One of my most memorable introductions to a perfume happened in Mexico, when a child-shopkeeper handed me, with grace and a touch of theatricality, a bottle of original Bel Ami by Hermès. It was not love at first sniff (even though I bought a bottle immediately) but now, if some evil genie commanded I use only five perfumes for the rest of my life, Bel Ami would be one of the five…even one of three (if the genie were especially nasty and restrictive).
I was excited to try the tweaked Bel Ami — Bel Ami Vétiver — but was wondering if the light touch of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena would make the perfume too contemporary for me. With a bottle of original Bel Ami in one hand, and a sample of new Bel Ami Vétiver in the other…here goes!
Original Bel Ami is a dark, dramatically “grained” leather perfume (think buffalo hide instead of a sleek Hermès purse); original Bel Ami pulsates with sticky resins, beautiful floral glimmers and glints, some smoke (birch tar), moss, and rich cedar-vanilla. Gorgeous is a word I rarely use to describe a fragrance…but Bel Ami, old-style, is gorgeous.
Bel Ami Vétiver starts with the aroma of citrus and syrupy ginger, followed quickly by smoked spices: perhaps some cardamom, and certainly cumin. In its heart, Bel Ami Vétiver almost replicates its namesake, with beautiful cedar, pungent leather, smoke/benzoin, and the added bonus of vetiver and a note that reminds me of almost-burning caramel. Bel Ami Vétiver's base is semi-sweet, with toasted wood aromas offsetting the vanilla. Bel Ami Vétiver is only marginally less powerful than original Bel Ami, but Bel Ami Vétiver outlasts it on skin, and produces more sillage (modern ingredients playing their part perhaps?)
I respect the entire Bel Ami family: original, current formulation, and Bel Ami Vétiver (already on my to-buy list). But respect is one thing, “love” another. In Perfumeland, original Bel Ami has few competitors for my heart – it “met” me on a perfect, sunny day in Old Tijuana, introduced by a charming child. (I wasn't too much past childhood myself back then.) I remember lots of details about the short bus ride from Mexico back to the U.S. entry point: it was night but the sky was orange with many lights illuminating the border zone; it was hot; the rickety bus's windows were all open, letting the dusty air float all around us; I was dying of thirst; and my friend, sitting next to me, said, “Damn, you smell goooooood!” Bel Ami!
Hermès Bel Ami Vétiver is available in 100 ml Eau de Toilette, $125.
Note: top, center image: a drawing from Hermès Bel Ami Vétiver packaging.