Hermes Bel Ami ~ fragrance review

Hermes Bel Ami fragrance

Has my sense of smell become less acute (or more jaded)? Have my perfume tastes changed? Or has Bel Ami’s formula been altered? Something strange has happened since 1990 when I smelled Bel Ami for the first time on a too-bright, scalding day in Tijuana, Mexico.

Tijuana is beloved by college students who cross the Mexican border from San Diego to visit its raunchy nightclubs. Older folks travel to Tijuana by tour bus on daytrips to load up on huaraches, serapes, colorful blankets, and Day of the Dead-themed refrigerator magnets. Most people I knew in 1990 considered Tijuana a “joke” — a cheesy town full of cheap souvenir shops and hucksters.

Tijuana was the first Mexican city I visited and I loved its cluttered old-fashioned folk art shops stocked with brightly painted wooden carvings of saints and animals, black pottery, tinwork and jewelry from all over Mexico. I enjoyed Tijuana’s simple tiled courtyard cafes where you could rest and cool off by sipping an ice-cold Tecate beer or something exotic like a sapote soda. I felt happy as I listened to ranchero music blaring from secluded balconies that were obscured by bougainvillea vines.

Tijuana smelled good too with its aromas of fresh corn tortillas, roasting ears of corn and chilies, and fruit stalls stocked with mangos, papayas, pineapples, muskmelons, and cactus. My enchanted gaze faltered every so often when I would encounter begging children, stray dogs and cats, and the bony, tired-looking donkeys waiting for tourists to come along and be photographed beside them. I couldn’t help but notice the newspaper headlines announcing the latest drug-related murders in town.

Tijuana was as far as one could get from Hermès, Bel Ami and French perfumes, right? Wrong! Tijuana had more perfume discount stores per square mile than any other place I’d visited. And those shops were full of hard-to-find European perfumes I could not even buy in Los Angeles in 1990.

I first encountered Bel Ami in a tiny, dimly lit shop on a Tijuana back street. When my friend and I entered the old-fashioned store we saw no one; the shop was quiet and its glossy, almost-black, wooden shelves were laden with gleaming perfume bottles. The shop smelled of old wood, furniture wax, spices and flowers, and the wood and wax scents added depth to all the perfumes that were sprayed into the air.

After our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized we were NOT alone: the ‘shopkeeper’ was no more than four feet tall and around 8 years old. He hopped onto a stool behind the main display case, steadied himself by placing one hand on the counter, held his other hand to his chest, and asked, in a dignified tone: “What may I do for you?” I said: “We’re just looking.” “Oh….” said the boy. He sighed, jumped off the stool and then sat on it and began thumbing through a magazine.

After smelling some wonderful perfumes for the first time (Balmain’s Ivoire and Ebène are a few I remember sampling in that shop) I asked to see the large tester bottle of Bel Ami that was behind the counter, out of reach. The little boy cocked his head, raised his eyebrows, and hesitatingly said: “It’s…sixty…dollars….” He looked at me sorrowfully as if he had delivered horrible news. (Most other scents in the shop had a steeper discount than Bel Ami.) I sprayed on Bel Ami and it knocked my socks off; I felt as if I had been submerged in a tub of turpentine, mineral spirits, caustic saps and resins. I was so stunned by the “Bel Ami Effect,” I bought it. The little shopkeeper was thrilled when I purchased Bel Ami and he wrapped my bottle in layers of baby-blue tissue paper secured with green string. As we left the store, the boy graciously bid us “adios” by cocking his head again, smiling, closing his eyes and raising up his right hand, his palm facing us.

Hermès introduced Bel Ami in 1986 and I’ve found many distinct lists of its ingredients. One list mentions citrus, woods and leather. Another list has moss, cedar, sandalwood, leather, lemon, and herbs. The oldest list I could find says lemon, iris, ylang-ylang, vanilla, sandalwood and vetiver make up Bel Ami’s recipe. Today, the Hermès website mentions cardamom, amber, patchouli and leather. I have no idea if Bel Ami has changed its formula since 1986; I used a brand new bottle of the fragrance when writing this review.

Bel Ami opens strongly with a peppery, cardamom-cumin, and cedar accord. Bel Ami’s opening brings to mind the scent of unfinished wood being bathed in oil varnish. Bel Ami has a volatile opening — its raw wood-and-spice blast subsides within five minutes. The “mid-section” of Bel Ami smells like a classic, refined leather fragrance.

Bel Ami is well blended and citrus, moss and floral notes are not readily recognizable to my nose. As Bel Ami dries down I detect the scents of vanilla pods and ‘well-mannered’ patchouli, along with mellow cedar and sandalwood notes. The final stage of the perfume is satisfying — a sweet, resinous aroma with a pinch of cured tobacco, a bit of ash and smoke.

Seventeen years after first smelling and wearing Bel Ami I still enjoy it, but I do feel I’ve become jaded — today Bel Ami neither shocks me nor seems outrageous in any way. Many men on fragrance blogs refer to Bel Ami as “old fashioned.” After reading further and discovering the scents these same men love, I assume the men are very young and have had their noses trained in The Age of Ozone; they crave, and are accustomed to, some “fresh air” in their fragrances. To my nose, Bel Ami is not at all old fashioned — it’s an elegant dark fragrance, rich and natural smelling, with good lasting power.

What is Tijuana like today? The little perfume seller is now 25 years old! After his childhood spent smelling and selling perfumes (good ones), wouldn’t you love to know if he wears fragrance himself, and if so, what his favorites are?


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39 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful review Kevin – as always.

    Funny Hermes memories for me too…

    When I was growing up I remember buying (or being gifted) a mini of Hermes cologne and honestly I can't remember which one it was (Rocabar, Equipage, Bel Ami…) but I remember loving it at and thinking it was oh-so-sophisticated. It didn't make a strong impression as my full bottle purchases (Fahrenheit, Tuscany, Calvin) but I just remember SMELLING GOOD (and really, isn't that what matters?).

    Fast foward to a couple years ago, I 'found' Hermes again via that wonderful article Chandler Burr did in The New Yorker (when I was a weekly subscriber) on his journey with Hermes and JC Ellena to Un Jardin sue le Nil. I found UJSLN fascinating (still do) and then the Hermessences, and then Terre d'Hermes, and now……well you get the drift.

    So, here I am – strongly considering revisiting those 'old, classic' Hermes scents from my past. I now own Rocabar. I don't LOVE it, but I am glad it's in my wardrobe. I respect it. Bel Ami I haven't smelled for years. Partly due to circumstance (when I'm near fragrance counters these days, I am always drawn toward the 'new stuff') and partly because I want to give it my undivided attention when I try it again.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mike: I have to try Rocabar … I don't remember ever smelling it. Bel Ami is worth a revisit…you can buy mini's online for about 7 bucks…a good way to get reacquainted. K

  3. Anonymous says:

    While visiting a Hermes boutique in NY last year, my Dad spritzed on some Bel Ami. It would have been lovely on him, had it not been for the persistent odor of crotch. He offended me every time he waved his arm, and I had to stay upwind of him the rest of the day. Is he just special, or did you get that note too in the tobacco and leather and patchouli?
    When I started to read this article, I thought you were going to say Bel Ami smelled like Tijuana. :)

  4. Anonymous says:

    HA! No, Bel Ami smells better, for the most part, than Tijuana! Lots of people associate cedar and cumin (among other spices, fragrance notes) with the nether regions…some find such “regions” and scents delightfully aromatic, others are offended. We know where you stand! K

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi,

    I've been told that the original formula had been changed to improve the citrus top notes.

    I wear this fragrance since i'am 15 and i still love it, top, heart and bottom notes.

    The most important are its bottom notes made of natural burnt oil such as birch or cistus, castoreum and synthetic muscs.

    We have the European legislation (Ifra) that make perfumers change and reactualized old formulae. That's why Shalimar, N°5 and many other chypre fragrances don't smell like our grandma' favourite perfumes. Ifra is the murderer of our fragrant heritage.

    Creating bad new perfumes is one thing but destroying good ones is another thing.

    Save your old bottle in the fridge!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Kevin, do you think this is something a woman could wear, or do you feel that it is too masculine? It sounds lovely.

  7. Anonymous says:

    If the formula has changed, I love the 'new' Bel Ami as much as the original; it was a successful 'update'. IFRA is certainly to blame for many changes in old perfumes (as oak moss is deleted from formulas, etc). But lots of old perfume houses update a scent just to update it…trying to find a new and younger and WIDER audience…and that can be a good thing or a nightmare…we probably all have examples of both outcomes. K

  8. Anonymous says:

    Exist: If you're the type who wears Eau d'Hermes, COMMES des GARCONS incense series, you could easily wear this…the base notes are delicious. K

  9. Anonymous says:

    K, thanks for reviewing one of my favorite leather-tobacco scents. It's got such a lovely earthiness to it and a delectable drydown that is to die for. I love Hermès's men's in general (Equipage comes close second), but this one is a stunner.

    BTW, my MIL-to-be's best friend (yeah, it sounds hilarious), who has been collecting fragrance samples for years, decided to very kindly pass them on to me when she heard how passionate I was about perfume. Two ginormous shoe boxes packed with all sorts of goodies and among them – Jacques Fath Green Water. HA! It is, like you said, refreshing and lovely, but after 30 minutes it plain disappered!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hey Dusan – thought of you today after I found a discount 50 ml of M7 at the outlet mall on the other side of town. I own a bottle now; thank you for introducing me to it, I've loved it in the summer, weirdly. It really blooms in the heat.

    Kevin, did you get my email?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi Dusan…hope you've had a great summer. HILARIOUS about the shoebox and Green Water…do you have the old version or new? The old version lasted longer on my skin but I actually POURED on the new version when I tested it and it lasted all day. I hope to be in Europe in four weeks and plan to SCOUR little perfume shops for goodies, K

  12. Anonymous says:

    Tigs: yes, got your mail and am in the process of writing you. K

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for an enjoyable review Kevin.
    I'm curious if you have tried two excellent scents that, loosely, belong in the same genre:
    Gianfranco Ferre for men and Rochas Lui.
    I'd appreciate reviews of both if you are familiar with them; in the event you aren't I fancy you'll enjoy them, given your affection for Bel Ami. I hope you'll try both and let us know what you think.
    Regards.

  14. Anonymous says:

    E, hey that's wonderful news, I'm so glad you now have a whole bottle of the M7 yumminess. Have been wearing it myself a lot this summer and you're absolutely right: it does bloom in the heat. Maybe Kevin could treat us to a review? I hope you will, too :)

    I just got back from holiday and am catching up on my fave blogs. I've missed you! Btw, I wish you'd posted your top ten books *before* I went a-holidaying. Must take 'Mating' out of the library one of these days! Will write a proper e-mail as soon as I acclimatize myself :)

  15. Anonymous says:

    K, thanks, it's been a great holiday, wish I was still on the beach, swimming and soaking up the sun. Yep, shoe boxes and samples galore! Not sure which version of GW this is, but I'm guessing it must be the new one (it says Eau de Toilette, 85% Vol., but I doubt that helps). The citrus goes on pretty strong, tart actually (lemon, lemongrass? plus basil and/or mint), I also get a muted floral note and *very* pale woods and then whoosh.zip… nada, well almost nada, unless I keep my nose glued to my wrist. It is lovely while it lasts, though :)

    Yey, your trip to Europe sounds fantastic! Hope you find lots of scented gems. Where exactly are you going?

  16. Anonymous says:

    KD: I believe I have a sample of the Ferre somewhere around here but have not tried it yet…I will attempt to find it. Rochas Lui I have never tried but will add to “The List.” K

  17. Anonymous says:

    Dusan Deux: If all goes well, we'll be in Venice, Vicenza, Padua and Ravenna…can't wait…perhaps a magical shoebox awaits me in some dusty shop, K

  18. Anonymous says:

    Enjoyed your lovely reminiscence of your Tijuana journey and buying Bel Ami for the first time.

    Old fashioned it might be considering current tastes, but then so are ozone-heavy frags I guess as well. And which is the better one? I thought so…

  19. Anonymous says:

    Nothing to add, except that Bel Ami is one of my great loves, I really enjoy reading your words, and it's great to see Dusan back in the blogosphere…

  20. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Helg…and TRUE…how many of the Generation Ozone scents will be around in 20 years? K

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Lee; you and Dusan are lucky to live in part of the world where people actually TAKE VACATIONS..long ones! K

  22. Anonymous says:

    Hi Kevin — thanks so much for your thoughtful and respectful attitude towards Tijuana. My sweetie's family is from Nuevo Laredo and I spend a lot of time defending that beleaguered town from the casual contempt of folks on this side of the border (as though the U.S. had nothing to do with NL's problems…). Your brief portrait was honest about your enchantment, and the town's difficulties — that's a difficult thing to do.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Would it be anyone else's idea of a fantasy gig to be Kevin's housesitter (or more pointedly, his scent-collection-sitter) while he's away padding around Italy?

  24. Anonymous says:

    You're welcome, Ahtx: I have a soft spot for all rough-n'tumble border towns and always found things to like about Tijuana. As I write I can see two objects I bought on that first trip: a Oaxaca carved wooden cat in wild colors and an amazing tiny Mayan clay reproduction of a cat (I buried him in the yard one summer and he looks even more “authentic”…shhhhhhhhhhh. K

  25. Anonymous says:

    Joe: the fantasy would fade quickly as you watered more plants per square foot than anywhere in Seattle! HA! I have found a “scent-safe” housesitter: a friend who only cares about my lap-loving cat Vanya and the peace and quiet. My perfumes? She could care less….K

  26. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for another interesting review, Kevin.

    Yes, I also remember visiting Tijuana once, in the early 80's.

    This is another all-time favourite of mine as well! It brings back so many colourful memories of the late 80's – I need to buy another bottle soon!

    I love Bel Ami because it's so warm and masculine. I smell cloves and other spices, leather and woods. It certainly is long-lasting and leaves a wonderful 'sillage' (my word-du-jour).

    This is a classic male fragrance and I wish it was more widely available or promoted by the House.

    It's curious that so many parfumistas are attracted to retro fragrances from bygone eras of the last Century.

    I flatly refuse to bother with the current youth-oriented 'fresh' smells that flood department store shelves. They seem to come and go, only to be forgotten.

    And please don't mention 'celebrity' fragrances or I'll scream!

  27. Anonymous says:

    desmondorama: hello! I've only reviewed one celebrity scent so far (don't scream): Usher. But the celebrity scents are usually no worse than mainstream designer scents these days…unless the ingredients are cheap…and smell cheap. I'm bracing myself for a slew of new department store fragrances I MUST review…but I have a GREAT old-time scent review coming up soon from Santa Maria Novella…one I bet you will like. K

  28. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your review. I used to wear this perfume. I loved it because of its real personality. Many years after its launch, I tried it again. Then, I was disapointed. It smelled ligther than before. Why Hermès changed the formula and the bottle, so beautiful. It was a pity for me. Do you remember, this is Jean-Louis Sieuzac – the author of Fahrenheit – who created it. Thanks to your review, I want to try it again. Maybe I will change my mind.

  29. Anonymous says:

    AB: Even though Bel Ami doesn't smell as forceful as it once did, I still like it…and I even bought a bottle. It still has “something” that I don't often smell in other men's scents of its type. (I loved the old bottle too.)

  30. Anonymous says:

    Kevin,

    I spritzed Bel Ami on my neck and lapel this morning. I was actually in a TGIF kinda mood on a cold sunny day. But my schedule was very busy with meetings in boardrooms…

    I was “accused” by a nice secretary who walked by me of wearing…POLO!

    I guess she was meaning it as a compliment but it ruined my mood for the entire day.

    At each “washroom break”, I would wet a towel and wipe my neck clean above the collar in hopes of diluting the scent.

    I am seriously questioning if Bel Ami should even be allowed nowadays…

    The green Polo bottle…Can you imagine? Yikes!!!!

  31. Anonymous says:

    Eric: I'm WORRIED about you…you are WAAAAAAAAAY to impressionable! Is your secretary a perfume expert; does she know about any perfumes that were released since POLO? If not, or if SO, who cares what she thinks? I wore Bel Ami this week and it does not smell like Polo. It IS rich and powerful which may account for the secretary saying it was POLO…if she doesn't have many perfume reference points…? Anyway, I don't have any negative connotations of Polo (see my review!)…and I actually like the fragrance and think it's a zillion times more interesting/original than most men's mainstream scents made over the last decade. I think it's the only Ralph Lauren scent I can bear! One thing I will say: it is in DESPERATE need of a packaging/bottle makeover…the bottle SCREAMS “perfume discounter”…does it not? (I have a sample of Antaeus making its way to me…review to come when I get thru the tons of new releases I must review….)

    • desmondorama says:

      i totally agree with this blogette!

      Don’t listen to the opinions of others who are not parfumistas. Wear what you feel is right for you.

      BTW, Polo is an extremely sexy smell, and only some men with confidence in themselves can carry it off well. It’s a very potent and masculine scent that appeals to women and men alike; so it’s a compliment to be asked if you are wearing it.

      It may be too sexy for some men who are afraid of being seen as sexually confident.

      Anyway, both these fragrances are absolute classics in men’s perfumes.

    • desmondorama says:

      I forgot to mention that Polo has been relaunched on it’s 30th Anniversary as POLO – Modern Reserve and apparently smells a lot like POLO Crest which I loved.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Kevin,

    You convinced me 100% (Now do you still think I'm way too impressionable? lol)

    I can't wait for your review of Antaeus!

    Take your vitamins and eat your wheaties because you also owe us yet another stellar review of: Eau D'Hermes.

    And once you decide you're ready, bring a camera crew to take pictures of my Eau d'Hermes numbered lead crystal bottles with the “theme of the year” and a different color leather strap around the neck for each year. I have about 20 of them and they're just beautiful.

    Thanks,

    Eric

  33. Anonymous says:

    I started wearing Bel Ami about five years ago (I'm 37) and to this day it's my primary scent. Bel Ami smells sophisticated, complex, warm, strong and ethereal. I love it's aromatic, dark, warmth and notes of lime, tobacco, leather, sandalwood, vanilla, brown sugar, etc. I can say definitively that within the past five years they have changed the formula (my wife noticed the difference as well). The version I purchased just yesterday seems to have less warmth, less vanilla, less succulence… It smells more “cool” and ozonish than I have known it to smell over the past five years. I have one older bottle to compare the new one with and the differences are striking, but not so good in my opinion. As much as I've loved it in the past if they continue down this road I'll be looking for a new “regular”. Thanks for the review!

  34. Anonymous says:

    Shnozz: ah…thankfully my bottle of Bel Ami will last forever due to my overstocked perfume cabinet…I'm sorry to hear a brand-new bottle displeased you since you know the scent so well. Time to explore! Have you tried Antaeus/Chanel, Dior/Jules, Tom Ford Bois Rouge, Yatagan/Caron? Those are a few you may like to explore…and some of the comme des garcons incense series may supply you with those resinous, sweet woods you like.

  35. Anonymous says:

    I am not familiar with those scents, I will sample them. Thank you very much for the suggestions. I always find it daunting to sample hundreds of scents to root out that one that I like enough to wear regularly. I've never been into the “cool” smells or cleaning fluid scents that are so popular today. I have a very sensitive sense of taste and smell and find the scents I gravitate towards the most are more “natural”, sensual, warm, understated but strong, bordering on edible. I find most colognes to be invasive and domineering, the perfume equivalent of territorial pissing.

  36. lilyboy says:

    hi kevin

    this is a very old review but i just got to read it recently.. id just like to say this and your review of Equipage are some of the most beautiful writings i have come across.. i love them :)

    cheers!!
    -c

  37. Ericgmd says:

    Kevin,
    I love to re-visit your older posts at times.
    As I had a craving for Bel Ami on this cold morning, I re-read this review of Bel Ami.
    The perfumer who created it in 1986 is is the great Jean-Louis Sieuzac. I still have two of the cocktail shaker bottles with the scent still intact and in all its glory.
    What a masterpiece! And what a powerhouse…Raw leather at its best. It is more of a scent of an Hermes saddle in “ecru” and that has served well over the years and been cared for with love and the use of Hermes leather care products than the scent of your typical well worn “black” biker’s leather jacket.
    You or Robin may want to add Bel Ami to Jean-Louis Sieuzac’s repertoire under the “Perfumers” tab.
    Happy Holidays to you and to all the NST Team!
    Eric

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