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?