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!”

Etat Libre d’Orange’s La Fin du Monde (2013)

Etat Libre D'Orange's La Fin du Monde © Victor Wong
Etat Libre D’Orange’s La Fin du Monde © Victor Wong

My previous boss, who majored in geography and loved history, liked to share his knowledge in those subjects with people around him. Just before my vacation to visit the Yellowstone Park, his eyes lit up and enthusiastically told me that the Yellowstone National Park was a massive collapsed super-volcano. At a bar, he said that the TV show Fear Factor (in which contestants were asked to do dangerous/gruesome things to win) was an indication of the imminent end of the great American civilization because history repeats, and the Americans were acting like the citizens of the Great Roman Empire before it fell – they had nothing better to do but entertain themselves with stupid, senseless, brutal and humiliating game shows. I didn’t think the American civilization would end like the Romans, nevertheless it was a very interesting chat…

Now I must say that I have a fascination with the “end of the world”. Of course, I don’t want it to happen, and I don’t think it will happen, but living in a First World country comfortably and being a complacent middle class citizen, it is thrilling to occasionally think about it. (In 2003 Toronto and some neighboring cities had a massive blackout and the whole city was paralyzed; at nighttime the sky was pitch black and we lit candles and used mini propane stove for cooking. It was an experience of a lifetime 🙂

When Etat Libre D’Orange announced “La Fin du Monde” in 2013 (The End of the World), I was quite excited. Like watching the trailer of a disaster movie, I “previewed” the perfume by reading its notes on Fragrantica – gunpowder (war and violence), popcorn (explosion and movie theatre junk food), carrot seeds and sesame (“what the F?”), vetiver, sandalwood and cumin (reliable actors), I could tell it’s a going to be a creative nonsensical B-movie perfume. When I first wore La Fin du Monde, I was smiling from ear to ear because it smelled ridiculously silly yet perfectly fine; deliciously oily yet inedible (sesame and popcorn), strange yet familiar (carrot seed/gunpowder and vetiver/sandalwood/iris/freesia); really the top notes of the perfume are a joke but the middle and base notes are serious and sincere.

Sometimes when my friends want to watch a movie at my place, I choose the common denominator – a disaster flick or a brainless comedy; similarly, when I have friends who want to smell some niche perfumes, I will definitely bring out “La Fin du Monde”.

Juicy Couture’s Dirty English (2008)

Juicy Couture Dirty English © Victor Wong
Juicy Couture Dirty English © Victor Wong

“A perfume smells better when it gets discontinued.” – Plato

Recently I have read some posts saying that Juicy Couture’s Dirty English has been reformulated and the packaging has changed from awesome to awful. The metal chain that wraps around the original bottle cap is now cheap plastic, and the little trinkets that tied to the bottle cap with a leather band are all gone, and worst of all, the fragrance smells much weaker. For the longest time, my local perfume shop sales lady had been urging me to get a bottle because she really liked it. (Not really a factor.) I really liked the packaging, it’s thoughtful and thorough, but the reason I held off getting a bottle was that I had a negative association with the brand’s couture – I really don’t like seeing people wear their pink jogging pants with the word Juicy printed on the back on the butt – often the word gets epically distorted and the letter “i” sometimes gets fallen through the cracks.

Last time I visited the store I saw a bunch of Dirty English bottles getting a massive discount (from $90 to $40). I thought this was the time to get one… but I looked at the bottle and knew it was the new version. I asked the sales lady if she still had the old stock, and she did, but the last bottle, and it’s $90. I asked if she could give me the same price $40 and suddenly she switched to the Arabic language channel – she and her boss had a conversation for about a minute and the boss said $50. I asked why didn’t you give me $40? She replied why didn’t I buy the new version? What a… cunning businesswoman. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was getting an old version with the original packaging, but I took the chance. Damn Plato.

Yes, it’s the original version. Whew.

Dirty English smells very manly and well-blended. It’s woody and leathery, spicy and warm, and dry. There is a little bit of “dirtiness” and that probably comes from vetiver, cypress and a tiny little bit of synthetic oud. It doesn’t smell animalic, but carefree – and the guy wearing it definitely is not driving a Fiat mini car.

Interestingly, Dirty English reminds me of Gucci pour Homme (2003, discontinued, and highly sought after) but not as smooth and sophisticated – if you have a tight budget, Dirty English is still a bad boy smooth operator.

But wait, there’s more! I just said Dirty English smelled like Gucci pour Homme, but Gucci pour Homme smells like another perfume – Rochas Lui (2003)! Lui smells simpler, probably due to fewer ingredients, but all the ingredients are amped up and it’s delicious and sexy. If I get to rename it, may be I would pick “Easy French”. It’s definitely amusing to see both Gucci pour Homme and Lui were released in 2003, and five years later Juicy Couture released a slightly water-downed version, trying to lure all the dirty English wannabes.

Oriza Legrand’s Relique d’Amour (2012)

Oriza L. Legrand Relique D'Amour © Victor Wong
Oriza L. Legrand Relique D’Amour © Victor Wong

I’ve watched quite a few home renovation TV shows that teach people how to make furniture look like vintage pieces. You paint it, scratch it, score it, and even beat it with a chain like torturing a prisoner in the Middle Ages, and the end result is convincingly good. Making new things look old is nothing new, and the technique is an art by itself.

Interestingly, Orica Legrand’s Relique d’Amour (2012) is a perfume that gives me the feeling that I am smelling a new creation that was designed to smell antiquated. It smells of big institutions with a long history, sturdy furniture built with solid oak and traditional craftsmanship, and that has endured years of usage and occasional polishing. This is a grand feeling, like entering a huge library and being humbled by the massive collection of knowledge and bookshelves, or visiting a monastery and bewildered by the devoted monks who manage to maintain the dignity of their living quarters without saying a word.

Essentially Relique d’Amour is a woody perfume, but what you get out of it may depend on your age, your background, whether your country had been ruled by the British or not, and also mainly your imagination. You might find it smell like a TV amoire and nothing more, but to me, it brings back memories of me being an apprehensive Catholic primary school student standing in front of the whole class trying to recite traditional British nursery rhymes that I had no clue what they were about.