Sometimes I smell a perfume and I just don’t know what to make of it. Whilst many fragrances I smell can provoke an immediate reaction – filing themselves neatly in to piles of ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘ew’, and ‘oooooh’, some take time, and some forever remain in a purgatory land where an opinion is the absolution never to arrive. OK, so I’m being a bit dramatic (just a tad, mind) and this is all a very longwinded way of saying that sometimes, it takes me a while to make up my mind about a fragrance.
Aaaaaand you can probably guess where this is going, right? Yes, when it came to Opus XI from Amouage, the 11th instalment in the brand’s Library Collection (where Amouage does its most unusual and often challenging work), I found myself unsure what I thought, even after spending a considerable amount of time with it. Opus XI was created by perfumer Pierre Negrin – it takes inspiration from the Orient and presents oud, one of perfumery’s most popular materials, in an entirely new guise. It’s a singular perfume that brings nuances to a material that could easily be described as tired, forging something that really is fascinating.
Base: Styrax and Woodleather
Pierre Negrin (Firmenich)
How Does it Smell?
The opening of Opus XI is a shock. It is dry, herbaceous and utterly devoid of any citrus facets. Instead, there’s a gluey, cool quality that feels medicinal and almost floral, that rubs up against the savoury marjoram to cause an exciting friction. At the start, Opus XI is cacophonous and amorphous – one cannot work out what it is or whether it smells blue, black or white, because it moves rapidly between shades, but also textures too, with powdery softness and solid woods creating a sense of tension.
Surprisingly, after that, Opus XI calms down tremendously. It celebrates oud at its heart but moves away from the animalic facets of the material (the blue cheese and the barnyard) to focus attention on the smoky, medicinal, and petroleum facets. Instead of evoking something carnal, this cool, mineral oud gives the impression of cold sands in the dead of night. It’s almost glassy, reflecting moonlight and nocturnal air to create something that is completely weightless – an effect that is novel given the tenacious nature of oud.
The base provides a contrast of styrax and leather, both of which blend with the oud to extend it and amplify it. The leather brings a dark, inky nuance that gives the mineral, petrol edge of the oud quite a bite, whilst the styrax sweetens and softens the overall composition to temper its finer edges. Opus XI opens as a tornado but settles to slow moving breaths. It’s tenacious and diffusive, but with time (and it does last a long time) it unfurls into something resembling a silhouette of its earlier self.
Strangeness in perfumery walks a fine line between the curious and the unwearable. Weird is good but for me, a perfume is not an art piece created only to sit on a shelf unused, it’s an olfactory experience to be enjoyed – to come alive on skin. Opus XI walks this line perfectly, presenting blue woods and icy grey smoke, two unique scents, in a way that is enjoyable to smell. It is weird – there’s something alien and uncomfortable about it, but therein lies the interest. Opus XI is strange and beautiful – an ode to the East that stays away from ambers and incenses, instead presenting a fragrant vision of a midnight sky – a mirage conjured by icy smoke.
Opus XI is available in 50ml (£235) and 100ml (£300) Eau de Parfum.
Full bottle sample sent by Amouage for consideration. I was not paid for this review and Amouage had no input in the contents of this article. Notes and quotes via Amouage. Images are my own.