Review: By Kilian & Montale Oud perfumes

I’ve tried a number of unisex Oud fragrances from such niche perfume lines as Montale and By Kilian. (The latter was founded by the grandson of the famous Hennessy dynasty whose high-end cognac company is now part of the LVMH luxury conglomerate.) Oud scents are not cheap and the niche houses who put them out can charge a pretty penny. I could afford to try so many only thanks to the incredibly useful website, Surrender to Chance, which sells sample vials or larger-sized “decants” of almost every cologne or fragrance imaginable – from department stores lines to the niche houses to the rare, discontinued and vintage. (I cannot recommend them enough and the shipping is a fantastic price for a fast turnaround: $2.95 for First Class Shipping on any order within the U.S., and starting at $5.95 for international shipping.)

From By Kilian (hereinafter referred to just as Kilian), I tried four unisex fragrances from his Arabian Nights Collection: Amber OudRose OudIncense Oud and Pure OudIncense Oud opened with a sharp lime note which quickly receded to the background as the smoky, incense-y wood notes appeared. I liked this scent, though I swing back and forth as to whether I prefer the Rose Oud which opens with that sharp lime note before adding a rose element to the smokiness and woodiness. Honestly, I’ve concluded that that bitter, acrid, sharp, almost burning lime element has to be some element of the Oud distillation because I get it in a number of different Oud scents on the market. Not all, but enough such that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining its pervasiveness, particularly as “sharp, acrid lime” is not something usually associated with Oud. This is obviously where personal chemistry comes into play.

Regardless, both Incense and Rose Oud settle into a comfortable, smoky woodiness that is quite different.  Neither has much sillage or longevity on me, but as I have repeatedly mentioned, few things do. With both Kilians, they fade into softness as quickly as 15 minutes later! However, they do remain, albeit close to the skin, with the Incense lasting for about 2 hours and the Rose Oud lasting a bit closer to 3 hours.

Kilian’s Amber Oud was a different experience because I smelled no oud whatsoever! No acrid, sour lime here but, rather, a lovely, very sweet opening note of amber and brown sugar. Almost a caramel feel, you might say, mixed with some 1970s-style patchouli and vanilla. The wood accord is simply nonexistent. So much so that I wondered if I was completely insane and decided to check the website, Basenotes. Apparently, I’m sane. There is no oud, according to most of the commentators, even though the official notes include it, along with bayleaf, cedarwood, amber and vanilla. As one person noted, you could get  the same result from Prada’s Amber series. I will say this, however, it lasted longer on me than the Rose or Incense versions.

Pure Oud was a completely unique experience out of the four Arabian Night fragrances that I tried. Basenotes states that it is composed of: “Oud, Saffron, Copahu balm, Amber, Gaiac wood, Cypriol, Cistus labdanum, Myrrh, Animalic notes.” On me, it (thankfully) lacked the strong opening lime note but descended immediately into a pure, almost synthetic perhaps, explosion of woodiness. It was different, there is no doubt, and quite fascinating. I can honestly say I’ve never smelled anything like it, perhaps as it is a cold, stony, wintery wood scent with a leather undertone. It strongly reminds me of the inside of a new, very expensive luxury car with ample (real) walnut wood and leather that is like butter. Except here, the leather isn’t hugely prominant in the face of that cold, steely wood. There is definitely an outdoorsy feel to this that is quite mentally and psychologically evocative. Living in warm Houston, I was strongly reminded of living in New York at Christmas time, wrapped up in a thick woolen coat and walking a street decorated with Christmas lights and covered with snow as tall steel or stone structures loomed up above. There is a slightly stony element and a coldness (in a good way) to the scent, along with the outdoorsy elements and leather. It made me wonder if this was what “cold,” “winter” or “stone” smelled like to the antihero, Grenouille, in the famous book Perfume.

Alas, even half a sample vial of this (in one go!) started to mellow on me within 15 minutes. It did not, however, fade completely. Instead, something different emerged. I actually could smell some Saffron (I cook a lot) and definitely some Myrrh. From that very cold, almost stone-like opening of wood with leather, now emerged lovely Myrrh, Saffron and Oud. My nose is not distinguished enough to know what Gaiac Wood, Cyprior or Cistus Labdanum smell like exactly but, whatever this is and whatever they do, the overall result is lovely. All in all, Pure Oud lasted perhaps 2 hours on me. I can’t say that it is something I would reach for daily but for those occasions when I want to feel different, unique and strangely enough, powerful, I would reach for this.

In contrast, Lime Aoud from Montale made me want a “Silkwood Shower.” (“Silkwood” is a fantastic film with Meryl Streep which led to the popular term referencing the scalding shower intended to rid one of radioactive contamination.) In fact, I did take my own version of Silkwood shower. Alas, there was no remedying how revolting this smelled on me. Oh, the irony that the woman on whom most things fade is subjected to a perfume she loathes and cannot escape. (As one of my best friends put it, it’s a situation worthy of the Twilight Zone.) I should begin by stating that the niche perfume house, Montale, is well-known (and much adored) for its various Aoud scents. They have many, with Dark Aoud being one that people frequently rave about as the ultimate in pure, really dark, super intense Aoud scents. (God, if it’s stronger than the Lime Aoud, please kill me before a touch of it gets on me.)

I ordered Lime Aoud because of the many raves for it on Fragrantica. Its notes intrigued me and certainly sounded good at the time: Aoud, Rose, Iris, Amber, Patchouli, Sandalwood, and Saffron. (See, Basenotes.) Some comments mention the extremely harsh opening of lime and Aoud. (It was the first time that lime was officially supposed to be part of an Aoud fragrance that I’d tested and, yet, I sometimes smell that note when it’s not supposed to be. Baffling.) Other commentators talk about a medicinal, bitter and metallic scent. I agree with both of those impressions. I’m not sure I agree with those who say that Lime Aoud turns into amber, sandalwood and roses.

The first time I put on Lime Aoud, I put on a small amount as I could tell from the moment I opened the vial that it was intense. I was blasted back by the lime and medicinal nature of it for hours. Sharp, acrid, medicinal, camphorous even, mixed in — totally incongruously, if I might add — with competing floral scents in an utterly revolting mix that just got stronger and stronger. After about 5 hours of barely suppressing nausea, I finally caved and took a long, scalding shower. Even after that, I could still smell faint traces of the worst part of it. And my clothes and hair positively reeked of it. It was so horrendous, I threw my clothes into the washer.

A few days later, I wondered if I’d imagined it and thought that I should give it another go. After all, some scents develop and change. Maybe I hadn’t given it enough of a chance. No. I lasted even less this time. I simply could not bear it. It was like someone had sprayed a floral scent in the air of a morgue, combining with its antiseptic, harshly metallic, cold, steel, and then added about a gallon of bitter lime on top of all that. My God, I’m cringing at the sheer memory.

Montale’s Aoud Blossom was slightly more successful  on me. Probably because it seems to have very little Aoud in it! According a commentator on Basenotes, it contains: “bergamot, Sicilian mandarin, ylang ylang, violet, jasmine sambac, tuberose, rose, Mysore sandalwood, Arabian oud.”  Many seem to think there is little to no real Aoud in it. I disagree. I can definitely smell it in the opening minutes, faint though it may be. Someone says they can smell the tuberose in it. I love tuberose and I get none of that on me. What I can smell is a definite floriental. Floral from the very dominant rose component, and oriental from the more spicy notes. I’m not sure I can really detect the mandarin, violet or jasmin but I can definitely smell the bergamot, ylang ylang and the sandalwood. However, everything is essentially overwhelmed by a very loud rose note that remains consistently dominant.

While Kilian and Serge Lutens fragrances don’t last long on me (at all!), Montale ones have decent to moderate sillage, and great longevity. (Too great, alas, in the case of the Lime Aoud). Its longevity is quite surprising to me, given how niche fragrances usually die a quick death on my skin. Aoud Blossom lasted about 5 hours on me, all in all. I will be frank, however, this is not a scent I would ever reach for again. And I am fighting off the urge to take another shower. It’s simply too pungent and in-your-face. Now, I *adore* strong scents, floral orientals and anything with a POW! And almost nothing gives me a bad physical reaction. But this… I can feel it at the back of my throat, it’s so overpowering that I feel a bit dizzy and I feel the onset of a migraine. It’s a deeply unhappy experience and one which has made me conclude that I must stay very far away from the House of Montale.

That said, there are enough variations of Aoud on the market that — whether your preference is for a sweeter version, a more woody one, a floral rose variation or hard core medicinal iteration — you can be sure to find one that appeals to you. If you’re willing to pay the prices for the uniqueness! This is not Coty or even your mother’s Estée Lauder. As for me, I will continue my exploration of Oud – probably with Tom Ford’s Oud Wood next as a friend of mine reports nothing medicinal, metallic, acrid or sharp about it. If I do try it out, I will be sure to report back.

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Modern Trends in Perfume: Part II – Sweat, Genitalia, Dirty Sex & Decay

Earlier, in Part I, I covered the super-sweet and gourmand categories of perfumes that are currently popular on the market. Perhaps as a backlash to those scents, some designers have sought to go in a polar opposite direction. I’m not quite sure how to characterize the varying scents in this group or groups, so I’ll simply call them the Extreme Eccentrics.

The perfumes range from scents which seek to replicate post-coitus … er… muskiness, to armpit body odor to (allegedly) unwashed female genitalia or semen. Even decay and decomposition. No, I’m not joking. I understand everyone’s body chemistry differs, but not when a perfume is *intentionally* made to smell like that. I also understand the interest in the scent of sex and the impact of pheromones. But when a scent’s after-effects have been compared to “canned tuna and urine,” and when you specifically tell your perfumer/composer that you want the smell of female genitalia (washed or unwashed is unknown), then perhaps you’re taking your brand’s famous eccentricity to really extreme levels. Vivienne Westwood’s famous (infamous?) Boudoir is one of the perfumes in question here. According to some, she specifically wanted the perfume to have a note resembling that of a woman’s private parts. And, it seems the perfumer succeeded. In fact, a large number of people seem to adore the scent – though almost all its fans admit they wouldn’t dare wear it to work and that it needs to be (as the name suggests) restricted to the boudoir. A proper, in-depth description of Boudoir can be found here.

Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom (discontinued after his death) is slightly different. Like Boudoir, descriptions of the perfume seem to imply that it too falls under the “sweatiest of skanky, dirty sex” category. But there is another added element: body odor. Kingdom has cumin in it and cumin has a tendency, in strong doses, to smell like bad B.O.  (Personally, I think cumin smells like revoltingly dirty socks combined with bad armpit sweat. No, I’m not a fan.)

Now, I haven’t smelled either of these two in person (Kingdom is not easy to find nowadays), but I’ve read plenty on both and find the whole concept behind them fascinating. Both scents come from designers known for being cutting-edge, unconventional, eccentric, and avant-garde. Both are clearly representative of their designer’s aesthetic and ethos. But they are also both perfect examples of the rebellion against the more mainstream modern scents with their predominantly sweet characteristics.  They are also not alone. There are numerous perfumes and colognes out there that seek to emulate sex and post-sex muskiness in different degrees. It’s just that few have pushed it to the extremes of Boudoir and Kingdom.

Or have they? A 2008 article in the British paper, The Guardian, points out the intention of some perfumers, going all the way back to Jacques Guerlain in the early 20th century:

Jacques Guerlain – begetter of the scents Jicky, Shalimar and Mitsouko – observed that his perfumes should recall “the underside” of his mistress, while Tom Ford declared that he wanted his Black Orchid to smell “like a man’s crotch”. Such flights of fancy are known as “knicker scents” and conjure the vagina, semen, even the anus. […] Still more notoriously, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan comprises a ripely resinous vegetal amber suggestive of female arousal.

Sperm-wise, we have Alan Cumming’s aptly named Cumming; Thierry Mugler’s Cologne with its carnal “S note”; and Sécrétions Magnifique by Etat Libre d’Orange, its packaging emblazoned with a spurting penis. The truly fixated should embrace Orgie, a graphic aroma created by Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel as part of a 15-scent tribute to Süskind’s novel. An evocation of a copulating crowd, it positively spews semen. Those of a rear-ended persuasion, meanwhile, should consult Eau de Hermès, which revels in a certain sweat-spiced, masculine intimacy, while Roja Dove is proud that his “Roja Dove No 3” has a salty sensuality about its nether regions.

You might wonder how perfumers achieve such results. The Guardian article (linked to up above) explains:

Many of perfumery’s most venerable creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients with a certain “spray” element: civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat; castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver; ambergris, a briny and vomitous by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales; and musk secreted from the sheath gland of the musk deer have all been popular perfume ingredients. Then things become still more complex: civet may be cut with hair or – brace yourself – infant excrement.

So, if you always wondered why that one perfume of yours smelled …. unpalatable…. to put it politely, baby poo and feline anal glands may be to blame. Or perhaps it’s something else, like the smell of rotting decay which the U.S. Department of Defense allegedly researched as a weapon of mass olfactory destruction. Okay, perhaps it didn’t go THAT far, but they certainly tried! It was part of another sub-set of scents in this Extreme Eccentrics group: perfumes that smelled of death and decomposition! From that same, incredibly fascinating article:

An American department of defence collaboration to devise non-toxic olfactory weaponry found the stench of decay to be more intolerable even than that of vomit or burned hair. A forerunner of such tactics, a putridly flatulent stink called Who Me?, was devised during the second world war to be used by the French Resistance (who else?) to humiliate fastidious Nazis. […] But the ultimate paean to decomposition is Laudamiel and Hornetz’s [2007 scent] Human Existence, a robustly repellent reek smacking of oral abscesses and vegetal decay. Apply to your wrist and you will desire only to hack it off.

Laudamiel was specifically influenced by Patrick Suskind’s fabulous, infamous, legendary and brilliant novel Perfume and its anti-hero, the scentless, Grenouille. It is a book I highly, HIGHLY recommend for all perfume addicts. Those who lack the time to read it may be interested to know that Grenouille’s ultimate and final perfume creation leads to an orgiastic explosion of excess and was made from the essence of 25 virgins. Laudamiel expressly sought to recreate the pivotal scenes from Perfume and the murderer’s scents, one by one, starting in 2000. (Without murdering anyone, I should hasten to add!!!) According to an informative N.Y. Times article on Laudamiel, he was assisted in his endeavour by a perfume scientist who “recruited two young female virgins and, with their parents’ permission, recorded their aroma using a polymer needle. Laudamiel found this scent on I.F.F.’s shelves, then added the scents Süskind describes as clinging to the virgin’s skin: apricot, nuts, sea breeze.” (See, “Smellbound.”) There has been no indication as to whether Laudamiel succeeded in his efforts to replicate Grenouille’s infamous and orgy-inducing fragrance….

Thankfully, most perfumers don’t go to such extremes. But niche perfume houses are increasingly pushing the envelope in order (in my opinion) to counter the avalanche of mass-market, generic Sugar Bomb and Gourmand perfumes on the market. There are no limits, no even the smell of human decay!

If all this has left you with the strong urge to take a shower or to cleanse yourself, then you’re in luck. Part III of this article will focus on the Clean/Fresh category of perfumes, along with the latest, popular trend of Aoud/Oud scents. I’ll add that link here when it is up. Stay tuned!