The Guest Nose: The Heir to Aromatics Elixir

by jtd

Perfumer Bernard Chant's brilliance can be seen in the two families of perfume that stem from his Cabochard for Gres and Aromatics Elixir (AE) for Clinique. Disregard the current reformulated version of Cabochard, you can extrapolate Cabochard's genius from the current Aramis by Aramis and Estée Lauder Azurée. Both are based the original Cabochard and are hard leather chypres. The AE family, formerly just AE and its slightly declawed version for men, Aramis 900, now includes Aromatics Elixir Perfumer's Reserve (PR). AE's genius is self-evident. Open the bottle. Breathe. It's incomparable. And despite likely reformulation it continues today in its largely original form.

AE is so brash and sweeping that by comparison any words I use to describe PR make it seem somehow small. PR is a quieter, more sober perfume and if I simply compare them, I run the risk of making PR seem like a lesser version of AE. But as their names imply, they should be compared. Although technically a rose chypre, AE is defined by the patchouli overdose that gives it its woody, balsamic, earthy tone. PR is more a classic floral chypre. There is certainly patchouli, but the overall tone is mossy where AE is woody, and the white floral is smooth rather than sharp.

Perfumer's Reserve: a mossier, smoother, closer shave.

Differences aside, PR doesn't upset the balance, the shape of the original. You can still smell AE in PR, but they differ in scale and proportion. AE's balance happens far from the center. It's like a huge seesaw with a heavy rose and a dense patchouli battling to win but winding up evenly matched. PR is balanced like a delicate mobile; small, light, no fear it will come crashing down. PR's balance is poise; AE's is that of an animal ready to pounce. So again the problem of comparison: is PR subtler than AE -- or less assured?

Although polite, PR is distinctly animalic. It has that bodily feel that suits the wonderfully creepy side of white flowers, particularly in its steamy orange blossom. Even though AE has been described as animalic, fecal, civet-heavy, its character is that of flora, not fauna. It smells distinctly botanical, like a forest floor, like decaying plants becoming soil.

I know I dropped that bottle of Aromatics Elixir around here somewhere.

Era and genre: in the 1970s AE was considered contemporary and therefore modern in the artistic sense. While clearly in the chypre camp, it was revolutionary, opening a whole new wing in the chypre structure. I recently wrote about my love for the late 20th century rose chypre. Katie asked me the logical question, why did I not include AE? My answer was that AE stands apart even from its own genre. It transcends category. AE is a fixed point around which late 20th and 21st century perfumery moves. The hard green, leather and rose chypres of the 70s-80s followed in AE's wake, but none of them ever truly followed AE's lead in this particular woody, balsamic direction. Even the forceful Scherrer de Scherrer seems a bit cuddly next to AE. AE’s structure demonstrates the synergistic complexity that underpins classical perfumery, yet rather than coming off as effete or overbred (outcomes of excessive focus on form in the arts) AE is in fact menacing. People call this grandma perfume? This is the big, bad wolf disguised as grandma.

Who's afraid of the big bad Aromatics Elixir?

The complexity of formula allows AE a split feel: it is harshly comforting, seductively off-putting. It is nuance writ large. PR is neither revolutionary, nor retro-homage, nor a neo-chypre of the 31 rue Cambon school. It is an essay on the classical chypre form exquisitely phrased for the chypre nostalgist wandering a world decimated by the IFRA Grim Reaper.

PR feels as if it could have been composed in the 1950s or 1970s, yet at the same time there's a peachy fruitiness that tells you that PR belongs to the 21st century. It's a marvelous trick, really, and shows the consideration that went into the making of PR. The fruit is nothing like what you might think when you hear the words "fruity-floral." The peach just gives an ambery glow to the otherwise deliciously buttery, mossy floral quality that actually reminds me more of my 1970s bottle of Miss Dior than AE.

And here is the dilemma of PR. The name would suggest it is an heir to AE. It is exquisite, and compositionally it reflects AE, yet it is lush where AE is feral. I would argue that this distinction of spirit is more defining than similarity of form and that the two are more different than alike. But difference is usually where the fun is. I wear each for completely different reasons and never hesitate deciding which to wear as I often do between AE and Aramis 900, which actually smell alike.

Angel: you again?

To my mind, AE's true heir would be Thierry Mugler Angel. Both are monumental, change-the-rules perfumes not so much concerned with putting you at ease as clearing a path and going where they will. Each also reflects a strong point of view of the feminine gender of its decades. AE captures the new independence, the reach for equality that drove 60s-70s feminism. Angel suited the hyper-femme 90s femininity that made the 70s feminists apoplectic. Interestingly, both perfumes are potent, patchouli-based and polarizing. Equally interesting is that while AE redefined the chypre genre, it spawned no imitators. Angel on the other hand has lead to a slew of copycats, thus starting a genre. I find it odd that AE was given such wide berth where Angel was pursued.

So who is the heir to AE, PR or Angel? More to the point, why decide? We still have AE itself.

Aromatics Elixir is available from Perfume.com and Amazon.com starting at $62 for 3.4 oz

Aromatics Elixir Perfumer's Reserve is available from Clinique.com for $75 for .85 oz

Red Riding Hood paper dolls via

27 comments:

  1. Whenever I am in a perfumery, I always sniff AE, but..... because many women are a bit scared of this perfume, the tester bottle sometimes becomes "old" . If I should decide to buy it, how can I be sure that the bottle I buy is not more than, let's saya few months or better less long in the shop, in TL light, warmth etc etc, which are not not very good circumstances to maintain the original perfume smell. Is there a date of production to be found on each bottle? I am curious about your answer..

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  2. I think if you're buying a bottle in a department store or Sephora you should be safe. Their stock is generally pretty well protected from the elements. Testers are another story entirely. I think the bottle of AE at my local Sephora has been open for a few years and must be light-damaged. For AE in particular it might be worth going to a Macy's or some other department store that has a Clinique counter. They have only a few perfumes and I'd bet they have testers in good shape.

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  3. WOW - This was an OUTSTANDING PIECE - Dan, Katie's friend, would love this article. Intelligent, Concise and from the soul. Just EXCELLENT. Thank you for the hard work you put into this. Amazing.........

    Byron......

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    1. Thanks, Byron. Very kind of you to write what you did. I guess i just got the AE fire!

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  4. The first time I smelled AE, I had about 50 other fragrances on, and didn't do it full justice. Katie recommended it once, and I've loved it ever since!

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  5. Thank you for answering. I live in Holland (eastern part)so I think I had better call the Dutch Clinique department to ask them. I worked in a perfumery and some day a lady wanted to buy a bottle because her girlfriend had AE. I strongly suggested to her to try it on her own skin first: she left with something else, because on her skin AE was so different!! Tip: never buy anything before trying several times and days.With AE it is love or hate, nothing in between.
    Greetings, Mary

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  6. I adore this heady powerful alluring perfume but alas my husband thinks it smells like old grannies!! Maybe I should ditch the husband?!

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    1. Certainly an option to seriously consider...

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    2. Oh, and my stealth option suggestion is to wear the lotion version of AE - takes it down a notch.

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  7. AE certainly is polarizing. Maybe your husband will come around though. Many people's reviews mention how much they initially recoiled from AE. Keep hoping! Otherwise, leave the husband; take the cannoli.

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  8. I find AE is real 'Marmite' love it or hate it stuff, especially in the topnotes - very powerful. (I love it now I've conquered my fear of chypres). HOWEVER the joy of chypres is that they turn into very sexy, warm and agreeable scents once they mellow out on skin. So maybe you should try spritzing it on a few hours before your husband will smell it. (OK, so you might get some funny looks in the office for those last couple of hours in the day after you've spritzed your cleavage with AE, but you know, could be worse. Could be Angel.)
    And if he still doesn't like it, yup, take the cannoli.:)

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    1. I think Wordbird's got a point. AE's topnotes make an incredibly strong first impression. And they last a looonng time. I think this is one reason than Aramis 900 is such a nice alternative. The topnotes are a bit less of an aria but 900 still captures the wonderfully autumn/herbal feel of AE. Maybe more husband friendly?

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  9. When I first wore "Joy," my husband said that it smelled "old lady." I told him, of course it does, it was made in 1930.

    Those in the "old lady school," should be asked if they refuse to watch black and white movies, too.

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  10. I just might have to revisit AE since developing a jones for fragrance over the last 3 or 4 years. I loved it on my mom, always thought it smeeled like Black Flag on moi, but that was 30 years ago. What happened in the meantime? Oh, Ma Griffe and Miss Balmain, to name a few. I'm in the meidst of figuring out the chypre genre, so, yes, time to revisit AE.

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    1. If you're taking another look at the whole chypre genre AE would be a great place to start. Love it or hate it AE is the standard bearer.

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  11. I stumbled back onto this blog after a hiatus,and was rewarded by this masterful piece on a perfume that stands apart even today for its refusal to compromise on quality nor to cave in to the burgeoning variations on synthetic fruits + sub-par florals.

    Smelling Aramis 900, I can see why they are closely associated, perhaps one of the pairs of few fraternal twins of the perfume world.

    Smelling my vintage Cabochard, I think Chant wanted to shock with smoky leather notes, spiked with a galbanum jolt and rounded with jasmine & a little rose.

    Smelling AE, I am amazed at the density of the rose-patchouli & balsamic combo,and find myself totally in agreement that it is indeed a stand-alone in the perfume world,especially in these times we live in.

    To me, only EL Knowing comes close in the innovative use of rose in a chypre.

    It is perhaps the only one of the mainstream perfumes to still list oakmoss as an ingredient on the box.

    As I see it, Angel is more eager to please,and panders to modern tastes with a chocolate-patchouli combo threaded with a menthol note throughout the first 2 hours(or maybe the first 6?)

    The tester at the Clinique counter near me is over a decade old,and is still 1/3 full,and coupled with the fact that it is hidden while all the 'Happy' this & 'Happy' that are displayed prominently, informs me that AE will never really be mainstream in my neck of the woods,and so no one is really motivated to copy this phenomenal scent.

    More quality ingredients also means a smaller profit margin. But I'm so glad there is still an alternative to the cheap watery scents hawked by the Body Shop and Justin Bieber!

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    1. Dom, I'm a huge fan of Knowing. It has a beautiful, low-pitched hum to it. It's not as overpowering as AE (and I mean this as a compliment to AE) but it certainly isn't bashful. Thanks for the tip! I'll have to try the new Bieber fragrance. I hear that line is becoming the next Lutens.

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  12. I stopped by at the Clinique counter at the mall today, and asked if they were receiving the PR of AE soon.

    Nope.

    I asked to try AE again, not willing to splash out over $75 for what they claimed was the last bottle they had in stock. The tester was still hidden in one corner, and it was still 1/3 full like the last time I asked to test it(about 6 months ago).

    On the strip only, I got a prominent neroli( I think that's it) note singing amidst the foresty darkness this time, and putting the strip into a shoulder bag while I browsed at the bookstore, I got strong wafts of the AE I love throughout my trip, even through the SA sprayed less than a pinhead area's worth of the perfume.

    Plus,the tester is obviously vintage, so I was hesitant about how the current one would compare...

    I went home & rooted through my vintage bottles for a similar scent, and came up with only two : Lanvin's long extinct Pretexte, and Jean Patou's 1000 perfume.

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  13. Poor modern Cabochard! Everyone sneers at it, but I think it smells wonderful. Smoky, bittersweet leather and tobacco -- it's one of those perfumes that makes me happy to smell myself.

    Of course I've never tried the vintage, so maybe this is just blissful ignorance talking.

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    1. Thalia, it's true I'm not a fan of the current Cabochard. But who cares what I say? There are plenty of classics that I just love that are derided by other fumies for having been destroyed in reformulation. Finding what you love and what makes you happy to smell youself outweighs every other concern. Keep on with your Cabochard! Who cares what anyone else says?

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    2. I'm sure I would LOVE modern Cabochard...if only I deign to lay my hands on it!

      The vintage is too resplendent for me...I feel like I only deserve to wear it when I'm in a tux. Hence my 98 ml of extrait will remain 98 ml for some time!

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    3. modern Cabochard smells great. its smoky and stylish and make s you feel happy when you apply it. I really like and makes my day whenever I use it.

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  14. Wow, all I can say is that I am truly devastated that Chants melodious, sensuous clever combinations of delight and mystery have truly been annihilated with the recent odious concoction under the guise of AE. For over 32 years this has been my signature scent and my days of being complimented on my magnificent aroma are long gone. I have persisted of late trying to wear this new mutilated version and now all I get is..oh my what are you wearing, it certainly does not smell like the you we know and love! Whatever they have done has left me without my daily fix of pure joy. There is no other fragrance that has the same melodious mix for me and I am truly exasperated trying to find anything that remotely suits me in the same way and which will not turn out like cat urine on me. Why do they interfere with what was obviously a marvellous potion?! I understand that the IFF and FDA have put restrictions on many things but even so, Mother Nature always provides and surely those alleged potentially harmful molecules can be removed??? I also know I am not alone feeling like this. There will never be anything like Chants original potion of AE ever again. Its criminal. :(

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    1. Elixirite, your choice of "melodious" to describe AE is inspired. I never wore the AE when it first came out, but I loved smelling it on others. I'm wearing it now, and like many latecomers to many a reformulated perfume's party, am dismayed to learn that I'm not getting the real deal.

      I'm wondering what your assessment of Bernard Chant's Aramis 900 is? Might that be truer to the spirit of the original AE? And any love for the Perfumer's Reserve flanker discussed in this post?

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    2. I couldn't agree more. Just wrote a comment today. I do not have a fragrance anymore that I loved like AE. Have worn it since the 1970's. Can we cause a stir of some kind? Who would pay $70 or more for this imposter calling itself Aromatics Elixir? It is indeed a disgrace to Bernard Chant to have it called AE. Wonder if he is still alive or his heirs know of this last reformulation that saw AE die...

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  15. Aromatics Elixir is nothing like the original. It has been reformulated several times and most recently in 2012 I believe. Doesn't last, doesn't even slightly resemble AE as most of the long time users would know. I need a replacement. Won't spend $70 on this disgraceful new formula ever. Sad and lonely without a go to perfume:(

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