Perfume Review: Amouage Honour Woman
Date released: 2011
Perfumer: Alexandra Carlin and Violaine Collas
Sample provenance: sample purchased from Aedes.com, 2012
Sub-category: Summer-weight white floral with tuberose
The following never happened. But it could have…
Mals was having an amazing day. She was walking down a city street, the heels of her new brown leather boots tapping on the sidewalk, shopping bags swinging by her side. She was musing to herself that the cashmere sweater she’d found on sale was just perfect – simple, classic, a lovely soft shade of gray-blue. And the boots! Will wonders never cease? The boots were perfect, too. Butter-soft, the right heel, they fit her ankles, and they didn’t make her feet ache. She’d worn them out of the store. And that tablecloth, that was a wonderful find for $10… White linen with drawn-thread work, just the size for her harvest maple table, guaranteed resistant to the tiniest food stain, machine washable. Perfect.
A storefront caught her eye: The Dream Perfumery, lettered in a clean but flowing script above the door. Her eyebrows went up, and she dodged across the lanes of oncoming walkers to have a closer look. The building itself seemed to be made of marble, and the interior was softly lit. The heavy glass door swung open when she put her hand up to it, and then she realized that someone inside had opened it for her.
“Thank you,” she said in faint surprise to the young woman holding the door.
“Oh, do come in,” the young woman said. “Lovely day, isn’t it? I’m Graciela, and we’re so pleased you stopped by.”
Mals blinked. This was not what the kind of treatment to which she was accustomed. And the inside of the shop was absolutely luxe, with a whisper-soft carpet and walls hung with fabric in rich colors. It smelled of many mingled scents, as a perfume shop should.
Graciela went on. “Shall I hold your bags in a secure area for you?” Mals, bemused, nodded, handing over her purchases. “Browse all you like, smell anything you like, and if you have questions, Ambrose or I will be more than happy to provide answers. We’ll help if you like, but if you prefer to sniff on your own, simply say so and we’ll leave you in peace to enjoy.” Graciela swept a manicured hand toward the gleaming counters lit by small ormolu lamps. “As you see, we like to keep our stock away from light. Our storeroom is maintained at a constant temperature of 42 degrees Fahrenheit, just a bit colder than a wine cellar. We find that this technique preserves fragrances best.”
“That sounds very reassuring,” Mals noted. “Most perfume sellers subject their wares to bright lights.”
“Ah, you are the connoisseur,” Graciela smiled. She turned toward the back of the store, where an attractive young man was rearranging a display of several vintage Shalimar bottles on blue and gold velvet. “Ambrose? Ambrose, we have a perfumista in the house!”
Ambrose made a final adjustment to a large fluted factice bottle. “There.” He turned toward Graciela and Mals with a smile so engaging that Mals couldn’t help but smile back. “So you’re looking for something special, are you?”
“Actually, today I’m just browsing. If I had come for serious sniffery, I’d have come unscented. I just happened to see the shop – it was lucky I looked up when I did.” Mals set down her purse and moved closer to the counter, craning her neck to see what brands were on offer.
Ambrose exchanged a knowing look with Graciela before turning his smile on Mals again. “Not everyone knows how to find us,” he said. “In fact, we rely on word-of-mouth advertising and the perfume community. We’re not even in the phone directory, and we don’t have a website. So only the cognoscenti, or the truly lucky, can locate the building.”
“Oh, so it’s like Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, from the Harry Potter novels?” Mals asked.
“Exactly like,” Graciela said, nodding firmly.
“Then… you’re magic?” Mals asked, a delighted smile slowly creeping onto her face.
“We make dreams come true,” Ambrose said with a wink, leaning closer. “Oh, you’re wearing Lyric Woman!” he exclaimed with delight. “A very lovely fragrance, and wonderful on you, Madame. Now -” he lowered his voice conspiratorially – “were you looking for anything in particular, or would you perhaps like our special dream service?”
“Perhaps,” Mals echoed. “Tell me about the special service.” She eyed Ambrose’s improbably curly hair, lying in smooth brown waves about his head. He looks too glossy to be real.
“Well, you see,” Ambrose had begun, when suddenly Graciela wheeled around and went to the door to open it for the elegant older woman who glided into the store as if she had wheels instead of feet clad in tiny, tippy-tappy red high-heeled shoes. Graciela greeted the woman with pleasure and recognition, and Mals turned back to the counter to stop eavesdropping on the other customer.
“It’s like this, you see,” Ambrose explained again, “you tell us exactly what you’re looking for in a scent. You can mention specific notes if you know what you like, or just the feeling you want to create, if that’s more important to you. We give you a special card, and you write what you’re dreaming of on it. Then we make a recommendation for you.”
Mals considered a moment. She’d already had such a lucky day – and this shop, this was like a dream come true in itself! “How much?” she asked, trying to be sensible.
“It depends on how difficult your dream is to fulfill,” Ambrose told her. “But generally, it runs about,” and here he leaned over the counter and whispered into her ear a figure that made her gasp. “That does cover the cost of the bottle as well. And I’m sure you know many of our fragrances are high-end. Although you may not have heard of some of the lines we carry.” He waved a hand at the counters. Mals recognized the squatty round bottles from Frederic Malle, the tall rectangles of the Serge Lutens export line, the deep glowing colors of the Amouage bottles. And was that hand-blown glass one from DSH Perfumes?
She considered. She’d spent far less than she’d expected to on the longed-for articles in her shopping bags. She could indulge, couldn’t she? It was the experience she wanted, in any case – the way a particular scent could make her feel and think and remember and imagine.
“I’ll take the special service,” she heard herself say to Ambrose. “Yes.”
“Oh, very good, Madame,” he said, all smiles. His teeth were very white and even. He reached under the counter and gave her a piece of stiff paper about the size and weight of a postcard. It was a beautiful pale gold color, with a sheen that was not quite sparkly. “There’s the pen,” he added, nodding toward a quill pen stuck into an actual inkwell, an item Mals had never seen used in her life, though she’d seen empty ones in antiques shops. “I’ll give you a moment alone. You just wave at me when you’ve finished.”
“Fine,” Mals said, fingering the card and pondering what she’d like best. A white floral would be nice, since she was partial to those. A white floral – with tuberose, of course – but not a heady one like Fracas. Something more restrained… but not a white floral with green notes, she already had a decant of Carnal Flower and considered it the ultimate in that direction. She let her mind wander… a restrained white floral diaphanous as chiffon? Perhaps one with woody or incense notes to ground it? Something elegant and spare, with the feeling of ikebana, only the necessary elements and nothing more, each element chosen for harmony and expressiveness of line… something delicate, yet strong. In her mind it was a pearly white with an undertone of warm pink, tender as an apple blossom.
Yes, that. She wrote it down, just as she imagined it, writing carefully with the unfamiliar ink quill and forming the letters carefully. Just as she put the quill back into the inkwell, Ambrose rejoined her.
“You’re finished?” he asked, holding out a well-manicured hand for the card. He studied it carefully. “Hmmmm. Mm-hm. Well, now.” He looked up, and Mals was struck by what a pretty color his eyes were, a soft blue-gray color similar to that of the cashmere sweater she’d purchased earlier. “I think we have just the ticket,” he said, and smiled. “Let me make you a sample.” He turned to the cabinet behind him, opened it, and spritzed from a white bottle into a sample vial. He capped it and handed it to her. “There.”
Mals could smell it in the air: delicate, soft, ethereal, but with an undercurrent of warmth underneath, a hint of incense and sweetness. She inhaled. It was lovely. It wasn’t quite what she’d imagined – there was a vaguely aquatic note to it that seemed out of place – but it was close.
“What is it?” she asked, spritzing her hand in the web between finger and thumb. “I don’t think I’ve smelled it before.”
“It’s the newest Amouage,” Ambrose told her proudly. “Honour Woman. Inspired by the selfless acts of Cio-Cio-San in the last act of the opera Madame Butterfly, redeeming her personal honor. Very romantic. And this is such a perfect fit, both with the opera and with your dream perfume!”
“It’s close,” Mals said. “I can smell the tuberose. And I think lily of the valley as well.” Ambrose nodded, looking gratified. “I’ll take it.” She handed over her credit card. Ambrose smiled. Graciela, wrapping up a bottle of Shalimar extrait for the other customer, smiled too. The customer smiled.
The transaction was completed swiftly. While Graciela wrapped up her purchase, Ambrose pressed Mals’ credit card into her hand, as well as a business card which, he explained, would allow her to locate The Dream Perfumery at any time in the future, and guarantee her exceptional service as a preferred customer. In no time, Mals was back out on the street again, carrying her shopping bags, one of which held a precious handmade box cradling her new perfume. She headed for a coffee shop down the street, ordering a large pumpkin spice latte and a small plate of crispy cinnamon pastries. Order in hand, she settled at a table, pleased with herself and her purchases.
She drank her coffee and ate a cinnamon puff, but she noticed that the longer the perfume sat on her hand, the less she liked it. Instead of the delicately tart-sweet opening rich with translucent blooms that she’d loved half an hour ago, with its overlay of aquatic notes that made her think of a pond graced with water lilies, koi darting colorfully in the water – well, now her wrist smelled like pond water. Slimy, algae-choked, pond water at that, or perhaps something even worse: rotting melon.
Wait it out, she told herself. You haven’t smelled the whole thing. She ate two more cinnamon puffs, slowly, drawing out the coffee shop visit and trying to decide what to do. When she caught a glimpse of the line, six people deep, all of them looking anxiously at the tiny seating area, she made up her mind. Wrapping up the remaining three puffs in a napkin, she gathered her things about her and left, walking with purpose back to The Dream Perfumery.
She had trouble finding it again, walking all the way to Heironimus’ department store on the far corner, before pulling the business card out of her wallet to check the address. There was none listed. (Odd, that.) She turned around nevertheless, walking back up the street with the business card in her hand. She sniffed at her wrist from time to time, finding the melon-pond water accord less obtrusive but still present as the basenotes began to appear on her skin: a slightly spicy note, some incense, a soft sweet amber. It was pretty again, but that… strange, sour note… that stagnant note, that just ruined the entire thing.
Ah, there was the shop! She must have been distracted as she walked past it the first time. She opened the door herself. Graciela’s head whipped around as Mals stepped inside. “You’re back?” She looked astounded for a second, and then her face cleared. “Something else we can help you with?”
“Well, yes,” Mals told her. “This scent is not so attractive on me after a few hours’ wear. There’s an accord in the middle that I don’t like at all. Could I return it? Or perhaps exchange it for something else – perhaps some Carnal Flower? I think you carry the Malles, don’t you?”
Graciela gaped, seemingly at a loss. After a moment, she found her voice but still sounded stunned. “I’m so sorry, Madame, but we never accept the return of a fragrance purchased via the special dream service.”
“Why not?” Mals asked. “Couldn’t I just exchange it for Carnal Flower? Or another Amouage?”
“We just don’t accept dream service returns. Didn’t Ambrose mention – Ambrose!” Graciela called over her shoulder. Ambrose entered the shop from the back room, looking grim. “This lady wants to return a dream service fragrance.” Her voice was shaking.
“You can’t do that,” Ambrose said to Mals, matter-of-factly.
“I don’t recall your explaining that part of the service,” Mals said, her eyes narrowing. “I’d like to simply exchange Honour Woman for something of comparable value. I suggested Carnal Flower, but a different Amouage would suit me just fine. Lyric Woman, perhaps, or Memoir Woman. No money need change hands at this point.”
“I can’t do that,” Ambrose said. “Look, what’s wrong with it? I thought you’d love it!” He leaned on the counter and stared at her.
“I don’t like the aquatic note in the middle,” Mals said. “It smells like bad melons. Or pondwater.”
“Pondwater?” Ambrose echoed, frowning like a thunderhead.
“Slimy pondwater,” Mals clarified, helpfully.
“Slimy. Pond. Water.” Ambrose’s own eyes, now a steely gray, narrowed at Mals. Graciela escaped into the back room.
“Exactly.” Mals sighed with frustration. “Look, this thing was beautiful when I put it on, and then it went all… wrong. It doesn’t even smell like an Amouage, really.”
“I cannot imagine where you are getting ‘slimy pondwater,’” Ambrose said, drilling his steely gaze into Mals. “The notes include rhubarb, coriander, jasmine, tuberose, gardenia, lily of the valley, pepper, carnation, vetiver, frankincense, amber, opoponax and leather. This scent is perfect for you. You like all of those notes.”
“Well, not so much the coriander and vetiver. In fact, those might be the problem,” Mals explained. “I have vetiver issues. I like the topnotes. And I like the base, once the problem notes are gone – though I don’t really smell any leather. It’s mostly incense and amber, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you,” Ambrose said, straightening up and sighing through his nose.
Mals leaned forward. “Take it back.”
“I don’t want the melon.”
“Sorry, I cannot help you.”
“Oh, yes, you will.” Mals glared. “You don’t know what I can do if pushed. I am not Cio-Cio-San.”
Ambrose stared at her, sucking air in through his nose. His lips were pinched together. Finally, he rocked back on his heels and sighed. “Very well, I will exchange Honour Woman for another Amouage. But you will need to return the store card to me.”
“I will not.” Customer and shopkeeper engaged in another battle of silent stares, until Mals had an idea. “How about this: you give me Memoir Woman in exchange for Honour, I keep the business card, I mention you to all my fragophile friends, and everybody’s happy? I’ll even pay you a 10% restocking fee for Honour, and I’ll come back and buy something else the next time I’m in town.”
“Or,” Mals said, tilting her head, “I keep Honour Woman and the business card, and I tell all my fragophile friends that your customer service stinks? Then I sell Honour Woman on eBay, at a loss to me, and I put in the item description why I’m selling it.”
Mals smiled a shark smile. “You’ll get to know me better. The next time I come in, I’ll bet you nail my dream fragrance first try. Here, smell this on me.” She held out her hand to Ambrose, who leaned in for a sniff – and quickly jerked back his head, making a face.
“That is awful,” he said, eyes wide. “I never imagined – Fine. Fine, I’ll exchange it for Memoir Woman. No restocking fee.” He sighed and clicked his fingers, and Graciela appeared wide-eyed with a bottle of Memoir Woman in its lovely box. Silently, she removed the white box from Mals’ shopping bag and replaced it with the black one, flicking little shocked glances at Ambrose while she worked.
“Thank you,” Mals said. “Honor seems to be satisfied here.”
“You will be back, won’t you?” Ambrose asked, sounding fearful.
“I will definitely be back.” Mals reached over and patted Ambrose on the arm. “Don’t worry. I still have that business card.” Their anxious eyes followed Mals out of the shop.
Only the black box with Memoir Woman in it on her dresser ever convinced Mals that it wasn’t a dream… because the next time she returned to the city, The Dream Perfumery was nowhere to be found along the street it had occupied before.
Honour Woman was an enormous disappointment for me. It’s pleasant, and for awhile reminds me of Annick Goutal Matin d’Orage, which I liked very much but found too fleeting to purchase. I don’t even mind the aquatic cast to the top half of the fragrance, and the base is very attractive. However, that melony-pondwater-bilge note is so unpleasant as to ruin the rest of it for me. Also, where the rest of the Amouages I’ve tried have been distinctive, rich, glowing things, this one does nothing for me at all. I do like its light, gauzy quality (I’ve been dabbing generously from a sample vial; a spray might produce less of a veil), but that sour thing in the middle is truly hideous. It’s largely tuberose-muguet with touches of frankincense and amber, but that sour melon ruins the whole deal.
Honour Woman does last a great deal longer than I had thought it would, given how light it seems in the top: about five hours, dabbed generously. Like most Amouages, it does give you a good long ride, which I consider essential for a fragrance that costs more than $3 per milliliter. Also, I’m still not getting the whole Madame Butterfly references. It doesn’t smell Japanese, it doesn’t smell romantic, it’s just… weird.
Marian at Perfume-Smellin’ Things found Honour Woman uncompelling, and Musette at Perfume Posse describes that pondwater note as “constipated frog burping up canteloupe.” I wouldn’t have put it quite that way myself – it’s not disgusting, it’s just annoying. Either way, it’s not for me.
Image from Fragrantica.