Oriens by Van Cleef & Arpels (2010): Not Just Another Light Perfume {Perfume Review and Musings}

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Oriens is the latest feminine fragrance launch this spring 2010 by Van Cleef and Arpels who stress that they were the first jewelry house to associate their name with a perfume named First, introduced in 1976. The brand is also readying for a masculine release later this year. Oriens comes after a more youth-directed composition, Féérie (2008) while borrowing from similar codes, i.e., fruity-floral notes. Like for Féérie and pushed to a greater degree, the bottle of Oriens takes center stage and offers the vision of what you could call a "statement bottle." It is hefty, its cabochon is huge and expertly colored by designer Joël Desgrippes to imitate a watermelon tourmaline

While there are no doubt marketing reasons for the introduction of a perfume which pays homage to the Orient as Asia and the Middle East are revealing themselves to be emerging dynamic markets, I prefer to concentrate for the purpose of this review on the manner in which the idea - and as it turns out - the purported tastes of the Orient, have been interpreted into a perfume composition with a global reach.

The tension one feels readily in the composition is the one existing between the oriental motif which has its tradition and expectations in Western perfumery and the tastes of the potential wearers from the global arena. It might sound pretentious to attempt to discern a planetary trend developing across all markets, but I am ready to bite the bullet by saying that if there is a universal one, that would be the greater seriousness accorded the creation of lightly textured perfumes. Since perfumery, like its companion fashion is both commerce and art, it ensues inevitably that there are both money and aesthetic interests developing around that future of perfumery. It is as if the prescience that world demography is going to explode is bringing new realities in, like the collective need to tune down our scents so as not to stifle the atmosphere and deplete both the good-will of planet earth inhabitants and the soundness of the atmospheric layers. Despite strongholds of potent perfumery, we have seen more and more a perfumery that becomes ever more polite and self-effacing. If Serge Lutens is calling his latest bath-time inspired opus L'Eau an "anti-perfume", Oriens without the same pamphlet overtones is pretty much nodding its head in approval at the core ideas spelled out by L'Eau...

What is fascinating for an observer of perfumery language and sensitivities is to see how differently a similar sensitivity to the Zeitgeist is expressed. These two fragrances may be quite distinct in terms of odor, if I may use the old-fashioned term, yet it is obvious that they are living in the same period.   

Oriens in this regard is an interesting social object or perhaps better said - ethnographic object - as it brings out the existence of contradictions instead of squashing them into a non-perfume, playing with opposite ideals - opulence and lightness - and resolving them in the end as a perfume of its time. I have no doubt that perfumer Bernard Ellena is a man who likes to stay current and read the newspapers. His professsional synthesis exactly demonstrates the passage from the 20th century to the 21st and the efforts perfumers are making currently to adapt to new sensitivities while preserving a certain image of the past.

The Olfactory Form of Oriens

Notes: mandarin, raspberry and blackcurrant, jasmine petals, patchouli, praline.

Oriens is offered as a fruity-floral chypre by the brand. I personally perceive it as being an oriental-chypre - a hybrid genre (see Bond Girl 007) - with a fruity-floral facet. It is hard to miss its ambery and velvety-folds aspect although the impression of depth here like for another neo-oriental, Baume du Doge by Eau d'Italie is "deep by suggestion" more than in reality.

From the first notes of both tart and syrupy fruits (mandarin, peach and berries) and heavy nuances of ethyl maltol, it is evident that Oriens flirts dangerously with the genre of the fruity-floral integrated into a new-generation chypre. The danger here is to smell trivial. The latest perfume by Van Cleef and Arpels comes across at first as a Miss Dior Chérie for grownups.

After this mainstream opening, which seems also to want to draw a line of continuity with the fruity-floral Féérie by Van Cleef and Arpels and prolong it following a patrimonial-cum-commercial perfume logic internal to the house, the fragrance softens down and becomes subtler, harder to capture in words, which is in principle a good thing in my book. This stage features a more refined, gauzy iris blended with dark, black fruits with fresh hints of green -- like a dark prune-colored velvet material lit by embroidered motifs of tiny green buds in metallic green threads. The olfactory color of the scent reminds you of the color of a rouge noir by Chanel and black cherry bunches. After that it smells both a little bit of pineapple and nail polish.

A Sophisticated Work on Derivation

Something familiar and something that feels impertinent, fresh peeks through the composition. It has an anisic facet and reminds you of some voluptuous, long-forgotten but famous concoction.

Olfactory memory being both immediate and inarticulate, at first I decide to wait. My thoughts float in the direction of a fresh, dewy and iris-y twist on Opium. Or it could be a softer, iris twist on Angel by Thierry Mugler. Then it could also be - and it most certainly is influenced by the concept - a fresher but also darker take on Femme by Rochas, a fruity chypre matrix in the history of perfumery. It feels very familiar and hard to pin down, creating the impression of a very sophisticated work on derivation.

The perfumer, Bernard Ellena (Benetton Colors, Versace Blonde, Hanae Mori, Oh, My Dog!...) comes across as a consummate professional perfumer with perhaps less of an artistic bent than his brother Jean-Claude Ellena, who by the by created Van Cleef and Arpels First 34 years ago. For instance, it seems to me that the effect of lightness in Oriens about which I talk further below is more functionally and societally inspired  than aesthetically motivated, even though the latest Voyage by Hermès goes a bit in the direction of a compromise and adherence to the tenets of a coded cultural object reminiscent of the familiar drone of some slim French Nouveau Roman novel one brings on vacation.   

I am tempted to say that there isn't enough recreation to call Oriens a creation, but that there is enough skill to put several degrees of separation, making matrixes distant, hazy and mysterious yet familiar, an effect which is sought after in more commercial perfumery. 

Oriens feels surprisingly pleasant to wear. The perfume manages to create a mantle of security and semi-warmth cut through by a cool green anisic nuance running in the dark velvet material of the perfume which smells more and more of Hades-dark pomegranate with time. After a while it occurs to me that Jo Malone Pomegranate Noir must be an inspiration as well.

I cannot fully explain why this perfume feels so welcoming and pleasurable to wear. I am suspecting that perfumer Bernard Ellena is pushing several - possibly cultural buttons - at once. There is this praline note but with that dash of anis which makes it particularly authentic to the nose of a child -- the vision of Italian Biscottis becomes more defined. I catch at one time more secret whiffs of baby diapers, in a good way, brought on by the powdery iris-y note and possibly some finely tuned fecal jasmine indoles.

Now I could easily imagine myself wearing this perfume in Venice while having coffee with biscottis in the early morning by a canal and looking at the golden Byzantine domes. The name Oriens makes sense also in this context as Venice was such a meeting point of cultures between Europe and the Orient.   

Oriens smells to my nose like a black diamond more than a watermelon tourmaline. It  is abstractly rendered as an oriental-chypre, a hybrid yet classic genre in perfumery which attempts to combine both the warmth and depth of the first and the projection and luminosity of the other. It is a genre for people who want the best of both worlds. Perhaps the chypre part alludes to the luxury of European city culture and the oriental facet to the Orient.

Not Just Another Light Perfume

Despite the weightiness not only of the statement bottle but of the olfactory sensations that make up Oriens, it remains paradoxically a light composition.

Perfumers recently seem to have been working hard on creating the illusion of weightiness and substance while preserving at the same their more recent insights into a demand for fresh and light perfumes.

What I mean by this is that while it used to be the case that perfumes would be full-bodied without any ambiguity and last for days if not for weeks when applied onto your clothing and leather accessories, perfumers now who are conscious of the new needs of their clientèle and also of societal evolutions in taste which encourage the wearing of lighter perfumes are coming up with a supplementary olfactory illusion, that of substance, depth and weight while in fact incorporating these sensations into a medium-to  light-bodied perfume.

The scents do not linger on for days now or live with you like a second self  but you can feel the same impression of classic depth for the duration that you would need to watch an episode or two of your favorite TV series.

Oriens is both satisfying and a bit fleeting in the end. It succeeds well at hinting at and even making you live oriental opulence and the dark-lit charm of a chypre scent burning softly in a byzantine church like a lamp oil casting shadows on the wall. It is secretly comforting without being too obvious a gourmand or regressive fragrance. Bernard Ellena seems to excell at indirect, oblique perfumery references that are hard to place. But I also have to accept the fact that Oriens is not meant to be with me for the days ahead.

It is definitely a neo-chypre in the hybrid sub-genre of the oriental-chypre and in the very contemporary tonality of an express-train chypré that seems to only want to stay with you the time of a luncheon. It's a fast perfume, just like there is fast fashion at Zara, H&M and Topshop for a society that needs more and more to zap to get their hands on everything that is available.

At some level, Oriens epitomizes and embodies the contradictions of our society that still seeks the absolute but transformed into everyday little absolutes -- strike that - hour-by-hour absolutes, epiphanies, and once the stimulus is got, moves on. Oriens is both the religious candle light flickering in a sooty church and the wind that blows it. Despite its Lightness-of-Being, Oriens incarnates a rather heavy phenomenon: a form of consumerism that is post-consumerist and has become a form of addiction. Behind Oriens, there are hundreds of other perfumes pressing themselves at the gates to take their shifts.

By creating a perfume which is voluntarily evanescent in its relationship to time, I cannot help but think that the contemporary 21st perfumer gives up on the idea of the lasting masterpiece and makes more room in fact for the lines of production of the fragrance industry. His colleagues will not doubt appreciate the fact that the perfumer here has no pretension of monopolizing anyone's attention for an unduly long period of time.

Oriens starts like a classic perfume with a will to live and then vaporizes like it knows in its bones it can only pretend to be a fad and does not want to outstay its welcome. A self-abnegating perfume is always interesting to smell as it is more complex than just another light perfume

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. What an extraordinary review.
    Thank you.

    Susan Budge
    • Thank you very much for your kind words.

      Chant Wagner
  2. Would just like to point out that the lovely bottle with the silver leaf type accents are NOT on the 1 oz, but rather the 1.7 oz. Although the 1 oz is pretty too, I would have preferred the accents on the bottle and ordered the wrong one.


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