This is nothing like Opium. Let’s get that point out of the way right from the start. Black Opium isn’t even in the same galaxy as the original, let alone a related flanker with strong olfactory kinship. Regardless of whether you loved the original Opium or hated it, the objective reality is that the fragrance was a masterpiece that changed the perfume landscape, ushering in the oriental genre like nothing else before it, and becoming the benchmark by which all subsequent orientals were measured. Black Opium is not a masterpiece. In my opinion, it doesn’t deserve to bear the “Opium” name even in a small way.
This is an extremely difficult review for me to write. As I’ve said many times in the past, original vintage Opium is my Holy Grail, one of two fragrances that changed everything for me and made me the perfume lover that I am today. Luca Turin called it “The Spice King” in his Five Star Review, but I prefer a friend’s loving, adoring term, “The Bitch Goddess.” In my wholly biased, subjective view, there is nothing like 1970s or 1980s Opium. It is bottled magic that transcends a mere set of notes to become something else entirely. It is a roaring, spectacular, bold masterpiece that is the Sistine Chapel of Orientals, a warrior’s olfactory shield worthy of Joan of Arc and all of the Seven Veils for Salomé. Men should wear it, women should seduce with it. There is simply nothing like vintage Opium, in my opinion. Period. (Note: versions post-1992 or 1995 are not so special, while absolutely none of this applies to anything put out during L’Oreal’s reign of horrors at YSL from the late-2000s onwards.)
How then can I review a modern interpretation put out by L’Oreal with any objectivity? I can’t. I simply can’t. Opium shaped who I am as a perfume lover, and is something more than just a mere fragrance for me. Consciously or subconsciously, my feelings for it are bound to seep into every word I write here. And, in all honesty, I had to toss my first draft of this review because — like the notes that I took while testing Black Opium — it was fast degenerating into a Tourettes-like stream of bitterness. My issues with L’Oreal are so widespread, so deep, so fundamentally negative, that I can’t begin to even describe them at this point. What they’ve done to YSL Parfums as a whole is abominable, but what they’ve done to my beloved Opium in specific takes me outside the realm of rational objectivity. There is such rage coursing through my body at the mere thought of L’Oreal that I can barely see straight. I know that none of this is sane, reasonable, or logical, and I’m fully aware that I sound like a crazy person — but I can guarantee you that every single person who loves vintage Opium passionately feels exactly the same way.
I am going to do my very best to put my seething bitterness against L’Oreal aside in this review and to approach Black Opium as objectively as possible under the circumstances. I don’t know how successful I will be, but I will try. If I fail, please try to understand that wearing Black Opium was, quite genuinely, a sorrowful experience for me on an emotional level, as well as a difficult one for purely olfactory reasons. It’s not a ghastly fragrance relative to a generic fruity-floral that you could find in Victoria’s Secret, but it actually pains me to think that this is what L’Oreal believes is a modern version of Yves St. Laurent’s genius creation. I’m not the only one. As you will see later, Saint Laurent’s Creative Director, Hedi Slimane, publicly disavowed all involvement with Black Opium. It seems to have been the last straw in general, because he went further and also bluntly denied anything to do with any fragrance put out by L’Oreal under the YSL name as a whole. I think that says something.
Black Opium is an eau de parfum that was released in September in limited fashion in Europe and countries like Australia. I’ve read that it will issued in the U.S. in 2015. Black Opium was created by Nathalie Lorson and Marie Salamagne, in collaboration with Olivier Cresp and Honorine Blanc. The press release quoted on most sites describes the fragrance and the woman who wears it as follows:
Introducing Black Opium, a new expression of femininity. The Black Opium girl is a modern Rock Chick. She lives life with passion and dares to be different. Her fragrance, like a shot of adrenelin or a dose of energy gives her the courage to free herself and the confidence to seize her singularity.
The English YSL website focuses instead on the fact that Black Opium is the first “coffee floral” fragrance, saying:
DISCOVER THE FIRST COFFEE FLORAL
… BLACK OPIUM plays on the intense pay-off that happens when darkness meets sweet luminescence. As addictive as that first shot of caffeine, with electrifying white flowers to tie it all together, this new generation oriental gourmand is a radical move away from the structure of the classic perfume, and instead is inspired by the artistic movement of the “chiaroscuro”, where the emphasis is on the contrast and tension between light and dark. Playing on the incongruity between the bitterness of the coffee bean accord, an ingredient never used before in such a high quantity in a feminine fragrance and radiant white flowers, BLACK OPIUM gives a sensation of light-headedness, bordering on ecstasy. First there is the wake-up call. The coffee bean note hits you hard, jolting the senses. Next, it becomes softer and more feminine with the white flowers of jasmine sambac and absolu of fleur d’oranger to finish incredibly addictive and emboldened by the ambrosial appeal of vanilla and the woody notes of cedar and patchouli, giving a roundness, depth, and mysterious elegance.
Black Opium’s notes, as compiled from that YSL description and the press releases quoted by Now Smell This, are therefore:
coffee, pink pepper, orange blossom, jasmine, vanilla, pear, patchouli, musk, and cedar.
Black Opium opens on my skin with a profoundly intense tsunami of fruited sweetness. There is orange blossom that feels like thick syrup, amplified further by hefty amounts of saccharine sweetness from a deeply jammy, molasses-like, purple patchouli. The latter has a rose-like quality, and I don’t think it’s merely a case of mental association due to the commonness of the patchouli-rose combination in perfumery. No, on my skin, Black Opium smells almost as much of jammy roses as it does of orange blossoms. Both flowers are drenched with sweetness that is even further amplified by the pink peppercorns, a standby note in many fruity-florals from the 2000s.
Other elements are noticeable as well, though never in the same quantity or degree. In the base, there is a strong amount of clean musk, while the background contains a tiny wisp of something that vaguely appears like a coffee note. To be precise, a nebulous, quasi-coffee note centered around very creamy café au lait. It’s a minor touch and heavily muffled by the painfully sweet, purple fruitchouli molasses, the fruity pink berries, and the orange blossom jam. Ostensibly, Black Opium also contains pears, but it’s not visible in any distinct, concrete way. I suspect, though, that it’s working indirectly to add to the overall sense of syrupy fruitiness.
Words cannot describe how sweet this fragrance is, nor how generic. The first thing I thought of when applying it was that Black Opium felt like an orange blossom version of Marc Jacob‘s Lola, with a dose of Chanel‘s Coco Noir. Both fragrances are centered on fruitchouli roses, but Lola’s notes include the same pink pepper, pear, and creamy elements that there are here. Black Opium also bears a similarity to a celebrity fragrance, and the memory of a few things from Victoria’s Secret nagged at me as well, though I cannot specify which particular scents at the moment.
Part of the problem is that there is really not a lot to this scent on my skin, either in the opening phase or later on in its development. For the most part, Black Opium is simply excessively sweet, fruited goo enveloped in a hazy, abstract floralcy. Orange blossom or rose, it matters not, because their defining individual characteristics are almost obliterated by the patchouli, pink peppercorns, and clean musk. The quasi-coffee note is too weak to substantially change things, either. Less than 30 minutes into Black Opium’s development, it sinks into the base where, from time to time, it peeks out its head in the quietest of ways. Later on, it adds a subtle suggestion of creaminess to the foundation, but it’s truly the most inconsequential factor. A “coffee floral”? Not on my skin.
Black Opium’s core essence basically remains unchanged for the next 9 hours. There are subtle variations in its secondary notes and nuances, but they are mainly a question of degree, not of kind. At the start of the second hour, the patchouli begins to emit a Concord grape or Welch’s jelly nuance. Then, for a brief 30 minutes, the coffee note grows stronger, merging with the other accords to create an aroma rather similar to black licorice, but it fades from sight rather quickly.
Much more noticeable is the clean musk which starts to compete with the fruited, floral syrup for dominance. It never quite succeeds in wrestling attention from the orange blossom-rose molasses, but it tries. At the start of the 6th hour, it takes on quite a sharp bent, slowly turning Black Opium into something very similar in feel to inexpensive, girly, feminine fragrances put out by Victoria’s Secret. There is nothing wrong with Victoria’s Secret fragrances for those who enjoy them, but the point here is something else. Victoria’s Secret is not pretending to put out luxury masterpieces, and they’re honest enough to price things accordingly. It’s quite the opposite situation with Black Opium.
In its final hours, Black Opium is a simple, wholly abstract blur of sweet, fruity-florals with clean musk and patchouli. Wisps of crystallized, sugared, somewhat burnt vanilla stir in the base, occasionally sending up tendrils to the top and further adding to the perfume’s saccharine sweetness. Yet, for the most part, the patchouli fruitiness and white musk combination bulldozer over everything else on my skin. In the end, all that is left is mere synthetic sweetness.
Black Opium has excellent longevity on my skin (alas), and very strong sillage. Using 3 smears equal to roughly 2 sprays from an actual bottle, Black Opium consistently lasted between 11 to 11.5 hours in two different tests. It always opened with an intense cloud that projected 5-6 inches above the skin. The numbers dropped to about 4 inches at the end of the 1st hour, then somewhere between 2-3 inches at the start of the 3rd hour. There it remained for quite a while, and the perfume only turned into a skin scent on me at the start of the 7th hour. I think part of the reason why I had such high numbers is that my skin tends to amplify fruited patchouli, sweetness, synthetics, and clean white musks, but I also think that Black Opium was intentionally made to be a strong scent, even if it’s not to the same degree as its powerhouse predecessor.
The difference is that this Opium flanker was also made to appeal to modern and youthful tastes. Mainstream fragrances today focus on sweetness, gourmands, and fruity-florals. Whether it is Guerlain, Chanel, YSL, or L’Oreal in general, designer fragrances are all targeting the youthful market. By today’s standards, vintage Opium smells like an older person’s fragrance and/or has practically a masculine profile with its dark, heavily spiced, resinous, and incense notes. Black Opium is tossing all that aside, avoiding anything that would be truly “black,” and amping up the sweetness in order to create a very safe, easy, approachable fragrance that would appeal to the Victoria’s Secret customer, only this one also wants the more prestigious, designer caché of the YSL name.
The end result is obviously not going to be original or distinctive, let alone reminiscent of either Yves St. Laurent’s ground-breaking genius in the early days or the edgy innovations of Tom Ford’s later reign. That is undoubtedly why Saint Laurent’s new chief has publicly disavowed anything to do with L’Oreal’s creations under the YSL name. In September, WWD (Women’s Wear Daily) reported on a long tweet sent out by Saint Laurent on behalf of Hedi Slimane:
Hedi Slimane has been mentioned several times in the press in connection with the introduction in the market of Black Opium with Edie Campbell by Yves Saint Laurent Beauté (L’Oréal Group). It is appropriate to [specify] that no creative direction has been given by Hedi Slimane on the market launches and on the choices of artistic elements, or definition of image, related to the product lines or the advertising campaigns of Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, including the ones of Black Opium.
Just to make sure the message was loud and clear, an additional press release was also sent out to emphasize that Hedi Slimane had absolutely nothing to do with any “product lines” or “market launches” issued by the L’Oreal Group under the YSL Beauté label. If you think about the fact that L’Oreal bought the name back in January 2008, and has been releasing YSL fragrances since then with nary a word from the separate fashion house, I think it clearly says something about both Black Opium and what L’Oreal has done with the YSL label as a whole for there to be such a public disavowal after all this time. It’s not just me with my silly little, biased feelings who thinks that L’Oreal has absolutely destroyed the brand and everything it stands for. The fashion house that seeks to carry on Yves St. Laurent’s legacy does so as well.
There is one way that Black Opium stood out for me: for the first time in my life, I had an allergic skin reaction to a fragrance. The part of my arm where I applied the scent became inflamed, red, hot, and swollen — and that has never happened to me that I can recall. With Black Opium, it happened twice, on both occasions that I tested the fragrance. If the EU and IFRA are so concerned about skin allergies, then Black Opium is yet one more example of how it is the cheap crap put out by companies like Givaudan and L’Oreal that are the problem, not the natural essences that they’re trying to restrict into nonexistence. As the perfumer Mandy Aftel once said, it is the synthetics that stink up the elevator and give perfumery such a bad name, not the pure essences or ingredients. However, the companies who produce those chemicals are the same ones funding IFRA. They benefit from the EU’s upcoming draconian measures, but so does L’Oreal who uses the synthetics to save money on perfume production, while simultaneously raising fragrance prices.
And Black Opium is priced quite high by the standards of fragrances in the Victoria’s Secret or Marc Jacob genre to which it belongs. The smallest bottle, a tiny 30 ml, costs about €56 which translates to almost $70 at today’s currency exchange rate, while the largest (90 ml or 3 oz) costs €105 or about $128. Those are comparable to Hermès‘ prices, as well as Tom Ford‘s in his regular line, like his Black Orchid. Unfortunately, Black Opium doesn’t come close to the quality, complexity, or originality of something like Black Orchid. If L’Oreal wants to learn how to do flankers properly, it should look to Tom Ford who has done rather a decent job of it several times now.
I haven’t found a lot of blog reviews for Black Opium, perhaps because it is a limited release at this time and won’t be launched globally until 2015. However, The Candy Perfume Boy covered the scent in a review entitled “How The Mighty Have Fallen.” And that’s the opinion of someone who isn’t even an Opium-head! He writes, in part, as follows:
Smelling Black Opium, the latest from YSL, one finds it hard to believe that this fragrance comes from one of the most iconic and innovative designer fragrance brands of all time. Just think about it for a second, Yves Saint Laurent brought the world Opium, Paris and Rive Gauche, arguably three of the most important feminines released in the modern age. Not to forget the fact that they have also created cult classics such as Nu, M7 and Rive Gauche Pour Homme – perfumes that paint YSL as a brand with no fear, and a thirst to be different and divisive.
Black Opium is not an important fragrance, nor is it a particularly good one[….] With each release, YSL seems to be creating more and more duds (does anyone even remember 2012’s Manifesto? Exactly) whilst simultaneously unleashing a regular wave of flankers of their flagship fragrances. Black Opium is the third permanent flanker to the Opium name since 2010[.][¶]
Black Opium opens with a sickly sweet haze of sticky liquorice, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, except for the fact that YSL have managed to remove all of the joy from a fun and frivolous note, weighing it down with vague fruits and the sweet spice of pink pepper to give the impression of something not unlike liquorice cotton candy. It’s an opening that can be smelled in a thousand-and-one fragrances, many of which create a more enticing gourmand impression.
From then on Black Opium swirls uncomfortably into an Angel-esue soup of patchouli and vanilla. There isn’t a great deal of development and none of the promised floral and coffee notes make an appearance to create any deal of interest. […][¶]
But does Black Opium really smell that bad? Well the answer is no, it doesn’t smell ‘bad’, in fact it simply isn’t interesting enough to be dreadful. Black Opium represents all that is wrong with the fragrance industry and reinforces a growing trend where mediocrity is accepted and the idea of creating something beautiful is lost underneath the desire to make a quick buck.
On Fragrantica, the earliest reviews for Black Opium skewed towards the negative, but the winds are shifting now and there are many more positive comments, with a good number of people sticking up for the fragrance. The critics are represented by the following review which read, in majority part, as follows:
Associating this with the original Opium line seems like something of an insult. If you were to smell this, you’d never guess it was a new iteration of the sultry and spicy original.
This just smells horribly cheap and synthetic, it might as well be a drugstore body spray. I appreciate that YSL are attempting to appeal to a younger market, what with the bottle redesign and all that, and I think in this respect, they’ve succeeded. This is so sweet and artificial-smelling I can just imagine a tweenager wearing this – it really isn’t for a self-assured, mature woman – and the hefty price tag would suggest that the latter target market is the only one who can afford it.
Upon spraying, I immediately get a burst of vanilla that smells more synthetic-y shampoo than rich, creamy, upmarket perfume. I would have the though the coffee would have taken the edge off the sweetness, but it just makes it worse. I’m no perfume expert in the sense that I find it difficult to identify notes and how they develop, but this is just an awful saccharine mess from start to finish. [Snip sentence about the bottle being tacky.]
There are many more comments in the same vein, either describing Black Opium as a “celebrity/teenage scent” or saying things like, “Haha, IT IS A JOKE!” Others have an issue with the price, writing “Terrible perfume for the money.” In fact, even some of the people who like Black Opium think it’s overly expensive for what it is.
The opposing camp has a very different perspective:
- I love Black Opium, it is the perfect Autumn/Winter fragrance. It reminds me of all things Christmassy, especially mulled wine. I can not get enough of this fragrance, it has the perfect spicey, sweet, warm, deep combination.
- I’m gonna go against the general grain here too and say I reeeeally enjoy this one! Being a coffee addict probably doesn’t hurt – there is definitely a sumptuously rich coffee note in here which smells a lot like licorice on my skin, coffee, licorice and burnt vanilla. Yum.
I am a spicy oriental fan but unfortunately the original Opium just never sat well on my skin, not like Cinnabar for instance, which is also very spicy. But I digress. I take this new Black Opium as a stand alone, not a flanker and in that space I really, really enjoy its gritty, punchy, sweet aroma. Yes please, this is definitely for me – and I am NOT a teenager OR a mallrat.
I’ve noticed that a number of people who struggled with the original Opium find the new flanker to be something “a lot more wearable” and approachable, which brings me to my final point: how you feel about Black Opium may depend heavily on your feelings about the original, as well as your general appreciation for gourmands, fruity-florals, and intense sweetness as a whole.
I have tried my best to be as objective and professional as possible in describing Black Opium, but I fear the strain of self-censorship is beginning to show, so I better abruptly end this review here and now before a torrent of bitterness slips out. Bottom line: Black Opium is completely unrelated to Opium in any way imaginable. Take that how you will.