Monday, June 27, 2011

Four Frangipanis

We’ve been having monsoon weather here. Yesterday, it rained as hard as I’ve ever seen rain, including Pacific storms and hurricanes. It could be that a recent desire to spray myself with several fragrances at once is a response to the dramatic weather. (Or maybe not.) I have been craving florals, though, tropical ones, like this.
Frangipani is stealthy. There never has been a flower named “Frangipani,” botanically. The Frangipanis were people, a notable patrician family in Italy, prominent from around 1000 to the 1600’s. The Marchese di Frangipani concocted (or, more likely, had concocted) a perfume used to scent gloves. The perfume featured orris, spices, civet and musk. The gloves became known as “Frangipani gloves.” That name became associated with the tropical flower Plumeria after French colonists in the West Indies noticed a flowering tree whose scent reminded them of the gloves. The variety shown here is P. bicolor. There are many others.
The blossom blooms at night to lure the enormous Sphinx moth, and other moths. It produces no nectar, though. In the act of poking around looking for nectar, the frustrated moths pollinate the flowers. 
There is much folklore and custom associated with frangipani. In Polynesia, a flower worn over the right ear means unattached and looking for, uh, love; over the left, the opposite. In Bangladesh,frangipani is associated with death; in the Phillippines, ghosts and graveyards. 
What I found interesting about this flower was the wide range of scents I smelled when trying four fragrances made with it; two upscale and two not. 
Chantecaille Frangipani:  A white-flower fragrance for sure; there’s some orange blossom here, too, possibly a bit of jasmine, and what I think is Tahitian vanilla in the drydown. It’s heady, but heavy -- must be difficult to do that -- and has slight green notes, but the overall effect is that of a perfect bridal perfume: pretty and sweet, frangipani’s high road.
Ormonde Jayne Frangipani EDP: This is a very different treatment of the flower from that of Chantecaille. It’s clear, fresh as morning, with a definite hint of green. I smell magnolia, too, and Ormonde Jayne’s characteristic iso-e-super, which makes it a little woody in the early stages. It dries down a bit sweeter, but is never sweet. I’d say this is more Ormonde Jayne and less frangipani, and could be unisex.
Hei Poa Frangipani: Hei Poa is a French company that makes scents of Polynesia. A friend had a bottle and decanted some for me. It’s pleasant, a little boozy at first, some spice peeks out, and then: wham! Here is the heavy tropical flower, with much less finesse than either of the above. I think this is sold in tourist areas and airports in the South Pacific, particularly Tahiti, for moderate prices. The bottle was great -- hand-painted flowers and a big cork dome on top. I’ve been wearing this at night lately.
Maggie’s Pharmacy Frangipani Oil: Maggie’s Pharmacy is a funky shop near downtown Memphis that sells oils, essences, teas, herbs, handcrafted jewelry -- you get the idea. I loved the place. I bought several things from them, and the proprietor gave me a big handful of dried oakmoss, gratis, which I’m tincturing now. Anyway, this frangipani oil is initially musty and a little lemony, and the flower appears only when heated by skin. Like the Hei Poa, it is heavy, unmistakably tropical, and somehow darker than any of these -- it is an oil, of course -- and eventually it turns a little soapy, although it retains the musty quality. 
In Nigel Groom’s “New Perfume Handbook” there is an old recipe for a frangipani perfume that doesn’t list frangipani at all! Instead, there are synthetics: jasmine, lilac, orange blossom, benzoin, musk ketone -- interesting. 
All of this made me want to search out some frangipani absolute. I’d like to smell the real thing, but am not planning a trip to the tropics anytime soon. It seems to lend itself well to other ingredients -- the Ormonde Jayne and the Chantecaille hardly seem made with the same flower, although the other two do. (Of course there are so many kinds. The plot thickens.)
I’ll look around for some absolute. 
Do you have a favorite frangipani? 
Photo ©Johnfoto, used under license from
Resource material from The New Perfume Handbook by Nigel Groom, ISBN 0 7514 0403 9.
Full disclosure time: The Ormond Jayne sample was given to me a couple of years ago by Ormonde Jayne. The Chantecaille sample was handed out to participants at SniffaPalooza, fall 2010. The Hei Poa came from a friend and the Frangipani Essential Oil was purchased by me at Maggie’s Pharmacy, Memphis, TN.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Moon Drops

 I just got back from Florida, where I spent a couple of days with Carol, who writes WAFT. There were brush fires burning all around us, from months of drought. It was too smoky to walk outside, or go to the beach, or much of anything. So we hung out indoors, sniffing perfume, for two days. 
I spotted a green box in her collection that looked familiar. Pulled it out and turned it over. It was vintage Moon Drops.
I’ve recently returned from Memphis, where I was an extra in the forthcoming film "Woman's Picture", which concerns mothers, daughters and perfume. Moon Drops was my mother’s signature scent during a difficult time, the 80’s, when we lived on opposite sides of the U.S., and didn’t get along for long on my visits home. I thought of myself as hot stuff then, rising fast in a wicked and glamorous career, and I think that she, a lifelong wife and mother, might have been a little jealous. She made a point of being unimpressed. 
I didn’t know whether I should try the Moon Drops. I’d always turned my nose up at it. Drugstore stuff. Cheap. Revlon, for God’s sake! I’d been disappointed in her for putting away her Arpege and Moment Supreme and adopting as her signature...this? I was hesitant to smell it, afraid that it might bring back bad memories. But I decided to be brave, and sprayed some on my wrist.
Here was the slightly bitter alcohol and aldehyde blast I remembered. She would apply it generously, just before she’d leave the house, and that smell would linger in her wake. Then, I smelled some sort of white flower, followed by -- surprise! -- the trajectory of a Chypre. Orris. Green. Not sweet. Lily of the valley. Carnation -- probably eugenol, quite a bit of it. And finally, moss. Lots of moss.
The “notes” lists things I don’t smell much of -- ylang-ylang, fruits, honey, cedar. It’s the bitters I smell now. Perhaps the top and midnotes degraded with age, leaving only the structure, the dry bones. Sweetness tends to do that over time.
“The whole fucking world,” says Miriam, of “Woman’s Picture,” to her clueless boss, “is mothers and daughters, Grant.”  I’ve been turning that statement in my mind ever since I heard it. Is it true? 
My father wore Mennen’s Skin Bracer, the after-shave. I wouldn’t have been afraid to sniff that. The bottle of Moon Drops, though, seemed to hold a malevolent spirit, and I held the box for a moment while I considered it.
I appreciate my mother much more now that she’s gone. Hers was a tough life, always moving, raising her kids in the Sixties, that era of generational war, fought across the kitchen table every night; expectations, disappointments. I’m wondering now about her giving up the first-rate French perfume for this drugstore stuff. What was that about?
Practicality. An attempt to conform to small-town life. A bone-deep fear of being thought pretentious. That’s a generational thing, too, far from my era of single-malt Scotch and McMansions with five bathrooms, a time now coming to its own ignominious end. 
Carol loved the Moon Drops. As surprised as I was at its classic quality, she told me that she, too, had turned up her nose. She’d had the box for a while and hadn’t even opened it. Once she smelled it, she couldn’t stop spraying, evaluating, exclaiming.
I didn’t, though. It’s not that I don’t like the fragrance. I do. But when I had a signature scent, it was the lush floral oriental Bal a Versailles -- an attempt, I now know, to carve my own identity into that opposite coast, as far away from home as I could get. 
I came back with a decant of the Moon Drops, and another of Charlie, something else she wore back then. I’ll put them in my “Mom Kit,” I joked to Carol, “along with the Arpege and the Woodhue and the Moment Supreme.”  
Here’s the thing though: I’ll do just that. In a way, it’s the least I can do.
“Notes” for Moon Drops include aldehydes, gardenia, peach, bergamot, lily of the valley, rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, carnation, orris, honey, sandalwood, musk, cedar, moss, styrax, amber and benzoin.
Eclipse photo used under license from; © Emiliau |

Monday, June 6, 2011

I'm Ready for My Closeup -- Woman's Picture

You make such interesting friends doing this. I “met” (I wonder how much longer we’ll be putting that word in quotes in this wired time?) Brian Pera, who is cowrites the blog “I Smell Therefore I Am,” when he mentioned my blog in a year-end wrap-up. I was a neophyte then and utterly thrilled to be noticed. We began a correspondence, I found out he was a filmmaker and writer working on a project he called “Woman’s Picture,” an ambitious work in progress whose ongoing exploration of fragrance’s essential meaning encompasses, among other things, the primal relationships between mothers and daughters. 
It’s a short flight from Atlanta to Memphis, so when Brian asked me if I wanted to come up for a few days and participate in the shooting of a pivotal sequence between Miriam (Ann Magnuson), the home-shopping cable host who can’t help but get involved with the lives of her callers, and her elderly mother, Rose. In the scene shot yesterday, Miriam is with Rose in a luxury store, asking for assistance from sales associates as she tries to identify an old bottle of perfume that was Rose’s signature scent. The sight of the bottle and smell of the old perfume elicit an angry outburst from Rose, and we -- and Miriam -- realize that Rose is in the early stages of dementia. 
I’m an extra, a customer in the store.
I spent several years working in film production, but it was always behind the camera, as one kind of underling or another. This was the first time I’d ever been in front of one.  The actual scene involved pantomiming a conversation between a sales associate and a customer (me) as background to the emotional scene between Miriam and her mother. As I worked I began to think about the great early films -- the silents -  and how the actors made every gesture count. Remember Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”? “We had faces then!” Well, yeah. 
Brian also filmed a short sequence with me, talking about my favorite classic perfume Bal a Versailles. I was nervous, but knew the material, so I did ok -- well, I’m told. 
Life does hand one a surprise every now and then, doesn’t it?
I’m honored to be a part of this project. This kind of thing is what perfume is really about. Memory. Fascination. Sadness. Love. Life.
“Woman’s Picture” is about three women who don’t know each other, but are linked through fragrance, with its special power.
Andy Tauer is involved, too. He’s developing three special perfumes, his interpretation of the three characters who will comprise the central triptych -- Miriam, Loretta and Ingrid -- and the fragrances will be so named. These are planned for release over an 18-month period.  
To read more about the project and see a trailer for the upcoming first release, go to Evelyn Avenue, named after a beautiful old street in Memphis.
I’m sitting in my hotel room in early morning, writing this. Soon I’ll have to pack and check out and check in and fly home, to all my responsibilities, and the get-it-done rhythm of daily life. I guess I’d have to call this movie magic, the act of suspending the routine for a little while. Good fragrance is like that, too. It allows us to check out of get-it-done for a few moments, and enter a mysterious realm. I think that “Women’s Picture” will be the first film to look -- really look -- at perfume. 
The photo is Ann Magnuson, as Miriam.