Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds (2015)

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Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds © Victor Wong

Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds is a big surprise to me because it doesn’t smell like any typical synthetic oud perfumes. It actually smells like… oud. And dry woods. It smells natural, and it triggers memories of certain places that I’ve been to, one distant and one recent…

The distant one: In Hong Kong, there were many claustrophobic Chinese furniture stores all trying to cramp as many pieces of furniture as possible because space had always been very limited. Each store was filled and stacked with uncomfortable mahogany hardwood furniture with no cushioning, and the air in the stores was permeated with scents of dry and somehow fragrant wood scents, for the lacquer could never seal the wood surfaces completely. It was my mom’s dream to fill the living room with traditional Chinese furniture that no one wanted to sit in and use, and when I was a kid, I got dragged along to visit those shops very often. I wanted to see toys, not chairs carved with dragons and phoenixes. Now I miss the days go shopping with my parents.

The recent one: I was in a night market with my partner in Cambodia, and there’s a shop that sold wooden bead bracelets. Hundreds of bracelets were displayed in cabinets, and taped on the glass was a card that read, “Authentic oud bracelets. We do not sell phonies”. I never really cared for ouds before I had become a perfume addict, but at that moment, I wanted to ask the shopkeeper to show me one – imagine, a scented oud bracelet! My partner immediately stopped me in an angry tone, “Are you an idiot? This is a tourist area, these are of course phonies! Also, they are from China, they must be fake! Those bracelets must have been soaked in some chemical to give off that smell and colour, and if you wear it, the skin on your wrist will get burned.” Fine, when your partner lost his marbles like that, it’s time to tell him, “Look, there’s an UFO in the sky!” and run out of the store. As we were leaving, I could detect traces of supposedly oud in the air.

Now I have memories of my childhood and unfinished shopping distilled into a bottle of perfume. Smelling 1001 Ouds gives me instant solace – the smell of wood and oud in this perfume is never too sharp; and although the oud is not very strong in this scent, the strength of the wood in this scent helps extend its longevity, and it creates an illusion of a young piece of wood that has been infected by the oud virus not for too long. There’s also a little bitterness in the scent that makes it smell precious. When I am wearing it, I feel like I am a mature, well-travelled man with stories to tell and a drawer of ouddies to sell.

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.

Giorgio Armani’s Bois d’Encens (2004)

Giorgio Armani's Bois d'Encens (2004)
Giorgio Armani’s Bois d’Encens © Victor Wong

The coworker sitting next to me is a 30-something year old man who immigrated from Pakistan to Canada when he was a young teenager. He is a video game level designer, and every afternoon he takes a break and goes to pray at a prayer center unexpectedly located within walking distance from our office above an auto repair shop, and returns to work with a Wendy’s milkshake most of the time. He loves anime and wears a different nerdy T-shirt to work everyday like I wear a different perfume. He is familiar with both the Middle Eastern culture and the Western culture, and has a very liberal heart (I would say he has “synced up” with the Canadians’ worldview), a 100% nice guy, and also a devout Islamic follower. But little does he know, he has a more important purpose in life – a guinea pig for the perfumes that I develop with my perfumers.

“Here, smell this.” I don’t know how many times I have handed him a paper napkin, marked with a number and sprayed with some work-in-progress perfumes.

“Not bad,” “it’s very nice,” “this smells like a spice cabinet,” “this smells like attar from Pakistan,” “please flush it away, now, immediately” are some of his typical comments.

Then one time he said, “This is not perfume. It’s nice, I would wear this, but my wife will hate it. And really, this is not perfume.”

I was deeply worried, for the perfume that I just showed him was almost done, and “it’s not a perfume”.

A few days later while looking for a stapler, I found a sample of Armani’s Bois d’Encens in my drawer, and sprayed some on myself. Out of curiosity, I asked him for his opinion on this perfume.

“This is not perfume.”

“Say again? Did you know this is fricking Armani? I mean, would Armani release a perfume that is not perfume?”

“I know some Middle Eastern guys would wear this, but I can’t detect any florals in it, and it’s just wood and incense. My wife would not let me wear this in the house. No, it’s not perfume.”

The sky suddenly cleared – he needed a new life. No, a new wife. No, not really, but now I know I could release any perfumes that I like without worrying too much what other people think. I have to trust my taste.

To be fair, Bois d’Encens is a very straight forward perfume, exactly like what the title suggests, it is just woods and incense, with pink pepper, labdanum and vetiver. But the simplicity demands your attention and respect – it’s a tall, dark, austere smelling scent. When wearing it, you have the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions.

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.

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.

Bond No. 9’s I Love New York for Marriage Equality (2011)

Bond No. 9 - I Love New York for Marriage Equality (EDP, 100ml) © Victor Wong
Bond No. 9 – I Love New York for Marriage Equality (EDP, 100ml) © Victor Wong

“I Love New York for Marriage Equality” is an odd smelling perfume. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it. I don’t wear it often, because when I do, I will be constantly guessing if people around me are wondering what they are smelling. It really took me some time to understand what this perfume was about, or find a label/category for it, but now I do, and it’s quite amusing – it’s a nutmeg perfume. It’s not a rose perfume, not a fruity perfume, not a woody perfume, not an amber perfume, although it shares traits of all those perfumes, but mainly, it’s a spicy perfume that features nutmeg and cinnamon. I’d say it’s a fall/winter perfume, and it would be nuts to wear this perfume to Gay Pride when the summer temperature is high and everywhere full of rainbow beams deflected by pecs and abs.

My “review” of “I Love New York for Marriage Equality” ends here. I blind-bought this perfume because I am gay and I knew US would eventually pass nationwide same sex marriage, and I wanted to own a “gay perfume”, a little historic emblem, before it got discontinued for being an “outdated topic”.

I must admit I am extremely lucky to live in this special period of time and in Canada, which allows same sex marriage since 2005. I have been living with my partner for 15 years, and we never feel we need to get married. To me this is almost a minority civil right luxury that I couldn’t imagine we would have twenty years ago – choosing not to get married.

My gay friend came out to his mom when he was a teenager almost 25 years ago. Her reaction was, “this is a pity, because life is so much more complete when you have a spouse to share with, but gay men can’t get married.” A few years later she died of brain cancer. Who would have thought both their sorrows were gone when he married his true love twenty years later.

Civil rights, keep marching forward!

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!”