There is not a person alive who has been unaffected by the wretchedness of 2020 and the pandemic that has dominated the list of traumas. I won’t even start to talk about the issues of this year because they are many and all hideous. But what about the escape methods for many of us during the best of times: scent? How much is perfumery still a big escape in the midst of one of the worst years in the 21st century?
Rich, bold, powerhouse fragrances for a bargain price, what could be better? There is a definite advantage in going vintage, and Giorgio For Men is a perfect example of why: addictive patchouli is layered with loads of genuine oakmoss, Cuir de Russie-style birch leather, and gales of spices and amber, then lashed with honey, iris-orris butter, sandalwood, citruses, dry cedar, chocolate, vanilla, and silky cream. It’s all presented in a seamless, complex, long-lasting and audaciously intense concoction with parallels to both vintage legends and modern niche, except Giorgio costs a pittance of the price of most fragrances in those categories and it also contains high levels of raw materials now limited or banned in perfumery.
For a mere $30, I purchased a large, 95% full, 120 ml or 4 oz bottle whose scent bore echoes of fragrances which came both long before it and long after it: legends like vintage Givenchy Gentleman and popular modern creations like Serge Lutens’ Borneo 1834, Chanel‘s Coromandel, and Guerlain‘s LIDGE. Throughout its long lifespan, Giorgio’s character changed from the ruggedly polished but elegant 1980s alpha male to the unisex, modern, and addictively, delectably cuddly. While there are a handful of small issues with the fragrance, mostly if one sprays a lot of it, they’re minor in the overall scheme of things and the low price makes them easy to ignore. In short, this is a scent well worth looking up.
Serge Lutens wants to take you on journey to the heart of 19th century Borneo, an island on the equator, north of Java, and which now consists of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. He wants to take you on the Dutch trading ships with their bales of raw silks and cocoa as they traversed the exotic seas on their way to the shops of Europe. And he does it via Borneo 1834, a perfume created with Lutens’ usual cohort in olfactory adventures, the famous nose Christopher Sheldrake. It was released in 2005 and, until 2010, was exclusive to Lutens’ Paris salon as part of the “non-export” line. At the moment, however, it is available worldwide via the Lutens website.
Fragrantica classifies Borneo 1834 as an “oriental woody” and lists its notes as:
patchouli, white flowers, cardamom, galbanum, french labdanum and cacao.
Bois de Jasmin, however, also adds in camphor and cannabis resin. The latter led me to some Google searches, with extremely amusing results, on what constitutes the exact smell of cannabis when in resin form. (My conclusion is that some people lead very… interesting… lives.)
On his website. Lutens explains his choice of name and the theory behind the scent:
Why did I pick 1834? That was the year Parisians discovered patchouli. In those days, it came wrapped in silk.
Imagine a woman of that time wearing a patchouli fragrance: she awaits her carriage, draped in her sable stole.
Apparently Lutens has determined that the first olfactory point of contact between Europe and the Far East took place there and then, in the form of the patchouli leaves used to wrap bales of silk. The patchouli was intended to keep moths away from the precious fabric (insects hate camphoraceous smells), but when the silk reached Western shores, elegant ladies wanted more of the smell. In other words, patchouli’s career in perfumery is a rise from bug repellent to luxury goods, a trajectory meteorically traced in the opposite direction by many contemporary fragrances. As often happens with Lutens-Sheldrake creations, the first sniff comes as a complete shock: the overwhelming impression is one of dark brown powder. Seconds later one realizes that this nameless dust is made of two components, patchouli and chocolate, skillfully juxtaposed (how?) so that neither the earthiness of patchouli nor the familiarity of chocolate prevails. Borneo 1834 is like Angel in reverse: instead of jumping out at you, it sucks you into its shadowy space. All the materials used are firmly rooted in the “orientalist” (aka hippie) style, yet the size, grace, and complexity of the overall structure make it the direct descendant of orientals proper like Emeraude and Shalimar. [Emphasis added for the names.]
The opening blast of Borneo 1834 on my skin is glorious. I absolutely love it. There is wonderfully resinous, boozy, sweet patchouli with bitter chocolate. The latter is more like the small, dark, cocoa nibs that you find in baking. There is a faint hint of camphor, but it’s light and plays off well with the smokiness of the patchouli and labdanum. It’s not the sort of smoke that you find in incense but, rather, a sweeter, much nuttier smoke accord. It makes me think of siam sesin, only amplified and combined with patchouli and cocoa. (You can read more about siam resin, along with labdanum, galbanum and some of the other notes in Borneo 1834 in my Glossary.) The patchouli has a great earthiness, almost like rich, black earth — moist, loamy and heavy. There is a faint hint of a musky, animalic note, too, almost like the sort of body funk that you would get from civet.
I don’t smell cardamom or the white flowers to any noteworthy extent. There is a floral note there, faintly peeking its head over the mighty patchouli, but I don’t think “white flowers” would really come to mind. If there is a floral note, I’d think of a pale rose more than white flowers, but it doesn’t really matter as the note is so faint as to be barely noticeable.
As for the notes given by Bois de Jasmin, I have never smelled a fresh, growing cannabis plant, let alone cannabis resin, so I set off to do some research. Google informs me that the former smells like slightly herbal, sweet, cut grass, while the latter can supposedly smell of anything from skunks to motor oil. I don’t smell fresh, sweet grass in Borneo 1834, and definitely nothing even remotely resembling skunks. I suppose one could say that there is a faint scent of car oil, but I think that the tarry, black note is more typical of a dirty, black patchouli or labdanum. Overall, the scent is dry in its sweetness, not cloying or synthetically sharp.
Thirty minutes in, the dark cocoa is on equal footing with the patchouli, and the light camphor note has vanished. There are times when the final result almost smells a bit like mocha coffee. It is too rich a smell to be considered “cozy,” especially as that is a word which I associate with softer scents that wrap themselves around you like cashmere or that make you want to snuggle under a blanket. Borneo 1834 is too dark for that. It is also too dry to be an edible gourmand scent, but it has some mystery and layers, especially in its opening. I truly adore those opening notes of patchouli which make me think, “this is what patchouli should smell like more often!”
I’m much less thrilled with the middle stages and the dry-down. Two hours in, the musk and animalic notes start to become much more pronounced. It is at this stage that the sillage lessens a little, though it is still somewhat noticeable. (Three hours in, the perfume becomes close to the skin, though there is still great longevity.) The animalic notes become more and more prominent with every hour, and the final dry-down stage is almost entirely earthy, slightly intimate body funk.
It’s hard to explain the scent here. It’s not intimate like someone’s private parts, it’s also not exactly musky, and it’s most definitely not like ripe, extreme, unwashed body odor. It’s sort of a mild variation of the two, a “skank” note like that from a very warm, faintly sweaty, slightly sweet, almost musky body after a long session at the gym. Perhaps, musk and sweet “dried sweat” may encapsulate some of it, but only a portion of it. Either way, there is a linearity and earthy singularity in the middle and final stages which is fine, if you like animalic notes. I don’t. Which is why I much preferred that absolutely lovely opening with its boozy notes evocative of siam resin, its luscious patchouli and its dry cocoa.
That dark, black, and faintly bitter, cocoa accord is just one of the things that separates Borneo 1834 from Christopher Sheldrake’s other patchouli creation: Coromandel (for Chanel‘s Les Exclusif line). Created with Jacques Polge, both perfumes share chocolate and patchouli notes, which is probably why they are so frequently discussed in the same breath. To me, however, Coromandel is an extremely different scent. In fact, I’d consider them to be like night and day. I found Coromandel to be all burning smoke, white cocoa and powdery vanilla, resembling a chai latte at times. The strong incense and frankincense notes dominated the sweet patchouli; it was a frankincense and incense perfume first and foremost. At its heart though, Coromandel is a cozy scent with powdered vanilla and tonka; it is light and somewhat multi-faceted. Borneo 1834, in contrast, is a dark powerhouse of patchouli, bitter cocoa dust and earthiness, and it’s not extremely complex. In fact, I’d say that it only has two stages, each of which is quite direct: patchouli chocolate with some camphor, resin and smoke; and earthy, animalic notes.
Freddie from Smelly Thoughts, a great perfume blog, loved the perfume throughout all its stages and didn’t seem to note any animalic body funk. His review is useful, especially as it compares Borneo 1834 to Thierry Mugler‘s infamous Angel:
So patchouli + chocolate = Angel? Not quite. The patchouli here is lavishly sleek, whilst being familiar in its dank, deep scent – it remains tame and completely in control. The sweetness in Borneo, unlike the Mugler, is also in complete control, richer – more exotic, with a delicate camphor laying over the top – adding an almost medicinal astringency to the patchouli and cocoa. The camphor is far from the intensity of Tuberuese Criminelle (for example), and instead has the sheer, sharp aspect that some great ouds have. It adds an age and a chilling subtlety to the foggy atmosphere.
I get a very subtle tobacco, as well as a liquorice note – in the same, but more toned down, style of Parfumerie Generale’s Aomassai. All intermingled with the cocoa and bitter patchouli, Borneo 1834 is dark and perplexing whilst being light and delicate on the skin.
The fragrance remains relatively linear, with a wonderful resinous base acting like a dark, sticky veil. The resins give off that breathy/slightly sweaty feel that they sometimes do (I normally get this with myrrh), I’d almost have thought there was the tiniest bit of cumin in here, but the fragrance isn’t spicy at all.
I think Freddie’s reference to cumin indicates that he may have smelled some animalic funk too, but obviously, it was in no way as extreme on him as it was on me during those final hours. All in all, Borneo 1834 lasted about 9 hours on me, with the animalic funk being a large part of the last (low sillage) 6.5 hours (and all of the final 3 hours). It is the main reason why I didn’t love the fragrance, though it’s an absolutely gorgeous scent in its opening notes.
Borneo 1934 is a scent that is definitely well-suited to winter and, if you love patchouli, well worth a sample sniff. If you try it, let me know what you think. I’m particularly curious to know if you have a similar experience as I did during the final hours.
Cost & Availability: You can find Borneo 1834 on the Serge Lutens website. In the famous bell-jar shape, it costs $290 for 2.5 fl oz/75 ml. However, in the smaller size and regular bottle, it costs $140 for 1.7 fl oz/50 ml. In general, Serge Lutens is usually available at fine retailers like Barney’s, Lucky Scent and a few other online sites. Lucky Scent carries the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle for $140 but, oddly enough, I’ve seen it sold on Amazon for $125 via Beauty Encounter. You can only do a search online to see if it is available at a discount from discount perfume retailers. Sample vials to test it out can be bought at Surrender to Chance (but not Lucky Scent) starting at $3.99. Surrender to Chance also has a special Lutens sample pack of 3 non-export perfumes which includes Borneo 1834 and which starts at $11.50 for the smallest sized vials.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 commentators 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. Even 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.