Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Fragrance That Cleans Your House

I’ve been using Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day all-purpose cleaner for a few years. It appealed to me initially because it was nontoxic, and reasonable. Two pints of the concentrate, which costs around $8.00, will make sixteen gallons when diluted with water. You can clean just about everything in the house with it. I used to use the Lemon Verbena, but the other day I was at the hardware store, and noticed “Geranium.” I bought it for a major cleaning -- floors, counters, walls, etc.  When the DH got home, he asked me what perfume I was wearing!
There is a good bit of geranium in it, but rose, too. A lovely, not-too-sweet rose.

So, I got curious and visited the company’s web site. Here's what they say about their scents:

Each scent combines natural essential oils in the fragrance blend along with top, middle and base notes. Top notes are the lightest, most whimsical evaporating components in a fragrance; the initial burst that you will notice when experiencing a fragrance. Citrus and fruits are used primarily as top notes. After some time you will start to smell the middle notes, these are slightly heavier, less airy components, often called the “heart” of the fragrance. You will notice these as the fragrance dries down and the top notes have evaporated. Middle notes are mostly comprised of herbs and flowers. Finally you will smell the base notes. Base notes are the heaviest, most substantive ingredients, meaning they will last the longest. These will be what you smell as the fragrance ages, evaporates or dries down. The base notes and components stay the longest, often representing woody notes, resins, vanilla and musk.

Not bad, eh? I don't think I've read a clearer explanation of the notes pyramid than this, anywhere.

When I read “at least 98% naturally derived” on the label I thought, “Yeah, right.” How many times have we seen this one before? ("Water" is the first ingredient, as in nearly every liquid product there is, thereby making it easier for manufacturers to claim that products are "natural," because water is. But I digress.)  They go on to list the essential oils used -- one is Rose Centifolia, familiar to any perfume fan. And I have to say that the rose here smells real. 

The company obviously has its marketing acumen together, as it repackages essentially the same substance as countertop spray, countertop wipes, window spray and more -- all of which I’d just use the diluted all-purpose cleaner for; I mean, why call it “all-purpose” if you also sell endless repackages of the same thing? But this is how marketing is done in the U.S. Create a need for the un-needed.

The "Geranium" scent also comes in powdery scrubs, dish soap, dishwasher detergent and the like. Also candles and those “scent diffusers” one plugs into the wall, which, unless you’re a slob and/or have five big dogs, seem a little much to me.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent product. It cleans well. It smells good. The company uses post-recycled plastic in its containers. It's biodegradable, cruelty-free and the manufacturer  appears to respect and value its employees. 
I used to use a special commercial cleaner for laminate hardwood floors. Then, my cat developed an asthma-like cough. We had to use an inhaler on him -- yes, they make such things, a sort of adapter which is a cat-nose shaped face mask, fitted with one of those  inhaler cartridges people with asthma use. I finally realized that the floor cleaner might be the cause, so I switched to Mrs. Meyers a few years ago. His cough disappeared. I think that’s pretty good evidence that it really is non-toxic.
Here is what Mrs. Meyers does for me: it makes cleaning pleasant, almost fun. (Note that I said “almost.”) It makes my house smell good. Smelling it improves my mood, something like perfume does. What more can you ask from a cleaning product?

Mrs. Meyers Clean Day is widely available at retail in the U.S., and through the company's website.
“Notes” for the essential oils in Mrs. Meyers “Geranium” All-Purpose Cleaner are: Geranium Maculatum, Rose Centifolia, Eugenia Caryophyllus (clove) and Betula Alba (Birch Bark) extract. Other “notes” include peach, cassis, berry, moss and woods. The label also lists chemical ingredients like Sodium Methyl-2 Sulfolaurate; this is not a “100% Natural” product.
Full Disclosure: I bought my bottle at Ace Hardware for $7.99.
The image comes from the Mrs. Meyers website.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winner of the Barbara Bui and Miller Harris Samples!

...and the winner is:


please get in touch 
with me at the email
address on the left
and I'll get your 
samples out posthaste!

Thanks for entering everybody! 

(For a real post, read the Valentine's Day special, below.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Special Valentine Edition: Vintage Must

When I was in my late twenties, I lived next door to an older Englishwoman who worked the perfume counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. She would feed my cat salmon croquettes, so I usually knew where to find him -- at her back door -- and she would bring me samples of all the latest perfumes. 
It’s hard to imagine this now, but there was a time when perfume companies actually gave out samples of extrait. I think back on some of the stuff she gave me. Diva, Moschino, Nahema -- Chanels, Balmains. You get the idea. I still have a few of these, but they’re cooked. I didn’t know back then that you weren’t supposed to let perfumes sit in bright light. I kept them in a silver bowl on my dresser, which was next to a south-facing window. The horror! 
Anyway, she gave me a big sample of Le Must de Cartier Parfum. I made it last.
The modern version of Must that Luca Turin called “cheap Russian chocolate” is a sort of generic, overly sweet amber which hardly resembles the original at all. It was one of the first decants I ordered, when I discovered decants, and that was when I also discovered that some perfumes weren’t quite the same. All I knew about Must back then, and it was all I needed to know then, was that it made me feel like a messy, luscious early-eighties femme fatale. That’s powerful stuff.

People who don’t wear perfume fail to appreciate one very important thing. It’s not about smelling this way or that way to others. It’s about feeling, and projecting, a certain persona. If you feel beautiful and alluring, it gets out there. Others pick up on it. It’s the real reason for perfume.
The Must, to me at 28, smelled like a night spent in bed, not alone. So I’d wear it when I went out, which I did a lot, because I worked in the music business and had to keep up with the new. I had a taste for the underground, too. (Last night, “Less Than Zero” was on and I watched it for a few minutes. Remember the scene where the couple combs late-night L.A. , looking for their coke-addled friend? All the speakeasy clubs and so on? Uh-huh; I recognized every one of them.) But if I knew I’d be going to a place where all the women would be wearing black, I’d sometimes wear white -- and Must. Look like an angel; smell like the devil herself.
In one of those strange synergies, I’d been expecting a package from a reader who had seen a comment I’d left somewhere about the original Must, and offered to send me a mini -- of the perfume! I forgot to pick up some mail, but remembered this morning, and there it was. (Thank you, Sharon! Your generosity overwhelms me.)
Alright, already, what does it smell like?
Galbanum. Musk. Amber. Leather. Tobacco. Vanilla. More.
The torn-leaf galbanum hits first, and then the leather. It’s not a bitter overdose of isobutyl quinoline, but something smoother and deeper. There are ambers, but they’re not sugary. Musks, deep down. Opopanax. (I’m still not the greatest at identifying “notes.”) But I can tell you that it’s a rich, not sweet, complex, dark, after-midnight scent, similar to vintage Shalimar but with a smoother ride. I guess if I had to classify it now, I’d call it a leathery Oriental. 
Of course, back then I just knew it smelled goooood...and made me feel, well, I already mentioned that. 
I’ll wear this the next time I go out, with my husband, to whom I’ve been married nearly twenty years. I was wearing Must the night I met him.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!
(Check here Tuesday, Feb. 15 after 6 a.m U.S. Eastern time, when I’ll post the name of the winner of the Barbara Bui and Miller Harris samples.)
The painting is “Love on the Lookout” (some sources say “Cupid on the Lookout”) by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1890. Image in Public Domain, from WikiMedia.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is It Spring Yet? (Barbara Bui Le Parfum and Miller Harris Fleur Oriental)

 To get through this wretched winter, I’ve taken to wearing some strange clothing around the house. Wool socks, day and night, and a ratty, pilled and snagged black acrylic sweater, which happens to be the warmest garment I have that isn’t a coat. Last week we had a couple of thaw days, and I hung it up. When put it again on I nearly swooned with pleasure at the scent it gave off. It was powdery, but with a subtle growl. I couldn’t identify it at first, but a bit of primary research revealed that it was Fleur Oriental by Miller Harris.
I guess there is powder and then there is powder, like some vintage Habanita EDT I have. That one has enough powder to bring on an asthma attack in sensitive individuals, as they say on TV in all those drug ads. I started thinking about some other sweet and powdery scents, and one that came to mind was Barbara Bui's Le Parfum.
There are certain fragrances that most of us here in perfumeblogland adore and no one else has ever heard of. This is one. It came out in 2004, a designer scent from the Paris-based Vietnamese Bui. It was discontinued, apparently in a fog of legalese, but is still available here and there at online discounters and on fleabay for very reasonable prices. 
Barbara Bui is a gorgeous confection, on my skin the olfactory equivalent of  my grandmother’s divinity fudge, white, light, rich melting decadence. It is  my go-to sleep scent. The notes tell of incense and spices, but what I get is heliotrope, soft white musk and -- although it isn’t “official” -- vanilla. (Maybe more the concept of vanilla than actual vanilla.) And the powder-soft drydown, which lasts all though the night.
I’ve only worn Barbara Bui out into the world once, though. It just seemed wrong, somehow, like it didn’t belong anywhere but between sheets, or on a silk peignoir (not that I actually own one) or, in my case anyway, a flannel shirt. It’s for cold nights spent inside a cozy house.
The Miller Harris Fleur Oriental is another story. This, I’ll definitely wear out. There’s an edge to it’s sweetness, there right away. The notes mention carnation, but it’s citrus I smell, and I’m sticking to it. After it fades a little, there’s an darkish back note, reminiscent of tobacco, something like the vintage Shalimar EDT I have, but without that one’s “tar” quality. A little rose -- anything I swoon over is bound to have a little rose --  and there’s the heliotrope again. Sweet musk, amber (could be anything) jasmine and -- aha! -- “orange.” (This comes in EDT and EDP; it is the EDT I’m reviewing here.)
It’s one of the ones I’m in love with right now. 
This has been the coldest winter -- go ahead and laugh, you folks in Chicago and Boston -- I’ve experienced in years.  The week spent icebound was a record-breaker. Isn’t lack of such weather one of the reasons why my home town, Atlanta, is filled with Northern transplants? But what the hey. It’s nothing we can’t handle, as long as we have central heat, fireplaces, old sweaters and luscious powdery perfumes to spray them with.

“Notes” for Barbara Bui Le Parfum include spices, incense, jasmine, musk, sandalwood, heliotrope, amber and cedar. Perfumer: Anne Flipo.
“Notes” for Miller Harris Fleur Oriental include carnation, Turkish rose, incense, jasmine, sweet musk, heliotrope and orange. Perfumer: Lyn Harris. 
Want to sample these? What is your favorite scent for sleeping?  Leave a comment by midnight U.S. Eastern Standard Time, Monday, Feb 14. I’ll do a random drawing and announce the winner Tuesday, Feb. 15. (I’ll throw in samples of two more sleep-scent favorites of mine, too.)

Full Disclosure: The Barbara Bui is from my personal collection,  and I was recently given some Miller Harris Fleur Oriental by a friend.
Used under license

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleopatra's Perfumes

Not long ago, a friend gave me a set of perfume oils titled “The Fragrant Past,” subtitled “Perfumes of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.” It was a beautiful gift, to be sure, and piqued my interest in scents of antiquity.

The set was prepared as part of an exhibit done at Emory University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, Michael C. Calos Hall. This exhibit was quite some time ago, in 1989. I suppose that the organizers needed a “hook,” something to arouse the interest of the casual museum-goer, and Cleopatra sufficed, as she always has. (But to be perfectly accurate, you’d have to include many more people, as the period being examined is that between the first century B.C.E. and the second century A.D., around two hundred years.)

Most of the history traditionally passed down about Cleopatra depicts her as a treacherous seductress, luring poor defenseless Julius Caesar to Egypt, and then Mark Antony to his death, complemented by her own suicide via poisonous asp. A lot of this was written by first-century Romans, who didn’t like her much. She did take up with both rulers, but these relationships started with political alliances. Cleopatra was a ruler, not a mistress. She was ruthless. She had one of her brothers (incidentally, he was her husband also, common in Egyptian dynasties then) assassinated.  Descriptions of her facial features weren’t kind. It didn’t seem to matter. She has been described as intelligent and charismatic, a great talker and, later, an effective ruler who built Egypt’s economy quite skillfully.

Shakespeare’s drama “Antony and Cleopatra” focuses on the romantic aspects of this story. His plays of this type were written to appeal to the commoners, who would have seen it much as we might see a historical romance novel, one we know took certain liberties with fact. He describes her royal barge as having purple sails “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick.” Well, maybe. Who really knows?

Professor Giuseppe Donato, who oversaw the preparation of the perfumes and wrote the package’s insert about them, describes them as unguents, what we’d call oils. None are sweet. They are thick, and the color varies from light gold to deep amber. There is little information on how they were derived, but my best guess -- based on the museum’s reputation, the subtlety of the scents and and the age of the oils --  is that the natural ingredients were used. These all have Latin names.  I found that delving into some of these ingredients led me down a long road, to translations of Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. To 79 A.D.) from whom Donato took much of his historical information.

I was trying to think of a way to describe all seven of these without too many Latin names, but there are some.  It’s my guess that Donato did this for continuity (and also, he’s Italian). So here goes:

Cyprinum -- Oil of cypress reed: I found this to be grassy, herbal and relatively faint. All but one ingredient (oil from unripe olives) are still used in artisanal and sometimes even mainstream perfumery.

Ingredients are cypress, cardamom, calamus, rosewood oil and onphacium (the olive oil).

Metopium -- Oil of bitter almond. (Incidentally, described elsewhere as “the perfume of ancient Egypt.”) This one is a little sharper than the last, and resinous at first, but there is a trace of sweetness in the drydown. Myrrh is the standout essence, at least to my nose.

Ingredients are bitter almond, probably the oil base -- benzaldehyde is sometimes synthesized from it now. Cardamom appears again, as does “rush,” calamus, honey, wine, myrrh, galbanum, turpentine resin and onphacium (the olive oil.)

Myrtle Laurum -- Oil of Myrtle and Laurel: Initially very much as expected -- an aromatic evergreen. Again, a little sweetness in the drydown. The ingredients are lily -- which I can’t detect at all -- fenugreek, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon, spikenard and rush.

Regale Unguentum  -- Royal Unguents: Pliny mentions this as having been composed for the kings of the Parthians, who ruled from a region of what is now northeastern Iran between 247 B.C.E. And 224 A.D. Certainly, it has a long list of ingredients. This makes it more mysterious to my nose, a little floral, a little animalic, well-mixed like a modern perfume but still relatively faint, with a herbaceous drydown.

So here we go with the ingredients:

Balanus oil, probably a fixative, also called Ben-nut; panace, a balm known for its healing power, also called all-heal or Hercules balm; oenanthe or “vine leaves,”; malabathrum or malobathrum, aka “Indian Bay Leaf” or tamala pattra (Sanskrit) -- obviously very ancient, used in cooking, too; amomum, another name for cardamom; cinnamon; spikenard; maro (marum or maron) which is a spice mixture similar to the modern Za’atar -- many variations; cassia, styrax, laudanum (possibly a misprint, as laudanum is tincture of opium -- maybe they meant labdanum? Or maybe not.) Balsalm, myrrh, calmus, rush, oenanthe, serichatum, a shrub not well-identified botanically but possibly cinnamon-like; cyperus (a rhizone with a violet-like scent), rosewood oil, crocus blossom (possibly saffron), henna, marjoram, honey, lotus and wine.

Rhodium -- Oil of Roses:  Initially, I can smell roses here, and a grassy, slightly animalic quality, but the drydown has a citrusy note that dominates. Apparently roses were quite common at this time and heavily used in perfumery.

Ingredients are rose, crocus, cinnabar, calmus, honey, rush, alkanet  (a coloring substance, made from a root, usually reddish), wine, “sublimated salt,” and onphacium (the olive oil.)

Susinum -- Oil of lilies: This one is quite faint, lightly floral. Donato says that it was the most refined and delicate of all the unguents. Even on skin, I can barely smell it, and it disappears rapidly.

Ingredients are: lily blossoms, crocus blossoms, balanus, calamus, honey and myrrh.

Telinum-- Oil of fenugreek: This has the strongest smell of them all, and it is clearly identifiable as fenugreek aka immortelle -- the familiar maple-syrup note used in some niche and artisanal perfumes today. The drydown features the fenugreek note prominently.

Ingredients are: Fenugreek, cyperus (a rhizome with a violet-like scent), calamus, melilot (yellow sweet clover), honey, mato, marjoram, and onphacium.

There is a lot of interesting reading possible here! I picked and chose from several references in my attempt to verify the insert’s description of the unguents. Here are some:

The New Perfume Handbook, (1997) by Nigel Groom. An essential resource. The book is out of print and pretty expensive, but the text is available on the web, often by googling the name of a perfume ingredient. ISBN is 0-7514 0403 9.

For some of Pliny’s writings on perfumes and plants, go here or here.

The bust of Cleopatra image, held by Berlin Museum, comes from WikiMedia. Historical information about her from various sources, including the Smithsonian and Wikipedia.

The package was prepared by Professor Giuseppe Donato, Director Emeritus for the Institute of Applied Technologies, National Research Council of Italy.