By Kilian Water Calligraphy : Perfume Review


As much as I love complex fragrances that feel like an alternative universe in themselves, there are days when I feel that my own world more than suffices to keep me on my toes. At such times I simply want something beautiful: a perfume that feels like a comfortable second skin, or a soft melody that forms a perfect scented soundtrack to my day. The latest such discovery is by Kilian Water Calligraphy, a perfume from the Asian Tales Collection.

Water Calligraphy is immediately inviting—the sparkling citrus top notes are tart and bittersweet, while the lemony cardamom is deliciously piquant. Even when the luscious white floral notes begin to unfold, the perfume retains its initial airy impression. If you’ve ever floated gardenias in a bowl of water and returned to find a room full of their peach and jasmine cream perfume, you will find a similar experience with Water Calligraphy.

But I admit that watery notes sometimes make me wary, because I associate them with bland florals that are more sterile than sensual. In Water Calligraphy, by contrast, the cool, watery touch is a perfect counterpoint to the opulence of frangipani and jasmine, but the silky brush of petals against the skin feels seductive. The main white floral story is augmented by the lemon ice cream note of magnolia and crunchy, sheer hyacinth, another beautiful touch.

The “gardenia petals floating on water” impression lasts for a surprisingly long time, and the radiance of Water Calligraphy is extraordinary. This is something I find in many fragrances created by perfumer Calice Becker, the author of Water Calligraphy. When it comes to creating radiant floral blends, she has few equals. Water Calligraphy dries down very slowly to a soft earthy backdrop of musk and vetiver. Yet, whenever I catch a whiff of my perfume, I still smell gardenia and jasmine, which with time become darker and richer.

Yet, Water Calligraphy never crosses into the heady, big white floral territory. It retains an understated presence and is casual enough to be worn during the day. Its crisp, cool feel will be particularly welcome during the hot days of summer. Those who love by Kilian’s high calorie oriental blends like Back to Black and Rose Oud may be unimpressed by the delicate character of both Water Calligraphy and Bamboo Harmony, but in my wardrobe I always have enough room for another polished perfume that simply makes me feel happy.

By Kilian Water Calligraphy  (The Asian Tale Collection) includes notes of grapefruit, reseda blossom, water lily, jasmine Sambac, magnolia, cardamom, and vetiver. By Kilian fragrances are sold from Aedes, MiN, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks5thAvenue.

Image: Water Drops and Flower Petals by razvan.orendovici, via Flickr, some rights reserved.

Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

Sample: my own acquisition



  • Suzanna: You had me at “lemony cardamom,” but the addition of lemon ice cream note has sent me over the edge of curiosity. Sounds like the perfect summer floral.

    Wonderful review, V! May 9, 2012 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: At first, it’s such a delicate swirl of frangipani, gardenia and jasmine, but the cardamom note really adds such a piquant touch to the petals floating on water impression. It’s so polished and so easy to wear, I’m smitten. May 9, 2012 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Anatole: Your review made me doubt my nose! But I’m sorry to say that to me, and most perfumistas I know to tell the truth, Water calligraphy only smells like shampoo by Garnier. Except the lovely jasmine/gardenia’s note, it’s rather a crispy and diluted synthétic. And for the last J’adore’s flanker I would have said it’s quite well done, but at this price’s tag I find it indicent.
    Maybe I’m totally not an asian tale lover.
    I love your new website BTW. May 9, 2012 at 2:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Anatole, we don’t have to agree! If all of us agreed on everything, the world would be very dull. 🙂 Thank you, glad that you like the new layout. May 9, 2012 at 2:22pm Reply

  • Myra C: I really like Water Calligraphy. Thank you for a great review! It really is soft, airy and refined. It reminded me very closely of Ormonde Jayne Osmanthus, although Osmanthus has a bit of an opaque feel to it, and if I didn’t own it already (thanks to your giveaway last year, after which by the way I know own many of the OJ offerings – so thanks for introducing me to the line, V.), I probably would have splurged for a bottle of WC.
    Myra May 9, 2012 at 2:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a great comparison, Myra, because I was thinking of Ormonde Jayne Frangipani, Osmanthus and Annick Goutal Un Matin d’Orage when I was testing Water Calligraphy for the first time. It has a similar airy quality (Frangipani feels much thicker and richer though). May 9, 2012 at 2:24pm Reply

  • Undina: Victoria, I liked the review. Actually, I liked the perfume as well. And I would be wearing it happily if a bottle flew out of the sky (or at least was twice less expensive). But I’m not sure I’m prepared to pay By Kilian’s price for what I described in my test notes as “nice, inoffensive perfume”. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s not worth it or should be cheaper. It’s just not beautiful enough for me to pay that price. May 9, 2012 at 5:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: I completely understand what you mean. By Kilian gets lots of beating for the price of his fragrances, and they are expensive. But from what I can smell (and I’m by no means right, that’s just my impression), I think that the ingredients themselves are very pricey. I smell things in his perfumes that I rarely encounter anywhere else. All this aside, many of his perfumes like Water Calligraphy simply make me feel delighted and happy whenever I wear them. In the end, that’s what matters the most to me. May 9, 2012 at 6:09pm Reply

      • Undina: I’m one of those people who do not think that perfumes should be affordable. It’s a luxury and it has to cost as such. And, as I mentioned above, I don’t think Water Calligraphy should cost less. But it is in that price range where I feel like I need to get a big BANG for my $$$ to justify the spending. It just shows where I stand with my budget and have no bad reflection on the brand. May 10, 2012 at 10:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it’s all in the price you’re willing to pay. I agree that perfume is a luxury and that the brands should give enough resources to perfumers to create beautiful, distinctive fragrances (rather pushing for quicker launches on a smaller budget). But I also think that luxury can exist for different budgets. May 11, 2012 at 9:17am Reply

  • neil chapman: This sounds like something I could wear for work, in tiny amounts. Where I work in Japan, perfume isn’t allowed, and I have to just surreptitiously wear something clean, floral, light-smelling (as opposed to the weekends when I reek of Borneo 1834 and the like). May 10, 2012 at 1:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Do you smell perfumes on other people in the street, Neil?
      You might like to try Bamboo Harmony too, which is a white tea inspired blend. Another fragrance that seems perfect for work in small amounts is Chanel 28 La Pausa. May 10, 2012 at 9:00am Reply

  • Lavanya: I didn’t care much for this one (i found the bamboo harmony one easier and ‘happy’ and positive). But your review makes me want to give it another chance- so I will..:) May 10, 2012 at 2:41am Reply

    • Victoria: To tell you the truth, the first time I’ve smelled Water Calligraphy and Bamboo Harmony, I preferred the latter for its tea notes. But over time I began to reach more and more for Water Calligraphy and to enjoy its gardenia petals in water impression. May 10, 2012 at 9:02am Reply

  • neil chapman: You DO smell perfume on the street, but it is almost always only L’Occitane’s Eau des Quatre Reines! I am SO tired of smelling it I can’t tell you. A safe, bourgeois rose.

    The whole issue of perfume in Japan is a fascinating one, but there is no doubt that my identity has been Jekyll and Hyded: I really do have two utterly separate identities! Today, I had a long, soapy bath and then sprayed some East Hampton Floret on my shirt sleeves: that created the clean, but still interestingly floral, ambiguous, effect I like to give off at work. Just a touch. I felt I got away with it. Other things (even a HINT of amber or patchouli- although I have noticed that more of the younger, urban women are going for that whole Coco Mademoiselle patchouli thing- which I personally really don’t care for; give me real patchouli or nothing – but in the classroom, seriously, you can’t even have a HINT of old world undertones or you will get quite violent reactions.)

    It has caused me quite a lot of stress actually. May 10, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I would never have guessed that this particular L’Occitane perfume would be such a hit. It’s essentially a Paris knock off made more tame. Your description is so spot on!

      I can imagine that some of the more animalic, darker scents might definitely be hard to pull off in your classroom. Patchouli can also be hard, because it’s so earthy. On the other hand, the traditional Japanese incense has this dusty-earthy edge. I love it. May 10, 2012 at 11:50am Reply

  • Naheed: Beautiful review, Victoria! My samples of the both fragrances arrived broken and all I had left were the nozzles. It was a rather difficult game for me to get to the right scent,but I will have to say that the package smelled so lovely. May 10, 2012 at 4:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, no! Sorry to hear that. Whenever my packages arrive smelling very good, I know that inside I will find only shards of glass. May 10, 2012 at 6:42pm Reply

  • Mike: This sounds like a fragrance that I need to start carrying on my site.Thanks for all the useful information. May 13, 2012 at 8:28pm Reply

  • bluegardenia: apologizing in advance if i sound cranky…
    there are a couple of pretty floral notes hiding in this, but to my nose it is cheap smelling, overwhelmingly synthetic, and extremely masculine in a lowbrow way. when i want to smell like davidoff cool water cologne, or a sports-themed deodorant, or a vat of dihydromercenol, then i’ll make sure to reach for this. (sorry for my negativity and sarcasm…just sort of shocked at this one.) June 16, 2012 at 10:56pm Reply

  • Lupe: Hey Victoria, I love the byKilian line. My faves are the dark,rich,opulent and decadent offerings ala the seductive honey of Back To Black and the vintage booze of Straight To Heaven. One thing I like to do is to keep my experience sterile, I sniff before I read the author’s formula – the sense of smell is so subjective that suggestive narrative more than often taints one unbiased perception of an olfactory offering. Thus, upon my virgin encounter with Water Calligraphy, I encountered a distinct ”inky” accord. What do you think? August 2, 2012 at 2:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Inky! That sounds interesting. I will have to resmell it with this in mind. There is a woody note in the drydown, maybe that’s what you notice? August 2, 2012 at 2:19pm Reply

  • Edward: Good afternoon Victoria,

    Whew! Your 4 star rating somehow validated my aesthetic sense that Water Calligraphy is one of the better fragrances in the by Kilian line.

    I went to the by Kilian counter and tested on my skin a couple of bottles. Among the 5 or so I tested, I find this the most appealing, so I bought it. When I reached home, I read the various reviews made on this perfume, most of which tend towards the negative. I started to ask myself, is there something wrong with my nose? Should I hate this as well since it appears those who do not like it are more than those who like it?

    But I told myself, what the heck, I will buy what I think is good perfume, even if others thought it smell very “mainstream.” Glad to know you like it as well.

    Have a great day! February 26, 2013 at 8:21am Reply

    • Victoria: If most mainstream perfumes were like this and of this quality, I would stop griping about the current state of affairs. 🙂 For me Water Calligraphy is graceful and polished. Happy to meet another fan! February 26, 2013 at 9:40am Reply

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