Hermes Bel Ami
Posted: Dec 07 2015
Famous Parisian luxury goods dealer Hermes began life as a saddle maker and leather shop that supplied the wealthy and powerful of France with high-quality horse-riding-butt-cushions. As a result, many of their older perfumes (before they hired Jean-Claude Ellena as in-house perfumer) carry a leather theme to reference the history of the house (of which they’re very proud).
Bel Ami was one of their first masculine offerings. Created in 1986 by Jean-Louis Sieuzac, it’s a classic but VERY smooth, dry leather meant for the refined gentleman. Not for Hermes is the gasoline-and-leather-jackets character of Knize Ten or the BDSM bitterness of Bandit. Instead, Sieuzac created a dry accord of coriander, citrus, and cardamom at the top of the fragrance, which does not otherwise immediately present itself as a leather. One of the more interesting openings in 80s (ostensibly) masculine perfumery, to be sure.
Eventually, after about an hour or so, a rich, dry, bitter, completely smokeless leather emerges, which blends very well with the still-prominent cardamom note for a fascinating “spicy leather/wood” effect that I can’t say I’ve smelled elsewhere. Around the same time, the vetiver blooms into full view and further dries out the accord and really smoothes in out. I remember thinking when I first smelled it (when I knew nothing about it and thought it had been marketed as a feminine), “This smells like it would work better on a guy than a woman.” The truth is that it will work very well on either, but it definitely cannot be worn by everyone.
The bottom of the fragrance progresses into an unusual herbal concoction, which Fragrantica lists as a combination of basil and sage. There’s also a touch of carnation (which has a pungent, very spicy scent), but it’s not terribly strong. Strangely, the leathery facet of Bel Ami develops a smokey animal note AFTER the rest of the perfume develops, which is weird because birch tar and castoreum are typically very in-your-face and obvious scents. The oakmoss upon which the fragrance is built (it’s technically a chypre) creeps in at this point, lending a powdery, earthy character to the leather and tempering its smoky/animal qualities.
Bel Ami is about as close as I think it’s possible to come to “a gentleman’s leather.” It’s elegant, understated, refined, and, frankly, a little boring in parts. The top is very interesting and the emergence of the smoke near the end of the perfume is unusual, but it’s really just a very smooth, well-blended leather that probably won’t offend anyone and is great for office wear. If you’re looking to smell like a luxury leather dealer, like money and polish, then this is a pretty good choice. But if you’re looking to make a statement, I’d look elsewhere.