Friday, June 6, 2008

Opium Dreams ~Opium by Saint Laurent: fragrance review

Was this my life, or did I dream it? That seemingly rhetorical question might drive one crazy given sufficient circumstances. After all, isn't all life, "is all we see and seem but a dream within a dream?" like Poe used to say. Or as the ancient Greeks poetically put it: "οναρ σκιας ανθρωπος" (man is but a shadow's dream).
My thoughts revert to these aphorisms, as I converge Opium by Yves Saint Laurent and Sergio Leone's swansong masterpiece, Once upon a time in America in my mind. My proclivities to the fragrance being a given and my fondness for that final enigmatic scene in which De Niro is beatifically smiling through the somnolent haze of opium vapors, it was natural to be so; if only because, like the drug, Opium is to be worn lying down. Pilgrimage was sorely lacking till now and the Gods have been accusing me of hubris for too long.

History of YSL Opium Perfume
Yves Saint Laurent was at the zenith of his career when he envisioned a decadent, baroque perfume evoking the exotic Orient: "It will be the greatest perfume of them all and we will call it Opium", he said, perhaps with a sideways wink to his own path to hallucinogenics' addiction. The year when the concept was conceived was 1972. It would take another 5 years for it to come to fruition.

The scent was composed by Jean Louis Sieuzac (Sonia Rykiel, Dune, the re-issue of Madame Rochas) in 1977 and art-directed by Chantal Roos, while the vermilion flacon was designed by Pierre Dinand.
Originally the name that Squibb, the American parent company of parfums Saint Laurent, wanted to christen the fragrance was Black Orchid, the same that Tom Ford later grabbed almost 30 years later for his own foray into perfume for what he hoped to be an equally controversial landmark.

Opium was in many ways a landmark: Its fragrance although tracing its lineage to great orientals of the past such as Shalimar, Habanita, Youth Dew and even Tabu (with its carnation-civet accord of "parfum de puta"), was perhaps the first to enter into the floriental category, with its very much detectable carnation, orange blossom and ylang-ylang among the plush of effulgent spice and starched resins, of which oppoponax stars. But also due to the fact that it broke with the previous trends of independent chypres and soft aldehydics, bringing back the orientals which had been forgotten since their last stint during the 20s and 30s and thus inaugurating the fashions for them again, resulting in everyone producing one from Coco, Poison, Ysatis, Boucheron Femme , all the way to Loulou.

Its launch party, at a junk in Manhattan's East River, with orientalised canopies and matching decor, marked the first time such opulence was applied to a fragrance's issue and ignited a series of mega-launches that were to become de rigeur. Its campaign, provocatively proclaiming "for those addicted to Yves Saint Laurent", earned it serious controversy in certain countries: A peanut-growing premier in Queensland, Australia had the perfume banned in his state. The US Federal Justice Department tried to outlaw it. In other countries due to drug import laws it had to be imported under a pseudonym, like contraband, and relabelled within the country.Its subsequent status of a bestseller proved that all the obstacles were within its stride and that man (and woman) is really a creature desiring what seems unattainable.

Bottle Design: the Oriental Inro
The bottle has a no less interesting tale surrounding it. According to Dinand's autobiography, he was working on a stylized inro, the small wooden box samurais carry on their belts, full of little drawers where herbs, spices and opium for alleviating the pain from their wounds are kept. The little drawers are held together by strings (hence the resulting tassel on the Opium bottle) and the top is crowned with a sculpted ball, called netsuke, replicated in the cap. "That's it!" said Saint Laurent, as soon as he saw it and fixed his mind on calling it Opium, the rest being history.
The advertising had always been titillating, starting with sprawled Jerry Hall, progressing to an unknown red-head (pictured above), through to Kate Moss and Sophie Dahl infamously in the nude (therefore banned but you can see it by clicking the link). Currently Malgosia Bela fronts the ad prints.

Lauder had been secretly working on their own spicy oriental, mysteriously also in a vermilion bottle, named after a mercury mineral found in China and smelling close to Opium,Cinnabar, which launched only weeks later. Yet they never had such commercial success with it, a fact that is treated with silence when you point it out to them. Whether there had been some form of trade espionage has never been proven and is only a figment of speculation.

Scent Description
Baptising yourself in Opium amounts to owning a droplet of the Styx, imparting invulnerability, shunning your combination sinners -- your lecherous liars and your miserly drunkards -- who dishonor the vices and bring them into bad repute. It speaks the tongue of angels through the wiles of devils, fanning its brocade-like resins over your humble existence, marring the opulent flowers and the bright citruses (bergamot, lemon and the orange-tinged essence of coriander) by a contaminated hand of animalistic sin. I can't distinguish any of its constituent parts separately, as they merge into a tremendously forceful message of abandon and escapism from the vagaries of life. Was it my life or did I dream it?
The iron-pressed linen note of the aldehydes in the beginning gives off -coupled with the spicy bite of the carnation accord- a rather "clean" veneer, which allows Opium the distinction of being among the easiest orientals to carry without feeling all soiled underneath your dress. The plumminess is closly interwoven with the balsams in the drydown phase, when the fragrance has dried on the skin and only its whispered message remains; quite woods, trickly resins like benzoin, labdanum and opoponax with an animalic darkness to them from the small footnote of pungent, bitter castoreum in the far end.

Opium never fails to bring forth compliments every single time I wear it and it is the robe de guerre on every occasion where ample backbone is required or a new acquaintance is going to take place. People never identify it as such and always ask what is that magnificent fragrance emanating. Sometimes it's perversely fun to see faces fall when I reveal the true identity, other times it only makes me think long and hard about over saturation of a particular scent in the collective unconscious and the detriment that brings to a whole generation who formed bad associations through it being ubiquitous.

Opium Summer Editions and Comparison of Concentrations
My preferred form is the Eau de toilette, which highlights the spicy bite and the moribund balsams perfectly, although the extrait de parfum is another excellent choice. The Secret de Parfum which had circulated at some point during the early 90s in a cut-out bottle from hard plastic in a hue darker than the original flacon was a concentration that turned me off Eau de Parfum (to which it amounted) . Luckily that error in judgment on the part of YSL Parfums has been amended and the current version of Eau de Parfum is merely denser and more opaque, although still true to the scent. The body products in the range are some of the best I have tried in terms of both fidelity to the scent (they have a slightly pronounced orange note which is very agreeable) and texture which melts under your caress. Men have also been catered for through a men's version that is woodier and more aromatic but also rather spicy, Opium pour homme. As a faithful Opium wearer for years I can attest to it being relatively the same despite possible reformulation. If eugenol however becomes seriously restricted -as has been discussed- then it would risk severe disfigurement. {edit to add, June 2010: Alas, it has...}

In later years, many lighter summer versions launched, as limited editions, aiming at making Opium fit for summer-wear and largely succeeding:
Summer Fragrance (2002), Eau d'Eté (2004), Fleur de Shanghai (2005), Fleur Impériale (2006), Orchidée de Chine (2007), Poésie de Chine (2008). My personal favourite is Fleur de Shangai among them, replicated closely in the latest version.
This trend might have started by the non-limited, non-alcoholic Opium Fraicheur d'Orient, which got issued for summer in the mid-90s and which introduced a note from Angel and an intense citrus into the composition, to no particular pleasure derived. A limited edition bottle is
Opium Orient Extreme from 2007, which only changes the exterior, not the scent.
Various collector's bottles and versions will continue to get made. As long as it captures the imagination of perfume worshippers at its altar.
Top: aldehydes,plum,pepper, tangerine, coriander,bergamot, lemon
Heart: clove, jasmine, cinnamon, rose, peach, orris, myrrh, ylang ylang
Base: benzoin, patchouli, oppoponax, cedar, sandalwood, labdanum, castoreum, musk, vanilla

If you want to watch a small tribute to the opium-escaping hero of Leone, click this link for highlights.

Clips through videosift.com and wellgard on Youtube. Pics via parfumdepub


  1. Amen! I, too, prefer the EdT and it was one of my first steps into haute parfumerie. I do exactly remember the city, the street, the perfumer's shop, the SA and the time of year (late sumemr) and year when i was first sprayed with it. She offered it to me while i was strolling around and i was curious about the big name and what it might hide. I nearly stumbled out of the shop being so fascinated and positively intoxicated. Came back the next day to get a bottle of it. Have never been without it very long since then. Many people said it smelled "like flowers" in my room when i wear it.

  2. Cinnabar has a note that is more strident and makes it harder to wear. In a way, it's like a metallic, similar to what is in vintage Rive Gauche. It has that same sense of brightness.

    Cinnabar doesn't soften the way Opium does.

    However, Cinnabar with White Linen is a mix that always brought me compliments.

  3. N,

    it is amazing when that happens, isn't it? It has fascinated me ever since I was a child. It's wonderful that it has struck you the same way, etching itself on your memory :-)

    I get the "flowers smelling" comment myself too: I wonder, is it wonky perception or is it chemistry or what??? The matter demands the proper investigation.

  4. K,

    there is indeed something harsher in Cinnabar and less animalic as well, I find. It's not unfathomable taking in mind cinnabar is a mercury mineral, is it? Maybe they were going after that.

    I have never mixed those two and it would have seemed crazy if you haven't told me you do it with success yourself (thanks!): will note to try it sometime.

  5. stella polaris14:30

    The smell of Opium at once bring back the memories of my friend that I for some years shared a student apartment with, from the mid eighties. She had a kind of opulent sexiness, and used only two perfumes, Opium and Poison; Opium, in the perfume version (What a magnificent bottle!) was clearly my favorite. Since it was hers, we other girls did/could not use it. Now I have it myself, always with a sadness attached when putting it on: she died a few years ago of cancer, her son only 3 years old then.
    An odd question at the end: I find it in the eau de parfume version very close to Coco, but with coco as the no. 2. Is it something peculiar with my nose, or are they quite close?

  6. Ah, there's a bittersweet story, dear S. I can understand how it makes you feel. And yes, I agree that the parfum bottle is magnificent.

    Your question isn't odd at all: this is probably why I do not like the EDP as much! I have never really warmed up to Coco, with its ambery and damascenones overtones, although I recognise it is well-crafted. I love almost all the other Chanel perfumes!
    It had always seemed too "thick" for me somehow; more of a feeling than a smell.
    And Opium having springboarded the oriental craze of the 80s, nothing is impossible; they were clearly inspired by each other, both of them I believe. (first Chanel from YSL for the creation of their new fragrance taking it a step beyond, then YSL for adding elements of Coco in one of the concentrations of their own)

  7. AngelaS16:54

    Marvelous review! I feel like I know Opium better than ever now, thanks to it. I always associate Opium with a woman I knew in college, a rumpled poet with a tortured romantic life. As soon as my Magie Noire wears off, I'll spray some Opium EdT.

  8. Awww, Angela, thank you for your wonderful compliment! :-)

    Isn't it a magnificent creation? I crave it when I don't wear it for some time. It's trully addictive, no matter how trite this sounds *rolls eyes*

  9. Wow, I'm really enjoying these YSL perfumes. I haven't really tried any of them before, not as a serious trial, just casual sniffings of Opium, Paris, and Rive Gauche, but thank you so much for bringing our attention back to these gems. Sometimes it's easy to forget how good commercial bestsellers can be. It's easy to give too much credit to niche. When I went on my spices hunt, I ended up with Coup de Fouet, but I felt myself disgruntled by how difficult it was to get. Opium would be far easier. : )

    Err... I'm babbling. Thanks for the marvelous review!

  10. I meant to write, "I'm really enjoying these YSL perfume reviews." Oops.

  11. Abigail06:49

    Marvellous, marvellous review!! So informative and so evocative at the same time. Thank you!

  12. Anonymous07:15

    Wow, great as always Helg, but I have to ask: what's the connection with that movie? I didn't get it? That guy is smoking opium, fine, clear enough, but what has it got to do with the dreams and life, the stuff you're writing about? Sorry but I don't get it. If you or anyone can shed some light, it'd be great.


  13. Abigail08:37

    Aline, I believe what Helg was trying to say is that that scene from the end of the movie is rumoured to be the clue as to the whole plot being a dream. I recall it being discussed among film buffs, was it on imdb or someplace else? Beats me. Of course she might had something else in mind entirely, that's only my guess.

  14. Anonymous08:43

    Aie aie, thank you Abigail, I should catch the movie, haven't seen it before, it's a first for me. The clips weren't much help if one hasn't seen the movie, sorry Helg for saying so, but I like that you always include some sort of multimedia.


  15. I see you two have been discussing it among yourselves: Good!

    Aline, I'm sorry for including things I have a personal obsession about and becoming thus a little illegible; just have to. You can say I am a bit addicted to certain things myself :-)

    Basically it's as Abigail told you. The hero is escaping into an opium den in the second clip, much like he did in the first one (which is from the beginning of the film); but since it's the finale, we have already seen his life pass on the screen: the murders he has commited, the woman -his one true love- he has abused, his friends he has betrayed in some way.
    And thus his smile could be interpreted as either the beatific smile of someone who has been long "gone" into the hallucination of the narcotic or someone who realises everything he has seen has been but a dream. Hence the "dream within a dream" and the life that is escaping through our fingertips.
    Of course Leone didin't commit himself to either version., leaving it open to interpretation (like any true artist should IMO).

    Oh gosh, I have turned this into a treatise! Well, there are two links at the start of the post with film reviewers who talk about this, if you want any more details. I highly suggest you watch the film first, though.

  16. Anonymous19:40

    thanks Helg for the clarification


  17. Julie18:19

    Wow, great review I just started wearing Opium after smelling a sample and i have feel in love with it ever since.

    Such a strong, womanly smell, i love it and my boyfriend can't resist me with it on!

    Got my YSL Opium 100 ML bottle from Shop.co.uk for a great price.

  18. Anonymous06:50

    I have just received my latest shipment of Opium both EDT and EDP. The EDP is in the new bottle......why does it smell so different. For someone who has been using it since 1977 and has it as her no 1 perfume why would someone go and change something that worked.

  19. So, for those that have been using Opium for the last 30 years, like me, and can´t stand the "New Opium" what substitute would you recommend? I am so sad my dear perfume is no longer available. It was part of my identity.

  20. Anon,

    the way I see it is recent restrictions in the use of spicy materials (eugenol and isoeugenol to be exact) are at the basis of the most recent reformulations. Changing something that works...you can say that again. I'm crestfallen.


  21. Lou,

    excellent question: To which there is only trial & error answers, I'm afraid. If Cinnabar works for you (not quite the same thing with the old Opium EDT to me, somewhat harsher and heavier) you're in luck; that one is still great.
    I also rec George Sand from Les Parfums Historiques. That one is also quite close and hasn't been altered as far as I know.
    I would suggest Coco (the original) by Chanel, but that too has been reformulated recently. They're really targeting everything it seems.

  22. Lou,

    another thing that totally escaped my mind when I initially replied: Krizia Teatro all Scala (review linked). I think it's most unfairly unsung; it's an excellent spicy oriental!
    Then again, that's a discontinued scent, which somehow defeats the purpose of the exercise. You might have luck finding some on discounters, though.

  23. d.longo19:49

    icould go on eternally about the MURDER of the original opium formula. I wrote and called everyone remotely connected to formulation. there is a fragrance institute in Brusselsthat monitors health risks in anything with fragrance.. my husband died ten years ago and I am ashamed to admit that I think my opium is more mourned. I have done the drugstore route, the e-bay road , any dark alley or attic. I WAAAANT my old eau de toilette. i'm thinking perhaps the civit had something to do with the demise...soooooo many people enjoyed it on me. it made me feel complete, no matter what I was wearing or doing. the only other fragrance I have ever worn was Faberge's Aphrodisia, which I eventually got my husband to wear and people always asked him about it.....there must be many women such as myself who would to ANYTHING for their old Opium. much like the maltese falcon. I want the whole story on which agency pulled the plug on opium....

    1. I hear you....
      I think the culprit could be traced back to the L'Oreal acquisition of YSL Parfums. It all went downhill from there.... ¨-(


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