digging (into) vintage: Hermès Bel Ami, 1986

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Perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac

In retrospect, Hermès Bel Ami marks the midway point between the dry woods of Chanel Antaeus and the gasoline slap of Dior Fahrenheit. The connection is leather, which both the Chanel and the Dior hint at, but the Hermès wraps itself in.  An intermediate species can by definition only be identified after the fact. So, here we are, after the fact, and Bel Ami deserves its niche, its genre. The woody petro-cuir.

Chanel Antaeus is classified as a woody fragrance. But it hasn’t been given the typical Chanel face-lift of aldehydes, iris and velvet (Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie). Antaeus is woody by virtue of the range of its notes, not for any affiliation with nature. This is a wood product in the same way that turpentine is. Where most woody perfumes emulate botanical woods, Antaeus reminds me of touching my tongue to a frozen chain-link fence at an outdoor skating rink. Antaeus feels chilled by virtue of an extreme dryness that conjures freeze-drying. Dior Fahrenheit matches Antaeus’s dryness with a cool hiss. The chill is the feeling left behind on your skin as gasoline evaporates, leaving only a brisk whiff as memory.

I recently came across two bottles of vintage Bel Ami, the cocktail shaker model. They were boxed testers that had been well stored and were perfectly preserved. I never smelled it at the time of its release but I wish I had. The combination of botanical and proudly synthetic notes make Bel Ami a large-scale fairy-tale of a perfume.  No Disney back-pedal for a G rating, though. Bel Ami is an olfactory history in the school of traditional oral history. Fairy tales bolstered the super-ego, were deliberately frightening and worked by reinforcing irrational thought. Fairy tales told you, “don’t go outside the boundaries of tribe and kin, or monsters will destroy you.”  Less specific equally sinister, Bel Ami taunts with a smile: ”Go ahead. Fuck with me.”

Bel Ami plays with a gasoline note that Fahrenheit would eventually take to maximum expression. The top notes are a big opening and grab your attention, settling pretty quickly into the heart. The leather note in Bel Ami is irresistable. The wood and the gasoline notes set the tone for the fragrance and the leather is dry and crackly-stiff. It has the quality of an imagined leather object like a leather blanket.  I’ve never heard of one, but I’d love to have one.

I’ve never tried the current model of Bel Ami, and I’m leery too. Vintage Bel Ami reminds me of everything that I loved about the early men’s power fragrances. Vintage Bel Ami is not the shaved steroid gym queen of this millennium. It precedes the contempo-masculine poodle-tailored facial hair, and it certainly precedes topiary pubic styling. Bel Ami has honest-to-goodness chest hair, the kind you want to run your fingers through.

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