Monday, March 14, 2011

When I was a tween and young teen, my mother and I embarked upon a quest for our Holy Grail of perfumes. We had both been wearing vanilla extract dabbed on our wrists and behind our ears. Then, I think because of an industry reaction to popularized rumors/urban legends of high school kids drinking vanilla extract as a quasi-legal cocktail (ha! At those prices?!), vanilla extract got very sticky from added glycerin and such.

Love's (the people who make Baby Soft) helped us out by making a short-lived seasonal fragrance, French Vanilla. It was glorious -- just the aura of an ice-cream parlor or a bakery. There was an ice-cream cone on the label, and it came only in spray canisters that produced a fine mist. It was a stocking stuffer for me, but after she smelled it, Mom couldn't resist borrowing it every time she went out. We bought more. We bought out all the stock in our local drugstores and K-Mart, in fact.

And then it disappeared from the shelves. I started wearing some violet fragrance that good friends now assure me was vile, and Mom retreated to her Babe.

We counted down the months until Christmas, hoping it would be released again. We'd buy a case!

It was never produced again. (Now I know that changing safety regulations made it impossible to produce -- it supposedly had dangerous levels of coumarin or something like that.) We mourned and every year for at least a decade, we checked the shelves.

And we went our separate ways, perfume-wise.

You see, I remained a foodie perfumista with a definite sweet tooth. Mom has violent body chemistry that turns most such fragrances into an unpleasantly bitter, urine-tinged plastic scent -- and she likes her fragrances complex and greenly floral. Cacharel's Anais Anais was the only one we agreed on in my teen years.

The next fragrance to rock BOTH of our worlds was Skin Musk.

My mom came home one day and told me, with eyes aglow, about this beautiful, confident, sexy woman she had followed around until she'd worked up the courage to ask her what she was wearing. The woman just smiled and whispered, "just Skin." And my mom said her response had been, "well, your skin smells better than mine."

I wanted instantly to be this kind of powerhouse of feminine power, or to date her. I could see her in my mind's eye, just as Mom had described her: her flawless ebony complexion, her thrilling whisper, her enigmatic words, her feline gaze, her perfect fashion from demure coiffure to expensive pumps.

But we had no fucking idea what she was talking about.

Lo and behold, it was maybe two months later that I stumbled across a little disc-shaped bottle at the drugstore. It was sold sealed, there was no tester, and it had the word "Skin" stenciled on it. I bought it unsniffed, and found, somewhat to my chagrin, that it was a perfume oil so strong it had to be massaged into the skin in only the minutest quantities so as not to leave a visible slick.

I didn't know how to cope with a perfume oil. Perfume came as a spray, in my world. In fact, I was a five-or-six-sprayer, and prone to big ugly sharp-toothed 80s florals like Diana von Furstenburg's Tatiana. And I had big hair feathered back and wore blue eyeshadow. Yes, I was a child of the eighties.

The idea of a scent that had to be caressed intimately into the tender, ritual sites for perfuming oneself was intoxicating. Wrists, behind the ears, the hollow of the throat, the inside of the elbow, the cleavage, the navel, and -- because I had read about it as a lovely place to apply perfume so that the scent wafted up softly all day -- the tops of the feet. To apply the fragrance was almost foreplay.

And it was a sexy scent, aptly named. Skin. Oh, my.

The scent itself is rich and deceptively simple: a thumping base chord of sandalwood, vanilla, and powdery nitro-musks, all intertwined, with a coriander-inflected floral opening so understated that it melted into the base. It didn't evolve on my skin so much as colonize it, remaining faithful and true all day. It rises like humidity after a hot summer rain from the skin. And I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that it's a skin-scent that clings close to the wearer, enveloping her in a robe of fragrance, rather than a big bright spray. (That said, other people who share an elevator with the wearer will definitely smell her!)

There's a lot of moaning in perfumista circles about the reformulation of this fragrance -- and about a lot of fragrances. People blame Parfums de Coeur, who bought the scent from Bonne Bell, for mucking with it. The fact of the matter is that it was an 80s musk fragrance, and, as such, it HAD to be reformulated because its main component was outlawed. But I personally think the reformulation of Skin was masterful, and that it lost relatively little of its original nitro-musk personality when it was converted to a synth-musk. (This may be because I, like over a quarter of the population, am anosmic to a huge preponderance of musk scents -- I may simply not care about the relevant feature of the perfume.)

To me, this scent is and always was about sandalwood. And the sandalwood it recalls to my mind is a gorgeous, intricately carved vintage sandalwood fan my grandmother gave me, each of its sticks pierced elaborately and growing more resonantly fragrant with each passing year. The musk elevates the sandalwood for deeper scrutiny, like the silk thread binding together the sticks and forming the jade-green tassel that adorns it. The powdery-tonka and vanilla scents are ubiquitous boudoir scents for me, as I was (and always will be, in my secret heart) the kind of gourmand girly-girl who hoards body powder and extract bottles and chunks of soft amber in little wooden boxes.

The scent now comes in a range of styles, from the body-spray metal canister that reminds me mournfully of my lost French Vanilla scent to the little glass disc that I first treasured. My favorite way to put this scent on is still the oil; the scent is truest and most beautiful in that format, and the ritual of soft, short caresses in tender corners of the anatomy is intimately beguiling.


Anonymous said...

I used to always wear The Body Shop's vanilla perfume oil, and it smelled wonderful. I don't know why I ever stopped that.

Heather said...

Oh, oh! How exciting (and how flattered I am--thank you)! Troy and I are going to read together, but tomorrow or the next night when we are not running just to catch ourselves.

(Wish we were nearer so I might offer to coo to a sweet baby while his mama slipped into a nap.)

Ducks said...

Emily, I was insane for their Satsuma tangerine scent for a while. Gorgeous stuff! Sadly, their vanilla gave my ridiculously sensitive skin a rash, and I think this was a combination of factors thing, including an allergy to my mascara and fabric softener, that I got over -- but forgot to ever go back to their vanilla. I should check it out.

Heather, you are always welcome to remind me to stop and sniff something I love. Enjoy when you do have time! :) Would that you were nearer all the time, but especially to cuddle the baby. Such riches.