"Flowers of fire." - Yves Saint Laurent
Before women became Dior Addicts, it first had to be culturally acceptable for them to indulge in Opium, Yves Saint Laurent's olfactory Orientalist fantasy that married spicy, fruity florals with classic Oriental base notes such as vanilla, amber, myrrh, and frankincense.
In an age now where anything goes (there is a perfume called Vulva, after all, and Kate Moss's heroin chic look helped CKOne become a success), it sounds quaint that YSL's American backers at Squibb were mortified by the drug name he chose after seeing bottle designer Pierre Dinand's sketch.
Dinand's idea was to create a perfume bottle based on the Japanese inro, a wooden box holding medicines and opium that Japanese samurai hung from their belts. Undeterred by Squibb, YSL wouldn't budge: "It is Opium or nothing," he said, no doubt with a flourish.
(From Haarman & Reimer's guide) Top notes: Aldehydes, orange, pimento, bay
Heart notes: Carnation, rose, ylang-ylang, cinnamon, peach, jasmin, orris
Base notes: Benzoin, tolu, vanilla, sandal, patchouli, olibanum, amber, musk
(From Michael Edwards' Perfume Legends) Top notes: Aldehydes, tangerine, plum, pepper, coriander, lemon, bergamot
Heart notes: Clove buds, jasmine, cinnamon, rose, lily of the valley, ylang-ylang, peach, myrrh
Base notes: Benzoin, vanilla, patchouli, oppoponax, cedar, sandalwood, cistus labdanum, castoreum, muskOpium starts with an initial sharp blast of aldehydes (perhaps the fire in YSL's "flowers of fire" metaphor) or an olfactory representation of a struck match lighting an opium pipe. The perfume gives the impression of being both an experience of seemless sensuousness as it caresses you with its crushed velvet notes in one touch and a perfume that unfolds languidly. Both of these befit a perfume that is supposed to conjure images of wan, dreamy, supine Opium smokers in dens punctuated with curling pipe smoke.
Vanillic orange notes recalling spiced tea combine with sweet flowers and subtle fruit notes, warmed by a sensuous and musky base. (The heaviest of the perfume category, Oriental perfumes contrast the freshness of citrus with amber-vanilla and/or the spiciness of notes such as clove, mace, and cinnamon, often combined with animalic notes and high percentages of floral accords.*)
Opium is a perfume gem, and I imagine you'd have to be the same type of woman who could unselfconsciously wear an emerald or ruby in order to wear Opium. Just as there is "statement jewelry," Opium is a statement perfume. A beautiful work of art, but for me, not wearable art.
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I've been interested in the idea of synaesthesia for some time, and although it's a rare, involuntary neurological condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the senses of another (seeing sound, tasting shapes), synaesthetic impulses (by necessity) arise for those of us who love writing about perfume.
Some perfumes, after all, smell green, round, angled, saturated, and so on. And perfume is marketed synaesthetically: from the shape of the bottle to the name of the perfume and the color of the juice, we're invited to picture, taste, hear or feel a substance that we actually can only smell. (In "Synaesthesia, Metaphor, and Right-Brain Functioning," a cognitive psychologist argues that metaphor, "the expression of similarity among dissimilars," is itself a synaesthetic impulse.)All this came to mind when I was reading about the making of YSL's Opium in the exorbitantly priced but must-have perfume book Perfume Legends by Michael Edwards. (Seriously, Mr. Edwards, $225 for a used book? Are these pages made from the dried, pressed tears of unicorns?)
Opium, which is said to have brought rich, Oriental fragrances back in vogue and upped the ante on how perfumes were marketed, was the perfect confluence of scent, name and bottle. I wonder what I would have thought of it if I didn't know its name and back story.
When the bottle designer Pierre Dinand asked Saint-Laurent his thoughts about the Orient, his answer derived from the visuals you experience when you close your eyes and, in his words, "push on your eyeballs, and you will see the flowers of fire." In Perfume Legends, Dinand says, "He was right. I saw an explosion of yellow, red and blue. And so the red and gold flowers of fire on the Opium box were Yves' idea. I absorbed his words and symbols: the orientalism of Napoleon III, pompoms, Japan, China, red, purple, gold, flowers of fire, then translated his perceptions into a number of bottle options."
Think about how complex this synaesthetic act is: to take ideas, colors, impressions, whole cultures, objects and images, and "translate" them into a bottle and into a fragrance. (Jean-Louis Sieuzac was the perfumer.)
Explaining your impressions of perfume is a murky business, particularly trying to figure out where they're coming from. What exactly is it I'm smelling when I smell a perfume: the notes I can single out/decode? The connotations the name and bottle — shape, color — have constructed for me? The discourse I've read around it that inevitably leaks into my understanding or — all of the above? Or only some of the above, sometimes? In Opium's case, the answer is all of the above.
But is this a bad thing? I've heard calls for perfume reviews that derive from blind sniff tests in order to maintain some sort of purity in the review, but this seems to miss the point of perfume. Perfume is a story told in notes, yes, but sometimes it's also the fantasy behind it that helps the juice come to life for the perfume lover. Perfume, to me, is a mute, invisible cinema with its own narrative and a lavish set full of actors. Sometimes that cinema comes alive on its own — Chanel No. 19, for me — but at other times, as in this case, I need YSL to name it Opium, to hear the phrase "flowers of fire" in my mind, and to picture Jerry Hall reclining in ecstasy surrounded by brocaded velvet and jewels.
* Oriental perfume description from Haarman & Reimer Fragrance Guide.
** Photo of Pierre Dinand sketch from Perfume Shrine.