Thursday, November 20, 2008

Imperial Del Oro Russian Leather Cologne

Who doesn't love a good leather scent? Russian Leather has been a personal favorite choice of late. The smell of leather has many favorable associations- horses, plush chairs and couches, new cars, old books, purses, gloves, boots, luggage... those items signify good times, days of fun, travel and the pursuit of leisure. The quintessential Russian model on the right wearing the fur and leather is Ruslana Korshunova, a young beauty who left this world mysteriously well before her time. Not as dramatic perhaps, the story of Russian Leather turns out to be quite interesting as well. The smell of good Russian leather is mellow, warm and quite soothing. Considering the aromatic components that give this type of leather its characteristic scent, it may even be the equivalent of a natural sedative... perhaps just the thing to soothe a troubled soul? Of course to those who love perfume it is not a trivial matter to consider. Perhaps nothing could have been enough in her case. But what about for us, moving through our day to day? Can the smell of leather really calm us? And where does the smell of leather come from anyway? Well, despite the name, it's not all animal! Many of the components that scent leather and create good leather notes in perfume are based on plants.

Styraciflua is a decorative tree also known as liquidamber, sweet gum, break-ankle or porcupine ball tree (if you're a kid). It drops those spiky little balls, tripping people who don't watch out. But the tree is pretty and it has traditionally been used in American folk medicine to cure everything from skin lesions to epilepsy to relieve anxiety and alleviate stress. Liquidamber trees produce a fragrant resin, once purified it is called benzoin, meaning a sweet smelling tree resin. It turns out many trees, similar, related, or not so closely related (depending on your sources) produce similar sticky secretions and they are all called benzion. These sweet tree gums have been used since antiquity in many perfumes, certainly in our Imperial Russian Leather. But Styrax is a different, confusingly similarly named tree also used in creating leather smells.
We have a California variety here, Styrax Divivus- which has a strange nick-name: the Drug Snowbell. It produces little clusters of white flowers and globular green pods. In the late summer, the Styrax tree flowers produce a pungent, secretion-like, animal-iodine scent. The flower stem oil of some Styrax are known to give a unique fleshy-leather note in some perfumes. I wonder if anyone has tried to distill that smell from our California special variety, the Drug Snowbell, yet?

(Photo: BillCasselman)
But Birch Oil is probably the most important scent ingredient that gives real Russian Leather it's characteristic smell. The bark of the birch tree peels off in papery sheets and when soaked in water/alcohol mixture, it forms a "liquor" a watery infusion. Evaporating off the water leaves an oil behind. This liquor is used in processing animal skins basically rotting everything else away, leaving a perfectly clean leather. The birch oil is also used repeatedly to soak the skins, it has a nice property enabling it to dissolve away all the putrefied components. Turns out this oil also contains high amounts of Methyl salicylate, aka oil of Wintergreen. Anyone who has ever eaten a Wintergreen Lifesaver candy knows the strong minty-peppery taste and penetrating qualities of the oil. (This next part has nothing to do with perfume, but if you never tried this as a kid: for fun, go in the bathroom, turn off the light and crunch a few Wintergreen Lifesavers in the dark. You might see something like this: As Anne Marie Helmenstine PhD, explains, the light is produced by friction, which creates a little blue spark, when table sugar - but not corn syrup- is quickly crushed. It's called triboluminescence. The light produced in this reaction is basically in the same spectrum as lightning which also looks blue if you see only a little bit of it. OK, enough of the geeky science; let's get back to the perfume...

Methyl salicylates are also produced in varying amounts by many types of plants including the heady tuberose. Some insects like the orchid bee use the Methylor other salicylates from various flowers to form their own pheromones. It is natural for man also to include salicylates in his perfumes as well and especially essential to create a Russian Leather fragrance. But the darker side of Russian Leather?

Seal oil or some similar heavy animal fat such as whale oil was also traditionally used in the process of making Russian Leather; it softened the leather and preserved it as well as its distinctive scent. Today, synthetic scent molecules and fixatives are used to produce the same rounding harmonizing effect in perfumes and spare the animal as well. As a final step in preparing actual Russian Leather, it is treated with Birch oil, Sandalwood resin and Gutta percha(yet another type of tree resin) mixture to give it increased strength and a pleasing color. But the animal fat and Gutta percha do not leave the leather yet with an acceptable smell, so a mix of benzoin, tonka beans, orris root and more sandalwood are used to sweeten its scent yet more. So finally a list of notes from which we can imaginatively build our Russian Leather cologne: white flowers (tuberose and lily of the valley), essences of birch bud oil, pine and willow tree saps, Styrax flower and benzion, sandalwood, plus a synthetic animal-like fat molecule for fixative. And something you do not see mentioned from actual Russian leather preparations but that is smelled in the cologne (and perfumes), is hesperides or citrus. In Imperial Russian Leather there seems to be a combination of fresh green bergamot and a sweeter orange note.
So even though I can't find an explicit list of notes for this vintage Russian Leather made by Imperial Del Oro, its scent likely incorporates many of the above notes. This particular blend is a very pleasing, being a smooth and strong. Russian Leather has been around for quite a while and Russian leather colognes have also been popular throughout history as well as it is mentioned so frequently. But today you will not find too many. Of course leather is present in many fragrances as a supporting member. But the opulent yet tough Russian Leather remains difficult to find. My favorite, hands down, is the most famous Russian Leather fragrance, Chanel Cuir de Russie (early 1910s). (photo from

Thanks to Fragrantica for this great image of the modern parfum bottle. I absolutely love this scent (vintage extrait version) and I liked it even better when I tried it diluted 1:5 in the Imperial Del Oro cologne. There is a particular lovely sweet amber incense note that fires up late in the dry down of the mixture- but neither scent alone. For perfumista beginners or those on budget, you can get decants of both of these scents at the better perfume decanter sites is hard to beat for their selection, quality, knowledge etc- (I hope they don't k*** my a** for naming names). Also, they may still have some affordable Russian Leathers by Demeter (the commercial house that turns out scented impersonations of everything from Altoids to Dirt) you could try. However I think even all of the Demeter Russian Leather variations are actually discontinued so finding a full bottle might not be so easy. I believe Imperial Del Oro Russian Leather was a local California product, produced into the 1970's. Don't let the potential cheesy factor keep you from trying it. This is a great vintage alternative to the more costly and harder to find Russian Leather fragrances out there. Imperial Del Oro made Russian Leather cologne, aftershave and soap.
The Imperial Del Oro verison of Russian leather is straightforward, mellow and strong. However, the scent is designed to be splashed on after shower or shave and it lingers accordingly - for several hours at least. It imparts a rich animal warmth with a candied orange glow. By itself a discreet veil or for those who like their leathers amped up a bit, a perfect base.

Post Script: I almost forgot to include another geeky bit of science related perfume trivia. The Hermit beetle, a medium (30 mm) Scarab beetle known as Osmoderma eremicola is also known as the Russian Leather Beetle because the male of the species emits a pheromone that gives it a strong smell of Russian Leather. These beetles live in Europe (except the British Isles) in old hollow trees (some never leave the tree for their entire life cycle = hermits). I've heard them referred to as "flower chompers" too, although in the wild they will reportedly eat decomposing wood as well. People do keep the females as pets, feeding them bits of sweet water and other decomposing stuff but the male beetle is the only one that makes that famous smell!

Friday, November 14, 2008

BLAZER by ANNE KLEIN Concentrated Cologne Review

Blazer by Anne Klein is in a select group of largely unsung classics of modern American perfumery; it's just under the mainstream radar but it has many fans and genuine bottles always sell quickly, when you can find it, usually at online e-tailors and EBay.
Much like its namesake, American fashion designer Anne Klein, Blazer came and was gone off the scene much too quickly. Her name and timeless design appeal continue on- you may sense or even remember when Donna Karan took over Anne Klein, after AK died from breast cancer in 1974, very young, at age 50 and certainly near the height of her power- proven by the popularity of her work as a designer and her enduring name-brand.
My life was much too humble and my style too home-grown to have any need for her Young Sophisticates line of clothing as a young girl growing up in the late 1970's. But despite my lack of a 'decent' wardrobe, I recognized Anne Klein. Originally born Hannah Golofski in the 1920's, she excelled in fashion from an early age and won several Coty awards as a young woman designer. Perhaps from her Coty connection she learned her good taste in perfumes? In any case, her three perfumes (Anne Klein I, Anne Klein II and Blazer) were all very well done and each one still has many fans. Although Helena Rubistein died almost a decade earlier (in 1965 at the age of 94!), her company had produced many perfumes from the 1930's into the 1970's and Rubinstein's company bought Blazer in or near 1974. The newer HR bottle is rounder instead of the sharp rectangular lines of the original AK version & the AK lion logo is gone. The newer HR version is simply called BLAZER. My impression is the scent is the same (but there is a price difference) and I've not sniffed the HR directly.

But BLAZER by ANNE KLEIN is a most divine green aromatic that represents an almost ideal scent. It is clean and streamlined and seems perfectly balanced, more than any other of its type that I could compare it to. As a starting point I would reference Clinique Aromatics although Clinique's fragrance is not as smooth and has a sweeter heavier patchouli base. Y (YSL), is another famous green from the 1970's that is almost the polar opposite of Blazer. If Y is green silk, Blazer is green tweed. As far as notes, not many are listed. But we know the top fragrance notes are juniper, bergamot and lavender- in addition, I smell lemon verbena, mint, clove, and especially in the base, patchouli, cedar and perhaps ambergris. The flowers are restrained and green. To my nose, geranium and marigold stand out. However, a Nell Butler copy for Chanel 22 mentions Blazer as "a clean, crispy scent with the soapiness and whiteness of Chanel 22, but pared down and less flowery." I concur it is pared down. Huge chunks of Chanel 22 - incense/leather against aldehydes, rose and iris, the sweet musky drydown have been subtracted from Blazer. What is left smells naturally clean and brisk. Blazer starts out like a tonic, juniper lavender and bergamot give it a crisp herbal and soapy start- which is followed by the clean green/white floral & spice heart. The finish is lightly green and woody.

I love Blazer; it is less mainstream but represents the same idea and time in American perfume as Charlie. Both came out just after the American feminist movement and the free love/sexual revolution. Anne Klein's streamlined tailored sensibility was not traditionally feminine and Blazer was a fairly masculine smelling perfume that fit her style clothing. Today we see a strong unisex trend in the area of fashion and especially marketing perfume as unisex, although all personal grooming habits, including piercing, tatoos, hairstyles, make-up and scent are being marketed this way more and more. Blazer was an early example of what we now are told is the older concept - fragrances that are genderless. Some compare Blazer to Charlie, a mass marketed 70's mega-hit scent with gender play in mind, but I have never been able to wear that one. Blazer is easy to wear and still smells amazingly modern to me, making it a gem of 1970's perfumery; its balance of green masculine and white feminine notes would be appropriate for work or casual day wear today, as it was 40 years ago.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Happy Decoration Day! Vintage Lubin Idole Perfume Review...

It's been so busy lately! I've begun and delayed several new vintage perfume review posts ...and I have some fantastic recent finds that I can't wait it share with you all. But since we are celebrating Decoration Day today, I've decided to pick a vintage gem that has been resurrected (and thereby honored) by 2 new, recently released perfumes from the recently reborn and now active niche perfume house, LUBIN. I find the resurrection theme a perfect salve in this bittersweet time of remembrance and loss. But life goes on and even a vintage lovin' perfume gal's gotta work to earn a living in this world (and sometimes fight to keep her self-respect intact). And over time I've found there are some battles you can win, but some you can only loose. Right now I'm in one of those loss cycles... Regardless of the cause, loss always produces a negative- an empty space, if you will- but it also creates a postive, the opportunity to do something new with the space that opens up in our lives. Ah, well that's enough ruminating, the sun has long gone down now on today.

Getting back to perfume... Our vintage perfume du jour is IDOLE by Lubin, a French House established by Pierre-Francois Lubin as Aux Armes de France in 1798. Lubin was successful; eventually becoming an important supplier of perfumes to French Royalty. By 1853 Felix-Andre Prot succeed Lubin. The company passed onto his heirs in 1885 and by 1900 it became called Paul Prot & Cie. Lubin had an early association with Princess Borghese as well. In any case Lubin has special significance to The Vault because according to Cleopatra's Guide to Vintage Perfumes (published under EBay guides), they were the first French perfume company (or cosmetics company, perhaps?) to "solicit the North American market, aiming particularly at the plantation culture of the South."! So we have at least this report of Lubin playing an early role in exporting French perfumes into America near the beginning of the 20th century, almost certainly impacting American taste and styles. What did American women think of these creations and how did they compare to the scented products these women had traditionally worn (and commonly made for themselves- more on this to come in later posts)? In case you aren't aware of the 2007 version of IDOLE perfume, it is an Eau de Parfum, the first I'd heard of being produced under the name of (a new) Lubin. This perfume is sophisticated and sheer, a spice/gourmand-ish/leather unisex scent composed by Olivia Giacobetti. I liked it enough to buy a bottle. The blurb I found on LuckyScent (where I purchased the scent), mentions there was a previous Idole perfume, but tells us only that the new IDOLE bears no similarity with the old Idole (according to them, released in 1962). I will mention also that the modern IDOLE bottle is fantastic. Designed by Serge Mansau, it bears a resemblance to an African or maybe Easter Island type figure, complete with beaded necklace, highly stylized head cap and it resembles no other perfume bottle that I have seen yet.

But as you can see from the photograph, the vintage IDOLE had a different bottle shape entirely. But what a surprise for me when I saw the newest L de Lubin and
Nuit de Longchamp Eau de Parfums released by Lubin. You can see them at Released in 2008, they are in the exact bottle form of the 1960's IDOLE bottle with its stylized suggestion of the corseted feminine form. The top of the vintage bottle cap, which you cannot see, has LUBIN embossed on the gold disc under the Lucite. The newer bottles have LUBIN embossed on the metal ring at the neck, while on the older one, it is plain. But enough about the bottle! What of the vintage scent; what did IDOLE smell like in 1962?
According to the vintage IDOLE perfume advertisments I found, this perfume was touted as tres, tres, tres feminin, for those who "aime passionnement".

In short, and you would predict this if you have read Tom Robbins [partly hilarious and partly preachy] Jitterbug Perfume, it smells of Jasmine. A lot of jasmine. And that first hit ain't sanitized! It's a dirty jasmine and one with a little sharpness, which the sharp part seems to be mostly due to hyper- lily of the valley type of notes. It smells of really strong jasmine oils, for I can almost smell gasoline notes in it. And the dirty part, I read as having a strong, fishy undertone. But I wonder if this could have been so animal and frank , like it appears here to me? Were our noses more accepting of raw smells 45 years ago, that this IDOLE would been accepted, even sought out as a seductive offering back then? I'm picturing an archytypical 70's scene: Hair- the musical... with everyone's hair here, there and everywhere, a lot longer and well, maybe less groomed...

Moving on from that image... there is a vintage Jasmine soap by Jovan I think it was made with Tunisian Jasmine, that has this exact same type of gaseous, "on-steroids" type of effect. For me, it is a bit of a pushy scent, especially at first. Maybe a bit needy and attention seeking, too. But there are maybe some interesting parts as well, if you can stick around until things mellow out... Do I imagine notes of a savory green herb or slightly sour lime tucked in between the overly ripe, almost rotting blossoms? Over time, I must admit it becomes softer, easier to wear perhaps, more like an interesting fur and jasmine mix. But it's never for a moment sweet, or fresh or uncomplicated. And even though I usually do not particularly admire freshness in jasmine (or floral, in general). I really do appreciate it's fruity jammy side- for me it opens up a much more luxurious, nectar aspect of the flower. Ultimately, I have no list of notes for the 1962 IDOLE and so I may never guess the full nature of this scent, because when I found it (there is not much left, as you can see), it had partially spilled into a cardboard box and what was left in the bottle had a texture and appearance of cool honey, or thick high grade motor oil- thick and gooey, clear pale amber in color. This particular bottle has been in my collection a long while and it may possibly have begun to partially break down as well, as it seems also a bit thinner and maybe a bit more orange over time.