Category Archives: ‘Orientals’

OLIVIA IS TRYING TO KILL ME

 

 

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The taunts! The torture! Just when I am lamenting not having more of my beloved Loulou, she goes and finds, from our secret pharmacy a Londres, not only a vintage body lotion but a tassled, and apparently ‘DIVINE‘ smelling vintage PARFUM.

 

 

And then sends me a picture.

 

 

 

I can feel my veins and chest muscles constricting in jealousy.

 

 

 

I HATE YOU. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But perhaps I am just getting a well-deserved taste of my own, cruel medicine.

 

 

 

Is this how you feel when I gloat over mine?

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“ SUCCESSFUL FAILURES ” vol 2:: : : HERITAGE EAU DE PARFUM by GUERLAIN

 

 

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According to the Guerlain website, the eau de parfum version of Heritage – though reformulated, naturally  –  is still available and in production, so I am already breaking my own rules and cheating in some ways with this post. Unlike other scents we will be discussing, this one is not defunct. And yet I can never find it anywhere: the bottle has changed, along with its contents: so to all intents and purposes it might as well have hit the bucket.

 

At the time of its launch in 1992, Guerlain, like most perfume houses, released new creations to its roster far, far more sporadically than it does now. While the current perfumer-in-house Thierry Wasser is apparently contracted to formulate ten new perfumes a year (that’s just over a month to create a top-to-bottom successful fragrance formula : no wonder the majority of them fall by the wayside), Jean Paul Guerlain, a superior perfumer in my view, had far more time, in fairness, to get each one right: from what I remember, Guerlain could literally go three or four years without releasing anything new: wasn’t Heritage the first big release that came after Samsara in 1989?

 

Heritage, only the third masculine perfume for the house after Habit Rouge and Vetiver (Derby having been discontinued) was released to great fanfare and promotion at the beginning of the nineties, and Jean Paul Guerlain had clearly calibrated the blend to perfection. It was almost too perfect, though, for me personally : Heritage eau de toilette (the eau de parfum was released a few years later) was measured, classical, yet sparkling: sensual, tasteful and very gentlemanly; a clever way of introducing the the house signature Guerlinade and ambered, oriental facets – the cedary, tonka bean/ vanilla base a shimmering backdrop – to a fresher, more zinging central theme of contrasting lavender/bergamot and coriander/pepper: there is a tangibly real ‘tingle’ to the blend, from the crisp addition of petitgrain – always a strident and high pitched note – along with drops of juniper, clary sage and violet leaf, fresher and more coruscating elements that assert themselves confidently, like a sharp-suited businessman in a boardroom, over the more hidden floral elements of powdered orris; rose, carnation and geranium : all encompassing and widescreen, these immaculately contrapuntal elements coalescing  into a more modern scent for Guerlain, for the time, while quite perceptibly preserving, as advertised, the grand old house’s classical ‘heritage’.

 

But this was what always bothered me about the fragrance. No matter how many times I smelled it (and they were many)  there was something too staid, too patrician and Francophilic ‘bon gout’ about this blend, always so well-groomed and pressed and coiffeured and all the women love him. I remember a friend of a friend in London having the Heritage apres rasage, which he wore quite a lot and stated to be the best fragrance ever made, but on him, though appealing from certain angles, there was still that big, inexorable drop of boredom at the centre somehow (and he wasn’t that interesting to begin with); someone old before their time who was playing at playing by the rules.

 

 

 

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Fast forward a few years to Japan, and we find me wandering down a street in Yokohama. It was a time when so many department stores, post-Bubble, were still operational and doing OK (and before the constant current doom and gloom about the declining population and the imminent ‘demographic catastrophe’ as the ageing population continues to age, and when the younger generation loses interest in sex .This really is a crisis, actually, as people neuter themselves in their smartphone insularity and shun physical contact, but nonetheless, I really do believe that positivity and negativity create their own self- perpetuating cycles in societies and I do wish that the media here would sometimes change the Nihon death knell tune but I digress: ) at that time, when there were enough people to shop at these places, it was still possible for me, in my lunchtime, to stray into the perfume department of some old venerable store or other and do a spot of perfume sampling. And it was at this time, that to my surprise, I espied Guerlain’s Heritage Eau De Parfum.

 

 

It seems impossible now, with niche, and ‘unisex’, and the vast expansion of gender freedoms that are happening generally, to imagine that an ‘eau de parfum’ for men was something unusual, even slightly offputtingly feminine, but for the time it most definitely was. It felt, almost, like wearing a dress. An ‘eau de parfum’ designed for men?  Believe it or not there was something quite transgressive about this, a new direction, and having always quite liked certain elements of the original Heritage (ambery vanilla/tonka I am there, basically –  there was just always something too scratchy and herbaceous and complicated at top), I was quite curious about trying it. Could an eau de parfum variation of the scent tilt the balance, deepen the perfume, flesh it out, warm it up (Heritage edt is strangely cold, ultimately, despite its list of ingredients): make it more me?

 

 

 

It could. Vintage Heritage eau de parfum is a very different beast to the original eau de toilette, which is far more lavender/bergamot based and more effervescent, cognac to the former’s light champagne. While the coniferous edge of the blend of both versions – a fir tree element that was explored more fully in the later Winter Delice from 2000 (a beautiful play on fir, frankincense and vanilla that I always wear at Christmas), here, the upper notes are encased as if in an eiderdown of amber: the classic, Shalimar-like edible skin blanket that Guerlainophiles know and love so well, but in a masculine – the oriental facets upped, with the still recognizably Heritage top and heart notes present – but very much retreating and ceding their territory. Rather than a forty eight year old family man from Lyons off to a business conference in the outskirts of Paris, suddenly we are Serge Diaghilev, in fur coat, huddled in the snow, the whisper of illicit, body-taunting ambered deliciousness making us feel self-aroused and blushing;  an extra warmth that was, also, quite brilliantly provided in the heart and top notes of the perfume with a truly excellent note of heat-searing singing black pepper up top (the best pepper note I have smelled in any perfume), an addition that added spine to the blend and stopped everything from getting too namely pamby and ‘silk pyjamas’, Jean Paul Guerlain toying provocatively with what was ‘acceptable’ in a fragrance for men, yet not letting the person in question turn into a fully blown, reclining odalisque.

 

 

 

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I have just used up my final drops of Heritage edp in writing this, and it smells just as good as I remembered. And I suppose the continuing existence of the blend, albeit reformulated, thinner, with less stamina, doesn’t entirely qualify this Guerlain classic as a ‘successful failure’ or beautiful reject, or whatever else you want to call it.  Yet I have never seen it on sale, not in London, or anywhere else in England, and certainly not in Tokyo. To be sure, I asked the assistant at Guerlain the other day if they had Heritage, just to check out how the perfume was now smelling (perfect, actually, still very good quality, very taut and aqueous), and asked, by any chance, but knowing full well that they wouldn’t, if they also had the eau de parfum. No, not in Japan, sorry, no we don’t, because who, here, would wear it? Perhaps that under-the-counter bottle of the gleaming and illumined edt was there for company execs and visiting tourists (there was an acknowledgement of this in the woman’s eye as I enquired about the scent), but what man, in reality, is going to bother with an eau de parfum? Who would have need for such a thing? The fuller, more sensually intoxicating experience?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SHALIMAR in SHANGRI-LA

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Shangri-La, a fictional, mythological, Asian utopia set in the valleys of the ‘Kunlun’ hills, is the ultimate Orientalist fantasy. In its own, inimitable way, so is Guerlain’s Shalimar. And while the setting of the place, with its Buddhist lamasteries and slow-ageing people who have found a mystical peace may have originated in a novel entitled Lost Horizons from I933, Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage town in North-central Laos where we have been staying for the last three days (following an ill-fated stay in the capital Vientiane) makes the fiction, almost, a reality.

Widely considered the most perfectly preserved ancient city in South East Asia, Luang Prabang is a tranquil and beautiful place set in a valley at the meeting point of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers that flow slowly, but inexorably on; a backdrop to a city of glittering, gold wats, elegant French colonial architecture, and lush, tropical vegetation.

At dawn, monks from nearby villages congregate in the streets to collect alms – the food they will eat for the day- from the Buddhist pilgrims who gather from the city and the villages in the hills beyond to hand out the rice and other assorted foods that they then place into the proffered forth bowls of the orange-robed devotees (young; many playing computer games or checking their emails on their iPhones before they join the daily procession), twentieth century realities not distracting  from the dream-like vision, in the early morning rain, of a boat, coming slowly in through the pre-dawn mists, sidling up to the river bank in the dark; robe-clad monks stepping off, gently, with their bowls and umbrellas, and ascending the river bank steps to congregate on the steps of the exquisite Wat Xieng Thong temple.

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At dusk – this is the rainy season, and fresh, early-hour monsoons would lead to spectactular skies later on in the day – the clouds often formed  blue and white pagoda-like formations that played beautifully against the white-dragoned corner pieces of a temple roof; frangipani trees – the flowers everywhere – satin-white; pink and yellow; or dark cerise red – scenting the rain-freshed the air as the flowers fell scattered, and new blooms readied to open.

When night falls in the town and the night market opens, the sound of the frogs and the insects down by the Mekong intensify greatly and the man-made structures, be they French or Laotian, contract; draw in on themselves- the mountains and the ‘out – thereness’ of the surrounding hillsides, deep waters, and forests at this time becoming more vivid.

Rich. Dark.

A dense, nocturnal thickness of velvet.

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Taking the light purple box from my suitcase with its felt and fanned identation, I take Shalimar, lift up the stopper, and apply the perfume to myself in droves.  I can sense immediately that it is going to work. And unlike the other perfumes I have worn this holiday – good ones, naturally, which have been acceptable but not quite right – Shalimar at this moment smells like total perfection.

It fits me like a glove.

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Perhaps it is the air. Giving the scent the expansiveness that she requires:clear, fresh, but heavy in the environs of mountains, the skeins of papaya leaves and their yellow, orchid or hyacinth-like flowers, breathing; gardenias, orchids, roses and jasmine sambac, or perhaps it is the space: Luang Prabang is a city that achieves a beautiful synergy with the natural vegetation surrounding it – feeling as though the buildings, either the exquisitely built temples, or the nineteenth and early twentieth century French colonial town houses that match them perfectly, breathe.

Unwelcome invaders they may have been, the ‘protectorate’ yet another example of wrongful, European arrogance, just one more notch in the long lists of our shameful conquests and misguided exploitations, but one thing the French certainly did do right was to make sure that the place they would be administering would look beautiful and harmonious in a perfect aesthetic fusion of French and Laotienne.

What a brilliantly kept secret this place is (I had never even heard of it until I came here). It is the Kyoto of Laos, its Florence, the streets reminding me more though, almost, of Cambridge: King’s Parade, and King’s College, grand but diminutive, except rather than England and its medieval colleges and green-kept gardens, this is Laos, with its delicately beautiful architecture, its quiet yet artful understatedness : the people here perhaps the calmest, the mellowest, I have ever met.

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In this context, Shalimar shines quite beautifully like a jewel, while also blending in artlessly with the night that envelops it. I was almost unable to quite smell it at first, actually,  its French, liquid gold and the crepuscular air intermingling like Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. Perhaps I am overstating these Far East gallicisms, but then the influence of France does seem in fact to pervade the entire city – its Laotian heart notwithstanding – from the signs in Lao and French that decorate all the state and municipal buildings, to the patisseries and cafés you find everywhere serving French cakes, baguettes and steaming café au lait.

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The ‘oriental’ has perhaps been overdone in recent perfumery, from the warm and resinous oudhs, spice-laden ambers and hot, dripping florals you can’t escape from nowadays as niche perfume houses try to desperately outdo each other with their incensed, deep-laden cargoes, whetting the appetites cleverly with their ever more exotic sounding ingredients. Some of them are just too harsh for me, too strong. Yet Shalimar was always the original odalisque, the true precursor of all this – lilting,ingenious-  and in my view, in truth, it has never really been bettered.

The genius of the perfume, Jacques Guerlain’s most resounding commercial success, was to enfathom a velvety, rich vanillic accord – skin clinging, suggestive-  in a balsamic envelope of tolu, opoponax, and benzoin, a classic ‘oriental’ base then harmonized and refined with a cooler, earth-toned, counterpoint of patchouli and vetiver. Beneath, in the base, lie purring hidden depths of leather, ambergris, incense and civet, the concealed animalic resonances that have led to the perfume’s harlot reputation.

Yet Jacques Guerlain also knew how to keep these heavy-lidded ingredients in check, to preserve their essential elegance, and in Shalimar, romance, and a slice of temperance, is also provided with a powdery floral accord of rose, jasmine,and most importantly iris, fluted up top with a fresh and almost stinging, gourmet prelude of sharp citrus oils of bergamot and lemon.

Although the current version may lack the sheer lickable, delectability of the older parfum extraits (I once had a bottle picked up at a flea market that was almost indecent in the levels of both its beauty and its frank sensuality – so smooth, so made for skin and sex and deep, carnal obsession I am constantly yearning in vain to come across another), the editions available now do still capture the basic Shalimar essence ( I find the bergamot/castoreum combination in the contemporary eau de parfum a little jarring, but find the eau de toilette is still quite eminently sprayable: the end stages always as gorgeous as I remember them).

This perfume, like any well known scent, most certainly does have its detractors.Shalimar does not work on everyone. Many people can never quite get over the ‘soiled baby powder’ aspect of the perfume, its almost tediously decadent exhalations – too sweet, too cloying, too obvious – but for me personally this essential perfume is an absolute classic of perfumery I rarely tire of: a halo; a soft and sweet delicious aura that blurs the edges of harsh reality .

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We are now leaving Luang Prabang, flying high over clouds and about to land shortly again in the capital Vientiane, and I can already sense that our stay in that delightfully hill-cradled place will soon begin to feel like a dream. We spent three delightful days just ambling or cycling round the outskirts, circling the centre, veering off down side streets and alleyways; stopping off whenever we felt like it in temples; roadside eateries; cafés.It was calming and replenishing, just soaking up the city’s positive energy,relaxing; energizing and good for the spirit.

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The thing I will remember the most about Luang Prabang though is the magnificent Mekong river.

It draws you in, slows you down, commands and drowses the senses. We spent an afternoon yesterday just watching the waters go by, magnificent in their scale and depth, as the sunlight changed on the river’s surfaces, gradually, from milk chocolate brown and pewter; to blinding, illustrious gold.

We just sat there. Lost in thought.

Looking, watching the waters go by aimlessly until the sun passed behind the clouds, shadows fell on the water, and the evening slowly turned to twilight.

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THERE’S SOMETHING NOT QUITE RIGHT….. SERGE LUTENS’ DATURA NOIR (2001)

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The datura flower, a ‘poisonous vespertine’, is one of nature’s very deadliest. So toxic, in spite of its undulous, alluring odour, that it has been used since antiquity to poison one’s enemies; one’s lovers’ with the most fatal, agonizing death: a psychotic madness ensues; convulsions, heart seizures, oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

I took these pictures of a datura tree on Saturday night in Tokyo, lost along the streets of Ikebukuro trying to find a friend’s house whose party we had been invited to, but the Japanese address system is so hopelessly convoluted and illogical, that after an hour ( our cell phone batteries had died), we just gave up.

 

 

 

Still, I was curious to see those Angel’s, or Devil’s, trumpets hanging there like that at this chilly time of the year (the datura in my neighborhood, which has a bedazzling number of flowers: an obscene amount of poison, I’m pretty sure flowers in the heat of late summer): though its scent was not discernible in the starry, December air.

 

 

 

I like to stand under datura bells, inhale their slow, balmy cream, their evil saturnalia   – like suspended tropical umbrellas’ the skein of their big wide petals laced with scent:: : :  and poison.

 

 

 

 

Just The idea that death could be so close, and wrapped so enticingly, in the form of a mesmerically fragrant, and silent flower.

 

 

 

 

 

It it is a smell that looms faintly. Part tuberosian jasmine: tiare, with a touch of the beach and of cyanide, there is a bitterness there that is offset by the voluptuous cool, sloe-eye of its delirium; its femininity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Like many flowers in perfumery, datura, in fact,  can only be created from memory, from observation – a reconstruction. And from a distance, Christopher Sheldrake’s strangely introverted approximation is woozily impressive: a touch of creamy, coconut- infused tuberose flowers and osmanthus; a heliotropic, lemon- scented lilac: vanilla: tonka bean: almond  –  the overriding note at the heart, probably,  of this oozing pointillist portrait  –  and a note that I am always drawn to in any case ( see my review of Louve ).

 

 

 

 

Up close, and personal, though, the perfume, on me, is much more problematic. It is a shape shifter. Some days I think I love it. Some days I almost hate it. I received a bottle as a Christmas present last year, but have only recently starting wearing it, trying it out tentatively in the smallest of doses. And the perfume is weird………….it doesn’t quite come together. The lemon and the coconut. The  quite odd addition of myrrh……………………….. At times there is a jarring, bungled plasticity; an effect, like the plant’s poison, that at times can smell almost nauseating.

 

 

 

 

 

At others, though, when its mood is right, the perfume sinks into my skin with a fabric softened comfort and delicate vanilla that makes it almost suitable as a winter work scent, nuzzled under my shirt cuffs, tamed and in stasis until my skin warms up in the heat of the moment and then one of those ill fitting notes raises its head, its voice, and I regret having worn it ( and common sense would surely tell you that a perfume called Datura Noir is hardly suitable for my profession).

 

 

 

And yet it is too bland, too sweet and falsely, gentle for me to wear as one of ‘mine’. Like Fiore Di Riso, which I wrote about yesterday, another citric, vanillic floral, it is ‘somewhere in between’. Not quite day, and not quite night. Not rude or intoxicating, but not quite respectable either. She is out of place, this Datura Noir. She watches on my shelf, and she waits.

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REVOLUTION A VERSAILLES by JEAN DESPREZ (1989)

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It’s strange. Despite the reams that pour out of me on perfume, there are certain scents that I find myself almost unable to write about for fear of not doing them justice. The scents I am talking about are so complex, so ingeniously put together that they rise above the usual analysis and enter into the realm of poetry; beyond the obvious striations of most perfumes and into something tender and eternal.

 

 

These perfume ‘reviews’, which I plan to tackle at some point, but will not  publish unless I feel they have captured, at least a little, of that scent’s essence, will include some of the genius perfumes by Guerlain; Chamade, Apres L’Ondée, and particularly Vol De Nuit; N° 19 by Chanel; some Carons, and, undoubtedly, Jean Desprez’s seminal Bal A Versailles, the richest, most decadent floral amber I have ever smelled and a perfume with one of the best final accords – powdered, voluptuous, living – of all time. I don’t wear the extrait much, but when I do, and only in winter, I plan it with meticulous, military precision; calculating in advance exactly how many hours I need to bring if off perfectly.

 

 

How long in the bath, then how long to let it sit on my skin before the glorious base begins to emerge…….. and I smell, basically, like the ancient God Bacchus.

 

 

Yes, Bal A Versailles is a belovedly notorious animalic in the perfume community, and with good reason. The floral unguents of the heart, fusing immutably with the vanillic resins and animals of the finale, are like nothing else, and the extrait, available quite easily if you look for it, is a cherished trophy of many a true perfume lover. There are very few perfumes, if any at all, that are more resplendent.

 

 

 

 

 

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In 1989 I am not sure if the word ‘flanker’ even existed in perfume talk, but if it did, then Revolution A Versailles, a perfume I knew nothing about but spied at a Berlin antiques market by Schoenberg city hall, would surely have been one.  And a not very special one at that, I am afraid to say, though I do love the bottle and that red target design (sorry if this led you to believe you were about to discover a masterpiece..)

 

 

No, this revolution would not have been televised, though I have to say that I do quite like this perfume; one of those big boned, eighties-opulent affairs, taking some of the ambery base of the original Bal, and layering it with a sandalwoody, plummy, flagrant jasmine and thick rose heart à la Caron Femme, or Jasmin Imperatrice Eugenie by Creed (but not quite as bosomy and ludicrous, but then what could be?), with perhaps some touches of Balenciaga’s more tender and touching amber-rose Prélude.

 

 

 

Revolution A Versailles, in truth,  is  a  touch vulgar, rather brash, even,  but something I would be definitely quite happy to smell on a woman at some high-swinging party; unpretentious, vivacious, full of life

 

 

 

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“Come on Earle, we’ll be late for the arraignment” : : : : OPIUM (Yves Saint Laurent) (1977) VS CINNABAR (Estee Lauder) (1978)

 

 

 

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Plagiarism lawsuits don’t seem to occur in the world of perfumery, and this is probably good news for fragrance houses, else writs would be hurled left right and centre. As the exact formulae for perfumes are always very well guarded anyway (Estée Lauder phobically supposedly adding the final 5% of ingredients herself behind closed doors to ensure secrecy), intellectual theft in the invisible, ephemeral world of scent would just too much for jurors, judges and witnesses to handle –  the stench and olfactory confusion in a closed courthouse is easy, and quite hysterical, to imagine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Opium was a direct challenge to the insipid sport greens that were taking over the perfume world at the time, and in its criminally erotic complexity, was daring, of the moment; dynamic. So was Cinnabar, which was undoubtedly a copy of Opium. But there are important differences, which I will come to. Opium’s mandarin/jasmine/husking tiger’s breathamber-cinnamon template – gorgeously erotic and overwhelming in vintage parfum – was copied and remodelled, redeveloped with varying success in a number of perfume imitators until its swansong in 1983, when Karl Lagerfeld released the seminal (at least in my opinion) KL; this delicious, eighties spice fest shed some of the weight of the heavier oriental notes in Opium, kept the lingering florality and piquant spices, but flushed the whole with a wonderfully sunset orange top note that surrounded, dazzled the perfume within; it was perhaps this genre of perfume’sconceptual apogée.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Conversely, though obviously very much still an ‘oriental’ and close to Opium in style, Cinnabar was not a spice-laden camel on its weary back home to the souk, but a juggernaut pounding the highway back to Orlando. The first assault of this perfume- and it is an assault – from the thick, trusty bottle, is a sinus-twisting rush of incredibly strong citrus-spice, delved rudely in a flawless, caramellized tang of orange, carnation and that ‘rich divorcée’ accord that is the base of all of Lauder’s creations from Youth Dew to Spellbound. These scents  – such a mainstay of the Reagan generation – are not always to my taste, though I have to say they do mesmerize me, like the houses down the back streets of Beverly Hills – those fortresses of wealth draped in the U.S flag and Mexican vines; the darkness and silence of the living rooms hidden from sight in the blinding California sun.

 

 

 

 

Cinnabar packs the spices in and it packs ‘em in tight, over stickily suggestive balsams and woods that are bonded as a calyx, yet somehow not in the least bit sexy. I have the vintage Lauder on my one hand and vintage Opium parfum on the other as I write, and in comparison the latter is a panting carnal flower exhaling its last breath; languid jungle lovers in a post-coital, satisfied sleep. Its American counterpart can only imagine such abandon with a fierce, stomach-clenched jealousy. Though a very well constructed fragrance (that I think probably yields more than I am letting on here), there is always something so zipped up, conservative and ‘gated community’ about Cinnabar; wigs, not hair; dressed up not naked: an unyielding pair of lovingly pressed slacks that somehow forever evinces frustrated, unfulfilled sensuality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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