Perfume Reviews & Musings: Impérial Opoponax, Patchouli Antique, & Oriental Lumpur by Les Néréides - Plus Some Notes on Patchouli
Sometimes, when you smell certain fragrances you are reminded that wearing a perfume can be a simple act that weaves itself effortlessly into the quotidian fabric of your daily life.
When I breathe in perfumes from Les Néréides line, I think these are good, solid, and trustworthy fragrances that I could see myself getting on my way to the market, because I wish to "smell good" on that day, but not necessarily because I feel I need to add them to my collection of carefully chosen fragrances (I'm really not that way, just imagining this as I am very eclectic by nature and by taste)...
I imagine stopping by an old-fashioned apothecary or neighborhood perfumery and asking for a bottle of Patchouli Antique, Impérial Opoponax, or Oriental Lumpur. The merchant would tell me that they have just blended Patchouli Antique this very morning. He goes to the back of the store to get it, wipes the flacon with a cloth and hands it to me. I inhale some of its scent lightly escaping from the freshly sealed bottle, recognize a familiar fragrance - exactly the one I was looking for when thinking of wearing patchouli on that day. It smells good and I can tell it is good quality. I tuck it away in my market basket and off I go looking for other aromatic treasures that will perfume my salad and the day.
To me, Les Néréides fragrances allow to recreate an atmosphere that is closer to that moment of intimacy you share with yourself when doing your "toilette". I think less of the public, of a living room, of a soirée and more of an initial intimate space where you prepare yourself before sailing into the bustle of the day. This is the reason why I imagine Les Néréides flacons sitting on a marble counter in the bathroom, scenting your passage as you step out of the bathroom where you have just performed your daily ablutions.
They are not pretentious scents, they only aim at perpetuating a respectable tradition of widely spread know-how concerning perfumes and oriental perfumes in particular in France. They hit the mark and it is their only ambition.
I read somewhere that in Europe, and certainly in France, the family of perfumes that is most favored are orientals, while in the United-States white florals and clean scents are preferred. There is nothing counter-intuitive to me there; I certainly feel that heavier scents are much better tolerated in Paris than in Cambridge and Boston, if these places could be seen as reliable barometers for national tastes.
The French, Including Me, Worship Patchouli
Patchouli is apparently adored by the masses in France; the last time I traveled to Paris I was struck by how many people seemed to appreciate patchouli, men as well as women. I was all the more struck because my own experience of a national trend in taste in the US is made through the MUA fragrance board and correct me if I'm mistaken, but the majority of perfumistas on MUA seem to find little charm in wearing patchouli. It unfortunately connotes too much of the hemp store, of Woodstock, of the hippie predilection for it, especially as a resource for covering up pot's smell. Nobody wants to be identified with a grungy hippie, if I may collate the 90s with the 70s. (they were grungy before the grungy movement). So, the 1960s and 1970s are still too vivid in people's memories so as to allow abstracting from that major scent reference. Shall we call it the Patchouli Decades? (this is a gross oversimplification because a multitude of perfumes were of course produced at that time.) But somehow, patchouli remains representative of an era and of a social movement.
Patchouli in 19th Century French Literature
The 19th century in France was also very patchouli-esque. Everybody wore patchouli, you can encounter numerous patchouli references in the novels of that era, in Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, and others. Patchouli was often dabbed, not onto the skin, but on handkerchiefs, thus in Les misérables, M. Gillenormand trumpets, "Woman! There is no Robespierre who holds out, woman reigns. (...) the Revolution twisted them (royal scepters) between its thumb and finger like halfpenny wisps of straw (...) but get me up some revolutions now against that little embroidered handkerchief smelling of patchouli! I would like to see you at it. Try!" The supreme seduction of both woman and patchouli is thus conveyed by Hugo. Emma in Madame Bovary also scents her kerchiefs with patchouli to further seduce her lover.
Due to its popularity, patchouli came also to mean an ordinary fragrance in French. When you exclaimed, "cela sent le patchouli!" you could be meaning a) it smells of patchouli, that exotic, earthy-smelling essence coming from Asia and Oceania, b) it smells of a cheap and strong perfume made with patchouli and I do not like it, you're offending my nose. Once again we see a derogatory association made with patchouli.
The history of its use is fairly recent in Europe. Patchouli etymologically means "green leaf" in Tamil (patchai = green, ilai = leaf). The term in French dates back to 1829 when the plant was first introduced in France. The English adopted the term later, in 1851, via the French.
Despite some of its travails, patchouli is not dead and appears even popular in France. Many perfume lines, both high-brow and low-brow, offer their own renditions of patchouli. When I think of patchouli, I think of literary references, the latest one being the one illustrated by the George Sand (1804-1876) fragrance by Maître Gantier et Parfumeur, a recreation of Sand's beloved patchouli perfume by nose Nicolas de Barry.
Back to the Present of Perfume
I'm still somewhere in my neighborhood but times have changed, well, maybe not that much. I go to Les Néréides, rue du Four, to sample their perfumes and I take three home with me.The gesture is simple, the prices are reasonable, the scents are good. It is a sensual line, with a dominant of orientals.
Impérial Opoponax is the one that I immediately noticed. It is a very warm, velvety scent, velvety to the point of making you think of caramel. It is sweet, it may evoke root-beer and Coca-Cola to you. Opoponax has natural overtones of lavender, so one is reminded of Musc Ravageur for this reason. A tangy, citrusy note becomes more apparent after the initial outburst of warmth. It warms up further and becomes slightly powdery. The sweetness becomes akin to that of sweet almond in the last stages. It becomes much more powdery in the end. Notes are: Opoponax (sweet myrrh), amber, vanilla, sandalwood, benzoin, citrus...
The structures of Les Néréides fragrances are fairly simple and straightforward. They are good juices, are made with some imagination and have great dry-downs.
Patchouli Antique smells very earthy, woodsy, and only slightly sweet. It is strong at first but not overwhelming at all, it keeps itself in check. It feels like you're embracing a tree in a forest, your nose close up to its bark and mossy patches. Like the other Néréides it warms up very well. With time it loses some of its gravitas to become prettier, lighter, which is an unexpected twist. In mid-course it develops references to a smoky black tea such as Lapsang Souchong and those very earthy black/red tea bricks shaped like wheels that you can sometimes procure in Chinatown. Notes are: Indonesian patchouli, vanilla, musk...
Oriental Lumpur is a spicy and medium-green scent. It is sweetly soft while maintaining a rather transparent texture. Its name evokes exotic merchant counters in Asia -- Lumpur means "straits" in Malay. I see an active, individualistic woman wearing this perfume, someone dressed a little masculine, a white shirt, no jewelry, a black jacket and trousers with a taste for travels and adventure. Notes are: saffron, curry, nutmeg, sandalwood, vanilla, patchouli...