Black Orchid by Tom Ford {Perfume Review & Musings}


Black Orchid, as its name promises to deliver, is a dark voluptuous perfume with all the attributes necessary to become the scent of choice of a film-noir femme fatale.

The perfume seems to play from the outset with the evocation of disquieting shadows projected onto the walls of a passion-crime scene. It makes you enter a universe replete with seething sensuality, foreboding and mystery.

The blend feels like a beautiful rare - both dark and (unexpectedly) green - heavy and fresh perfume with gourmand - and even slightly offensive overtones. Remarkably so, the scent toys with some near-repulsive olfactory facets such as the smells of cheese and borderline decaying matter found in certain tropical flowers due to the combined presence of compounds like dimethyl disulfide (DMDS, 1) and dimethyl trisulfide (DMTS, 2). The perfume artfully manages to stay precisely on this edge of repulsion, suggesting it more as the next possible outcome rather than making it concretely be felt and rejected...

The action of the perfume on the wearer is both dramatic and subtle. Black Orchid by Tom Ford, composed by perfumers David Apel and Pierre Negrin, initially imposes its presence with the help of what could be described as a shock-and-awe tactic. It then slowly ensnares you to the point of making you forget it just barely - a few hours ago - entered your life.

This is quintessentially what the character of a femme fatale is supposed to do. It is also what a dream come true may feel like, one moment foreign, the next, intensely familiar. The perfume thus plays adroitly with conventions and expectations as it starts en force with heavy top notes and moves on to fresher, greener and even ozone-like and citrus-y undertones towards the end, all the while preserving its dark character.

The perfume interestingly enough seems to reverse the classical order of perception of notes. A base-notes impression, paradoxically, appears first followed by lighter notes and then even more high-pitched ones in the dry-down. It seems to be suggesting that the consenting victim who will inhale this scent will be similarly turned inside out like a glove. At the same time, it seems also to imply that a femme fatale after all could be domesticated and even cook and even betray a reassuringly familiar sweet-tooth combined with some clarity of purpose in life.

Contrary to what all the publicity surrounding the unique showcasing of the Tom Ford black-orchid accord based on a unique hybrid bought by the designer might suggests, there are other black orchid scents in perfumery such as those of Susanne Lang, Elton John, and even Jovan. There are several species of black orchids too. This dreamy black orchid though is showcased in a very effective composition.

The fragrance includes top notes of French jasmine, black gardenia, truffle, Ylang-ylang, Bergamot, mandarin and effervescent citrus. The heart is composed of a Tom Ford black orchid, spicy floral orchid accords and lotus wood. The dry-down features notes of Patchouli, incense, amber, sandalwood, and vanilla tears.

The perfume unfolds at first with a powerful exhalation of dark, attractive, yet admittedly borderline off-putting notes. This accord could be perceived as "stinky" as in pleasurably stinky, i.e., meant for the connoisseur who has cultivated her or his nose and/or palate. Although unlike Fleur de Cassie by Frédéric Malle, the initial accord does play with a similar register of less-than-conventional pretty notes. The opening is heavy, narcotic and indolic, while the texture is suggestive of thick black oil.

At the height of this impression, a cheese-like aroma develops suggesting the scent of those tropical flowers that attract pollinating insects thanks to their odor of carrion and decomposing flesh. The components already mentioned, DMDS, 1 and DMTS, 2 are not only found in tropical flowers but also in white truffle, onion, and garlic; it might contribute to this overall dominant impression.

The scent slowly abates on one level while remaining intense, now developing very low-pitched notes that come across as almost sickening while being saved from the idea of complete material corruption by the fruitier and more life-oriented note of blackcurrant with the discrete reference to a zesty innocent infusion of citrus. This low-pitched dark amber-y passage is most reminiscent to me of Gianni Versace by Gianni Versace, a discontinued fragrance with a rare deep accord of unusually warm and mellow woods and amber; it is a beautiful accord that I love finding again in Black Orchid. Some chocolate and caramel facets appear.

Black Orchid then becomes relatively lighter; it now wafts more of pineapple as well as of an almost rancid coconut - in a very interesting way. There are ozonic overtones. The combination of jasmine now mingling with the coconut reminds me of an absolutely delicious Cambodian sticky rice dessert wrapped in banana leaves. Later, the scent evokes a fresher coconut smell, that of Malaysian fresh coconut jam or Kaya. It smells also woodsy and exotic. Within the darkness there are green flickers of light; the perfume evolves into a greener and more floral accord; it is suggestive to me of the black orchid itself at this point. There is another green facet that reminds me of the soft herbaceous slightly hay-like and sweet aroma of tropical Pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius).

The sandalwood comes forth in the dry-down. The vanilla tears note are particularly satisfying reminding me of the vanilla found in Shalimar in the vintage version. The ozonic note stays throughout bringing some transparency and lightness to the a priori heavy-bodied perfume. Both harsher and earthier notes come into play at the end while a citrus effect lingers on contributing to more projection and luminosity towards the end. The perfume mingles well with one's natural scent as intended by its creators to the point of appearing a bit indistinct on the skin in the longer dry-down. It turns out to be a false impression and a sign of subtlety rather.


Tom Ford explained his artistic vision for Black Orchid thusly "For the last decade, I think we've launched fragrances which, like everything, have become so stripped-down, so transparent in terms of color and often in terms of scent. They often become quite watered-down...everything is tested and retested, and while you might end up with a lot of fragrances, which smell good, it's not fragrance development in the old-fashioned sense. I really wanted to create old-fashioned, but in a new sense." The combination of an old-school forceful and quite overtly sexual approach to the design of a seductive, glamorous feminine scent together with a quest for the new and the rare thanks to headspace technology characterizes the objectives of this scent.

Just like certain tropical flowers attempt to surmount competition by emitting an unorthodox smell, Black Orchid also plays the card of offering a different type of sexual appeal and scent.

As a designer interested in perfumes, Tom Ford demonstrates to me at least that he possesses a signature and a vision that he is eminently capable of transcribing into scents. Gucci Eau de Parfum and Gucci Pour Homme are both strongly individual and unconventional perfumes. The latter seemed to me to betray an influence by Serge Lutens. The parallel with the quite unique French perfume designer imposes itself more vividly to my mind now with Black Orchid.

Tom Ford can be interpreted as an American Serge Lutens. They are both capable of imprinting a perfume in a deeply personal and demanding manner although not being perfumers themselves. There is a great deal of voluntarism in both personalities. The American fashion designer characteristically and frankly explained that "I don't believe in the customer telling you what they want. I think you tell the customer what they need." All three fragrances (four if I include the Estée Lauder Azurée oil) that I know of and were designed under Ford's personal artistic direction reveal non-pedestrian, strong personalities.

Two qualities especially strike me as characteristic of Tom Ford's perfume designs: they are both very real in their effects - as in you get the real deal not the hype - and able to cultivate the rare. In other words still, there are no semantic discrepancies between what is described, envisioned and what is proposed. If Ford says it is glamorous, it is glamorous (please refer yourselves to the gorgeous advertising image above with Julia Restoin Roitfield). If he says the perfume will suggest blackness, it will smell black. If he says we should expect a rare fragrance called Black Orchid, this is what we are going to get and this is what we do get.

Perhaps an American touch is revealed in a taste for the crisp and the clean that surfaces in Black Orchid piercing through the seemingly deleterious fumes of the beginning. The ending is happily optimistic, restores social order and the perfume is thus more conventional and easier to live with than what the potentially disturbing opening suggested. The inferno of the jungle and human excess may be suggested but we end up with a long sip of tastefully chilled white wine, whiffs of redemptive religious incense, and a very cinematic and safe and happy ending.

Photo is from the recently launched Tom Ford website.

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23 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Well, phooey. Obviously I'm going to try this again (and again and again) in a desperate attempt to get all the repulsive, indolic decay... I got chocovanillapineapple, as I said in my review. Twice. The only repulsive note I got was that marine thing in the middle... sigh. I have not given up, though.

  2. March,

    I hope you catch a glimpse of that indolic decay because it's the most original part of the perfume.

  3. You've swept me away with your review. Whilst I might disagree with one or two opinions, I'm in awe of your fluid rhapsody and your ability to make the impressionistic diamantine in language. Amazing review - thank you.

  4. Thank you very much Leopoldo. What did you think of the perfume yourself?

  5. Wow, I wish I got more of what you and Marina get. I get a little of that in the open, but it disappears much to quickly.

    I have found myself wearing this one more than I thought I would, so it must have something that I'm getting subconsciously.

    Beautiful review!

  6. Thanks Patty. I do think that Black Orchid acts on the subconscious level. You might want to ask others how it smells on you.

  7. Well, I haven't sniffed it yet. So I'll have to wait and see. I suppose I was just a little disconcerted by the comparisons with Serge Lutens, who I hold in absurd reverence. But, as a tester, I smelled Gucci pour Homme alongside the drydown of Gris Clair (which I know came later but is certainly the closest of SL's to the Gucci) and triangulated with Montale's Greyland for good measure. You might have something there.

    There's been a fair amount of attack for Tom Ford on a perfume board or two, ostensibly for his open to the chest shirts and his vulgarity. I don't agree with that: for Gucci, he brought a particularly rugged masculinity to scent and perfume (I can't comment on women - I'm not a fashionista) of which I approved, and he did some interesting stuff at YSL (M7, though unwearable on me, i think comes closest to SL oddness - it's machismo morphing into your favourite heavily powdered grandma). But to my mind, Euro snob that I might be, he doesn't come anywhere near the genius of the Sheldrake-Lutens collaboration.

    I might change my mind when I sniff B.O.

  8. Leopoldo,

    Thanks for these insights. One has indeed to take into account the fact that Tom Ford comes after Lutens at any rate and would have been influenced by him. However, I find that he brings a taste for the rare and a forcefulness to his conceptions of scents that is quite remarkable and makes me establish this parallel.

    To me he comes across first and foremost as a very gifted person and a strong personality. The rest I don't really pay attention to.

  9. Thank you for such a beautiful and insightful reveiw.
    I impulsively bid on eBay and won a new bottle of Black Orchid. I know anyone can wear whatever he or she wants. But, what do you think of Black orchid for a man?

  10. Thank you so much Nattygold. I hope you will like Black Orchid, if not, maybe I should offer to buy it back from you to stand by my words:)

    This is a great question. Tom Ford is actually planning to issue a masculine version of Black Orchid next year. As the perfume is now, and keeping your question in mind while re-sniffing it, I would say that it is fairly easily wearable by a man and would feel like a modern oriental, a bit like a scent à la Serge Lutens. In fact, I kept thinking that very little tweaking would be needed to make it more masculine. If they added stronger woodsy notes or cedar in particular it would blend in effortlessly and make it smell more like a men's cologne.

    I asked my masculine evaluator in residence and he thinks that the perfume is not strongly gender-marked and perceived it as a fairly green scent (my perception too). He also added it made him feel as if the perfume was meant to be showed off rather than enhance the natural smell of the wearer (this said at the beginning of the development). I disagree a bit on this one because actually the scent blends in well with the skin in the dry-down to the point of appearing self-effaced. This effect was in fact meant and willed by the perfume's creators. On need only catch an involuntary whiff of the perfume to realize it is there in a very subtle and convincing way. What I meant by the contrast between the top and the base is that the effect becomes more tame in appearance but maybe not so much really if you think of wearing it in an erotic situation for example.

  11. Helene, seconding what you said to nattygold. Actually, I think this would smell particularly delicious on a man; the creamy sweetness is not overtly feminine, and the sillage to me is so unusual as to be more or less gender neutral... having said all that, I'd start off with a light hand, spray-wise. It strikes me as the sort of scent one could overapply fairly easily.

  12. We'll see what Nattygold has to say when he receives his bottle. If he doesn't like it I'll have to buy it:)

  13. Can it be used by mens?

    Or it would be too sweety?

  14. Merfan,

    There is only one way to know; you would have to try it on your skin. In principle, I would say that I feel it could smell sexy on a man.

  15. I would like to order Black Orchid by Tom Ford on line. Where can I go to place an order?

  16. You can purchase it online at Neiman Marcus:

  17. Now *this* is a truly unique, bold American perfume. A masterpiece. I am slightly repulsed but madly in love with this perfume (much like many of my human relationships!). Lasts a full 12 hours on my skin and goes through many unexpected changes - so much so that it smells like several different, distinct perfumes at varying phases of the drydown. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, it takes a totally unexpected turn. Amazing. I hope to never be without a bottle!

  18. Hi I would like to order black orchid perfume (and gift set if available)on line. How can i order it.


    Helen Keane
  19. Well, if you spray the Black Orchid first on your body and then the Black Orchid Voile de Fleur, you have an awesome combination. I own both and combine the two as I mentioned above and I have many, many compliments.

  20. You have captured my experience with Black Orchid so beautifully. Shock and awe...I tried it for the first time on a day when my usual favorites all smelled "off" because I wasn't feeling well. The rotting tropical floral smell was so perfect, and soothing in an indescribable way.

    I tried it again, when I was feeling more myself, and, while unable to turn away from the astonishingly rich and complex, life evolving from death smell, decided I'd rather not smell like that.

  21. This was one of MJ's perfume.. that's why I asked my sister to buy me one... later i'll be able to try it on me.. :-)


    • Who is MJ? :)

      Chant Wagner
  22. MJ is Michael Jackson


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