Perfume Review: Chanel Coromandel – Frankincense & Opium Dens

Were the Three Wise Men or Magi visiting Bethlehem today, Chanel’s Coromandel is a gift that they might have enjoyed wearing (even if it isn’t a suitable gift for a child in a manger).

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

So, too, would those “Chasing the Dragon” in Imperial China’s opium dens, their limbs sinuous and contorted by their dark obsessions. It is, without question, a perfume of the mysterious, ancient East.

Coromandel is said to be an homage to Coco Chanel’s beloved lacquered, wooden Chinese folding screens and was introduced to the world in 2007 as part of Chanel’s six-line collection called “Les Exclusifs.” It was created by Chanel’s house perfumer, Jacques Polge, along with an equally famous “nose” in the industry, Christopher Sheldrake. According to Chanel’s own description on their website, “the elaborate scent unfolds in undulating detail, starting with an amber vibrato, followed by dry notes of Frankincense and Benzoin, then, soulful woody notes that add elegance and depth to the sensuous accord’s striking trail.”

The notes, according to a reviewer (“Zut”) on Basenotes, are as follows:

Top: citruses, bitter orange, neroli
Heart: jasmine, rose, patchouli, orris
Base: incense, olibanum [also known as Frankincense], benzoin, woodsy notes, musk, Tahitian vanilla

Coromandel is a perfume that reminds me that life would be much easier if I had significantly less expensive tastes. It’s not a perfume I adore with a searing passion, but it is a perfume that I definitely like a lot. A LOT. (Far too much for my wallet’s good health, actually. I suspect I will try to buy a full bottle of this.)

Coromandel opens with a burst of zesty citrus, powder and vanilla. Unlike one reviewer on Basenotes, I don’t smell bitter orange, only basic citrus. Two to four minutes in, the citrus is gone completely, leaving only vanilla musk, patchouli and a hint of almond. Exactly 10 minutes from the time I put in on, the vanilla musk turns darkly and intensely peppery. It is a sharp and dramatic change in such a brief period of time. As the frankincense and/or patchouli rise to the forefront, the perfume changes again. There are wisps of a milk chocolate smell that start to emerge.

I must be honest, and I need to say this from the onset, I truly cannot tell if it is the patchouli or frankincense that is more at play with Coromandel. Everyone talks about how this is such a patchouli monster, and it most definitely has patchouli at its heart. But I truly think that this is more of a frankincense monster than a patchouli one. While there are all kinds of dirty, dark patchouli out there, they all generally seem to have (on me) a warmer, softer edge than what I am picking up in Coromandel. Coromandel’s patchouli (if that is what I’m smelling for the most part) is different than the dirty patchouli that is in Hermès’ Elixir de Merveilles, to mention a patchouli perfume that I just recently reviewed. On me, Coromandel has a much more smoky, piercing, sharp, almost screeching (but in a good way), burning incense note, one that I associate with frankincense far more than with patchouli.

Regardless of whether it’s the frankincense or the patchouli that truly dominates here, the overall whole in the early stages is that of a very milky oriental. I have definite flashbacks to a milky Chai, with a touch of cinnamon, a good dollop of white cocoa, sugar, amber and lots of powdered vanilla. It’s an inescapable image for the first 40 minutes of the perfume’s development on my arm. It’s also a very comforting scent that brings to mind curling up under a thick, beige cashmere blanket, next to a roaring fire, as you sip that aforementioned Chai tea.

It is around this time that Coromandel’s milky vanilla spice has been joined by rose, violet and a faint hint of jasmine. It’s not the full-blown, blowsy, overly-sweet rose of YSL’s Paris, but a softer rose that is moderated by the violet note. The rose-violet-vanilla scent reminds me strongly of the old-fashioned, expensive lipsticks I used to buy in Paris, and of Chanel’s lipsticks themselves. The cause is the orris root mentioned amongst the ingredients. Orris root is the root of the iris flower ,and is often used in perfume or makeup as a fixative or base. It has a richly floral, heavy scent, often evocative of violets. And I can definitely smell it here.

There is supposed to be a strong thread of amber floating throughout Coromandel, but I find it overwhelmed by the frankincense. It’s amazingly strong, and I’m glad for it. I absolutely adore it, more than the increasingly common amber accord that is found in so many fragrances today.

Strangely enough, the perfume is getting more intense on my arm. Two and a half hours in, I wrote in my notes: “how is this just getting stronger???!?!?!!” It’s quite a feat, but it has put me in Coromandel’s thrall. As the peppery smoke increases along with the incense, I get flickering images of an old, quiet, dark Russian Orthodox church where black-robed, black-bearded priests walk through the hushed aisles, swinging those gleaming silver canisters back and forth as the smoke drifts all around them.

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

With every passing moment, however, the image which grows strongest in my mind is that of a lush, rich, red-silk lined opium den in Imperial China. (Or Johnny Depp “chasing the dragon” in a London opium den in the film, “From Hell.”) Coromandel is one of the very few things I’ve smelled that strongly calls to mind YSL’s Opium, in its true, vintage, 1970s, un-reformulated parfum glory. That almost sexually decadent smokiness is redolent of dark rooms reeking of vice and sinuous bodies, their limbs twisted and contorted in the pursuit of their madness.

True, unvarnished, untainted Opium is my absolute favorite perfume in the world. (We shall not speak of the travesty that it is in its current incarnation. We cannot. It is simply too painful.) True Opium was an ode to licentious abandon and unbridled passion.

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

Photo series for Interview Magazine by Mert & Marcus.

It was pure, oozing sex, writhing under a full moon, baying in passion as your darkest side emerged and you lost all control. Opium captured my soul in the 1970s as a young child and it never let go. For true Opium, I would go to hell and back.

Coromandel is not Opium. It is too powdery, especially in its dry-down. It lacks Opium’s rawness, its power and its dark, unctuous slither. But it tries to be Opium’s soft, refined, sweet, baby sister in some ways. The incense and smoke that almost burns your nose is very evocative of Opium’s dark side. But it is incense and smoke wrapped up in powder, pearls, lace and cashmere, not in red-silk tuxedo held half-open and revealingly with one, long, taloned red-laquered finger nail.

No, that is not Coromandel. In its middle and final stages, Coromandel may be better suited to Tolstoy’s tragic heroine, Anna Karenina, in the novel by the same name. Try to imagine Kiera Knightley’s “Anna Karenina” in an old, dark Russian Orthodox Church and you may get closer to the image that Coromandel evokes when I wear it. AK

A few final things: this is not necessarily a perfume that only a woman can wear. I think its smokiness and incense-y character makes it very accessible to men, as do the “woody” notes that so many seem to smell so strongly (but not me). I have read some female Anna-Karenina_05commentators say that it’s actually “too masculine.” I find that simply baffling. This is a scent everyone can wear if they should so choose. In fact, one of my closest male friends is bewitched by it. He is a man who adores YSL’s controversial, roaring, polarising, definitely masculine M7, too, so it’s not as though he leans towards “feminine” scents. If you’re a man and you’re intrigued by Coromandel, I think you should give it a shot. anna-karenina-posterEven if you’re someone who normally fears powdery or powdery vanilla scents, the degree of smokiness and spice may be enough to offset any “old lady” concerns that you might have.

If you simply can’t get passed the thought of powdered vanilla, then you may want to try Serge Lutens’ Borneo 1834, also created by Christopher Sheldrake. I’ve never tried it but, from reviews like the one I’ve linked to there, it seems that there are a number of similarities. Both share what appears to be Sheldrake’s signature: a bold, sweet, spicy oriental that almost seems like a gourmand perfume at times but which is built around a solid base of patchouli. Borneo, however, is said to have a greater darkness with more bitter dark chocolate (in lieu of the white cocoa) and much earthier, heavier patchouli. (By the way, there isn’t any chocolate actually in either perfume. They simply evoke the scent on occasion.) If Coromandel is not for you, then perhaps Borneo 1834 will be. I hope you will let me know what you think if you try either one.


Cost: $110 for a 2.5 oz bottle. It only comes in Eau de Toilette
Sillage: Strong for the first 3 hours, close to the skin after 4 hours. But, again, my body consumes perfume.
Longevity: 5-6 hours. On me. On others, it’s supposed to last a long, long time and the most out of all the six perfumes in the “Les Exclusifs” collection.

57 thoughts on “Perfume Review: Chanel Coromandel – Frankincense & Opium Dens

    • Thank you, Mr. Hound. That means a lot, esp. from you. Coromandel is a perfume that deserves much of the praise it’s gotten, imo, and it also seems like it’s one of the better ones of the Exclusifs bunch. (Cuir de Russie is supposed to be outstanding and beyond marvelous. The best of them all! I plan on ordering it within the next few days.)

      What I need to do is to start reviewing the large number of perfumes that I absolutely don’t like. *grin* But it’s bloody hard to get motivated to write the reviews.

      • It’s funny because I’ve been reading quite a few comparisons about Borneo 1834, which sounds great. I’ve heard it’s a “dirtier” version of Coromandel which sounds heavenly. But it’s also *way* more expensive! Yikes! I need to make a running list of things I’d like to try and do a StC order to smell some of these more niche scents I’m curious about!

        • I’m very tempted to order samples of Borneo 1834! It sounds absolutely up my alley. That said, I’m about to test and review another Serge Lutens which is spicy, but this one (Serge Noire) is a bit notorious as a clove and cumin beast. I’m a bit trepidatious! 😉 BTW, making running lists of things you’d like to get from Surrender to Chance (and, indeed, the website itself) can be a rabbit hole of danger! One of my recent orders was a 3-part sample of the very best Four and Five star rated perfumes of all that. That list alone was temptation of the devil!!

          • Heh! Dangerous indeed! But it sounds like it smells divine, so I’m very tempted. I may come to you with suggestions for a few small vials that you would say are *must* tries for me, since you seem to understand my taste so well (geez, after soliciting so much advice from you, I should probably pay you a consultant fee!). Sycomore is arriving tomorrow though, so I *guess* I should be contented with that for the time being, but you and I both know that’s impossible.

          • Speaking of ordering, was it you who won the Chanel Cuir de Russie eBay auction yesterday? It was for the 3.4 oz bottle that was about 1/2 full. It went for a great price! I didn’t bid on it because I thought you might be and because I have spent a rather frightening amount lately on perfume. (And, yet, somehow, that hasn’t stopped me from bidding on 2 more sample of niche stuff sets.) Thank God I’m getting money as some of my Christmas presents! LOL.

            Oh, as recommendations, perhaps put Parfum d’Empire’s Ambre Russe on your list? It certainly is on mine and sounds utterly divine!

          • You may be shocked — but it wasn’t me! LOL. I did watch it, though. 🙂 I’m sure I’ll get a bit more Christmas $$ as well, so I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably buy more fragrance with it. At least it’s something that lasts a long time and I can enjoy every single time I use it. 🙂 But you know me, always trying to justify!

          • OMG, I just researched Ambre Russe. Want. Need. Must have. Sounds amazing. Simply amazing. Although if I’m drinking, there’s an extremely good chance I’ll smell like vodka or cheap champagne anyhow. LOL. 🙂

          • See, do I know what you like or not?! And, yes, the fact that it’s got Russe in the title doesn’t hurt when it comes to you. 😉 Parfum d’Empire is definitely a line that I want to explore more. Right now, I’m expecting about 9 diff. L’Artisan samples, but P/E’s perfumes are calling to me like a siren. Particularly that one. And, btw, going to your other reply, yes, I actually AM a little bit surprised that it wasn’t you who won Cuir de Russie!

            You may also want to look up Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan and his “Arabie” though I’ve never tried either myself. (I plan on remedying that soon.) Here’s the link for the Arabie: Oh, and this is the link to the StC sample pack for the best 4 and 5 star perfumes: The pick 3 for the 5 star masterpieces (old and new):

    • Oh, I hope you do try it. I think you’ll like the sexiness of it. Have you ever looked at the website, Surrender to Chance? They sell perfume samples, including all the Exclusifs line. You can’t find the perfume except in actual Chanel stores, I believe, so a site like that may be your best shot unless you have a Chanel store nearby. If you try it, let me know what you think. 🙂

      • No, I’ve never checked out that website but I will know:) I have a feeling I’ll be ordering several samples!! Any thoughts on Tom Fords perfumes?

        • I love being an enabler, Moonstone. 😉 As for Tom Ford, I’ve only tried a few of his perfumes. Neroli Portofino and Violet Blonde (both of which I was planning on reviewing soon). I have mixed feelings about both, particularly in terms of longevity on my skin and how overpoweringly they initially open. As someone who adores orange blossom and/or neroli (technically, 2 diff. scents), I was surprised I didn’t like the Neroli Portofino more. I did like the Violet Blonde but mostly because it reminded me of the original, unreformulated version of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, one of my favorite classic scents and definitely my favorite from Guerlain. I have to re-test each in greater depth and with more focus for my reviews, so we’ll see how my initial impressions develop or change.

          Let me know if you order anything! Surrender to Chance has good shipping prices to Canada and it’s a great way to test things out before deciding if you want to shell out a lot of money! 🙂

          • Oh boy, I think surrender to chance is my new addiction! Yikes, not sure my wallet can handle another one. Haha
            Thank you for the tip 🙂 I ordered 5 samples! Coromandel, Tom ford’s – Black orchid and private blend amber absolute(little iffy about this one), Jo Malone dark amber & ginger lily~kohdo wood night limited edition, and Thierry Muguler ‘ angel frangrance of leather – I don’t have high hopes for this one but I’m hoping the leather, dark chocolate & patchouli will surprise me.
            You are definitely an enabler! haha:)

          • *grin* Few things make me happier than enabling someone, so YAYYY!!! I hear you on Surrender to Chance. I went a bit crazy a few days ago and ordered quite a bit from them. This, after 3 prior decant purchases that week from eBay!! I think you chose some great, intriguing and very hip scents! I actually received the lighter version of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid (Voile de Fleur version) just an hour ago in the mail!! I haven’t tried the original Black Orchid, so I’m definitely curious as to your thoughts on it. And when I put my review up, you can compare with yours! But I want to know your thoughts on EVERYTHING you bought! As for the Jo Malone, you’ll have to let me know how that lasts on you. I haven’t always had super luck with the duration of her scents, even given how my body consumes perfumes in general. Oh, and a friend of mine recently received the Mugler Angel flanker that has Swarovski crystals, is heavy with chocolate and patchouli, and she really likes it. I don’t think it’s the Angel Leather, though, so I’ll be interested to hear your impressions of that one too. Bottom line: I can’t WAIT for you to receive your stuff and to hear all your thoughts. 😀

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  3. Guess what came in the mail yesterday??!?? My samples:) And this was the first one I tried out today. Of course I did my test spritz – spray it in the air and if it doesn’t burn my nose ( or sinuses), then I’ll spray it on my arm.
    I smell the citrus immediately but on me it has slight bitterness to it but that vanishes quickly and then I smell a mix of vanilla, musk, jasmine and rose. I was afraid the rose was going to turn me off because quite often roses and my body don’t always mix so well but this wasn’t the case.
    It’s funny that you mentioned how it reminds you of Opium because as it lingers on me I am remind of my childhood. My best friend’s mom used to wear Opium all the time ( her signature scent ) and we would spray ourselves with tons of it. Anyhow, I’m not sure if I’m smelling incense or frankincense…I’m a little confused on that end. At times one is stronger than the other I think. lol! The vanilla is nice and soft on me…and usually vanilla can smell really strong and sugary on me. Yuck! After 30mins I’m left with musk, vanilla, patchouli and incense. I think this would make for a great fall/winter perfume or at least for me it would 🙂

    • HURRAH!!! Your samples finally arrived! I’m so happy, Jackie, and even more so that you liked Coromandel. So you got the faint nod to Opium too, did you? I’m glad the vanilla was soft and nice on you. You know why it can be super strong and sugary in other perfumes? Because many brands, esp. cheap brands that aren’t niche ones, use synthetic compounds for vanilla to save money. That screechy, cloying, super strong smell is a definite give-away of synthetic notes and it’s why so many of these commercial, mass-market perfumes are so head-ache inducing. It’s dirt cheap for them, helps them save money and make even more off the perfume, but you won’t find something like that in a Chanel Exclusif line or in niche scents!

      As for the incense/frankincense issue, it can be confusing to smell the difference, most definitely. To my nose, frankincense is sharper, more acrid, smokier — though, depending on type, some incense can be that way too. Your body must burn through perfume notes almost as quickly as mine if you blew through the floral top notes in 30 minutes!! Heh, I feel a little less of a weirdo now. 😀 And, btw, my body doesn’t always handle rose too well either, so we’re alike there too. How big of a sample vial did you get? Enough to give it another day or two, and see if you get the same sorts of results?

  4. Oh yes, I got a 2ml spray bottle sample 🙂 Thanks for the info regarding incense/frankincense, I’m going to try it again tomorrow and see if I can tell the difference.
    I’m definitely not a fan of synthetic vanilla, I have zero desire to smell like sugar or pay to smell like that. It’s nauseating. I guess little girls like that. Hahaha
    Thanks to you I now know vanilla can be soft and inviting. I will no longer pre-judge a perfume just because it has vanilla in it.
    I almost wish I didn’t like it so much because now I want it!
    I wonder what makes us burn threw perfume so quickly? I’ve always been like that, which is the complete opposite of my mom…I swear perfume can last a hole day (sometimes longer) on her!

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    • Hi there. You can buy Coromandel only at actual Chanel boutiques or stores. Some of the higher-end department stores that have a Chanel mini-boutique within may carry it, but none of the regular department stores with just a Chanel counter. Coromandel is part of Chanel’s Exclusifs line, so it is not available in your regular department stores like Macy’s or the like. Chanel recently increased its prices too, so the small bottle is now around $160 and the large one is about $280, if memory serves me correctly.

      Also, if you want to test it first, you can order a sample for testing at the decanting sites like Surrender to Chance:

        • With eBay, it’s all about the particular seller in question. I have known people to buy Coromandel from eBay without problem, but there is always a bad seed out there. If you take care and research the seller, then you should be okay, but obviously there are always risks. Speaking only for myself and without wanting to take responsibility for your situation, I don’t think there is anything wrong with eBay purchases and I would use it myself if I were comfortable with the seller, his/her history, and his/her reliability. 🙂

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  18. This is my most recent ‘like very much’ and ‘almost love’.. Did you buy a bottle finally? I think this will be my next purchase.. So elegant yet immensely satisfying and comforting. Ok I think it might just be love.

    Oh and I think it should be tolstoy’s tragic heroine ‘ Anna karenina’..

    • I’m saving up for the giant 6.8 oz vat, since the small 2.5 bottle won’t do. 🙂 I’m glad you love it as much as I do, Lavanya. It’s truly a stunning fragrance. And thanks for the tip on the typo. I don’t know where my head was at with the Dostoevsky. Oh, wait, I think I wrote the review back when I was arguing with a friend about film treatments of Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky. That must be it. Either way, thanks! 🙂

  19. Coromandel vs Borneo 1834. Definitely Borneo for me. I’ve struggled through Coromandel a few times now and I can’t handle the big opening blast. I’m now 2 hours in and it’s settled down to something more to my liking but still not in my comfort zone, unlike Borneo, which I love to wear occasionally. I think of Borneo 1834 as one of my ‘oddities’ – perfumes that I wouldn’t be without but couldn’t wear everyday and that are definitely unsuitable for office wear. I can smell the similarities now that it’s settled a bit, but I’d suggest the top notes are completely different.

    • I agree, the top notes are completely different. I tested Borneo some time after writing the Coromandel review, and there are big difference. White vs. Black. (Actually, Brown/red/Green/Black given the way the patchouli is in Borneo.) Coromandel’s incense is a blast of intensity at first, which is why I love it. The thing with Coromandel that I’ve noticed since I wrote the review is that it smolders in summer. I actually love it best then, because it’s warmer, richer, deeper, and the patchouli comes out much more. In winter, Coromandel is drier, smokier, more ambered and incense-y. As a whole, the patchouli in it is creamier, sweeter, more diluted and vanillic than the more hardcore version in Borneo.

      I would suggest you hold onto your Coromandel sample and try it in summer. It’s glorious in summer, imo.

        • LOLOLOL!! I forgot your location. Well, in that case, maybe save Coromandel for winter?? 😉 I’m just kidding. It obviously doesn’t work for you, and that’s totally fine. You aren’t the only one, and we all have different tastes. I’m glad that Borneo is working for you at least.

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