Opium (1977) by Yves Saint Laurent Review

In 1984 I was seven years old and that was the year I first discovered Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. My family had all gathered at my grandparent’s house for some occasion or other, and I was allowed to bring a friend along. While the adults sat on the couch or stood in the kitchen, catching up with each other, Jenny and I were allowed to wander the house and neighborhood at will. After a while, we found our way into my grandparent’s bedroom and of course we were drawn like a magnet to Gran’s vanity table, with it’s ornate jewelry box, lipsticks, and ‘pretties’. There were several bottles of perfume there…but like a moth to a flame we were drawn to a bottle of Opium spray, the deep ochre hues of its cap and its exotic lettering signaling danger even to us young’ns.  We lifted the cap and sniffed the sprayer – and immediately recoiled in horror. Jenny whimpered softly, plugging her nostrils with her fingers…I wrinkled my nose and squealed “Oh gross!” We looked at each other with abject horror and disgust. Something had gone very wrong. Our young noses had, up to that time, been pampered by the sweet, ambrosial Giorgio and the unchallenging, nectar-like Vanderbilt. We had over-reached, our exuberance and hubris leading us into dark territory that we were not prepared for…and we knew it. “That stuff is for grown-ups,” Jenny said earnestly, eager to throw off any association with the stuff. “It’s so gross” I cried, as we made our way out of the bedroom, traumatized.

Cut to twenty five years later, and I love the stuff. Jenny was right, the story that Opium tells is an adult story, its narrative redolent with hedonism, narcotic temptation, and forbidden passion. My first impression of Opium as a kid was that it smelled absolutely lethal, like bug spray. The opening burst of powerful aldehydes, spices, sour citrus, and rose literally sent me reeling, although today I am charmed by the audacity of the immediate post-spritz. If the tempestuous top notes are mere foreplay, seducing and teasing, then the heart is the real deal, the culmination of love itself. The rose/jasmine/ylang  is given a hint of fruity sweetness by subtle plum/peach, while charged by  the high-pitched citrus/spice from above and the monolithic ambered base from below; the effect is an exaggerated approximation of the sharp scent of vulva itself. Oh yes, Jenny, this is grown-up stuff indeed. As time passes and the rose and tropical “love flowers” recede, the perfume’s spicy, Eastern nature is made more and more explicit, with deeply entrenched clove and cinnamon clinging tenaciously to every phase of Opium – like the proverbial monkey on its back. The heart-pounding, spiced floral heart fades into a woody resinous base,  and passion is replaced by afterglow.

The marriage of cinnamon bark with woods, vanilla & amber  is really what keeps me coming back to this perfume, long after other perfume lovers have seemingly left the Opium den. Although it captivates with its notoriously hot, blatantly feminine top and middle notes, it is the base of Opium parfum that has made an absolute believer out of me. According to its perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac, “The oriental facet of Opium represents only 10 percent of the overall formula but creates 50 percent of the effect.” Benzoin, myrrh, labdanum, opoponax join with cedar and sandalwood to create a sweet bed of oriental dreams, gilded with an animalic edge through castoreum and musk. Upon the bed is laid a perfected cinnamon, raised and lowered into position by a system of ropes and pulleys which fit the note precisely into place upon the oriental dais. My vintage Opium parfum is coincidentally from 1984, the year I first tried Opium, and I am only sorry that I wasn’t able to first try Opium in this concentration as a child; if I had I would have surely been hooked rather than spooked.

As successful as the perfume is in what it aims to do, its birth was not without some hiccups. Opium was born and carried aloft on the dreams of Yves Saint Laurent’s fascination with China and Japan. When St. Laurent told bottle designer Pierre Dinand what kind of motif he envisioned for the fragrance, he used the words “Flowers of fire,” and both the bottle and the fragrance itself can be viewed as variations on this theme. Opium sought to evoke the mythically languorous, debauched decadence of another time in  another place, namely the Far East, and to unite the illicit with the spiritual. In its lower stages, the perfume owes some debt to Estee Lauder’s successful oriental Youth Dew, although Opium is heads and tails above that 1950s classic in terms of both complexity and quality of materials. As Michael Edwards tells it in his amazing book “Perfume Legends,” the original name for the fragrance was “Ichi”. Dinand modeled the bottle for it after the Japanese inrō in which Samurai warriors would keep their opium and other small objects. When Yves Saint Laurent saw the bottle, he received the inspiration for the perfume’s true name: Opium. But the name was inflammatory, highly controversial in the mid to late 1970s when illegal drugs were becoming a huge concern to Western countries. The parent companies of Charles of the Ritz and Squibb were aghast at such a name, fearing a backlash among the more conservative sectors of the buying public. But Saint Laurent wouldn’t hear of changing the name:  it was to be called Opium or nothing at all! Eventually, he won out and Opium became a smashing success upon its release, going on to inform the smoky air of nightclubs with its exotic essences, and gag the P.E. coaches in girl’s locker rooms everywhere with its potency.

If memory serves me, my friend Jenny’s first perfume was Exclamation when we were in middle school, several years after we’d nearly choked to death in my grandparent’s bedroom from the Opium fumes. As for me, I wore nothing (I felt that my Secret Deodorant provided just enough fragrance with its powdery sweetness). But in our school, there was one girl who wore Opium: she’d been held back once or twice, was a year or two older than us, and miles ahead in terms of experience. She applied Opium subtly, but I could smell its heart notes on her like strong cider whenever I passed her in the hall or saw her in the restroom. She seemed like a sweet girl. Occasionally, my friend Jenny made fun of the other girl’s perfume choice (and implicityly, of her very character), holding her nose and mouthing “Pewwww,” or sticking her finger down her throat whenever we saw the poor thing in school. Now, some twenty years later, I have most definitely come around, and I wish very much that I’d befriended her.

13 Comments to “Opium (1977) by Yves Saint Laurent Review”

  1. I too love Opium although I haven’t always… But as time passes I find the balance and quality of materials makes it stand head and shoulders above others of its ilk. This one is truly a treasure that future generations of perfumistas will covet.

  2. I agree, Amelia. I can remember always thinking that Opium and EL Cinnabar were similar if not identical, but recently I did a side by side and the difference in quality was, to my nose, very apparent – in Opium’s favor of course. I have heard mention that Opium has been reformulated recently, I wonder if there’s a noticeable difference… I sure hope not!

  3. Lovely blog! And I adore your entry on Opium, one of my favorite perfumes for the past 23 years. I still wear it these days, even though my tastes have broadened to include so many other scents now, not just the spicy Orientals I favored in my teens.

    The LE summer flankers of Opium are quite good too, at the least the ones I’ve tried (Fleur Imperiale and Orchidee de Chine). But the reformulation of the original Opium saddens me, as does the patchouli bomb that is Belle d’Opium.

    • Thanks so very much, Kitty! You know, I recently tried the reformulated Opium while at Macy’s and my heart broke. What have they done?! It has lost its distinctive identity. Such a sad state of affairs. Have not tried Belle d’Opium, and at this point I’m so disgusted with YSL that I’m just not sure I want to.

      On an interesting side note, I recently was wearing Mitsouko EDT and a woman approached me and told me I smelled beautiful in my Opium. I informed her that I actually was not wearing Opium and procured my wrist for her to smell, and she reiterated that it smelled very much like Opium. So very interesting! I can kind of see where she was coming from. Vintage Opium EDT does share with Mitsouko some quite similar sharp citrus/rose/clove top and middle notes, although the basenotes of the two are completely different with Opium being sweet and oriental, and Mitsouko maintaining a dry mossiness. Still, I was intrigued to experience such an illuminating moment of scent mis-identification. :-)

      Thanks for stopping by. I have been busy working on other writing projects, but I do intend to pick up the thread of this blog at some point in the future and start doing vintage perfume reviews again.

  4. I can see a slight resemblance between Opium and Mitzy, but I’d never mistake the two, especially when they’re on my skin. (My chemistry favors Opium infinitely more than Mitzy, alas.)

    I look forward to reading more reviews here when you have time to create them. I love a good vintage perfume blog!


  5. Opium stole my heart long ago. I have soooo many perfumes and I appreciate them believe me. Masterpieces. But….at the “end of the day”……….I ALWAYS come back to Opium. I am aware that the original juice is by far the best.
    I love the EDT and the PARFUM. I had the edp but didn’t end up wearing it. It is missing something to me…..
    Opium is the sexiest perfume to me. Not only sexy…….mysterious, confident…….deep and full of life!!
    I hope I have enough of the good stuff to last me to the grave! It is my signature. GOD BLESS YSL!! Except that they reformulated it which is SIN SIN SIN!! Why would they do that? Cost I’m sure but………we’re talking masterpiece here!

    • Hi Gloria, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. :-)
      It certainly is….er, WAS…a glorious scent. It was so distinctive and had such a fan base, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of disappointed people as they slowly realize that what’s now being sold as Opium is a pale ghost of what it used to be. I too love both the vintage parfum & EDT. They are so different, with the parfum being deep, ambery, and basenote-rich and the EDT being so shocking & bracing in its sharp top & middle notes. And that parfum bottle with its decadent tassel is SO beautiful. Aaaah, I’m making myself crave it right now. Must go apply some. ;-)

  6. I am simply dumbstruck by debth of the Topic’s & it mesmerized me completely.
    I like the analytical strength of the author as if I am simply visualiging the olefactory presence…….
    I can’t express my feelings in words,simply wonderful & will be waiting for topics like this.
    Thanks & Regards.

  7. I have worn opium for 26 years and was highly disappointed when I used my traditional Christmas present and found the fragrance had changed. At first, I thought it was just me, but after this many years, I know what my perfume is supposed to smell like and the new bottle is not it! Looks like it is time for a change…so sad:(

    • I know, I find it incredibly sad. And the old stuff is going to get harder and harder to come by as more longtime Opium users realize that all is not right with the newer bottles. A fragrance tragedy…

  8. What a great Opium review! I’m feeling nostalgic for it now. I could never make it mine, but there was something truly addictive about it. I have an old Opium mini tucked away. I may have to go have a drop.

    • Thank you, Lilybelle! Vintage Opium is so wonderful. I actually love the EDT much more than the pure parfum , as it has more sharp spices. The pure parfum is more heavy and deep with wood and resins. So sad that the newer formulation of Opium is so blah. :-(

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