Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sleeper Series: "Oro" by Roberto Cavalli

Last week, one of my PPP’s (Perfume Pen Pals), a fellow blogger, sent me some samples. One of the sprayers leaked just a  bit, as happens sometimes. The names written on the sprayers had been rinsed off, so I had myself a little blind sniff-fest. 
One of the unknowns gave me that experience we crave -- let’s call it the ohmygodwhatisthis! reaction. Well, I thought, well, whatever it is, it’s gotta be rare and/or expensive and, since I’m saving my nickels dollars American Express card for Sniffapalooza, maybe I’d be better off not knowing. But curiosity got the best of me. I e-mailed my PPP and she told me it was “Oro,” by Roberto Cavalli, and that the perfumer was Maurice Roucel, and that everybody to whom she’d sent samples had had similar reactions to mine, and that it was a mystery that this scent hadn’t done better and oh by the way the discounters have it.
That last one did it.
I decided to open the “Sleeper Series” with Oro because a.) I lurve it and b.) it’s got vanilla, the ultimate comfort note and c.) it’s a “sleeper,” all right and d.) it’s inexpensive enough to spray all over yourself before bed, if you’re so inclined. 
I save the little vials and decants I get for wearing during the day or when I go out. For me, a fragrance has to have the following requirements to attain Sleeper status: I need to own at least 8 mls of it, because bedtime is my favorite time to overapply. I like it to be lush -- the orientals are my favorite sleepers, followed by kick-butt florals, then ambers and woods. Mr. Olfacta has to like it -- he can always be counted on to tell me what he really thinks of any scent. The sleepers make the bedroom smell wonderful. I drift off each night in a state of olfactory euphoria.
“Oro” came out in 2004. It’s so obscure now that I couldn’t find a single comprehensive review. It appears that the Roberto Cavalli fragrance line has been or is about to be sold to Coty, which may be why so many discounters have it this version. Alright already, what does it smell like?
Lush and gorgeous. 
The funny thing is that the notes I found listed include some I usually don’t care for, like magnolia. The “official” notes include magnolia, as well as coriander, orris and pepper. (Mr. Olfacta said it smelled “powdery,” but I don’t smell that.) It also contains patchouli and cedar, the latter of which usually blows up on me to hamster-cage levels, but not from this. 
“Oro,” which means gold in a few languages, is sometimes classified as a “spicy oriental” and sometimes as a “fruity oriental.” I think it’s more fruity than spicy. I could swear there’s mandarin, but it’s not listed. Cinnamon is, although it’s faint. Here’s what I smell: a series of liqueur-soaked and peppered exotic fruits and ambers and a big vanillic drydown, which lasts all night. But it’s so well-mixed that I’m at a loss as to identifying many of the “notes.” No matter, really.
I guess that fragrance marketing is similar to other forms of marketing. Classifiability is key. I cannot fit this fragrance into a little neatly-labeled category. (Actually, I could barely fit the bottle into my cabinet, as it’s about a foot tall and a couple of inches wide at the ends, like a stretched-out hourglass, with a little gold plastic snake coiled around the sprayer at the top.) Could it have been the bottle, perhaps, that did it? It’s a masterpiece of ironic tack; maybe it was a joke nobody got.
But odd bottles don’t bother me, since I can’t see them anyway. I keep perfume bottled in clear glass inside a closed cabinet. And I really wouldn’t care what kind of bottle this one comes in. It’s a keeper.
This is what I love most about my little hobby. Finding something like this, that I adore, at the recommendation of someone whose taste I trust. And then discovering that it’s discounted. Deeply. I mean, I expect a $300 bottle of Amouge to send me. It had better! I expect the grand masters of perfumery to concoct memorable scents, worth their high prices. But this, from one of those grand masters, Roucel, can be had for the price of a nice lunch with a glass or two of wine. 
Want to try some? Leave a comment. Do you sleep perfumed, and if so, in what?  I’ll do a random drawing for a generous sample, and announce the winner after the deadline, which will be Tuesday, October 12, at 9:00 a.m. US Eastern Daylight time.

Maurice Roucel, winner of the Prix Fran├žois Coty in 2002, is the perfumer behind Musk Ravageur for Frederic Malle, Iris Silver Mist for Serge Lutens and Tocade, for Rochas, and many others.
“Notes” for Oro (from Fragrantica) include magnolia, coriander, orris, pepper, apple and bergamot; middle notes are apricot, patchouli, cinnamon, freesia and cedar; base notes are sandalwood, amber, musk, vanilla and guaiac wood.
Image from Google Images, original source diva-passionata.blogspot.com.
Full disclosure time: I bought my bottle from an online discount site.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Paint and Perfume: A Visual Analogy

I’ve ordered a few cosmetics recently, and gotten gift-with-purchase scent samples. These are mainstream fragrances from big companies. They smell like chemical stew: “fruits” and “florals,” all alike, all repellent, at least to me. (I mean, DKNY, what can you folks be thinking?) 

Another new thing: the ingredients are listed on the card, lest anyone die of Tris- paramethylhydroxypiperidinol poisoning: “Hey,” the lawyers can claim, “It wasn’t our fault, it was right there on the card for God’s sake!” 
Did I say they all smell alike? They do.
Did I say they all....oh, never mind.
I’m a painter, and, like perfume, modern paints are made mostly with synthetics. The reasons for this are similar. They’re cheaper, easier and sometimes safer to manufacture, and, as in perfumery sourcing, the companies don’t have to deal with materials that are difficult to obtain -- a lot more difficult, in the case of paint, whose natural pigments must often be mined in some really iffy places, like, for instance, Afghanistan.
Artist-quality paint is a lot like perfume. Once, all pigments came from natural sources. Some of these natural pigments were unstable. One can only guess, for example, what the real colors of many Renaissance paintings might have been -- all those browns and blacks could have been blues or greens. So why not just make all paint from synthetic recreations of natural pigments, as the mainstream perfume industry is doing?
Take, for example, the two blues on the left. One is a pure “organic synthetic,” Phthalocyanine blue, the “modern” cool blue. The other is Prussian Blue, classified as an “inorganic synthetic,” whose chemical name indicates the presence of iron. It’s a classic color, available since the 1720‘s, but it can be testy; when applied thickly, for example, it sometimes gives off a coppery sheen, and cheap grades of it can fade. Phthalocyanine blue was intended to replace it. But all the paint companies still make and market Prussian Blue. Why? Because it works well with others, while phthalocyanine bulldozes everything in its path.
Geek that I can be, I did an informal experiment to illustrate this. The colors at the top are pure, 100%, just as they come out of the tube. I began adding white, first at 20%, then 40, then 60, then 80. (I judged these amounts visually, as I don’t have a scale capable of weighing them. So I suppose you’d have to call them estimated amounts.) Anyway, I don’t have to tell you what this phthalocyanine blue does to white (and every other color). I had to add four times as much white as phthalo blue to see any difference!
Meanwhile, take a look at the Prussian Blue. It’s a little greener out of the tube and, when mixed with white, produces a subtler, more muted blue. Fine arts painters tend to prefer this kind of latitude, and the paint companies, unlike the big fragrance companies, are willing to accommodate them.
Now take a look at the reds. Almost all reds are “fugitive” -- meaning they can fade over time. But a cool red is essential to even the most minimal palette, and has been made throughout history from the roots of a plant known as “madder.” The cool, dark red once made from madder is called Alizarin Crimson. 
Not so many years ago, the industrial paint industry came up with the Quinacridones, which  produce stable reds. However, like Phthalocynanines, they’re bullies. The Quinacridone-based red I used, Gamblin’s “Alizarin Permanent,” is a quinacridone red, muted a bit through the inclusion of Ultramarine Blue, another older pigment. The other strip is real Alizarin Crimson, from the French company Sennelier. They’re like two different colors! The pinks made with the Sennelier version are much more appealing, at least to me.
Again, the paint companies all make Alizarin Crimson, which, in reality, is semi-synthetic; some time ago, the components of madder root were replicated successfully as a coal-tar based dye. Still, it comes with a warning: it may not last forever. (Well, what does?) Artists who prefer its working qualities are willing to take that risk.
Here’s the point. The paint companies, and there are many, seem to respect their customers. Even the toxic leads, cadmiums and cobalts are easily available. They come with a warning label. “Yes,” you may say, “but you’re not spraying them on your skin.” Well, no, but it’s just about impossible to paint with any enthusiasm without getting paint, often mixed with solvent, on your hands. Here’s the thing: that’s left up to you. Wear latex gloves or barrier cream, or take the risk; you’re a grown-up. “Hues” for each of the toxic colors are available, too, and they’re much cheaper, but, like the blues and reds I used here, they have completely different working properties, and there is no true substitute for them.
In the perfume samples I’m receiving, there may be some classic ingredients, but I certainly can’t tell. If they’re there, the synths have knocked them aside. I still believe that synthetics have their place in perfumery -- added longevity, for example. But by the time the cosmetics companies do their “voluntary compliance” thing with the IFRA regulations, meanwhile bending backward to please the apparently growing universe of perfume-o-phobes -- well, this is what you get. Chemical stew, comprised of cheap synthetics fighting each other in the bottle, guaranteed to get no-perfume policies passed in every office on earth.
I’d like to see the fragrance companies put out a top-tier line of their great classics, made as close to the original formulae as possible. As we don’t eat paint, we don’t drink perfume. We have, in other words, brains and judgement. Concerned about liability? Slap on a warning label! That’s what the paint companies do. Price point problems? I’d pay more for real Shalimar. Wouldn’t you?
Hey, anybody want a “New Coke?” 

Photo, not that anybody would want it,  © Patricia Borow. All rights reserved.

Tech Specs from “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques” by Ralph Mayer (ISBN 0-670-83701-6.) The white I used was Weber’s Permalba white, a mixture of Titanium Dioxide and Zinc White, and should definitely not be eaten, so don't eat it, okay?
The colors on the strips are: (L to R) (pure at top, then mixed with Weber’s “Permalba White” at 20, 40, 60 and 80% respectively):
Winsor-Newton “Winsor” (Phthalocyanine) Blue, a.k.a. Copper phthalocyanine a.k.a. PB 15:1.
Gamblin Oil Colors “Prussian Blue,” a.k.a. Ferri-ammonium ferrocyanide, a.k.a. PB 27. Don’t let the “cyanide” part scare you. This paint is not toxic.
Gamblin Oil Colors “Alizarin Permanent,” a.k.a. Quinacridone red b/Perylene red/Ultramarine Blue, a.k.a. PV19/PR149/PB29.
Sennelier “Alizarin Crimson,” a.k.a. PR83. This is the only one that is significantly more expensive, at about $20/tube list, than the others, which range from $7.17 to $15.95 per 37 or 40 ml tube.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Closet Case

….and the winner of the samples drawing is: Flittersniffer! Get in touch with me at the email address to the left and I'll get your samples out posthaste.

In the recent L.A. Times article "Embracing Chaos" mystery writer Denise Hamilton lets her readers in on a secret: she’s a closet perfumista. One of those who waits for late night to haul out her box of clinking vials, dabbing and sniffing while her family sleeps.
No mystery, really; we’re a club. Welcome to the closet, Denise!
So why are so many of us closeted?
There is always talk here, on the blogs and forums, about the perfume-averse and what makes them that way. As do many of the other bloggers, I believe that the no-perfume thing is a vestige of Puritanism. But is that really all there is to it?
I can only speculate about my own reasons for this. Who knows what subliminal lessons stick around forever? Insights come much later, I think; often they come only after no one who might know with any certainty is left.
So here goes. My mother was an odd mixture of American colonial and midwestern plainspoken. She grew up in Canal Zone, Panama, a mile-wide strip of Norman Rockwell’s America, stretched across an isthmus full of third world poverty and squalor. I don’t believe that her mother ever owned a bottle of perfume, given as she was to Tangee lipstick, modest rayon “house” dresses and short hair she never once dyed.
By the time I became a “perfumista” -- don’t like the word, really; what is the root? Fashionista? Sandinista? -- my mother was already gone. I wonder sometimes, though, what she would have thought about my fragrance hobby habit. I still have two of her perfumes, big bottles of Moment Supreme and Arpege, extraits bought in some Air Force base exchange store, as we were a quasi-military family. I’ve written about this before but not the later chapters, stateside, where the base exchange stores didn’t sell Chanel, or Patou or pearls, and then did not exist for us at all. We came home, and  my mother put the fancy French perfumes away.
After that came lots of Avon. She must have had a friend who was an Avon lady, because I remember Charisma, and one called Here’s My Heart, I think, and some solid perfume compacts, and travel sizes of Flora Danica and Madame Rochas (which I hated) and, later, Moon Drops and Charlie. She wore those two for twenty years, while the good stuff remained, untouched, in the closet.
When I read the Jonathan Frantzen novel “The Corrections” a few years ago, one of the themes seemed to be the eagerness the grown children had to introduce their rock-solid, unpretentious parents to all the big-city “betters” -- better wine, better food, better furniture, better coffee, you name it -- in some convoluted pageant of Taste designed to do...what? Show them...what was it, anyway? How backward they were?
I had some of that with my parents too. I could tell, sometimes, that they were looking at my husband and me as if we had what my very Southern dad called “the gimmees.” It was a harsh judgement. I could see that “taste,” as I understood it, didn’t really exist for either of them. What we thought of as “Taste” seemed to be inherently suspect. Modesty was key, as was making others feel comfortable, no matter what. Money was something that was not discussed. Nice people were not openly aspirational -- there’s something so, well, grubby about that. 
Nearly ten years have passed, and I understand this a little better now. There is something -- a lot actually -- to be said for modesty, as out of fashion as that concept is. And I’ve never liked people who flaunt it. I’m a bargain hunter, and I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what I paid for my treasured little bottle of Amouge, but you know, don’t you.
Now I’m wondering about those of us who confine most of our perfume talk to the web, this, our secret society. How many of us lead our flesh-and-blood friends to the perfume cabinet? Not many, I bet, unless we’re lucky enough to have real-life friends who are (that word again!) perfumistas.
So, back to the past: I’m thinking that, once we got off the foreign-assignment circuit and resettled in our suburban town, the exotic French perfumes might have seemed a little, well, much to my mother, might have made her less traveled friends uncomfortable or resentful, so she never wore them. And maybe that’s why I keep my collection hidden: it just feels right to do so.
Here in our little clubhouse, we speak of wishing we could wear more or stronger fragrance, wanting to be a scented swan in a sea of lead-footed ducks -- but only a few of us do it. Something stops us. What is it? Fear of offending a perfume-o-phobe? Manners, self-consciousness, guilt?
Hamilton, when asked to reveal the size of her perfume collection, takes the Fifth. I tend to mumble something about yeah, having quite a few bottles, but I bought them all of ebay for a song, so, it’s, y’know, OK.
So...how about you? Do you make excuses? 
What’s in your closet?

The drawing winner was chosen using Random.org.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Virtual Water Cooler

So did you see “Mad Men” Sunday night? (Spoiler alert!)
It’s not as much fun to tell people about “Mad Men” any more. With all the Emmys and attention, everybody knows about it. As do the people I know. But what does that mean now, “knowing” somebody?
The definition of “knowing” somebody really has changed in recent years. The definition of “friend” has changed too. I guess it’s not that unusual to have a thousand Facebook “friends.” Which means anything from somebody who knows somebody you may or may not have known twenty years ago to someone you might actually want to have coffee with, but I digress: the question is, who really knows Don, now that Anna is gone? More specifically, who knows Dick Whitman?
Nobody. Except maybe Peggy. Maybe.
This episode was extraordinary, as good as my other favorites, “The Hobo Code,” from season one, and “The Grown-Ups,” about the Kennedy assassination, from last season. I watched it twice and will again before I post this. The second time, I noted some of my thoughts in real time: here they are, with a minimum of commercial interruption, presented for your entertainment at the virtual water cooler.
Were Don and Peggy actually going to….no. This is going somewhere much more complex.
Brutality/power game from Don. He’s channeling Archie, his brutal, drunken father.
Peggy quotes market research to counter Don’s breezy “Women don’t buy suitcases” remark.
Say goodbye to hunch-based advertising! 
Standing by the elevator, Peggy makes the crucial decision between work and family, and chooses work. 
(Okay, okay. With the option being dweeb-boy Mark and the collection of gargoyles who comprise Peggy’s family, she wouldn’t choose work?)
 Amazing gesture from Jon Hamm, when he taps Peggy’s hand after holding it (an affectionate knuckle-cracking squeeze, then a “buddy” tap). 
Hamm has a face like Lon Chaney Sr. It seems to be made of plastic, putty or silicon. It’s as if he can arrange his facial muscles over the bones in different ways for different situations.
What did he have to do, though, to make himself look that bad? That wasn’t makeup.
I flinched when I realized there was going to be a vomit scene. Thank you thank you, we don’t have to watch. TV and film directors out there: were you listening, boys? You don’t have to actually show it.
Here comes Joan as The Office Dragon Lady. Is this what she’ll be?
When the copywriter defies Joan in that sneering, Dylan-esque way, it’s clear: the generation gap has come to Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Joan is on the other side of it.
So is Don.
Peggy, 26, is a creature of the moment, in this, her moment.
When Don draws a static image to illustrate his brilliant idea and Peggy says “how are they gonna put that on TV?” the torch is passed.
They have become creative partners. A creative partnership so much more interesting than an affair -- with more tension, similar battles, and about as good a chance at lasting.
The director of this episode gave the cast room to move. A minimum of reaction shots, jump cuts: the camera is trained on their faces, quietly, as the actors work. 
Here is Don Draper, as the 60‘s pick up speed; the facade has to crack or he’ll shrivel inside it like a mummy. 
As for us, in the nearly-new millennium, we’ve got bios and profiles and photos -- only the best ones, of course -- and LinkedIn, and likes and dislikes, and walls, and these are how we communicate with our nine hundred “friends.”
Social networking: let’s hope it doesn’t make Don Drapers out of all of us.
The photo came from an industrial-supplies catalog.
For a chance at winning the perfume samples (see last week’s post) just leave a comment below. The drawing is next Tuesday, September 14.