There are some incredibly nice people with real talent emerging on the perfume scene, and I think the founder and perfumer behind Ex Idolo, Matthew Zhuk, is one of them. He seems to be a genuinely nice chap with a thoughtful bent, a self-deprecating sense of humour, and a passion for perfumery, both vintage and modern.
Mr. Zhuk is a London-based perfumer who sent me his debut fragrance, Thirty-Three (spelled with the hyphen) with full knowledge about my reviewing policy and my tendency towards bluntness. His obviously genuine passion for vintage scents, his desire to create something outside the typical framework of oud fragrances (which he’s studied a lot), and his down-to-earth affability made me really want to love Thirty-three. Plus, it has the most stunning cognac-coloured liquid. Alas, Thirty-three is not for me for a variety of reasons.
Ex Idolo describes Thirty-three and its notes as follows:
Thirty-three is a fragrance crafted from very special ingredients. The soul of the fragrance is built around a vintage oud – distilled in 1980 and aged until its release in 2013. It is also the only modern perfume to use a significant amount of wild-harvested Chinese oud oil and natural Chinese rose oil to build the scent profile. Contrary to most ouds however, Thirty-three is a surprisingly soft and velvety fragrance, and genuinely fits in an innovative space in terms of the wider oud category. Thirty-three is a deep and dark unisex fragrance, with dry and cold facets.
As Mr. Zhuk wrote to me in an email:
Thirty-three is an oud, but in a time where the genre is rapidly commercializing, it sets itself apart with a number of differentiating points. The most important of those are the tone it projects, which is decidedly less harsh than what is typical in the genre, but also because it is the first “western” mainstream release to use a vintage oud in its formulation – in this case, distilled in 1980 (hence the name).
Thirty-three has an interesting set of notes:
Soft black pepper, Candied mandarin, Caoutchouc, Chinese white tea, Chinese rose, Taif rose, Orris, Damascus steel, Rare, natural vintage ouds, Aged patchouli, Heliotropin
When I smelled Thirty-three from the vial, it was a plethora of: jammy roses; fruited, sweet, purple fruit-chouli; black rubber; fiery black pepper with almost a pimento or chili-like bite; honeyed oud; and a boozy cognac element. On the skin, Thirty-three isn’t very different at first. It opens with the fiercest pepper and chili note imaginable, almost searing the nose, followed by heaping amounts of syrupy, jammy roses that are deeply infused with the purple, fruited, molasses-like patchouli that I hate so much.
Then, the discordant, surprising twist occurs. There is a sharp, industrial clang that is chilly, sharp, pungent, and metallic. It has to be the “Damascus Steel” in the notes, as the note genuinely feels frosted and cold. Underneath is a black rubber element that is dry, dry, dry, followed by a rather contradictory warm, boozy cognac tonality. I can’t get over the nose-clearing pepper, or that iced, industrial steel which I’ve never encountered before. I give kudos for originality, but that doesn’t mean I love it.
The truly unpleasant part is the profound dryness to Thirty-three that burns the back of my throat, creates a tightening in my nose, and sends a searing pain through my head each time I sniff my arm in the opening phase. I’ve tested Thirty-three a few times at different levels and dosages, and the dryness consistently renders my throat scratchy, irritated, and sore.
There must be something synthetic in the base that is triggering such an intense reaction each and every time. In the past, the only thing that has made my throat close up is Norlimbanol, but I don’t smell that in the way that I’ve encountered before. However, Thirty-three has the same sort of intense aridness, verging on the dust in a land undergoing a severe drought, that Norlimbanol can generate. Perhaps it stems from the Caoutchouc element which is the rubber latex from a rubber tree, even though I don’t smell “black rubber” in any significant way after the opening minutes. Whatever the cause, the dusty aridness feels completely discordant and contradictory with all the intensely syrupy, overly sweet, fruited roses.
The black pepper begins to pipe down after 10 minutes, enabling the other notes to come through, though they’re often hard to detect under the tidal wave of pink jam. There are tiny suggestions of the dried, candied orange, but much more noticeable is a slight woodiness that smells of dried cork with a singed nuance. It is fleeting, and certainly doesn’t smell like oud in any noticeable, individually distinct way. For the most part, all I detect with Thirty-three are roses infused with heaping amounts of syrupy, purple, fruited patchouli molasses. Perhaps the problem is one of skin chemistry; my skin takes fruit-chouli and runs with it, amplifying above much else. Thirty Three is no exception to the rule.
From start almost to finish, Thirty-three is largely roses, roses, and more roses on my skin. There are tiny, subtle variations at first, but everything is muffled under the thick blanket of syrupy roses. About 45 minutes in, the fragrance mellows a little, losing some of its discordant jangle, and almost all of its chilled steel. There are tiny flickers of something vaguely like dry woodiness in the base, but it often feels like a figment of my imagination. There is no question of imagination about the synthetic dusty dryness, however, which remains for about 3.5 hours as a strong underpinning to that fruited rose.
Other changes pertain to sillage. With a large application of 4 sprays, the fragrance softens after 2.25 hours, dropping to about 2-3 inches above the skin, and later turning into a skin scent around the fifth one. With a small dose of 2 sprays, Thirty Three becomes a skin scent after two hours. It’s always a discreet scent as a whole.
A little before the start of the 4th hour, Thirty-three finally shifts. The syrupy, highly sweetened jammy roses finally take a small breather, and there is something vaguely discernible as oud. It’s dry, lightly honeyed, and refined. Texturally, it feels very smooth and almost creamy. Unfortunately, though, it is extremely subtle and muted. Neither the perpetual force-field of pink roses nor the extremely low sillage help detection much. Before I know it, less than an hour later, the note vanishes.
At the start of the sixth hour with a large dose, but the fourth hour with a small one, the roses becomes very pretty. They feel incredibly creamy, and petal soft. Though they are still infused with that bloody fruit-chouli, the delicacy of the floral note is really lovely. Gauzy, high-quality, and very refined, it’s the merest breath upon the skin. A subtle powderiness lurks underneath, as does a lingering touch of dryness.
Thirty-three soon transitions into its final drydown phase. At first, it’s a sheer whisper of a powdery rose, but soon the powder takes over completely. At the start of the 7th hour, Thirty-three is powder with a definite soapy tinge to it, and nothing more. It dies as an abstract, sheer blur of soapiness shortly about 9.25 hours from the start with a large dose of 4 sprays, but after 8 hours with 2 small ones.
As a whole, Thirty-three was a high-quality rose soliflore on my skin. It may not be to my personal tastes, but I can see how women, rose lovers, and those who don’t like conventional or masculine oud fragrances may enjoy it. For me, it’s very much in the same vein as Frederic Malle‘s Portrait of a Lady. I’m not a fan of the Malle, but then I loathe purple patchouli and syrupy sweet roses. Those who approach Thirty Three expecting a truly oud-centered fragrance — like something from Amouage or Xerjoff — may end up disappointed. The perfume may have been intentionally crafted to have a “surprisingly soft” focus and refinement, but to the point of having the oud be nearly invisible?
It’s not merely my opinion. The one review on Basenotes in the official Thirty-three entry reads:
Roses, Roses, Roseeeeeeesssss
Was intreagued by the add copy…..Im a sucker for a fancy presentation as well as oud so ordered a sample from Roullier White which arrived promptly in the mail. The liquid looked gorgeous with its dark almost cognac like hue and I applied it and…..enter The Rose. OK….roses are usually found alongside oud so now big surprise there but after 5 hours there is still just…..rose……
Granted,I dont have a mass spectrografer for a nose but I just cant smell the oud at all.
Quite a disappointment ……..
Well, I did detect other things in the fragrance, but, unfortunately, it was primarily the patchouli, and that incredibly unpleasant, dusty, synthetic element which gave me the most pounding migraine for a while.
Some people are big fans of Thirty-three. I’ll skip detailing the thoughts of Mark Behnke on CaFleureBon who loved Thirty-three, because he praises everything — always, lavishly, and uncritically. Instead, I’ll focus on some other perspectives. Octavian of 1000 Fragrances apparently wrote, sometime this summer, a positive review which I can no longer pull up to link for you. (His site is now closed down, and he has moved onto other things.) However, a small part is quoted on the Ex Idolo website, and reads:
One of the most spectacular compositions of the year comes from an unexpected place… Thirty Three is not “une odeur”, but “un esprit” a quality which refers to the ability of a perfume to “bloom” when you wear it like a living masterpiece.
Tara of Olfactoria’s Travels also enjoyed it, writing:
Thirty-three is extremely well blended. Apart from a burst of mandarin at the start and a beautifully deep red rose accord that persists throughout, the rest of the notes seep seamlessly into the pillowy bed of oud. It is sophisticated and seductive in the mould of the wonderful Rose Oud from By Kilian.
For some reason, I had suspected Thirty-three would be rather masculine, but that’s not the case. It isn’t a macho, hairy-chested, animalic oud at all. It’s highly refined and undeniably soft. It has that skin-melding quality which gives it a sensuous, understated elegance.
She’s right that Thirty-three isn’t masculine, and I actually agree on the issue of a similarity to a Kilian fragrance. In my case, however, I wasn’t thinking only of Rose Oud, but of Amber Oud which is remarkable for not smelling even remotely of oud on my skin. (Nor on that of many others.) Yes, Thirty-three is definitely a feminine fragrance with so little discernible, hardcore oud in it that it feels quite like a Kilian. High quality, pillowy, feminine roses all the way.
The feminine aspect was noted by a reviewer on a different Basenotes thread. As one of two people who had tried the perfume, “gandhajala” wrote:
Gave this a sniff briefly on a mouillette: the oud and whatnot came across as quite woody with slight spice/leather/ tobacco facets; the rose is nice, but personally, I’ve had my fill of oud+rose.
This is certainly not a dirty oud by oud standards and many people on the evening seemed to find the fragrance quite femme.
I didn’t enjoy Thirty-three, but it’s all a matter of personal taste and one’s subjective valuation of certain notes. I think there is a definite segment of the perfume market who may love the perfume. Those who enjoy the heavy patchouli-rose aspect of Malle’s POAL, the pillowy softness of a Kilian scent, the refined cleanness of his ouds, ultra-feminine rose soliflores, or fragrances with almost no major, masculine oud at all, may want to give Thirty Three a sniff. It’s clearly high-quality, and intended to be a super refined take on the note. I think Mr. Zhuk has definite talent, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Disclosure: Sample provided by Ex Idolo. That did not affect this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own. My first obligation is honesty to my readers.