Opium via Tabu

opium-denThe other day I read a curious quote: “To appreciate Opium, one must first understand Tabu”.*

Inwardly I groaned, because Tabu has never been a favorite of mine since the far off days when my Mother used it as a signature scent, thereby creating a fumic dead zone around herself.  You couldn’t smell anything around her but Tabu. I mean absolutely nothing.

Opium, great hit that it was, provoked a similar reaction from me, namely, dislike. Apparently this isn’t unusual. Both scents are love or hate inducing perfumes. They are unique, strong personalities;  “No one remains indifferent to Jean Carles’ sledgehammer,” as Michael Edwards puts it.

So granted, Tabu and Opium are polarizing, but do you really have to understand Tabu?  Is it like L’Heure Bleue, one of those set pieces of the classic canon you need to experience? One of those perfumes you have to parse in order to comprehend the structure of a classic French perfume? Is Tabu part of an education in classical perfumery? Or is it a dense, dated, hodge-podge, too heavy to bother with nowadays?

Part of the issue is the theory of modifiers that Jean Carles put forward in perfumery.  His  idea was  that one ingredient- if emphasized sufficiently- skewed a formula and made it memorable in a way that nothing else could.  In the case of Tabu, the ingredient was patchouli, which Carles used in 10% of Tabu’s composition.

This was unheard of at the time (1932) and was a risk anytime, because patchouli reads as “dirt” to some noses, mere grubbiness and the avoidance of the inevitable bath.  But then again, Carles had been presented with the famously unusual brief for Dana’s first fragrance: perfume for a whore.  Cleanliness, like godliness, was clearly off the agenda for that brief that day.

Opium was developed for Yves Saint Laurent by Roure, also the home of Tabu, and it was not surprising that, when looking for an oriental that would compete with Shalimar, they hit on the old patchouli/carnation explosion that powered Tabu like an infernal combustion engine. Carles thought that patchouli exploded other ingredients, made them pop. The idea had worked once for Roure why not update it? Why wouldn’t it work for the club goer of the seventies?*

It’s the spices that modify the essential oils of Opium, as patchouli once did  the body of Tabu.  They modify the heart of the fragrance just the way that an adverb inflects the meaning of a verb, changing its meaning completely.

In Tabu you hear patchouli loudly, in Opium you perceive the spices pervasively.  In either case the perfume has expressed itself unforgettably, though sometimes I wish it hadn’t. But then, great perfumes are no respecters of personal taste.

So, are Tabu and Opium still relevant to today’s perfume wearers, or have these two spirited old dames outlived their  eras?

*My information from Michael Edwards’ Perfume Legends, and a lecture given by Jean Carles.

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14 Responses to Opium via Tabu

  1. Tora says:

    As a patchouli lover, this makes me want to smell Tabu…

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Well, if you love patchouli, Tabu is probably a good choice for you, and no matter how much I may or may not like it (mother issues, in my case), Tabu is indisputably a classic. Try for the older bottles though, as Tabu lovers have complained about the quality being less good of recent years.

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    I really like your loud/pervasive distinction. Opium is complex and strong but still much more subtle than Tabu, although in saying that I’m thinking of the Tabu on the market at the moment, which is really horrid. And so cheap. Its raw materials can’t possibly be much good, surely? In that sense maybe there is no point trying to understand Opium via Tabu because it would b like trying to understand diamonds via stones.

    Tabu is the only perfume I have ever put in the bin. It’s awful! Maybe in its early years it was better? When was your mother wearing it?

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      My Mother was wearing it in the sixties, when it was a lot better than it is now-for sure.
      It was still too much for me and can remember breathing a sigh of relief when she switched to Fidji in 1969 or so.

      But when I’d finished writing this, it occurred to me that Opium too has been refo’d and it would be hard for a young perfume enthusiast to get a sense of what Opium was c.1980, or even 1995. Smelled the new Opium and it had …flattened out.

      Anyway, to get a grip on these two, you’d have to find vintage samples now.

  3. Suzanne says:

    “But then, great perfumes are no respecters of personal taste.” :)

    So true. I think you said it all with that statement, Blacknall. And it’s the same with great musicians, painters, sculptors and even, I suppose, great chefs.

    I think it’s time for me to see how I’d get on with vintage Opium. I’d probably like it now – after all the years of separation between it and me, and the widening of my tastes since then (the 80s), when it felt like suffocation by spices to me.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Sometimes I wonder about vintage Opium myself, although, the big O probably is still beyond my capability to comprehend.

      But, for the perfume connoisseur, such as yourself-why not? Opium might be a total joy ride for you now. Do tell, if you find a good old bottle.

  4. Undina says:

    I’ve never liked Opium and I don’t think I’ve ever smelled Tabu. And I have no plans to do anything about any of the above statements.

    Those perfumistas who are interested in classics and/or want to study the history of perfumes should probably get familiar with both. But for someone like me – who prefers enjoying perfumes to understanding them – it’s a lost cause: it’s just a perfume; if I do not like it – I do not like it. It’s not even a painting, a book or a musical opus that I might try “to get.”

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Sorry to be so late getting back here. We have computer issues these days, but a new machine is due to arrive, so I’ll be back in business.

      If Opium didn’t get you the first time, I’m guessing you’re right and it’s a lost cause, besides, not everyone wants to smell the history of perfume,which I completely get. For most people, perfume’s a pure pleasure or a dislike in the now- like food or fashion.

  5. Vanessa says:

    LOL at ‘infernal combustion engine’! My only experience of Tabu is the horrid modern stuff which had I owned it I most certainly would have chucked in the bin like annemariec. ;-)

    Vintage Opium I have a sentimental attachment to because I found a bottle in mum’s house after she died. She’s been gone 14 years and probably had had this a while previously, so it is the real deal. Pervasive is a good word for it – I actually don’t find it too loud, though I much prefer Fleur de Shanghai. As in totally love that one!

    • Vanessa says:

      Oops, I hope I have the right Anne-Marie!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      It’s lovely that you have a perfume memory of your Mother though. I have to dis-associate my Mom with Tabu, and choose to remember her with Diorissimo instead, but associating Opium with your Mother is a very nice way to think about the scent.

      You do make me curious about Fleur de Shanghai. Never cared for big Opium, but love carnations and so was attracted by the descriptions of Fleur. Also I knew Ayala Sender liked it and she is a talented perfumer, so I tend to trust her assessment. If you both like it, this makes me wonder if I should go hunting on Ebay? Or is it too close to the original?

  6. mals86 says:

    Ugh. Hate both of them, and I mean Really Despise. Shudder. Walk away quickly.

    You know, it’s not so much the spices in Opium that bother me… it’s that dusty fatty-rancid thing.

    Is it necessary to understand Opium and Tabu? (What about my other bete noire, Youth Dew?) Well… I can understand some of the similarities, the structure, what makes those 2 (3) perfumes absolutely unbearable for me. Necessary? Probably not.

  7. Blacknall Allen says:

    And in the Perfumes category the question is: Can you tolerate Bal a Versailles? Or, since there is the more modern animalic rethink L’Air de Rien out there now-how about that one?
    I actually do better with animalics than heavy orientals and am not sure why. Have you figured out what gets to you? Cedar wood by any chance?

  8. Pingback: It Could Have Been So Beautiful | theasceticlibertine

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