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.