Bogue’s Maai (Scent of Mystery Edition) 2015

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Bogue’s Maai (Scent of Mystery Edition) 2015 © Victor Wong

I had posted a photo of my “fragrance haul” in a Facebook perfume group, showing off my newly acquired scents from a trip, and a Facebook friend saw my bottle of Maai in the picture, and wrote the comment, “Maai is in the house!”

Yes, Maai is in the f**king house, finally. There’s a strange imagery came into my head, and it’s a Jenny Craig commercial; in it a once-overweight woman finally has shed all her extra pounds, and got accepted into the group of “normal” weight friends, full of joy and tears. I felt like I finally belonged, back to the mothership of sane people.

When Maai came out, it was almost like an unstoppable Internet forest fire in Fragrance County. Everyone was talking about it, and the fragrance friends whom I trusted by their taste in perfumes, all said Maai was amazing. I even got an unrequested sample sent to me from a friend as he couldn’t hold his love for this scent. I had talked to a person who had a shaving soap business suddenly asked if I liked Maai or not because he really loved it.

If I am asked to summarize my feeling for Maai, I would say this – it’s a fully restored, remastered, high definition vintage perfume. Everything that is typical in a vintage perfume, no matter it’s rose, oak moss, civet, or aldehyde, it’s so intense and rich and amped up, it’s like a Picasso cubist painting instead of a romanticism painting of angels. I think people are wondering if Antonio Gardoni has cheated and ignored IFRA safety guideline by pouring a gallon of real oakmoss in Maai with an evil grin (covered up by his beard) and mumbling in Italian, “fock you…”

That all being said, I didn’t love Maai. I liked it. Until I was at a fragrance show in LA, talking to a perfumer about her perfumes, and suddenly someone next to me sprayed some perfume onto a ceramic mask. I couldn’t hold myself, and said, “oh my god, what is this beautiful scent?” It was totally embarrassing because I was praising the scent coming from the next booth. Yes, it’s was Antonio next to me spraying Maai. BUT, not the regular Maai, but a modified version of Maai, called Scent of Mystery. He modified Maai by adding some beautiful gardenia, and amped up the concentration from 28% to 33%. It was so rich, floral, dirty, soapy and flirty it’s ridiculous. I succumbed, I had to get this special version. Now I think about it, maybe the original Maai wasn’t floral enough for me? How crazy.

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.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 2 – Scandal

Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong

Famous vintage perfumes are very much like Greek temples – most of them are spectacular and iconic, but all in ruins in various degrees of damage. They can be rebuilt with modern construction materials, but you know they will not be the same. The famous Parthenon in Athens is breathtaking, but you have to realize you are just looking at the columns of all there left behind. If you look at the artist’s rendition of the original temple with its giant gothic roof and rooms intact, it might blow your mind just to imagine how magnificent it was before the building collapsed. Vintage perfumes, all have never stopped slow self-destructing, often are only left with middle and base notes; top notes such as citrus and aldehyde are gone, or even worse, spoiled. Even if you are handed the original formula listing all the ingredients, I doubt one can imagine with precision what that freshly made perfume smells like because smells are not visuals.

If you are reading this, 20 years or even 50 years from the day it is published, and are considering spending a lot of money on a vintage perfume from 1920s, not to collect, but to smell, to re-experience the golden days of perfumery, I suggest you don’t. Enjoy your contemporary perfumes, ok? (I obviously don’t listen to my own advice.)

For me, analyzing a vintage perfume is both fun, humbling, and even humiliating. First of all, there are quite a few vintage perfumes not yet recorded on Fragrantica.com, the encyclopedia of perfumes and their respective notes breakdown. Without the “cheat sheet”, I really have to rely on my nose to guess what are in the perfume. I know from past experience, I can only correctly guess 5%-10% of the notes of a perfume. Luckily, there are reviews from other sources, by comparing my experience with theirs, I can tell if my perfume has turned bad or not, and also gain some insight.

Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong

So, here I go, I will start with Lanvin Scandal (1931), a leather chypre, the one that never received any reformulation/reissue. It was designed by Andre Fraysse, and discontinued in 1971. I have two versions of Scandal, one is a mini extrait, 1/2 evaporated, around 80 years old, and a travel size vaporizer EDT, also very old, but younger than the extrait.

Based on the notes breakdown I got from Fragrantica, the top notes such as bergamot, lemon, neroli, mandarin in my extrait are all missing. The “new” opening, and the extrait itself is now all about leather. Old, resinous, incensed, spicy, leather. It reminds me of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, but with richer, sharper, more aged leather, and a smoky, mildly sweet (vanilla) and mildly white floral middle notes (probably iris, ylang and some rose). As it dries down, the leather never goes away, but it becomes smoother.

The EDT version on the other hand, smells a bit different. The opening, just the first few seconds, really, is absolutely horrendous — band-aid, plasticky and chemical. (maybe due to its old age.) That unpleasantness goes away very quickly and suddenly it behaves like the parfum/extrait version, only smelling lighter and more animalic, probably of civet. The leather in this case, smells like a new leather jacket instead of smoked old leather sofa found in a temple that burns incense 24/7.

A quick summary, Scandal to me is an incense leather perfume.
(to be continued…)

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century (Part 1)

Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set - My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong
Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set – My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong

I’ll tell you one of the strange reasons why I started collecting vintage Lanvin perfumes about a year ago – there were only six to collect, which I thought was an easy thing to do and not too costly. (Later I found out it’s not always the case.) Mind you, it is not a “completist set”, for Lanvin had released over 30 perfumes between 1923 and 1987 (and a hiatus of 13 years before they released Oxygene in 2000), sadly, most of them got discontinued and forgotten, and only a few were big hits and had sold well enough that you can still find them on eBay. The six scents are Mon Peche (or My Sin, 1925), Arpège (1927), Scandal (1931), Rumeur (1934), Prétexte (1937) and Crescendo (1965).

I began collecting Lanvin perfumes after smelling the modern reformulated Arpège at a shop and bought it without hesitation. It was so marvellous. Not for long, I started collecting vintage Arpège, and the snowball got bigger, as always. (And my vintage Arpège collection is a totally different monster.) Out of the six scents, vintage Arpege is the easiest to collect for Lanvin had sold thousands of truckloads of them. My Sin is the second easiest, probably because of the name, and the scent, for it was suggestive that a lot of women bought it to become an imaginary sinner in the mid 20th century. Vintage Rumeur and Prétexte are rare now, and you will be very lucky to find a full bottle of Scandal or Crescendo extrait for under $150, if it ever shows up on eBay.

I am not the only fan of my so-called “Fantastic Six”, Edmond Roudnitska, one of the greatest French master perfumers, had called Arpege, Scandal, Rumeur and Prétexte “the most spectacular tetralogy in the history of perfumery”.* Having one hit perfume is already difficult, but having four, and each intentionally or unintentionally smelling like it complements each other to complete a perfumery four-piece medallion is ultra difficult and awesome.

Recently I have acquired a vintage “cofferet set” of mini Lanvin extraits, and what’s so special about this set is that all the bottles are unopened (although only 1/4 is left due to 80 years of lonesome meditative evaporation), and they are from the same manufacturing period. I think I can finally tell how different each scent is, for a lot of vintage perfumes tend to smell very similar for the top notes are all gone or ruined, and only left with very commonly used base note ingredients.

* Susan Irvine ed. 2002. The Perfume Guide. Prospero Books
(to be continued…)

Caron’s Narcisse Noir (1911) & Nuit De Noel (1922)

Caron Nuit De Noel & Narcisse Noir
© Victor Wong

Luca Thurin gave 5-star rating to a few Caron perfumes for men but almost abysmal ratings to the ones for women. I think he actually liked the vintage versions, but the recent cheap reformulation made them horrible.

Interestingly, perfume review site Boise de Jasmin’s gave a few vintage Caron perfumes for women 4 or 5 stars reviews. I started looking for Caron perfumes for women and couldn’t find them anywhere in Toronto until today…that unsuspecting shop not only have Carons, but old Carons, so old that the bottles are quite ugly.

The scents of Narcisse Noire (1911) and Nuit De Noel (1922) really smell vintage with animalistic and oak moss base notes. The flower notes are almost irrelevant supporting actors. It’s definitely interesting to know what women smelled like 100 years ago.