Monday, August 29, 2011

CleanAmerica and Nuit Noire

For the next two weeks, I'm going to be on vacation -- back September 14 as part of the launch of Andy Tauer's new perfume "Miriam," in conjunction with Brian Pera's "Woman's Picture." In the meantime, I'll post reprints from awhile back -- this one from 2009, about the soon to be discontinued Nuit Noire, from Mona di Orio. (The comments are from the original post, too -- feel free to leave a new one!) See you September 14th!

I’ve always loved what in perfumeland is euphemistically called “skank.” It’s something most Americans don’t want to think about, much less wear.

But, for many fragrance lovers, skank is great stuff. I’ve been thinking about fragrance “families” a lot, and, like most systems of classification, these can be endlessly divided and subdivided. Even “skank” is an, uh, blanket term -- there are different kinds -- the musky ones, tangy ones, earthy ones and so on. Today, I’m talking about civet, and Mona di Orio’s Nuit Noire.

Civet! OMG! The well-replicated modern recreation of the anal gland secretions of the civet cat, actually a member of the mongoose sub-classification! If there is ONE perfume ingredient in all the world that is just about guaranteed to make the modern all-American hetero male turn up his nose in horror, it’s civet. I’ve been wondering exactly why that is.

Before germ theory came along, disease was blamed on “bad air,” or miasma. Until the research of Louis Pasteur and other scientists took off in the late 19th century, it still was, and although cultures differed in their ideals of body hygiene, living spaces were filthy by modern standards. But when the populations of Britain and, even more so, North America, realized that microbes were in fact the culprits, and that they were little beasties with life cycles of their own, cleanliness became much like bad religion. Allowing these invisible enemies to thrive inside one’s home, or, godforbid one’s body, became not only a sin, but a form of gross neglect. At roughly the same time -- the decades around 1900 -- advertising began its rise to power. By the Fifties, no germ was safe, or so we thought.

Then, in the late Sixties/Seventies, “natural” became the ideal, drifting out of California like most things did then. Shining, unsprayed hair, washed every day; skin without a trace of odor, glowing tans, perfect white teeth, neutral breath: healthy. That ideal is still with us.

I bring all of this up because I received a sample of Nuit Noire in the mail yesterday. I applied it lavishly, for me, noting that, hmmm, yes, there was a certain, er, fecal quality. I was just beginning to analyze it thoroughly when my husband came home. Usually he’s pretty good about my fragrance experimentation. Not this time. “Jesus,” he said. “That stinks.”

O-kay. So this is one of those love-or-hate-it ones. The perfumer probably could have used a lighter hand with the skank, but to what end? To produce something that smells like fifty other perfumes? This stuff is brave. It’s like a dare. It’s perfumery taken to the furthest extreme I’ve yet experienced. I like that.

Those who love it seem to really love it. And those who don’t -- well, let's just say that they really, really don't.

I remember once reading about a study on the effects of skatole -- an essential molecule of the “fecal” note. A group of subjects were, um, subjected to a blast of air scented with animal excrement. None lasted more than five minutes. Physiological reactions, such as rise in blood pressure and increased sweating, and ultimately nausea, were observed.

(One has to wonder about these subjects. Don’t any of them own cats? Were they all male Oxford undergraduates who have never been near a loaded diaper? But I digress.)

Oddly enough, when you think of the classic perfumes of the germophobic mid-Twentieth century, most are 1.) French and 2.) have got at least a little civet in them.

I find this to be really interesting. Perhaps it was a vestige of our animal nature’s giving the finger to the midcentury onslaught of household and body cleaning products and the ubiquitous advertising, intended to produce guilty housewives, that promoted them. Perhaps, on some deeper level, the women who wore these perfumes knew that scrubbed-clean, while appealing, isn’t exactly alluring.

Would I wear this fragrance to the grocery store? Probably not. Would I wear it for a special evening out with hubby? Definitely not. Will I wear it when I’m alone? You bet!

Here’s what else I’m going to do with my Nuit Noire: I’m going to layer it under various other fragrances and see what happens. I’ve already tried it with the modern version of Bal a’Versilles and, yeah, there’s that...ooomph that’s been missing. I wonder what it would do for one of those stone-cold roses. Or some timid little office-appropriate floral.

Or some reformulated horror that smells like a melted Mr. Clean popsicle.


The official notes for Nuit Noire do not include civet (!) But just about every reviewer swears it’s in there, and so do I. It’s classified as a “spicy Oriental” with a top of orange flower (aha!) and cardamom; base notes include leather, amber, musk and tonka. The perfumer is Mona di Orio.

Photo copyright Ruslanchik. Used under license from


BitterGrace said...

What--am I the first to comment on your post about the highly controversial Nuit Noire? Count me as a member of the NN sisterhood. I absolutely love the stuff. I guess I should be cautious about when and where I go wafting it, but I have to say that to date I have had no complaints. Maybe people just assume I don't bathe.

BTW--"melted Mr. Clean popsicle" is a brilliant phrase. It captures the horror perfectly.

chayaruchama said...

No, BG- you're not alone.
Count Rockinruby and myself in there, too.

The drydown has a great deal in common w/ L'Air de Rien, and AL Kama [ other less-washed favorites].

I think it's hypnotic-
More barnyard pour nous ;-)

Rappleyea said...

Love your writing and I love skank! The more the better, especially the old fashioned variety found in the older versions of such classics as Je Reviens extrait and Bal a Versailles. Great post!

Aparatchick said...

Obviously none of those test subjects had ever been in 4H!

Honestly, if I had to choose between bleach and barnyard, it would be barnyard every time. And now I'm off to search for a sampel of Nuit Noire....

Olfacta said...

Hi everybody -- Just got back from America's skankiest city, New Orleans. I'll post about that as soon as I start the laundry...