The Good Old Days: Hermes Bel Ami (vintage)
The original bottle for Hermes' Bel Ami, launched in 1986, looked like a tortoiseshell cocktail shaker, and how unbelievably cool is that? Even the box was tortoiseshell.
Now it's packaged in the house bottle, which is nice enough, I guess, but since they put just about everything in that same bottle, it's kind of boring. Even the box has been boringized (although I approve of the brown-with-blue-accents colour scheme). As for the reformulated scent, I have no idea what it smells like, because I haven't been able to bring myself to try it, but by all accounts it isn't what it used to be. Of course it isn't: reformulation never improves a scent, but either dumbs it down by removing elements deemed by European bureaucrats to be too dangerous for human consumption (oakmoss might give .016% of the population an allergic reaction!), changes it drastically to conform to modern tastes, or markets an entirely different, unrelated scent under the same name (an activity which should be illegal under bait-and-switch laws).
But the original? It's so excellent that I couldn't understand or appreciate it when I first encountered it (not the first time that ever happened to me). I got a typically big, generous sample (Hermes knows how to do them right) from the local perfumery, and I have a vivid memory of walking past the university library sniffing my wrist and trying to figure out if I liked or hated Bel Ami. And I couldn't decide. It was baffling, a complete mystery to me. I used up the entire sample and still didn't know. It was equal parts attractive and repellant, and in the end the essential strangeness of it kept pushing me away. I got another sample, emptied that, and still couldn't make up my mind. I didn't buy it. But it stuck in my head.
Finally, last year, a quarter of a century later (!), I ordered a big decant from The Perfumed Court, and at long last I was ready for it: I had smelled so many men's scents in the interim that not much could surprise me and nothing could scare me. It opens huge and mean, a gust of herbs and lemon, bitter pith and all, with a heavy-handed dash of Angostura bitters. And then, except for a long-lasting trail of bitterness, it's all replaced by an intensely complex leather: soft and cushiony, dirty-animalic, slightly floral with a hint of sweetness and (I think) the sharpness of vetiver, on a base of sandalwood and oakmoss. It is absolutely, uncompromisingly masculine and fantastically well done.
If you go out and buy the current Bel Ami, I don't know what you'll get. (It can't be as good the original.) But if you should stumble across that vintage bottle, or if you just trust me and order some from TPC before they run out, then you are in for a treat, because oh, they do not make them like this any more.