and never went away. I didn’t say anything in their thread, because I understand how the Internet works. They didn’t know me, and they just spoke their mind. I myself also write “reviews”, and sometimes they are very negative. It’s a fair game.

However, the irony is that, Bat won an award. And there are positive reviews about my scents. I have had occasional good sales in some countries. I just have a hard time reacting and adjusting to these extreme influx of highly positive comments and highly negative comments.

Long before the collaboration with Ellen Covey, I had known about some of her works (Olympic Orchids) through readers’ reviews on Fragrantica. One particular scent, Kyphi, caught my attention because it had received quite a bit of negative reviews. I was very interested in smelling it, and I asked Ellen to bring some with her to the show.

I smelled it on the show floor and I instantly fell in love with it. She used ingredients typical of what the ancient Egyptians would use, namely frankincense, myrrh, beeswax, lemongrass, and spices.The scent smelled like a tomb, and images of me being hollowed out and mummified came to mind. Is it a perfume? Can I wear it to work? All these thoughts went through my head. It doesn’t matter, I concluded.

Yesterday, I smelled it again because I missed it, and suddenly everything unlocked – despite all the negative reviews, there are always some fans of your work. Just stay focused, and constantly improve. It will all work out.

Armani’s Ambre Eccentrico (2015)

Armani Ambre Eccentrico, 100ml
Armani Ambre Eccentrico, 100ml© Victor Wong

Wearing Ambre Eccentrico is like eating Halloween candies, not just some, but a whole bucket full of them, blindfolded. The initial pleasure is great – you get tasty ones like Cinnamon Amberlicious and Tonka Bonka; they are classics and everyone’s favourites. In the mix you also get plasticky Plum Bums and cellophane-wrapped sun-dried fruits disguised as candies. As you crawl to finishing line in a span of 8 hours, you’ve realized that the bucket of candies came from trick-or-treating in a Turkish neighbourhood who didn’t care for Halloween at all.

Ambre Eccentrico is named aptly for it is not your typical amber perfume; it is resinous and fruity (not the fresh ones like apple or pear, but sun-dried ones). It reminds me a little bit of Chanel Egosite, which also has a dried fruit note, but Ambre Eccentrico wants to make sure you get the idea that it is an eccentric amber-based perfume, and they amplified the fruit notes. The result is an addictive but also nausea-inducing perfume that you want to wear occasionally with half a spray, and not everyday.

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.

Pure Distance’s M (2010)

Pure Distance M (60ml)
Pure Distance M (60ml) © Victor Wong

Whenever I spray some M on my skin, an image of Super Mario hitting a floating coin box appears in my head. One pump is one jump and a dollar disappears in thin air.

I am not very proud of owning a bottle of M, because I can never mention about it to my family or close friends for fear they might ask me how much it costs. The irony is that I am telling the world of fragrance lovers that I own a bottle through this piece of writing.

I don’t buy expensive perfumes because they are expensive or everyone says it’s really good (e.g. Aventus). I really love M and I have been thinking of getting a bottle since I first sniffed it. People might tell me there’s no need to make any excuses for buying the things you like, but I am not that chic; I still wear my two-year-old shoes bought from an outlet mall everyday, and I hesitate ordering lunches that cost more than ten dollars. But here are some excuses anyway: my birthday is coming, and I deserve a little treat (except it’s not little); I imagine I am buying two or three bottles of niche perfumes at the same time (a.k.a. a fragrance haul) and I don’t need to buy any perfumes for a long time (except I will still buy some more very soon).

While wearing M, it makes me wonder what makes a perfume to be perceived as a luxurious scent, because to me, M does smell luxurious. Or the sales associate would tell me, “you wear it to feel tall.” If you do a blind test, can you pick one that you think is luxury smelling, and it is in fact, an expensive perfume? Or, if you are a perfumer designing a perfume to be marketed at $500 or more apiece, what notes would you choose? Is there an insider formula (I call it the “perfume gravy accord”) and does it change over time? Can a client smell a work-in-progress perfume and immediately know it is not luxurious enough? Are there ingredients whose smells are hard-wired in our brains to trigger a “luxurious” response? If bananas are only available to the top 1% of the population, would people associate the smell of bananas with luxury? Would you pay for a simple perfume that is made out of a few expensive ingredients or the one that is priced the same but made out of cheap aroma chemicals but smells “luxurious”? And what exactly is luxurious? Or is it just a marketing psychology game…

M (which stands for male) is a resinous, spicy incense scent with a heavy dose of carnation, clove and labdanum, with a touch of jasmine and rose. It has very little scent development, but it stays on you for a long time. Sometimes I wish it would go away because it wears you down like a monkey wrapped around your neck that never leaves you alone.

While studying the notes breakdown of M, I realize M is actually half the formula of a typical vintage style perfume. It amplifies the base notes of those perfumes and trims away the floral, fruit and wood accords, almost ditches the oakmoss, and the effect is like buying bacon fat in a jar instead of bacon or drinking straight cream instead of coffee with some cream. No wonder it’s so sickening rich.

Ex Idolo’s Thirty Three (2012)

Ex Idolo Thirty Three, 30ml
Ex Idolo Thirty Three, 30ml © Victor Wong

Ex Idolo’s Thirty Three is a Energizer battery. Once you put it on, you will keep marching and banging your drum for the whole day, shouting  “rose, oud, rose, oud, left, right, left, right,” along your way.

Thirty Three is a relatively simple perfume – rose, oud, patchouli and some auxiliary notes such as black pepper, iris and white tea. What’s really attractive about Thirty Three is its potency, jammy rose and the use of real, good Chinese oud oil. This makes the perfume skanky, as it should be, and addictive. However, there are also some metallic and caoutchouc (rubber tree) notes in it, making it smell like soap – wearing it sometimes makes me feel like I didn’t rinse after applying soap in a shower.

When I knew my local niche perfume shop started carrying Ex Idolo I was quite excited. I walked in the shop and looked around for minutes until I spotted them – they were tiny 30ml bottles! Recently, I have noticed there’s a trend of niche and indie perfume houses releasing smaller size perfumes priced at the “sweet spot” ($100 or less for indie, and a bit more for niche). The amount of perfume in the bottle is actually not too important, but affordability is. $100 is a mental barrier – perfume collectors want a lot of bottles, but they hardly finish one. A 100 ml niche perfume easily costs over $250 or more, so being able to bring home a new bottle at a easier-to-swallow price pacifies your inner demon to acquire more but not break the bank.

Cacharel’s Loulou (1987)

Cacharel's Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong
Cacharel’s Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong

I’ve heard that people who have had a near-death experience recall seeing their whole life being played back like a rewinding videotape in their head at lightning speed. If this is true, I might see a hexagonal blue perfume bottle flash by in my head for a nano-second too long when I die. Yes, that strange geometric blue bottle with a red pointy cap created in the far off exotic land of the discordant color scheme had left me with a lifelong impression. I first saw it at a department store in the late 80s, and I thought, “What is this crazy thing?” I stared at the bottle but was too afraid to touch it because I was a well-behaving young man.

Almost 30 years later, I finally know its name – Loulou by Cacharel, and own a splash bottle and a parfum bottle. They are both sitting on my desk, emitting an alienesque blue aura like two pieces of quartz, humming. My expectation for Loulou was quite huge. Luca Turin gave it a 5 star review with very little explanation, and it was one of the best-selling perfumes from the glorious 80s.

I must say I am a bit disappointed with Loulou, for I had read too many good things about it (I probably should give it more time). It’s supposed to be Cacharel’s reaction to Dior’s Poison – a fruity oriental bomb with massive sillage – but I found it rather tame. I brought a decant to work and asked my coworkers, “Are you ready?” then one spritz on the back of my hand, and three minutes later I asked again, “Did you feel the aftershock?” No one said anything except “Myeh” (I think it’s combination of yeah and meh).

The scent itself is quite interesting and a little “strange.” To me, it has two noticeable layers; the first layer is “something sweet and plasticky smelling,” like the smell of some brand new plastic toy. I think the plasticky smell is actually incense in low dosage mixed with some plum;  the second layer is “some white florals” that are soft, tender and slightly powdery (probably heliotrope) and feminine. I want to re-live the 90s to see how many people actually wore this perfume, brought down to Earth by some UFOs.

P.S. I decanted some parfum into an atomizer bottle and tried it on my skin, it’s quite potent and rich!

Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (1933, Extrait 2015)

Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong
Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong

There’s a Chinese idiom “Like a cow munching a peony bush”, sarcastically describing someone who is unable to see or appreciate art and beauty. Unfortunately, I think I am that cow when it comes to Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (Night Flight).

Vol de Nuit extrait was one of the few perfumes that I knew I had to get for my perfume collection just because of the bottle. A simple flat square bottle that perfectly captures the essence of the graphic design of one of my favorite art movements – Art Deco, with rays of a sunburst emitting from the center of the bottle (in this case, it’s supposed to represent the propeller of an aeroplane), paired with a shiny gold title plate featuring the iconic fat and chunky san-serif style font.

The scent, now I must say, does not speak to me like how it speaks to high-profile reviewer Luca Turin and many others. Luca wrote he used Vol de Nuit to “recalibrate” his olfactory apparatus to obtain a full-scale quality reading and used Creed’s Love in White to get a reliable zero. Who wouldn’t be tempted to smell a scent that could kick the balls of some Creed scents so high up in the sky?

Vol de Nuit extrait (not the EDT/EDP) to me is essentially a dark balsamic oriental scent. It smells like a lot vintage Lanvin perfumes that I own but with less character. (An image of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall comes to mind.) It also smells very much like a Chinese incense joss stick, borderline smoky and it’s not easy to tell what’s exactly in it. I think that’s why it’s marvelous to some people – it’s ambiguous, mysterious, with ingredients perfectly blended like the interlocking jigsaw pieces of a Escher illustration, so balanced that I don’t know what the heck I am smelling. It smells rich and very importantly, classically vintage. That’s actually the most exciting thing to learn about Vol de Nuit – I have read that in recent years Guerlain have been trying their best to replicate their classic perfumes and they claim that the new batches are very faithful to the original. (So much so that people complain that they don’t smell like the reformulated versions that they own.) If my brand-new Vol de Nuit extrait has every notes in tact and smells like the vintage perfumes from the 30s to 50s that I have been collecting, that means they haven’t deteriorated too badly! Vol de Nuit perhaps is the granddaddy of balsamic oriental perfumes like the top node of a perfume evolution tree.