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

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lantern -- Book Review

A month or so ago, Harper-Collins sent me a new novel, “The Lantern,” by Deborah Lawrenson, to review. The book is set in Provence, and a minor character becomes a perfumer. Hence sending review copies to perfume bloggers such as myself. I do appreciate the outside-the-box thinking that went into this. 
About the book itself: My opinion is mixed. It’s a gothic novel, not anything I’d usually read. But I do love good travel writing. Much of this book reads like it.
The narrative switches back and forth between Eve, a modern young woman who has fallen in love with a mysterious older man and followed him to a farm in Provence, and Bénédicte, daughter of the original farm family, now present only in spirit. It is Bénédicte’s sister, afflicted with congenital progressive blindness, who becomes the successful perfumer. 
As their idyllic summer fades to autumn, Eve begins to realize that she and her lover, Dom, are not alone in their ancient farmhouse. Past residents begin to make their presence known. As Eve’s veil of infatuation lifts with time, she becomes aware that Dom has a past, and a secret.
It is Bénédicte’s memories that form the sensual heart of the novel. Here she describes a late-summer day on the farm: “It was one of those days so intensely alive and aromatic, you could hear as well as smell the fig tree in the courtyard. Wasps hummed in the leaves as the fruit ripened and split; globes of warm, dark purple were dropping, ripping open as they landed with sodden gasps.”
The book is full of passages like this. I don’t think anyone I’ve read has described Provence in such a tactile and olfactory way. The problem here is one of characterization.
“The Lantern” is something like a modern action movie, long on effects and short on character development. We never really know the protagonist, Eve, or her lover, Dom. He is like a cardboard cut-out; just there, walking through the plot, playing his part. I never could work up much sympathy for Eve, either, who seems alternately petulant and nosy. It is Bénédicte, the ghost narrator, whose presence is most keenly felt and whose memories resonate. 
“The Lantern” is being marketed as similar to the Daphne du Maurier classic gothic story Rebecca. Somehow, I never read that. I’d like to now. There are similarities of course, gothic archetypes like the isolated protaganist, but the plot’s climax falls with a resounding thud -- all I could think was “That’s it? That’s the big dark secret?” Perhaps these all-too-modern characters simply don’t fit the gothic milieu well; perhaps that’s why Bénédicte’s wise presence saves the story, to some extent.
What is heartening about this book is the emphasis on the olfactory sense, usually ignored in fiction, and the writer's obvious love of classic fragrance. The expression “you could almost smell it” applies perfectly here, in Bénédicte’s beautiful descriptions of Provincial farm life.
“The Lantern,” from Harper-Collins, came out August 9th. It’s available in the usual places. ISBN is 978-0-06-204969-8.
The image shown here is the cover of the advance reader’s edition. The “real” cover is slightly different.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two Sprites

This summer has amounted to one long heat wave. Today is the first day the high might not quite reach ninety. I’m holding my breath, as are we all, hoping for an early autumn. 

There are a few signs. The leaves on the dogwood trees are blushing, just slightly. The birds are unusually ravenous, emptying our feeder (which holds a pound or so of seed) almost daily. The garden has gone to seed, too. 
All summer, I’ve been switching back and forth between Claudie Pierlot’s “Eau de Pierlot” and Etat Libre d’Orange’s “Je Suis Un Homme.” On the surface, it would seem as though they haven’t much in common, but they do; chief among that is a heady peppery note and, of course, citrus, which is lemonish in the Pierlot, and citron with orange bigarade in the Je Suis. 
There’s hardly any information available on the Eau de Pierlot. It isn’t sold at retail here in the U.S., although it’s fairly well-distributed in Europe. Claudie Pierlot is a French fashion designer, specializing in a sort of punkish gamine look that made me think of Jean Seberg in “A Bout de Souffle,” Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1960 film that was retitled “Breathess” for its release in the English-speaking world. (If you haven’t seen the film, you must do so immediately!) The fragrance is a sprightly orange blossom with citrus and peppery aldehydes that hit the trigeminal nerve, giving that little dart of effervescence. That's followed by a light citrusy orange blossom -- the lightest I've ever smelled -- and a gently animalic musk. I’ve been wearing it almost every day this summer. It layers well, with anything I’ve tried -- other summer scents, teas and citruses. And one of my favorite combinations pairs it with Etat Libre de Orange’s “Je Suis un Homme,” which I regularly swipe off my husband’s dresser-top; one on each arm, one on the front and the other on the back of my neck; you get the idea.
“Je Suis” has been around for awhile, a relatively early offering from Etat Libre d’Orange, the renegade Paris perfumery. Reading the list of notes surprised me, because this is one of the few scents that doesn’t send me to databases to figure them out. I don’t really care, truth be told. I’ve picked a few, of course -- orange bigarade, citron, check. Definitely there. The rest, though, are so well-blended that I haven’t ever tried to deconstruct them -- things like myrtle, and something slightly tarry, cognac, and some animalic base. Je Suis isn’t sweet, at all, in any way. Eau de Pierlot is just slightly so. Worn together, they compliment each other in a classic sum-of-the-parts way. Eau de Pierlot calms the Je Suis, which some have called a rough ride. 
I guess I’ll be putting these away soon, getting out the early fall scents and the take-no-prisoners stonking winter orientals I adore. We have four distinct seasons here. I try to celebrate them by living seasonally in every way, with food and wine as well as perfume. In Southern California, where I used to live, there are seasons, but they’re subtle. It’s not unusual for summer to extend well into October. Here in Atlanta, we can count on autumn. Sometimes it’s short, but it always shows up.
Do you wear perfumes differently in different seasons?
“Eau de Pierlot” is hard to find, but I know somebody….(details below). “Je Suis un Homme” can be ordered from the niche perfume sites and stores. 
“Eau de Pierlot” by Claudie Pierlot may be found, in very limited quantities, at WAFT's niche perfume boutique. Decants are also available there.
“Breathless” is available from Netflix, and shows up in revival houses sometimes. Seaberg plays Patricia Franchini, a bohemian American student who gets involved with a small-time hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The story was written by Francois Truffaut, screenplay and direction by Jean-Luc Goddard.
The photo of Jean Seberg is a still from the film, and falls under general fair-use designations.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I’ve always avoided vintage Avon perfumes because I’ve read that they have a pretty good chance of having “turned” over the years. So when I received a partial bottle of “Unforgettable” in parfum strength from a generous pal, I didn’t even try it for a while. 

When I did, I was soundly impressed.

“Unforgettable,” released in 1960, is an old fashioned everything's-in-it perfume. Heavily floral -- I detect some orange blossom/amber, which reminds me of the old Bal a Versailles and of vintage Givenchy “Organza Indecence” -- it dries down with a chypre-like pinch. There is not very much information available about it. According to Angela of  "Now Smell This," a call to the company revealed that their internal database had been cleared of references to it. My bottle, obviously old and well-used, has a simple rectangular shape and a dented metal cap that looks like the family dog mistook it for a chew toy. What amazes me is that the perfume still smells so good. Dated, but good.

Researching this scent piqued my curiosity about the Avon company in general. As it turns out, the fond memory of well-dressed Avon Ladies ringing suburban doorbells is dated, too. In 2005, Avon Products Inc. went to a business model based on Multi Level Marketing, usually called "MLM." In 2009, Avon admitted in a report to the SEC that the company uses income gained through recruitment as a countermeasure to reduced product sales -- in other words, MLM.

I could bore you to death with reports and Federal Trade Commission documents and letters touting both sides -- all of which I’ve looked at -- but I’ll try not to. (References appear at the end of this post.) In recent years, the revenue from Avon’s actual sales has declined, while the number of sales representatives has greatly increased. This is pretty simple math. And the Great Big Hope of American manufacturers in these times, China, has passed firm anti-MLM restrictions, as its government believes MLMs to be “inherently fraudulent.” These are so restrictive that several Avon executives were investigated under the auspices of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

To be fair, the company claims some important differences from the classic MLM pyramid model. These include training the recruits, prohibiting newbies from recruiting until they reach a certain level of sales, requiring no startup inventory, and providing support via national advertising and biweekly catalogs. My research revealed two selling paradigms -- the “Single” level direct selling, where reps start out (and may stay if they want to) and the MLM structure, in which they are encouraged to recruit friends, relatives, co-workers, then compensated with a percentage of their sales  -- you know this drill.

I know it well. I’ve been acquainted with several people and talked to many more who got caught up in MLM and ended up with garages full of soap and/or supplements. My guess is that Avon probably begins pushing recruits toward the MLM model pretty quickly after they sign up, because recruiting is the real goal. This is because the real product -- true for all MLMs -- is stars-in-the-eyes hope. The reality is that most MLM recruits don’t do very well, once they run out of friends, acquaintances and co-workers. When they realize that the actual job involves selling to and recruiting strangers, they often quit.

In the early 2000’s, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a rule (R511993) which would limit the activities of MLM’s. The details included disclosure statements, to be provided to new recruits during a mandated 7-day waiting period; records of cancellations within two years of signup and an earnings claim statement to potential recruits. 

Predictably, the fireworks of protest from MLMs came thick and fast, sometimes in the form of lawyerly documents. I found one from an attorney representing Avon to the FTC. It’s pages and pages (and pages) of attorney-speak, definitions and redefinitions, lists of Avon activities that purportedly don’t fit the MLM mold, and suggestions on how the FTC might want to amend the ruling. These involved exempting public companies from the new rule, exempting companies belonging to the industry trade group Direct Selling Association -- now, there’s some twisted logic -- deleting the waiting period, defining a threshold investment amount and on and on and on. 

When I visualize a co-worker or acquaintance coming at me with that everything's-great smile, inviting me to some event I know is an excuse for an MLM pitch, I shudder. I have to admit that I’m horrified at the idea of viewing friends as potential recruits, especially since most people fail at MLM selling.  The cultlike culture of MLM tends to draw people without much to lose.

It seems that Avon has turned, to this questionable way of doing business. 

So, when you see bottles of Avon perfume at the next garage or estate sale, remember what they once meant -- opportunity for entrepreneurial women. Like most things in business, it's all different now.

The photo is from a vintage advertising  catalog showing a model holding one of (many) variations of the “Unforgettable” bottle. Others were swans, a snail, a lay-down bottle with a turbanlike cap and a candlestick, and probably many more.

Information on product sales vs. recruitment came primarily from the this website  and from my work as a consumer counselor.

The lawyerly protest letter can be found here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pentachords Winner IRINA!

Irina, send me your postal details at Olfactarama at att dot net.

The winner was chosen using

Congratulations to Irina and thanks to all the other entrants.

Back tomorrow with a real post!

(photo from Google Images. Original source, Carroll College "Student Life" catalog.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pentachords, from Andy Tauer -- a samples drawing

In an interview Andy Tauer gave recently, he talks candidly about these new fragrances, and how they came about. The central issue was a difficulty he was having working with iris roots in the development of a previous fragrance. Since that’s one of his favorite and most-used notes, he had a problem to solve.
He wondered, he says, if.  If a scent could be reduced to its fundamentals while still being harmonious. If the classic pyramid structure could be transcended in a way that would still leave room for development. If he could come up with a series based on these ideas that would work; what to call it, how to describe it. If stepping onto an alternate path for a time would fit with his developing brand. 
Near the end of the interview he speaks of how he came to the decision to do this. New roads; the creative process itself in which nothing is ever really “finished,” but can always be better, which is well-known to any artist. And the knowledge that a new road leads to discovery of all sorts of other new aspects that can be applied to one’s new work, and as tweaks (which are hard to resist) to one’s older work. 
The battle of Natural vs. Synthetics goes on, of course; Tauer’s previous work has mixed them in quite complex formulas. These fragrances, the Pentachords, are made from synthetic molecules. The intellectual and creative challenge he gave himself -- construct 3 perfumes using only 5 ingredients each-- meant that every ingredient had to perform every function expected of a perfume. Using the molecules was part of the solution. The other part was using the most interesting molecules, ones that evolve on skin as naturals do, in harmony with one another. He tried a number of synthetics, most notably a variation Irone Alpha -- as expensive as rose absolute -- before finding the right ones.
These words are a joy to write. Not many perfumers would ever consider revealing their own artistic processes, much less their dilemmas. This speaks to perfumery as art, in a way we’d all love to see more of...ok, already, what do they smell like?
There are three, the series named after the five-note diatonic scale, the individual fragrances named after the colors they evoked to Tauer.
Verdant” is a green (are you surprised?) After the initial leafy burst, it reminds me of walking into a humidor. There is tobacco here, making this very different from most “green” scents, with their usual trinity of galbanum/vetiver/violet leaf. Tauer fans will recognize a bit of spice, too, along with the hints of galbanum and leather. It’s not sweet, nor is it sharp. It’s a great masculine and a distinctively different feminine.
Auburn” is a Tauer through and through. It’s a bit like his "Orange Star," with its fruity-not-bitter orange, a bit of honey and lily like his "Zeta," and a dash of L’air du Desert Marocain (just a dash) in there too. Lately I’ve been exploring the world of mixology, in which cocktails are constructed much like perfumes. I’d love to see how a flavorist would approach these notes.
White,” my personal favorite, has been described in terms of snow and silvery violet, but to me it opens with rich, foody vanilla, then a strong violet aspect and a base of ambroxan (or one of the other myriad names which describe synthetic ambergris) and some white-woody musk. Try as I might, I can’t see this cold; it’s divinity, an old-fashioned kind of white candy my grandmother made. The violet, which is the aforementioned irone alpha, does shift and glimmer. (Most ionones render me asnomic to practically everything else in the fragrance; this doesn’t.) All this being said, “White” is a cool-weather fragrance, which I plan to wear when our weather cools (if it ever does).
And these last. The “White” in particular lasted, even on me, all day.
These fragrances won’t be released worldwide until mid-September. At the moment, they’re only available at Campo Marzio, in Rome. Be the first of your friends...leave a comment, any comment, by midnight,  August 7, US Eastern Daylight time. I’ll do a random drawing and send the winner the pictured set of generous carded samples.
To watch the interview with Andy Tauer, go here.
Full disclosure: The sample sets were set to me by Tauer Perfumes.