Opium! Den of pleasure, carnal delights, ecstasy. Forbidden euphoria.
Blockbuster since day 1, Opium is (was) the unparalleled success of Yves Saint Laurent. Cleverly following the footsteps of Youth Dew (Lauder once said it was ‘Youth Dew with a tassel’), Opium landed like a bomb in 1977 taking the whole world by surprise. In a time with no social media and focus groups, Opium alluded to the thrill of the forbidden and the state of mind; guilty pleasure and erotic ecstasy via the heavy spice route sweetened with exotic flowers. The Opium den that Yves conjured and which caused an outrage in the Chinese-American population, banned in many Arab countries and sold without its name on the bottle in some European countries, was nothing but hedonistic pleasure in liquid form. Opium didn’t endorse drug abuse, something that was increasingly the theme du jour in the late 70’s, nor did it condone it. It simply alluded to the state of trance and sensuality one feels under the right circumstances. Opium was either understood and immediately adored, or rejected like the plague. True vintage Opium, with all its forbidden notes, ingredients and allergens is one of my most loved and cherished fragrances. Nothing, absolutely nothing comes close. And sadly, this makes it extremely hard to replace.
Long review/homage based on various bottles, splash and spray, from 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1993.
When Opium launched, Yves sought to create the complete opposite of Y, his debut fragrance which was a beautiful and elegant aldehydic chypre. He wanted a heavy, languid, extremely powerful and sensual oriental that would make women go crazy, and men completely surrender to its charms. He enlisted Jean Amic, Jean Louis Sieuzac and Raymond Chaillan and together they created a legend that catapulted to success before its official launch, resulting in stolen testers, ripped publicity banners, sellout within hours of hitting shelves, all the while causing a little dementia in the population. Oh, Opium!
Heavily reliant on cloves, carnation, incense, Mysore sandalwood, resins, myrrh, opoponax, adorned with orchids, rose, lily of the valley, jasmin, peach, plum, orris and mystified with labdanum, castoreum, bay leaf, pepper, balsams and musks, Opium was like the breath of a raging dragon. Deep reds, golden ambers, the flowers of fire; the flowers of life.
Up to this day, words elude me when talking about Opium; I find it so masterfully blended, so true to its meaning, that I cannot (and don’t want to) analyze it or dissect its notes. It’s inevitable that some of them pass right under my nose and are easily detected, but Opium is such a state of mind that the real pleasure comes from surrendering to it. Yes, it’s spicy, floral, aldehydic and mysteriously powdery in the drydown, yes, none of what was used freely to create it can be used with the same abandon today, but why break it to pieces? If for nothing more, the pleasure is smelling it all day long and watch it’s evolution, how it caresses the senses and how it embraces the ones lucky enough to love it and adore it.
Opium is highly polarizing, and for most people, it stirs up memories; any kind of them. Good, bad, the ones who wore it, the elevators it permeated, the boss that doused in it...love it or hate it, this most recognizable magnum opus cannot leave you indifferent. Consider yourself lucky if only you can even smell it in your mind.
While Opium does not go bad, it does mellow with age. Vintage bottles still pack a punch with enormous sillage and 24 hour longevity, but they have lost the fresh sparkle that was there in 1977; they have mellowed and concentrated in a way that it smells richer and more dense. The patina of time, but still unbeatable.
And my personal opinion; up until the early 80’s, Opium was not reformulated, maybe only having suffered minuscule changes. It was so unbelievably expensive to produce that it was simply inevitable. By the late 80’s/early 90’s, the changes were a bit more pronounced but it was still itself. At the dawn of the new millennium, Opium started to suffer the consequences of cost cutting, change of taste and society’s evolution, and by 2005/6, Opium was not Opium anymore. L’Oreal simply murdered it completely, and what has been selling under the name Opium since then, bears nothing, zero relation but the name. It should have been discontinued altogether.
While future generations will likely never have the pleasure of getting to know this gem, anyone that has had the pleasure of experiencing it is extremely lucky. And I thank my lucky stars and eBay for allowing me to have the pleasure of dowsing in it. My sillage is free of charge; no thank you needed.