November 1, 2012

The Climat Chronicles: Fake Lancome Climat & the Quest for the Real Thing

 

 

The subject of this article is not the original Climat parfum from 1967. Nor is it the much later La Collection reissue from 2005. This article is written specifically about the Climat parfum of the 1980s and 1990s in the bright blue marble-ized box, with the deep, olive-green juice. This Climat is a source of longing for thousands of women (many of them from the former Soviet Union), and it is proving increasingly elusive to procure.

At this time, many vintage Climat lovers , like me, are in a fragrance crisis.  We have smelled the nectar of the gods and surrendered to it. It is a scent that wraps us around its elegantly tapered finger, and we do not resist. Indeed, we rush forward, committing to it. Its beauty shocks us with its tart citrus and peach notes splashed by subtle aldehydes and laid transparently over a floral heart of rose, lily, jasmine, and narcissus…and the light sweetness of an unusual amber , giving the whole thing a fresh, powdery innocence and heralding the warm, high-quality sandalwood/vetiver drydown. I’m enslaved.  So I seek it out. I shell out hundreds of dollars for half an ounce of ambrosial dew. And then, like Icarus who got  too close to the sun, I am burned. And devastated. Over and over again, my efforts thwarted. I huddle in a corner, whimpering, scratching the paint off the wall with my fingernails. A woman on the edge, like Farrah Fawcet in ‘The Burning Bed.’  Okay fine, so maybe it’s not that bad. But still, it’s pretty annoying! The tide of fake vintage Climat on the market is overwhelming. So what the heck is a Climat lover to do?

In the following FAQ  I will try to shed some light. All of the pictures in this blog post are of REAL vintage Climat.

I just bought a 14 ml bottle of vintage Climat parfum. Why doesn’t it smell right?

The 14 ml vintage parfum is the most faked version of Climat. The reason for this is simple: supply and demand. There is a strong demand for this version because in the 1980s many women in the former Soviet Union and other locales  had access to this scent, and wore it. They loved the fragrance and now have fond memories of it. But it has been discontinued for a long time. So? The perfume fakers create fake copies of the parfum and pass them off as real in order to meet the demand. Some of the fake parfums smell similar to vintage Climat, some of them do not. Some of them have a strong scent, some of them smell very weak. Still, they are all fake, and some buyers do not even realize that they have received a fake. Real vintage Climat parfum from the 1980s is very rare and does not come on the market often.

Where do these Climat fakes come from?

Many of the fake bottles of Climat come from Eastern Europe/Ukraine/Russia. I have read that some of them are manufactured under license in Netherlands or in the Middle East, but in my experience most fake Climat seems to have strong connections with Ukraine/Russia, which is where the demand is strongest (as well as among expatriates).

How are the fake bottles manufactured?

The fake Climat parfums fall into two categories: 1) fake packaging + fake juice, and 2) recycled authentic packaging + fake juice. Let’s examine both categories

1) The first category includes boxes that are fake, bottles that are fake, braided ribbons that are fake, and they’re filled with perfume that is fake. The packaging and perfume are all imposters, manufactured cheaply and although they resemble real vintage Climat at first glance, they  show inconsistencies in the packaging that demonstrate that they are not authentic.

2) The second category is comprised of authentic  vintage Climat boxes, authentic vintage braided ribbons, and authentic vintage bottles which have been re-filled with fake perfume. In Eastern Europe, there is apparently an active industry which recycles real, used Climat boxes and bottles, and  fills them with fake juice. They appear to be completely legitimate when you look at the packaging , but when you smell the actual perfume and inspect the color visually, it is clear that it is not true Climat: the authentic empty bottle has been refilled with fake perfume. I know of a location in Ukraine where many fakes of this type come from.

Where can I buy real vintage Climat parfum?

Several times a year, there are bottles of real, vintage Climat parfum that appear on Ebay, both U.S. Ebay and Ebay in other countries – and also regional marketplaces like Molotok.ru will sometimes have real bottles of Climat. But they are rare, and it is sometimes difficult for the average Climat-lover to tell a real bottle from a fake bottle.

When did Lancome stop making Climat parfum?

This is a difficult question. I have read from some Russian & Ukrainian women online that in the early 1990s, Climat parfum became difficult to find in those areas. I have also read a post on a Russian message board stating that Climat was, around this time period, being manufactured in the Middle East, and that there was a fire which destroyed many of the raw materials for a planned batch of Climat, but I cannot verify this. I believe that vintage Climat parfum was repackaged in the 1990s and its distribution became very limited. The parfum’s  production had been discontinued by 2001.

What percentage of  vintage Climat parfum on the market is fake?

A huge majority of the vintage 14 ml Climat parfums for sale online are fake. Literally, about 99% of the bottles that you find on Ebay and online etailers are fake bottles. There are not many full bottles of real vintage Climat parfum left in the world. Once in a while, one will come on the market.

 

If a bottle sells for hundreds of dollars, does that mean that it is real?

No. Many of the fake bottles being sold online have prices set at $40.…$100.…$200.…$300…Generally speaking, nearly all of these are fake Climat. Once in a while, a real, authentic bottle of Climat will come on the market and when it does it usually sells for hundreds of dollars. This is the reason that sellers of fake Climat set the price so high: because it makes their product appear to be authentic and rare.

Why do buyers of vintage Climat parfum on Ebay often leave positive feedback?

Out of curiosity, I have contacted some buyers who left positive feedback for the seller of a typically faked Climat. I asked them if  they were happy with the Climat parfum that they received. They wrote back to me with a variety of responses, stating that  1) they bought the perfume to give as a gift, 2) they had actually not opened it and tried it yet, 3) it did not smell like Climat should smell, but it still had a lovely smell, 4) they knew it smelled different but they thought it was due to age, 5) they knew it was fake but it resembled the original quite a bit so they were happy.

Does the 2005 La Collection re-release of Climat in Eau de Parfum smell like vintage Climat?

Although it bears a resemblance to vintage Climat , the 2005 release does not smell identical to it. They reformulated it, and the high-quality natural ingredients which made vintage Climat parfum so lovely were left out of the La Collection release, and it shows.  While the 2005 version is a pretty fragrance on its own, most vintage Climat lovers agree that it does not measure up to the original.

How can I tell real vintage 80s/90s Climat  parfum from fake?

-The lettering on real, authentic bottles of vintage Climat parfum is always the same: the same lettering, the same word order, the same text, the same spacing and measurement between the letters. The letters should be clean and clearly articulated without smudges in the ink. Fake Climat lettering sometimes looks sloppy in comparison to the real thing. The picture to the right is a close-up picture of how the lettering should always look on authentic vintage Climat 14 ml parfum. Click on the image to see the full sized version with my notes included as a general guideline for authentication.

 

 

 

 

 

-Look for Climat juice that has the deep, sparkling, olive-green shown in these pictures. That is the color of real vintage Climat parfum of the time period we are discussing. Nearly all of the fake Climat parfums get the color wrong: sometimes it’s too light, too bright green, too yellow…Real vintage Climat parfum has a very distinctive and consistent color.

 

-Look for a braided ribbon around the neck that is royal-blue and gold-orange. The ribbon should not be black + yellow, it should not be  green + blue.  Sometimes on old authentic bottles, the blue and gold ribbon is tattered or faded.

 

- Climat parfums from the 1980s should come in a marblized blue box without a gold square. There is no bar code on the box, but on the lower side of the box, in small print, is stated “Copyright Lancome 1979.” Inside the top of the box, there is often a shiny Guarantie slip of paper. On the back it may say “Baccarose” and have a batch number stamp.

 

 

 

 

-The box with the gold square came out in the 1990s. Most of the currently manufactured fakes come in this type of box. The gold-square style of packaging may have briefly been released officially by Lancome in the early 1990s – and then widely copied by fakers. For example, this bottle shown in the picture that came in a gold-square box looks to be authentic – but 99% of Climat with the gold square are definitely fake. To find one that may be authentic, look for one with the characteristic deep olive-green juice and with a braided ribbon that is blue and orange and has a pronounced “knitted” texture, like this one. I personally own a bottle that has this blue and orange knitted ribbon and it is absolutely authentic, beautiful vintage Climat. But again, nearly all the Climat on the market that comes in the box with the gold square is fake – it is very rare to find one that is authentic.

 

-If you have questions about vintage Climat, feel free to contact me through this blog. I will give you my most honest and informed answer. I have owned 3 bottles of gorgeous REAL vintage Climat parfum, and I have also owned a few bottles of FAKE vintage perfume. So unfortunately, I have a lot of experience and perspective when it comes to this issue. There is an epidemic of fake Climat perfume right now and people need to know about it. Thanks for reading. Fragrant, Climat-scented wishes for all!

July 12, 2012

Vintage Musk Oils of the 1970s

Musk is sex. Musk is clean. Musk is dirty. Musk is a promise of pleasure and connection. Musk is gag-inducing. Musk is sweet. Musk is a natural smell and yet all of these seven musk oils are synthetic. Musk is all of these things and that’s why I love it. Our relationship to the smell of musk is complex, and is connected undoubtedly with our relationship to our own bodies and our attitudes to sex. Since the late ‘60s, single-note musk fragrances have been popular with the great unwashed – or at least those who wish to smell as such. Reaching its peak in the 1970s, the musk oil trend offered a simple yet compelling way of scenting oneself with a manufactured product while affecting the illusion that the highly compelling scent was emanating from one’s own pores. The scent of musk has long been found to be powerfully erotic by many, resembling as it does the smell of – please forgive me – ‘groin sweat’  (sorry…).  In this post, I will be revisiting some beloved vintage musk oils from the heyday of the genre, the 1970s, comparing and contrasting their respective virtues.

Jovan Musk Oil – She is the diamond of the genre, undeniably at the top of the musk hierarchy. What Led Zeppelin is to ‘70s rock n roll, Jovan Musk oil is to ‘70s  musk fragrances. Jovan was so successful in marketing its Musk Oil to men and women because its ad copy made explicit the promises of sexual attraction for all who anointed themselves with it.  They also were able to back up their claims with a wonderful-smelling product so on some level the ad copy was not all hyperbole. Vintage Jovan Musk Oil is indeed incredibly lovely and undeniably smooth, its subtly-sweet, softly-floral musk balancing perfectly the fine line that separates ‘freshly showered’  from  ‘just ravaged’. The seamless creaminess to this vintage oil is truly lovely, and while the modern version is very similar, it is not as smooth with a slight chemical rasp that is not present in the vintage.  Jovan Musk oil came out in 1972 and was such a success that within a year or two there were several similar fragrances on the market.

R.H. Mystic Musk Oil – In the mid and late 1970s this musk oil was very popular in places along the Mid-Atlantic like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and many people continue to long for this long discontinued musk oil.  However, despite the allegiance many people have for it, I cannot truly say that it is all that original-smelling. It bears a strong resemblance to vintage Jovan Musk Oil, which it was undoubtedly influenced by. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely stunning. When I catch the creamy-sweet musky sillage floating up to my nose, my first instinct is to look in every direction for a gorgeous hunk  so I can saunter past him and possibly make him fall in lust with me through my powerfully erotic scent trail! It’s a beautiful musk, but unquestionably derivative.

Amica Naked Musk Oil – Another in the Jovan-influenced musk oils. This musk oil is dirt cheap to this day. I have the old version with the cork in it, so I cannot vouch for the current version, but it is also exceptionally pretty and sexy in the Jovan mode.

 

 

 

Coty Wild Musk Oil – Finally, we come to a musk that is remarkably different from the more normative Jovan-esque  lilly-musk accord. Coty’s Wild Musk is all about the sweet woods rather than the florals. There is a powdery, slightly peppery, sandalwood note here partnered with crystalline musk. Whereas the previous musks all have an unabashedly raunchy, body-odor-mimicking scent profile, Wild Musk Oil elevates the sweet woods to an almost meditational level. The musk here is palpable and undeniably sexy, but the synthetic sandalwood accord is, for me, dominant. Released in 1973, Wild Musk came out in the wake of Jovan Musk’s success like most of the others…yet in terms of its fragrance it was more original than those others in its de-emphasizing of florals and focusing on powdery woods.

Bonne Bell Skin Musk – Released in the mid-1970s, this musk was marketed primarily to vibrant young women , a contrast to Jovan’s take-no-prisoners sexual-onslaught ad campaign. This fragrance is now manufactured by Parfums de Coeur, but I have an older mini bottle of the vintage Bonne Bell oil  which smells  remarkably similar to Coty Wild Musk Oil with its sweet wood accord combining with the synthetic musk.

Kiehl’s Original Musk Oil – My bottle comes from 2006, and it is a sweet, lily-based floral musk. This musk is somewhat similar to Jovan Musk, but it has a stronger floral profile, and somehow makes a bigger statement. According to Kiehl’s lore, this scent was originally created in the 1920s and christened Love Oil, then rediscovered in a vat in the 1960s. Unlike Jovan  Musk Oil whose vintage bottles are all but ubiquitous, early bottles of Kiehl’s Musk Oil are very difficult to come across. My bottle features a pronounced sweet lily note under-girded by a  powerful musk accord that is both skanky-smelling and clean, rather like smelling someone’s scalp. Whereas Jovan’s Musk  Oil whispers up from the wrist, Kiehl’s Musk veritably blares its call like a tomcat yowling in the night. Incidentally, this also comes in EDT form, which is rather strange; somehow raunchier and not as sweet as the oil.

Dana Musk Oil – A lovely reader sent me a generous sample of this legendary vintage beauty.  Upon initial application, my first thought was that this was barnyard animalic carried to the extreme – the raunchy musk to end all musks. It made Kiehl’s smell like child’s play, so naughty and flagrant were its nuances of B.O., urine and the boo-tay  in the somehow still pleasant mix. As time wore on, a cleaner almost shampoo-like facet revealed itself. It began to remind me of the famous Musk Oil by The Body Shop and moreso reminded me of an obscure parfum from the 70s called Gambit, which I have a mini of.  Did the Dana Musk Oil change over the course of an hour or did my own scent receptors change as they adjusted to the smell. I’ll need to give this several more wearings to get a proper sense of it, but among these old musk oils, Dana Musk is unique and absolutely worth seeking out for its feral, sexual scream laid over 70s shower-freshness.

West Cabot Labs Original Musk Oil – This is another 70s musk oil that is very rare to find in vintage form. It is still around and the modern version is what I am reviewing. This musk is known for being very faint and hard to detect. Fans of this oil insist that it gets stronger with time as it heats up on the skin. I find this to be true as well. I smell a subtle, yet very beautiful, crystalline musk that has an almost mineral quality to it when inhaled close up, almost like smelling rough stone. It has a very mild sweetness to it, anticipating the scent of Egyptian musks, and again, it is lovely – when one can actually detect  it. Long-time fans insist that it smells a bit different than the original version, especially where strength is concerned. This musk is unique, smelling identifiably like musk, yet different from the Jovan-esque oils and the Coty Wild Musk-ish sweet woods. Very intriguing, I would absolutely love to smell the vintage version of this one. It has also been known as Cabot Labs Musk Oil and Cooperlabs Musk Oil.

After the 1970s heyday of  single-note musk scents, musk took a decidedly sweeter turn from 1980 to 1990, the decade that brought forth successful billowy, cotton-candy musk offerings like Soft Musk by Avon and White Musk by Jovan. In reviewing these  vintage ’70s musk oils, I couldn’t help but observe that there are significant similarities in several of these musks to a  successful predecessor, to the point that I would say  ‘If you have vintage Jovan Musk Oil you don’t really need Amica Naked Musk or R.H. Mystic Musk”. Or I might also say ‘If you have Coty Wild Musk Oil you don’t really need Bonne Bell Skin Musk’ and vice versa.  But Musk lovers become attached to one particular musk, and the heart wants what the heart wants.  So the vintage musk oil lover will trawl  Ebay night after night in search of a true piece of nostalgia: the musk of their now-mythologized youth. A true connoisseur of musks  could certainly find fault with these simplistic reviews …But for my purposes here, I have attempted to convey the overall sense of each of these historically significant musk oils, a list which is far from complete (sorry I couldn’t include Alyssa Ashley Musk by Houbigant. That is one I’d love to include here but have never tried).  Thank you for reading!

April 5, 2011

Audace (1972) by Rochas Review

It is sometimes said that the first perfume by the fashion house of Rochas was the seminal plum-chypre Rochas Femme, created by perfumer Edmond Roudnitska. Not so, as I discovered recently when I was given the opportunity to delve deeper into Rochas’ fragrant history. A kind reader offered to send me some Audace parfum, and of course as a classic chypre lover I jumped at the chance to try it (thanks again, N.!). Audace, I learned, was originally released in 1936 as one of three perfumes that were sold only at Rochas fashion shows and events (see original flyer below, now being offered on Ebay). None of these three fragrances were ever released commercially, and they were put out of production (i.e. discontinued) by the advent of World War II. But one of these lost scents was to again see the light of day, poking her head up through the rich, earthy ‘70s soil. Audace was reborn in 1972, released commercially to the world for the very first time in her history complete with full page advertisements. I can only guess that the fresh green chypres of the early 70s like Chanel No. 19, Aromatics Elixir, and Givenchy III (not to mention Aliage, also released in ’72) inspired Rochas to dig into their back catalog for inspiration, and they seemingly felt they’d found a viable option in Audace. Although I’m sure that the scent was reworked significantly before its reissue, the ’70s version I have does indeed smell like it could fit comfortably into the 1930s fragrance milieu.

For all its implied audacity, Audace is a subtle fragrance, gentle and light in its beginnings. It starts upon application as just a whisper, a silken caress of soft florals. As I strain to peer through the veil, to make sense of these very well blended notes, it’s like I am feeling my way in the dark. Rather than being sharpened by a bracing citrus top note, the rose, jasmine  (+  jonquil & carnation?)  notes are muffled by a sheer veil of orris, which warms the fragrance fondue pot, enabling the floral notes to meld gummily together. The effect is undefined and indistinct, like “seeing through a glass darkly”, and this thick, hazy quality has been described by various reviewers as “smoky”, “ashy” and “chewy”.

There are said to be coniferous notes of pine & juniper, as well as galbanum resin, but sadly I cannot perceive them, except for perhaps a vague suggestion of fresh sweetness in the very beginning stages. I am also not catching the violet leaf listed in the notes. I believe this may simply be due to the parfum concentration itself (or perhaps the notes listed online are false; more evidence of this possibility below). Pure parfums were not merely versions of the scent that had the highest concentration of extrait: Each concentration actually had a different ratio of top, middle, and basenotes. So while an EDC normally contained the highest percentage of top-note components and lowest percentage of base note components, parfum extraits were the very opposite (for more information on this aspect of perfume concentrations, see “The Essence of Perfume” by Roja Dove). A lower concentration of Audace, like Eau de Toilette, would likely offer the fullest iteration of the scent by featuring the elusive top notes  (like violet leaf and pine needle) which are scarce in my “basenote rich” pure parfum. Just thought I would mention this for anyone who is keen to experience the green & piney notes to their fullest effect.

As the gauzy rose/jasmine-centered florals die down, what I do get is a lot of real sandalwood in the base, which strangely is not listed as one of the notes on the Perfumed Court website.  The distinctive warm, sharp smell which features prominently in the basenotes of classics like Je Reviens, Ma Griffe, Caleche, Madame Rochas, Chant d’Aromes, and several others is that of sandalwood oil’s natural drydown (often tinged with oakmoss), and to my nose Audace  joins this illustrious list of sandalwood based fragrances.

Sadly, Audace was not able to compete within the green, earthy fragrance trend of the 1970s. In smelling the parfum today, it seems to express – like its sandalwood sister Chant d’Aromes but to an even greater extent – a reserve and muffled elegance that was slightly outmoded at the time of its re-release. Or maybe that’s just how I perceive sandalwood-based floral chypres.  Because the warm, sharp, sandalwood-dominant style  all but disappeared from  mass market fragrances after the early ‘60s  (in favor of cooler and sweeter base accords, centered primarily around cedar, vetiver, amber resins, patchouli, incense, etc.), to smell one from the cool, green  ’70s is for me rather like seeing a family who churns its own butter in 2011. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still…) Like them, Audace was somewhat out of step with its contemporaries: a fully reincarnated child of the New Age,  gazing back into its 1930s  past-life with longing eyes. Where Audace wafts a formal elegance in her sillage, the perfumes she was competing with were made for liberated women who kicked off their sandals and ran through fields of wildflowers, snapping a stalk or two along the way – and who increasingly sought a realistic interpretation of that act of freedom in their fragrance choices. (And again, the lower concentrations of Audace may indeed have more of this green freshness than the pure parfum that I’m reviewing.)

I may be way off base here, but in my own mind, the reissue of Audace was an older woman being given a makeover and asked to rejoin the workforce, forced to compete with teenagers for receptionist jobs. Back in her own time though…in her own heyday…I’ll bet she was an absolute vixen. It’s easy to picture Mae West, queen of the sexy double entendre and Marcel Rochas’ own inspiration for the shapely Rochas Femme bottle, plentifully applying drops of Audace in preparation for romance in a 1930s film. Reworked as she was for a 1970s audience, the scent still has one foot in an earlier era.

Today we hear of Audace only through the occasional honorable mention by one of her admirers, of which I now happily count myself as one.

March 30, 2011

Opium (1977) by Yves Saint Laurent Review


In 1984 I was seven years old and that was the year I first discovered Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. My family had all gathered at my grandparent’s house for some occasion or other, and I was allowed to bring a friend along. While the adults sat on the couch or stood in the kitchen, catching up with each other, Jenny and I were allowed to wander the house and neighborhood at will. After a while, we found our way into my grandparent’s bedroom and of course we were drawn like a magnet to Gran’s vanity table, with it’s ornate jewelry box, lipsticks, and ‘pretties’. There were several bottles of perfume there…but like a moth to a flame we were drawn to a bottle of Opium spray, the deep ochre hues of its cap and its exotic lettering signaling danger even to us young’ns.  We lifted the cap and sniffed the sprayer – and immediately recoiled in horror. Jenny whimpered softly, plugging her nostrils with her fingers…I wrinkled my nose and squealed “Oh gross!” We looked at each other with abject horror and disgust. Something had gone very wrong. Our young noses had, up to that time, been pampered by the sweet, ambrosial Giorgio and the unchallenging, nectar-like Vanderbilt. We had over-reached, our exuberance and hubris leading us into dark territory that we were not prepared for…and we knew it. “That stuff is for grown-ups,” Jenny said earnestly, eager to throw off any association with the stuff. “It’s so gross” I cried, as we made our way out of the bedroom, traumatized.

Cut to twenty five years later, and I love the stuff. Jenny was right, the story that Opium tells is an adult story, its narrative redolent with hedonism, narcotic temptation, and forbidden passion. My first impression of Opium as a kid was that it smelled absolutely lethal, like bug spray. The opening burst of powerful aldehydes, spices, sour citrus, and rose literally sent me reeling, although today I am charmed by the audacity of the immediate post-spritz. If the tempestuous top notes are mere foreplay, seducing and teasing, then the heart is the real deal, the culmination of love itself. The rose/jasmine/ylang  is given a hint of fruity sweetness by subtle plum/peach, while charged by  the high-pitched citrus/spice from above and the monolithic ambered base from below; the effect is an exaggerated approximation of the sharp scent of vulva itself. Oh yes, Jenny, this is grown-up stuff indeed. As time passes and the rose and tropical “love flowers” recede, the perfume’s spicy, Eastern nature is made more and more explicit, with deeply entrenched clove and cinnamon clinging tenaciously to every phase of Opium – like the proverbial monkey on its back. The heart-pounding, spiced floral heart fades into a woody resinous base,  and passion is replaced by afterglow.

The marriage of cinnamon bark with woods, vanilla & amber  is really what keeps me coming back to this perfume, long after other perfume lovers have seemingly left the Opium den. Although it captivates with its notoriously hot, blatantly feminine top and middle notes, it is the base of Opium parfum that has made an absolute believer out of me. According to its perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac, “The oriental facet of Opium represents only 10 percent of the overall formula but creates 50 percent of the effect.” Benzoin, myrrh, labdanum, opoponax join with cedar and sandalwood to create a sweet bed of oriental dreams, gilded with an animalic edge through castoreum and musk. Upon the bed is laid a perfected cinnamon, raised and lowered into position by a system of ropes and pulleys which fit the note precisely into place upon the oriental dais. My vintage Opium parfum is coincidentally from 1984, the year I first tried Opium, and I am only sorry that I wasn’t able to first try Opium in this concentration as a child; if I had I would have surely been hooked rather than spooked.

As successful as the perfume is in what it aims to do, its birth was not without some hiccups. Opium was born and carried aloft on the dreams of Yves Saint Laurent’s fascination with China and Japan. When St. Laurent told bottle designer Pierre Dinand what kind of motif he envisioned for the fragrance, he used the words “Flowers of fire,” and both the bottle and the fragrance itself can be viewed as variations on this theme. Opium sought to evoke the mythically languorous, debauched decadence of another time in  another place, namely the Far East, and to unite the illicit with the spiritual. In its lower stages, the perfume owes some debt to Estee Lauder’s successful oriental Youth Dew, although Opium is heads and tails above that 1950s classic in terms of both complexity and quality of materials. As Michael Edwards tells it in his amazing book “Perfume Legends,” the original name for the fragrance was “Ichi”. Dinand modeled the bottle for it after the Japanese inrō in which Samurai warriors would keep their opium and other small objects. When Yves Saint Laurent saw the bottle, he received the inspiration for the perfume’s true name: Opium. But the name was inflammatory, highly controversial in the mid to late 1970s when illegal drugs were becoming a huge concern to Western countries. The parent companies of Charles of the Ritz and Squibb were aghast at such a name, fearing a backlash among the more conservative sectors of the buying public. But Saint Laurent wouldn’t hear of changing the name:  it was to be called Opium or nothing at all! Eventually, he won out and Opium became a smashing success upon its release, going on to inform the smoky air of nightclubs with its exotic essences, and gag the P.E. coaches in girl’s locker rooms everywhere with its potency.

If memory serves me, my friend Jenny’s first perfume was Exclamation when we were in middle school, several years after we’d nearly choked to death in my grandparent’s bedroom from the Opium fumes. As for me, I wore nothing (I felt that my Secret Deodorant provided just enough fragrance with its powdery sweetness). But in our school, there was one girl who wore Opium: she’d been held back once or twice, was a year or two older than us, and miles ahead in terms of experience. She applied Opium subtly, but I could smell its heart notes on her like strong cider whenever I passed her in the hall or saw her in the restroom. She seemed like a sweet girl. Occasionally, my friend Jenny made fun of the other girl’s perfume choice (and implicityly, of her very character), holding her nose and mouthing “Pewwww,” or sticking her finger down her throat whenever we saw the poor thing in school. Now, some twenty years later, I have most definitely come around, and I wish very much that I’d befriended her.

March 26, 2011

Chant d’Aromes (1962) by Guerlain Review

In a faded corridor of my mind, a quote buzzes around. It is activated from dormancy every time I wear Chant d’Aromes. The quote is: “It ain’t easy being married to a saint.” It was said in a film or television show a long time ago, hurled by a husband at his beloved wife. She is beautiful, compassionate, and inherently modest. In fact she’s so genuinely soft and kind that you can’t help but love her, and any envy you have over her natural beauty quickly dissipates in the face of her own obliviousness to it. She might be considered a bit boring if she wasn’t so beautiful and didn’t radiate such integrity. To me, Chant d’Aromes is like her. There’s no dark side lurking beneath the surface, she is what she is and nothing more, and what she is is lovely and pure.

Chant d’Aromes is a chypre perfume that was released by Guerlain in 1962, just as the old order of 1950s conservativism was crumbling away at the feet of a new era marked by social upheaval and Beatlemania. The perfume is perched on the brink of this divide, and in my mind has her feet firmly planted in what came before: a holdover to that somewhat more glamorous era that was swiftly losing ground before the unstoppable tide of sex, drugs, rock & roll. Only two years later in 1964, Shiseido would release their Zen perfume, highlighting the siren song that Eastern religious motifs and concepts would begin to have over many Western sensibilities.

I have a small sample of the vintage parfum which I’ve been cherishing for several years now. I only apply a small bit at a time, after which my nose is glued to my wrist trying to smell the stuff. The fragrance is distinguished by its interplay between classical floral and sweet fruity notes, as well as by its conspicuous softness. The softness that is so apparent in Chant d’Aromes betrays the whisper and caress of another era. It’s hushed tones bespeak of a muffling of sorts, like silk gloves over fidgety hands on a formal occasion; its quietude,  the relationship of an older couple where words are no longer needed. Chant d’Aromes’ original notes are apparently lost to time, and in searching for them I opened several web pages, all of which listed different schemata of notes. Is it plum, peach, or mandarin that is the sweet fruity note? Is it vanilla or benzoin in the basenotes? Who knows…

Right off the bat, I am wowed by a stunning burst of crystalline bergamot and aldehydes, paired with warm, fatty gardenia – similar to the gardenia note of old Ma Griffe and Miss Dior. I inhale my wrist, begging this lush accord to linger, but she exits gracefully with the sincerest of  apologies. As she turns to go, she holds the door open for sweet plum, who peaks his head in before stepping over the threshold and entering the ballroom of olfactory perception in earnest. Within minutes plum has taken over and is the star of the show: smooth, sweet, and oh so present. But Mr. Plum is a Gemini charmer, and he gets bored easily. He wants to go, which is fine…because he’s just been upstaged. Jasmine, rose, and orris just entered  and all noses turned in their direction. As seconds turn to minutes, and minutes turn to increments of the hour, the florals in the room – er, in the FRAGRANCE – are underscored by an enticing whisper of clove, well hidden within the folds of the ball gown, but perceptible nevertheless. And still, vestiges of sweet plum remain. There are other ingredients yet to be mentioned: honeysuckle is often listed in the notes, and basenotes such as cedar, vanilla, and olibanum (frankincense). But the composition is so soft and well blended that it’s hard to distinguish any of those. The party winds down and the guests disperse. Our sweet plum finally gets up and takes his leave, exposing a deep drydown of  powerful sandalwood, oakmoss, and iris. (and I detect zero vanilla, for what it’s worth).

Chant d’Aromes parfum has a way of making latch-key kids out of its admirers, so soft is its aroma and so quickly does it come and go (though in this regard it’s not nearly as bad as “Y” de YSL, a similarly soft chypre fragrance released just two years later ). It leaves me somewhat unsatisfied, but that’s part of its magnetism. I am always left wanting more – if it were stronger and its contested notes more clearly articulated and longer lasting, it would probably lose some of its allure. As it is, Chant d’Aromes is a handed-down cameo whose charm is as gentle and warm as a new mother. At the same time, her formality and reserve lifted from another era can, like the clove note in its subtlety,  seem as veiled and unfathomable as a cipher.


March 23, 2011

Fleurs de Tabac (1929) by Cherigan Review

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of stumbling upon a rare perfume find. I was out and about, exploring local antique stores, when I entered a gorgeous shop – a veritable shabby-chic Shangri la – where vintage Victorian doilies existed alongside sharp Art-Deco angles. Among the costume jewelry, seafoam green cabinetry, white bird cages, and vanity trays, there were several tall perfume bottles. They were primarily turn of the centrury toilet waters, long emptied of their contents, save for one. It was a large bottle of Cherigan’s Fleurs de Tabac in ‘Lotion’ concentration (which is equivalent to modern EDT or EDP), and let’s just say it was priced to sell and I acquired it for a song. Score! I am a tobacco lover. I’ve shelled out for vintage Tabac Blond, sampled Habanita, Chergui, Bell’Antonio, Tobacco Vanille. All of those are endowed with virtues that endear them to me in different ways, but none of them quite smells like real cured tobacco. And neither does Cherigan’s Fleurs de Tabac, though to my nose it does come close .

I believe this fragrance may have been originally created for men, but has evolved culturally to become unisex.  Indeed, there are no noticeable aldehydes or ‘sparkle’, and it contains a limited amount of powder. My vintage juice starts out with the brushy, spring breeze of vetiver, a prominent ingredient in many perfumes of this era. The vetiver here contributes both a freshness and a light smokiness in that magical way that vetiver does, yet it is given an animalic twinge by the antique musks that waft up from the base, apparently wishing to give a lightly ribald birthday-spanking to the upper notes. As the scent fades down, the promise of nicotine is made manifest, sparking this ex-smoker’s reflex of deep inhalation when confronted with the aroma of tobacco. Making up the tobacco accord, I smell vetiver, jasmine, amber (benzoin), vanilla, and musk. It’s floral-oriental character is clear, yet its nature is not as powdery as say, old L’Origan or Habanita, nor as floral – or as melancholy – as L’Heure Bleue. Although I don’t detect many floral notes, its bearing is essentially joyful: it is a cigarette at a picnic as the sun shines down upon the shoulders of everyone seated on the blanket; it is an old-timer wearing a plaid fedora, sitting on a boardwalk bench, watching the passers-by and enjoying a good cigar; it’s a retired professor sitting back in his leather chair, puffing on a pipe as his grandchildren gather around to hear his tales. I can make no distinction between cigarette, cigar, and pipe tobacco here; the suggestion of tobacco is more general than that, though Fleurs de Tabac’s sweetness pushes it closer to pipes or cigars.

Unlike Tabac Blond, Fleurs de Tabac lacks the strong clove-ish notes of that esteemed classic, and it’s also light on the smoke. Yet a whisper of  smoke is still present via the vetiver as it plays among sweet amber, and in doing so fuels the  ‘tobacco’ accord. At the forefront of the conspicuous amber base is benzoin, with its thick, almost peanut-buttery, resinous sweetness made sexier by a subtle vanilla. Vintage nitro-musks, now obsolete in perfumery, up the animalic ante, expanding the sillage and softening the other notes; in its final stages, the lit stogie that is Fleurs de Tabac burns down to pure nitro-musks, animalic and unabashedly primal.

I have another fragrance by Cherigan called Chance (no relation to the Chanel scent of the same name). I bought a full mini bottle off Ebay for a mere pittance in an uncontested auction. The mini bottle itself is absolutely charming, practically dripping with Art-Deco flourishes (see pic). Chance de Cherigan is a rather nondescript, heavy amber oriental – like Youth Dew – and also very heavy on the nitro-musks. It is very weak and hard to detect on me and it is not nearly as interesting as Fleurs de Tabac.

Info on Cherigan and its magnum opus Fleurs de Tabac  is extremely meager, although I found several online references to its popularity in Cuba (for reasons that are absolutely baffling…wink).  It seems that many – or all? – of the bottles of this fabulous scent were actually produced in Cuba, prompting me to wonder, Is Cherigan a Cuban company [with a French name]? From what I can tell, the company Cherigan does appear to have been a subsidiary of Parfums Habana, Inc., which was based in Cuba. Its elusiveness and limited audience have given Fleurs de Tabac a “cult film” status in the world of vintage fragrances. Hopefully in time, it will gain more of a following and perhaps one day be spoken of alongside Tabac Blond and Habanita in discussions of brilliant early tobacco fragrances.


March 19, 2011

Chypre de Coty (1917) Review

On the arid island of Cyprus, the sun bakes the cistus plants that cling stubbornly to the dry, scrubby hills, the honeyed scent of their resin hanging in the air on windless days. Enfolded within these hills is a glade at the far end of a valley, green and overhung with willow and other riparian arbor. From the shaded rock wall emerges a clear, artesian spring, it’s cool water dribbling down gray stone onto a bed of moss and loam before forming a small creek leading out. Sometimes at twilight, after the sun has moved below the ringing hills, the goddess Venus herself naps here, dreaming upon the moss, in preparation for a night of romantic inspiration.

I recently acquired a pristine sealed, full bottle of Chypre de Coty parfum extrait from the 1920s/30s. It bears a red wax seal on the top, which upon inspection with a magnifying glass reveals the tiny imprint of the Coty family Crest. After gently removing the clear, brittle, cellophane “onion skin” [sealing the neck & stopper] with a pair of tweezers, I furiously set about getting the frosted glass stopper to budge, which proved very difficult: my fingers couldn’t do it. Wearing rubber dish-washing gloves couldn’t do it. Prying it gently upward with my teeth(!) couldn’t do it. Finally, I accomplished it with a pair of pliers, and thank God no damage was inflicted.


Immediately upon application, a burst of sour citrus tickles the nose – Mediterranean bergamot plucked languorously with Venus’ own long delicate fingers at peak juiciness – before it quickly dissipates to reveal a classically animalic floral heart of civet-y jasmine, rose, and powdery iris. The bouquet is so delightfully old-fashioned and dirty that I’m surprised that ylang ylang isn’t in the notes, as it does remind me a lot of Chanel No. 5 (vintage No. 5 especially; more on that later). Like the tangy bergamot top, the floral heart is a  fleeting pleasure, bowing out gracefully in deference to the basenotes: the distinctive, woodily-sweet accord of jasmine, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver, iris , and amber (labdanum). A bare hint of the rubbery, “leather” note Isobutyl Quinoline is found in the base, playing quietly at the edge of the sandbox, and so are the spicy, clove/carnation-y tones of Eugenol, invoking nothing so much as a whisper of vintage Tabac Blond, an oriental kissing cousin to Coty Chypre appearing on the scene only two years later. As in its close descendant Chanel No. 5, the jasmine note here is not of the tropical, lush, narcotic variety, but of the heftier type: the scent of jasmine absolute after its sweet fruity top-notes have faded away, leaving behind a rich, full-bodied robustness within the composition, in addition to softening the rough edges of the other notes and melding them into a characteristic accord.

One often hears Coty Chypre spoken of in connection with Guerlain’s Mitsouko, that Mitsouko is “Coty Chypre with the peach note added.” Well, there may be some truth in this. The original Coty Chypre could certainly be the bones of the world’s beloved Mitsy. Although there is a similar suggestion of dried, dusty roses in the far drydown of Chypre, it is Mitsouko’s upping the ante of rose in the formulation, and its famous overdose of the Peach C-14 Aldehyde, that ultimately made it, rather than Coty Chypre, the more memorable chypre for future generations.

What else can I say about the original version of the most celebrated chypre fragrance? Was it all I that I thought it would be? Not really. Was it a let down? Well…somewhat. I did not find what I expected to find here. I was prepared for a fragrance that was redolent of a damp forest floor, but that is not what I smell. And where is the palpable honeyed, resinous labdanum in this somewhat non-descript vetiver-woody base? Where is the Mediterranean in here?? Coty Chypre has been mythologized for nearly a century as a perfect evocation of a Venusian grotto in a Cyprus glade, where cool waters cascade onto a shaded bed of fluffy green moss…Well, I hate that I don’t get that. I’ve waited so long, and come so far in my perfume journey, with the original Coty Chypre always seen as its culmination. And only to feel underwhelmed. Sigh… I can now understand what perfume reviewer Denyse Beaulieu meant when she wrote of Chypre de Coty on Perfume Shrine: “When you bow your head through time to inhale her essences, it is her daughters you seek.”

On a more historical and practical note, one must remember that, in smelling fragrances from such an early time period, one is touching upon the very foundation stone of modern perfumery. Aromatic materials were far more limited and primitively produced at that early time than they were just a decade later. Francois Coty, in a time when most perfumers were wary of using the new proprietary bases and absolutes, fearlessly utilized these new materials and composed fragrances such as the seminal floriental, L’Origan, and the celebrated Chypre de Coty, both of which were widely copied and have spawned innumerable children, from Mitsouko to Bandit to Caleche to Yvresse [in the case of Coty Chypre].

In experiencing the original Chypre de Coty, there are two things in particular that stand out to me. The first is just how little resemblance Chypre de Coty bears to her classic chypre descendants of mid-century and onward. Aside from her conspicuous bergamot top note, there is nothing really about the scent that brings to mind the famous chypres of future decades. This is primarily due to the increasing complexity of fragrances as a greater diversity of materials became available, as well as ever increasing knowledge of how to construct an excellent, pyramidal perfume.

The second thing is just how similar, if not identical, the basenotes are in fragrances that came on the heels of Chypre de Coty:  Crepe de Chine by Millot, Chypre de Millot, Chanel No. 5…they all are built upon the same jasmine/oak moss/vetiver/woody base accord contained in Chypre de Coty. Whether or not this distinctive and widely disseminated basenote accord was first inaugurated by Chypre de Coty, or whether Coty, like others after him, merely used a basenote accord already common at the time, I simply don’t know because I haven’t smelled many fragrances earlier than Coty Chypre from this period. The limited diversity of raw materials in the first quarter of the 20th Century meant it was inevitable that these early masterpieces would bear some uncanny similarities to each other. And as I mentioned, there are moments that I catch the ghost of its equally famous cousin, vintage le Tabac Blond. This was, it seems,  a highly incestuous time for perfumes.

Having been discontinued in the 1960s, Coty Chypre was re-released a couple decades later, along with the other early Coty fragrances Les Muses and La Rose Jacqueminot. According to Michael Edwards, these reissues were done in 1986. Its gold metal cap, earthy green label, and sparkling yellow-green juice makes a statement of quality. The gold suggests a highly prized, rare elixir of life, while the green hints at the verdant, vegetal, chypricity of the essence.

In reading reviews of Coty Chypre, one often finds dissimilar and even conflicting descriptions. This is due in large part to the fact that people are reviewing two different fragrances: either the original 1917 Chypre de Coty or  the later ‘80s re-interpretation (and make no mistake, it is not merely a “reformulation” but rather a completely separate fragrance). This late reissue with gold cap bears no relation to the original Coty Chypre, save for a vague citrus top note. The reissue smells of  jasminey florals that are sweeter & fresher rather than dirty,  and there is a fairly loamy base that is decidedly more of what a lover of classic chypres would expect.  Fascinatingly, hours after application, the most stunning, buttered labdanum note emerges, prompting me to nuzzle my wrist – until I rein in my rapturous emotions, stopping myself just before I begin to actually lick my lower arm & strip down to my skivvies in preparation for a night of perfume passion. ;-)

This ’80s reissue of Coty Chypre is a simple interpretation of everything that one would expect a fresh, classic chypre to be, with no jagged edges or discordant notes to be found. It is, in a word, gorgeous, if not a tad boring for those who want more bells and whistles (I am not one of the latter, I love the stuff). It must be stated that this later re-interpretation is not the scent that influenced Mitsouko – that would be the early Chypre parfum, to which this late version bears no real resemblance. This newer version reminds me of a cross between Rochas Mystere and Parure by Guerlain… at other times of “Y” de YSL, and at other times still of Vivage by Avon. It is an encapsulation of what one expected of a classic chypre at the time of its release…just as the original Coty Chypre was an interpretation of chypre – of Cyprus – utilizing all the materials that were available at the close of the distant age known as the Belle Epoque.

March 14, 2011

Vintage Miss Dior (1947) Review

Miss Dior was released in 1947 on the heels of Dior’s innovative New Look collection, which took women out of the boxy, broad-shouldered power suits and drapery of the ‘40s and into an era of slim shouldered, fitted waists above voluminous skirts, sleekly and flirtatiously emphasizing the contours of  women’s bodies. According to Christian Dior himself, the collection was designed for “flower-like women,” and the New Look can be seen as a hoped-for return to the halcyon life of delicacy and traditional femininity after a prolonged period of coarseness and even strife, when women had to “man up” and fend for themselves during the Second World War.

In the context of this return to tradition feminine contours and elegant daintiness, one might expect the New Look’s accompanying perfume, primly named Miss Dior, to emphasize the light, tinkling aspect of feminine youthfulness, perhaps a pink-cheeked, baby-soft violet concoction, or something  just as innocuous. Surprise, surprise, Miss Dior is nothing of the sort. Created by Paul Vacher and Jean Carles, Miss Dior is a green, leather chypre:  complex, carnal, and singularly unusual in the world of classic chypres by virtue of an ambered base that veers enticingly close to oriental territory.

My review is based on my late ’70s/early ’80s era parfum (see pic) and a vintage ’60s EDC. My parfum starts off with a twist of green galbanum, dry and vegetal, joined with a hint of aromatic clary sage and given body by the warmth of gardenia. The gardenia used seminally in Miss Dior (and in Jean Carles other masterpiece from the previous year, Ma Griffe), was a new aroma-chemical called styrallyl acetate; it is not the sweet, fresh gardenia of the tropical Kai variety, but rather a classic smelling floral that contributes a lushness and full-bodiedness to the top and heart notes of the composition.

All too quickly, the lovely top-notes fade down to the floral heart, a warm, mossy bouquet consisting primarily of the usual suspects:  jasmine, rose, neroli, plus devilish narcissus and intoxicating remnants of the gardenia from up top. Like the gentle Snows of Awakening in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the powdery effect of iris insulates the floral heart from any sharpness, tamping down the blanket around the other notes, cushioning them from any screechiness, while simultaneously preparing the way for the powdered sweetness that is to come…

Inside the beating floral heart of Miss Dior, a whisper of creamy vanilla makes its presence felt, surprising me not only with its subtlety and beauty, but with its very presence there! Perceptible vanilla is a rare thing in classic chypres – almost unheard of, in fact – and so it appears here idiosyncratically, along with the normal chypre ingredients of labdanum/patchouli/oakmoss, and this unique combination nearly causes Miss Dior to straddle two worlds within perfumery, marrying together what are arguably the best aspects of both chypres and orientals ( i.e. balanced mossiness + ambery sweetness, respectively). Real ambergris tincture was also present in vintage Miss Dior, harmonizing the individual notes and contributing a raw, primal funk that is subtly present like a glowing ember just underneath the creamy surface. It is more present in my ’60s EDC.

(If you have never tried real ambergris tincture, you should! It’s unusual reek of bile and putrefaction is fascinating, and once smelled it is hard to forget.) Miss Dior’s exceedingly complex dry down is strange, compelling, vaguely tobacco-ish, and erotic – a whisper of seduction, Dior’s proprietary blend of the  ‘Lean-In-Closer’ desirability of amber-vanilla with the “I’m-complicated” cachet of warm chypre.

Although Miss Dior is a green leather chypre, its leather has little in common with others in the genre like original Bandit and Estee Lauder’s Azuree, whose overdose of the rubbery, slightly anisic, gasoline-like  note Isobutyl Quinoline is immediately apparent in those formidable classics. To my nose, the leather of Miss Dior is a natural, subjective accord created by the base notes rather than a ‘leather ingredient’ that’s been added to the formulation. My 1980 parfum extrait does not have the strong sense of leather and natural ambergris that the ’60s EDC has. Now, whether this suggests that the lower concentrations are more raunchy, or that earlier Miss Dior in all concentrations were more raunchy,  I simply do not know. I think I need to get a hold of a very early Miss Dior parfum and find out. :)

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