Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Papier d'Arménie, and a zig-zaggy, concertina fold tale of four cities

Source: stedentripper.com
I am not sure if there are any current readers of Bonkers who might have caught this post from December, 2009, just a couple of months after I started the blog. It is an account of a snowy trip to Bruges with ex-Mr Bonkers' mother, whom my Facebook friends may also know as 'my elderly friend', noted for her random acts of largesse, 'random' being very much the operative word. Her 75th birthday fell while we were away, and I gave her a bottle of Coco Chanel at breakfast that morning. She had already expressed a liking for Coco, I hasten to add, which marked quite a stylistic departure from the only other scent she owned at the time, the inoffensively peachy Burberry Women. In my post I wrote:

"Her sillage was creamy and warm like a sable stole, cocooning her in this winter wonderland. Well, metaphorically anyway, as we both ended up buying hats."

Now obviously  I wouldn't compare a perfume to a cosy stole anymore, having set up the hoary trope equivalent of a swear box for it some time around 2013... ;) But I mention it because I was wafting an equally memorable trail of Guerlain Bois d'Arménie. I had recently acquired a decant and had fallen hard for its soothing blend of smoky incense and warm, sweet vanillic woods.

Notes: pink pepper, iris, rose, coriander, benzoin, Indonesian patchouli, incense, precious woods, musk and balsams

Back then, I was dimly aware that this 'Armenian paper' from which the Guerlain scent took its inspiration was a venerable form of room deodoriser: it came in booklets comprising strips of paper that you would fold into a concertina and light like joss sticks. I have since learnt that they were invented in 1885 in a suburb of Paris by one Auguste Poncot, and that the family still jealously guard the recipe to this day. The primary ingredient, benzoin, a resin from the styrax tree, is mixed with aromatic 'natural essences' and used to coat an absorbent paper.

Source: Nature et Decouvertes

Three years after the trip to Bruges, in June 2012, I received a card out of the blue from Woking - from my cousin Tim's wife, Sue, enclosing a book of Paper d'Arménie(!) and the following note:

"Now you are probably already familiar with these Papiers Arménie things, but they were new to me. One of my favourite blogs (Mr London Street, he's really very good) wrote about them so evocatively I had to try them for myself. And having eventually got hold of some through French eBay, I thought you might like them, as our resident scentaholic. Let me know what you think of them.

Much love,

PS Tim hates them, btw, says they're too much like joss sticks. But I'll wear him down eventually."

I was about to move house at the time, so I tucked the little booklet away in a safe place. Later that summer, it resurfaced in my shoe box of perfume paraphernalia, and I decided to take it with me to show Victoria Frolova of Boisdejasmin, along with the very few perfumes I owned that I thought she might not have tried. I was going to Brussels specially to meet her in fact, and also to visit the niche perfumery in Waregem, Place Vendôme (aka Birgit Heaven). During our time together - spent sniffing and eating the several delicious meals Victoria rustled up - we talked amongst other things about our shared love of Bois d'Arménie, and I passed across the booklet of papers for her perusal. Indeed, through an oversight I left it behind in Victoria's flat, and she confirmed to me in a message yesterday that she still has them, awaiting collection on a future visit.

Fast forward to last week, when I was in touch with my friend Jessica about an upcoming gig of hers I planned to attend, and also inquiring about the last stragglers she hopes to test in her ongoing rose perfume quest, one of which was A La Rose, by Francis Kurkdjian.

"I don't think I've tried the Francis K yet. (That sounds like a Kafka character, doesn't it?) I am addicted to 'papier d'arménie' which I buy by mail order from France - the best one by far is the limited-edition one by Kurkdjian. So I am sure I will like A la rose."

Well, well, up they had popped again! - we are clearly not out of the Armenian woods yet...;) Thus it was that I decided to take a sample of Bois d'Arménie with me to the Would-be-goods gig on Saturday, so that Jessica could compare the perfume to the papers she knew. The band were performing in an indiepop charity festival in Cheshire. To be more specific, they played in what looked for all the world like a shiipping container on its side in the car park of a family-friendly pub in Congleton. And the weather also caught me out. Heavy rain had been forecast, so I felt quite smug about my choice of wellies and hooded anorak. I was wearing a zip up hooded top under that (can't have too many hoods in a Glastonbury-type scenario), and had also brought an umbrella and waterproof overtrousers. I still had concerns that the toilet arrangements might involve a two day trek, as I was only going up for the afternoon. As a precaution, I popped into the ladies at the local Tesco superstore before heading for the festival site. In the event, there was just a bit of light spitting during the gig and ample toilet facilities in the pub. Outfitwise I felt a little cheated, to be honest, and I ended up leaving the wellies in the car. Andy, the bass player (the same one as in The Monochrome Set), admitted that he had rather expected 'a bit of a field'.

Not to worry - it was a most enjoyable afternoon regardless! After the band came off stage, Jessica and I sat on a bench by a table laden with raffle prizes, and I gave her the sample of Bois d'Arménie. She applied it immediately, and wrote back with her verdict later in an email, namely that she had enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite 'her', before adding:

"If I haven't said so already, the best Papier d'Armenie by a long way is the 'Armenie' version with the pale blue cover. I find the rose one (also by Francis Kurkdjian) a bit sickly and the original version somewhat harsh by comparison."

Source: naturasellina.de

This is interesting, as I wasn't aware of the rose version by Francis Kurkdjian to which Jessica had referred earlier, and now here was yet another - blue, superior! - variant to consider. And even though Victoria has the booklet, I am pretty sure it is the original one that I had...

A bit of googling led me to this review of Papier d'Arménie by Robin of Now Smell This, in which she also nails her colours to the blue mast!

"This is the perfect Papier d'Arménie. It is even creamier and sweeter than La Rose — the powdery myrrh, incense, benzoin and vanilla scent of the unlit paper would be wonderful in a personal fragrance (or dusting powder) and would make a nice follow up to Guerlain's Bois d'Armenie."

So the smoky incense trail of Bois d'Arménie and its associated paper has led from a snow clad Bruges to Woking, to Brussels...to Congleton(!)....that's a fair few 'wegomleggings' along the way!

And then to Now Smell This, and now to Amazon. Because of course I am keen to try this ultimate blue version by Kurkdjian without delay...

UPDATE: In response to Sabine's inquiry below about the practicality / safety of burning these papers, I had a go today with one of two remaining two strips I found that didn't go to Brussels. All was well - it was over very quickly! - though the little concertina needed relighting twice, as my dining room is on the draughty side. ;)


  1. What a story! The funny thing is that before reaching the end of it I had my own "wegomleggings" that also led me to Amazon and then eBay :) (I mean, in addition to following all of your links).

    I was sure that I tried Guerlain Bois d'Arménie at some point. But I went through my database twice (and then ran a search) and I do not see any traces of this perfume in there... Can it be that I missed it? I'll need to do dome digging in the samples drawer :)

    1. Hi Undina,

      Haha! I hope your Amazon and eBay wegomleggings were fruitful! I have just ordered a couple of packs of the blue cover version on Amazon...

      Let me know if you draw a blank with the hunt for Bois d'Armenie in your samples collection. I could send you a smidge in a 'Freddie' on the next mule run. ;)

  2. I do have a decant of BdA but I've never smelled the real thing, so am grateful that you did all the research, so that come a cooler time of year and I might purchase some, I know which ones to go for :-) I do like BdA a lot, but somehow it never landed on a WL, I wonder why? Perhaps for me it hits some of the same spots as Cuir Beluga? Not that they are that similar, but that cocooning feel. I'm not sure though, and testing again will have to wait for cooler days.

    1. Hi Asali,

      You are quite right that all things Armenian wood-related lend themselves more to cool weather. I wonder if Jessica might also care for it more in the winter, albeit it probably isn't the usual kind of perfume she goes for. I get the cocooning similarities between BdA and Cuir Beluga. I didn't get on with that one, sadly - I think due to a heliotrope issue. There I go again...;)

  3. The things one learns on this blog...amazing. I have never heard of armenian paper before and I'm now rather intrigued. Isn't that a total fire hazard to light up a concertina of paper? The Guerlain is now on my try list as well.

    1. Hi Sabine,

      Glad to have been informative! That's a very good question about the fire hazard aspect, but evidently not. I have two remaining strips so let me conduct an experiment and get back to you - or not! ;) And I will not open the window, as with my ill-fated incense crystal burning attempt that led to the fateful finger incident...

    2. I very much appreciate your experimental spirit. Glad that no bonkers were hurt in the process.

    3. You're welcome! I will save the other strip to compare its scent with the Francis K ones on order.

    4. In Robin's review, she notes that she puts them in a stick incense burner or in a dish.

    5. I went the dish route - though I burn joss sticks in a block of wood with a hole in it. Which in truth I also sit in a dish. ;)

  4. I hope you do a follow-up post on the blue papers, V. I do like the sound of them and am tempted even though I am anti-Frank.

    I bought a decant of Bois d'Armenie and really like it but didn't buy a bottle because it somehow felt a bit flat. You have inspired me to go decant digging and give it another try because that was ages ago. Perhaps I should wait for cooler weather though.

    1. Hi Tara,

      I might well do, especially in the light of my successful experiment with the original type, the upshot of which I have now added to the end of this post.

      'Flat' is an interesting observation - I suppose there is not a whole lot going on with Bois d'Armenie. It reminds me quite a bit of Le Labo Labdanum 18. One of those slightly hoochy - veering to barnyard? - woody vanillas. Felanilla is another one.

    2. Thanks for the update! Do you burn the whole booklet at once?

    3. Just a strip at a time, as I understand it. Until your room is sufficiently fragranced I guess. There are several strips to a page - I don't know how many pages to the booklet.

    4. Oh right. Thanks, V. The concertina effect on your FB pic made me wonder.

    5. And also on this post, Sabine felt the pics made things look bigger. ;)