Monday, April 23, 2012

Musk and Masculinity

I missed musk. 

It was a sort of downmarket, Seventies thing, associated (by me anyway) with polyester, discos, gold chains and sex with strangers. The idea, from the era’s print ads I saw, was that cheap drugstore musk made all women swoon and surrender. Even then, that idea was cringe-inducing. So, when I saw a small bottle of Houbigant’s “Musk Monsieur” at an estate sale recently, I uncapped and sniffed it as a sort of  private joke, expecting the worst — cheap crap, the fragrance equivalent of a rotating mirrored ball.

It floored me. Never mind the musk. This scent, to me, was the quality “masculinity” in a bottle.

When one has an intense olfactory experience like this, it usually means that the scent is hitting some neuronal cluster or group of them in the brain, eliciting powerful cognitive associations. I knew mine weren’t about Daddy. My father called all men’s colognes “stink-um” and never wore them. (My husband has begun to wear cologne only recently, and even then only a small bit of it — my gifts to him include a couple of Etat Libre d’Orange favorites and Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanilla. Not what you’d call old school.) But I bought the little bottle for a couple of bucks. I brought it home and said to him, “You have to try this. It’s so masculine.” I liked it so much that when a larger bottle came up for sale at auction, I bought it too. 

Last week, on “Mad Men,” there was a scene in which Don fixes a sink. His much younger wife looks on in adoration. Women like me grew up with fathers and uncles who knew how to fix things. I think it was because they’d been in the military and in wars, both arenas where it was do or die. Musk notwithstanding, to me this is that scent: a man who can make things work, and make me feel safe. 

Silly, I know. So out of time. But one must be honest about the emotional content of one’s memories — especially scent memories. They demand it.

So what is this stuff?

There are two versions. Both my bottles are the original Houbigant ones, as far as I can tell (the word “Houbigant” on the bottles was my first clue) although I think the smaller one might be a little older. The cologne was released in 1973. Dana bought it some time in the 80’s — accounts differ — and although the newer bottles are similar, the word “Houbigant” is missing. I haven’t smelled the Dana version but, if I know anything at all about these kinds of licensing deals,  my guess is that it’s probably very different. 

The “notes” are so well-blended that they’re not easily listed, but there is a lot of barbershop here, which usually means bay rum.  The fragrance differs a bit between the two bottles — one opens a little “brighter,” while the other is smoky right away; the first remains a little greener and sweeter while the second dries down to the pure fur/musk lushness. (Subtle differences between batches were much more common in the era where some naturals were still used.) Both have lots of tobacco, a bit of green, blended aromatics, and musk. Both sink into the skin and last for hours.

I still haven’t figured out why this scent says “man” to me. And I wonder what modern scents would represent masculinity. What qualities might be associated with that broader term. Is modern masculinity still about mastery of the physical environment, confidence and strength?  Is it about humor, gamesmanship, insight?  Or is it ridiculous to even categorize like this any more?

What is “masculinity” to you, and what modern scents, if any, capture that quality for you? 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Suggestive Perfume Bottles, vol. 1

A friend gave me this bottle a couple of years ago. The bulb is embossed with the words "DeVilleBliss." I've seen them in antique stores once or twice. Anybody know the age and/or provenance of it?

(2017 edit: it was a nasal irrigator! I guess you were supposed to fill the bottle with water or something, then blast it up into your sinuses by squeezing the bulb. Ewwww!)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bottom Feeding: Titanic

During the last few weeks, you might have heard something about the upcoming centennial of the sinking of the Titanic.

Most perfume blog readers are aware that a sample kit of perfume ingredients was found among the artifacts; that the perfume “Night Star,” based on the still-fragrant intact vials, was concocted by Christopher Sheldrake in his pre-Chanel days, and that “Scents of Time,” the company who made and marketed it, is reportedly now defunct. (In the photo I’ve seen, only one of the vials is intact, but, hey, I’m a skeptic.) I will give references at the end of this post for those who want to explore the perfume link further. In the reading I’ve been doing for this piece, so much else has come up that I just have to delve and, yes, opine.

You could say that the “Titanic” disaster (1912) and the World Trade Center disaster (2001) were bookends to the 20th century.

“Titanic” was a symbol of huge wealth and luxury, embarking on its maiden voyage at a time of limitless optimism: cars, elevators, telephones, central heat, disposable income! A first-class cabin on the ship cost around $57,000 of today’s dollars. The industrialists and barons of the time could well afford it. There had never been such a ship, and, furthermore, it was unsinkable. 

Now, cut to the late 20th century; the Twin Towers. They were built as a statement of America’s financial might. Dwarfing everything else on Manhattan island, their scale caused an aesthetic furor; outrage, to no end. (The aesthetics lost.) Filled with trading firms and funds companies — modern robber barons — they stood as monuments to America’s domination of the world’s economies.

When the Titanic sank, the ship broke in half. The few lifeboats available had already departed. The first-class cabins were closer to deck, the steerage ones far below it. While “women and children first” is what we’ve always been told by our myth makers, the fact is that the closer to deck you were, the better the chance of your survival. (For example, Mr. Sealfeld, the perfume merchant, was a first-class passenger. He survived.) 

The ship’s halves descended to the bottom differently. The front went bow down; the stern apparently corkscrewed as it went. No one knows with certainty, but chances are good that those steerage-level passengers, at least some of them, were still trapped inside. Both bow and stern hit the bottom, half a mile apart, with extreme force. The stern was mangled. The bow half hit so hard that the impact marks are still visible on the sea floor.

Now, bits and pieces of the ship, plus whatever personal belongings remained salvageable after 80-plus years, are going up for sale.

An exhibit of these artifacts is on view right here in At-lanta. The company that owned limited rights to them was recently given full title rights to the physical and intellectual property they represent. The only restrictions are that they must be kept together, and auctioned as a single lot. (Figures approaching 200 million dollars have been mentioned, but of course that was pre-2008 dollars.)

I haven’t seen them. I did see this company’s other step-right-up show, “Bodies,” an exhibit of real human cadavers preserved in some sort of silicone material which allows the viewer to see the body without skin — the muscles, nerve tracts, everything intact. Problem is, the exhibitors didn’t ask too many questions as to the bodies’ sources. It was later discovered that they were the remains of Chinese political prisoners, some tortured, then executed. 

A ticket to the current “Titanic” exhibit is a replica of ship’s boarding pass, with a passenger’s name on it. When you get to the end, you can look at a list to see if “you” survived.

But wait; there’s more! The home shopping network QVC has paired with RMS Titanic to market jewelry, home and gift ware, all replicas of similar items found in the wreckage…and, even better, another fragrance! This one will be called “Legacy 1912 - Titanic.” No info on who the perfumer is, but I don’t think it’s Christopher Sheldrake.

Hey, I know we live in a crass time. The years leading up to 9-1-1 were a period of great wealth (for some) and even greater hubris, as were those leading up to 1912. This is why I can’t help but compare the two. 

Perhaps this Titanic centennial, with all its hoopla, will be the last of it. The ship is disintegrating, slowly being eaten by “rusticles,” metal-digesting deep-sea organisms. I hope it will finally become dust, allowed to rest in peace, and that we will have finally learned -- but I doubt it.


About the artifacts auction

The April 2012 issue of National Geographic has excellent new photos and commentary about the shipwreck in the article "The Titanic, Illuminated" by Hampton Sides, Vol. 221, No. 4, p. 78.

photo from Google Images, credited RMSTitanic.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ayurvedic Facial Massage

Last week, I left a comment on another perfume blog mentioning that I practiced this. Several replies came back wanting to know the method, so here it is!

Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years. To grossly oversimplify, it stresses balance between the body’s fluids or “humors,”  the channels transporting them, and the freeing of constrictions in those channels. This type of facial massage boosts circulation and stimulates lymphatic drainage.

I’ve been practicing this three or four times a week for several months now. For me, has resulted in a clearer, more “lively” complexion with less pore blockage, empty sinuses and a more relaxed, rested-looking face. While everybody’s results will differ, at the minimum this feels wonderful, relieves tension in the head and neck and — best of all — it’s DIY, and free.

I use a base of almond oil (30 mls) to which I’ve added 2 drops each of essential oils of Eucalyptus and Lavender, and one drop each of Sage and Vetiver. (If I have a cold or allergic sinus blockage I’ll add a little extra eucalyptus, which really helps with that.) About two percent essential oil to plain oil is the desired ratio; use any essences that appeal to you, or just plain oil. Pure essential oil, however, should always be diluted for use on skin.

Facial massage, regardless of type, should always be done with upward strokes.

This instruction recommends 30 minutes, but who has that kind of time? I usually do 15 or 20. And, if you have access to a steam room, even better — just smooth the oil over your face and neck before you get in.  A hot tub or bath is an ideal place, too. 

Try to rely on your hands, not a mirror; it’s better to do this by sense of touch. Read through the instructions first, because your hands will be full of oil, which you certainly don’t want to get on the keyboard! (I kept these instructions on my desktop in a large type font until I had memorized them.) 

Sitting straight in a chair, you begin at the collar bones, firmly pressing beneath them at the breastbone (super-sternal) notch at least five times. Moving out to the shoulder area, firmly pressing with the balls of the fingers, you should feel the stimulation unlocking neck and shoulder tension. Then, using opposite hands, use three fingers to massage the shoulder muscles. Move back to the hollow behind your collarbones and “pinch,” thumbs downward, back and forth along the bones out to the shoulder muscles for several minutes. (Stimulating this area is an essential foundation to the facial massage.) 

Then, the neck should be “palmed”one hand at a time, rhythmically stroking upward, with the right hand stroking the left side of the neck and vice versa. This will stimulate the lymph glands in the neck area. The jawline is firmly pinched with your thumbs under the bone, from beneath the chin to the earlobes, in about four steps, ten times.

Now the face, with the first two fingers on each side, just under the cheekbones, from the jaw outward and back again, about five times.  Then the nose area. Start at the bridge, index finger on each side, and apply firm pressure, working down to the end of the nose and back again, for about one minute. This helps keep the sinuses clear. 

The skin around the eyes is thin and delicate, so make sure you have enough oil on the skin so there is no "drag.”  Use the ring fingers to gently trace around the rim of the sockets starting from the outside, going around in circles ten times. This helps to reduce puffiness and dark circles.

The forehead is massaged by spreading your fingers on either side of your nose with your thumb at the temple and the index between your eyebrows. Pinch very lightly up to the hairline and back again. There is very little excess skin here, so this is a shallow pinch, done for a couple of minutes. This releases muscle tension in the forehead. 

After this, rub any excess oil on your hands into other areas of your body as necessary, such as knees or elbows, and relax for awhile if you can. (I have found that this massage makes a good prelude to meditation.) 

When finished, wash the face and neck to remove any excess oil.

There are different methods for performing this type of facial massage — this is the one I use. I have “customized” it by pressing on the eye-rim notches located about where the eyebrows start, and gently pinching along the upper lip and rims and lobes of the ears — these are acupressure points. Other instructions I’ve seen involve circling the temples and pressing the area between temple and jaw to stimulate the salivary glands. Supplement with whatever seems right to you.

 The illustration of facial muscles is from the site