I have an opiate opoponax problem. It started with an unexpected capitulation to the Red Hot charms of Eau Lente, segued into a sudden and slavish devotion to Jicky, and culminated in a shameful episode a few weeks ago, when I found myself outside a train station at 7.30 a.m. palming a wad of cash to a shady eBay guy for a brown paper bag containing two smeary half-bottles of Carthusia’s Ligea La Sirena.
Bengale Rouge contains a good slug of opoponax, so to explain why I like this scent, I guess I should explain why I like opoponax. Similar to most other resins, opoponax smells warm, slightly sweet, with a burnt toffee edge, but – and this is crucial – it also possesses a bitter, minty herbal note, like crushed lavender or bay leaf. A tub of crème caramel washed down with a shot of Old Spice.
But don’t be alarmed – there is none of Eau Lente’s shocking slide from clove mouthwash to warm resin here. What opoponax brings to the table in Bengale Rouge is its faintly lavender-like aftertaste that joins with the lemon sherbet-like Turkish rose and the creamy tonka to recreate that famously baby vomit-ish clash of cymbals that makes Jicky so special, and, yes, even after all these years, a bit shocking.
One sniff of Papillon Bengale Rouge and the Guerlain fans among us will feel their palms start to itch. It’s the same kind of excitement you get when you stumble across vintage Shalimar and Jicky quarilobes casually tossed in with a bunch of fishing lure on some unsuspecting guy’s eBay listing. Honestly, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the top half of Bengale Rouge is all vintage Shalimar – except no, it’s really Jicky, with that gloriously vomity, golden lavender lemon cream that sits smirking on the skin like an angel with a dirty face. Skipping ahead a little, there’s even a thicc-thighed, Jicky-ish base of boozy, bittersweet tonka bean fluffed out with vanilla and musks.
And yet, if you still smelled Shalimar, you wouldn’t be wrong either. There’s a polished almond buttercream accent in the background that will be familiar to anyone who wears the vintage extraits of Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar, or even the modern Jicky EDP, whose tonka drydown remains remarkably rich and ‘golden’.
I’ve skipped ahead, so let me circle back. For the topnotes of Bengale Rouge, picture a solid amber tear of vintage 1960’s Shalimar (or Jicky) extrait dusted in cinnamon, dipped in rosewater jelly and rolled in fizzy lemon sherbet. The rose is both mouth-puckeringly tart and sweet like raspberry jam, reminding me a little of the smoky myrrh-tipped rose of Aramis Calligraphy Rose, absent the overt smokiness of styrax. The bright sourness of the rose, dusted lightly across the cheekbones of the scent, is what keeps the tonka from tipping over into syrupiness, aided by what smells to me like a daub of actual myrrh (rather than the sweet kind) and a powdery benzoin-iris pairing.
In fact, Bengale Rouge is as dry and spicy as it is creamy. I can see why a friend mentioned to me that he thinks it’s Tauer-adjacent, although Bengale Rouge is infinitely rounder, softer, and more natural-smelling than any of the Tauer roses, including the much-revered Les Années 25 (it is fair to say that both Les Années 25 and Bengale Rouge are Shalimar-adjacent, but while the Tauer is a brutal, modernist take, the Papillon is a soft, melting affair).
Bengale Rouge is gorgeous, and I’m afraid that my wallet stands no chance when it’s officially released. I came for the advertised fur and human skin notes, but didn’t find them. Never mind, I’m staying for the pot of opoponax gold. Bengale Rouge takes everything I love about opoponax – its yin-and-yang of bitter, spicy barbershop high notes against the basso fondo of golden warmth – and spreads it out slow so I get to enjoy its every facet. This cat may be more Jicky than Mimi, but I’m not complaining.
Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay