Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lost Perfumes: FAUN by Ravel

Could this be the start of a 'Lost Perfumes' series? Faun is one of the first perfumes I added to my vintage perfume collection but it's been around for so long that I'd sort of forgotten and neglected it. If you saw my post from last week, you may recall I posted a photo of the bottle. It resembles a 1945-1950 era Chanel bottle- spare and squared in shape with a plain black cap. In the hand, it somehow feels cheaper than Chanel's version. The label is slightly off, both in the cut and lettering... Perhaps the packaging had something to do with why I wasn't really drawn to try what was inside, at least initially. But recently I decided to take a closer look at this unknown mid-20th century creation.
A little preliminary research lead me to discover that the details about Ravel and it's perfumes have mostly been obscured by the passage of time. Even though Ravel is a relatively modern perfume house that existed in the late 1940's and 1950's, if you know vintage perfumes at all, then you'll know that 50 or 60 years is a long time in perfume years. Smaller 'independent' perfume houses tend to pop up and fall away rather quickly. And it's not just the smaller houses- it seems that most perfumes fade from our collective memories with lightening-like speed.

In fact one wonders about the fate of the multitude of modern releases, and the niche companies that seem to pop up overnight. We know that the perfumes of today will likely face a similar fate since very, very few perfumes really stand the test of time. There are many reasons for this poor longevity, from weak business models to inconsistent raw materials and supply problems to simple bad luck. But mostly I think it is because perfume is like art. Very often, once you've created something, the animus leaves you. Or perhaps there are too many poorly conceived start-ups, without support for talent to grow or the vision to allow it to florish.

At first perfume may seem like an easy and cheap thing to produce. With a modest upfront investment in chemicals and creator, there is big profit potential. But it is deceptively simple. Fine things, truly fine things that is, tend to take time; original creations are not so easy to produce as uninspired knock-offs. So ultimately many of the 'new' things we see are not really so special and there is an almost constant turn-over of even the so-called successful 'hit' perfumes.

But even for it's time, Ravel was one of the smaller perfume houses based in New York. Like many, it touted a French connection, listing Paris as a second site as well but with practically no advertising history and no presence in famous reference works or collections (that I know of, yet...), there is little else to say about it. It seems Ravel was one of many start-ups that florished in the glow of post WWII optimisim but it lasted less than a decade. The perfumes of Ravel include: Adagio, Pagan, and Pagoda (a little metal bottle of this perfume recently surfaced on the web; if it's not been plucked up yet, you may still be able to find it, and if you do, please let me know what you find); all three of these were from 1945. Faun came out in 1946, followed by the trio of L'Amour En Rose, My Fair Lady and Moments De Passion which were released in 1955 and the final known release, No. 9, came out in 1956. Pagan and Faun caught my eye right away as the most originally named and the most desirable of Ravel's perfumes to collect... but I can only discuss Faun, since it's the only one I've experienced.

And what of the perfume in question, this Faun? As I've said, the name itself is intriguing. The image of the Faun is that of a half human, half deer that is usually but not always male. Looking at iconic images of the Faun, it seems clear there is an implied sensuality and rustic animalic quality is suggested by use of the Faun image. At its opening, Faun is bursting forth with juicy bergamot and smells at first like a typical hersperidic cologne. Very soon the citrus is joined by aldehydes which lift and intensify the composition, taking it more towards a typical perfume. Early on in the scent, I sense a slight turn toward cool green and slightly powdery chypre notes- there is a restrained plum-prune, mossy, mushroomy accord that typifies Chypres of this same period for me. Yet, smelled side by side, I see the accord is very hushed in Faun.

Soon the perfume turns again, the fresher citrus elements at the forefront bolstered by a rooty, effervescent middle in which orris and the rich, smooth, softness of fur notes shine. Fur notes in perfume have almost mythical status today. We do not see these notes often in the most modern compositions yet at one time fur was perhaps one of the most celebrated of notes for feminine perfumes, famously referred to in the poetry imagery of Baudelaire.

Fur, like musk smells heavily of animal but Ravel's Faun does not turn on us, nor bare its teeth, thanks to a generous helping of dry patchouli that anchors the composition perfectly. The patchouli plays up the tingle of salicyclates and prevents the perfume from going too far toward mossy green shadings of a proper chypre perfume. Along with the patchouli and fur, the base of the perfume reveals itself to be a proper, very classic and somewhat salty and stout leather.

Amazingly free of overt florals, Faun lives up to its androgynous promise. The citrus, aldehyde and patchouli/leather/fur combination is one that still feels wearable even in this admittedly dated creation. On the whole, I've become impressed with Faun, or more so with it's type- a genre busting scent that plays with male-female, cologne-perfume duality; it is one of the few vintages that I might enjoy wearing but that might also appeal to someone with more strictly modern tastes.

The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.

photo/art credits:

Nijinsky Faun:

Faun Seducing Girl:

Faun with Horns:

Faun Girl: by christine griffin

Faun with Maiden & Red Flowers:

Faun & Flora:

Monday, May 25, 2009

In the meantime... Perfumery: practice & principles

Ok, ok. So I've been a little reticent lately, even stingy with my perfume-and-blog-related correspondence and commentary; stress and deadlines in unrelated areas have intruded rudely into the time I normally reserve for my perfumed pursuits! But in between the spaces, I've been reading Calkin and Jellinek's Perfumery: practice and principles. Perfumery is a 1994 textbook-level work focusing on the recent changes in the area of perfumery brought about by the modern analytic chemist's tools, chiefly gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, as well as growing changes in available raw materials. It is, well, weighty in parts- so unless you're going to be tested on organic chemistry sometime real soon, you might want to skip straight to the chapter called Selected Great Perfumes. For me this chapter is worth the entire book. For starters, I found the list of Great Perfumes selected, as well as those that were ignored, very interesting.
And I even started to feel a little depressed while reading about the perfumes. For example Ysatis is classified with other chypres because somewhere it's fingerprint stamps it as being in that group. But the GC information tells you nothing about how Ysatis really smells- if you don't know it, this perfume is a hot Ylang dominated skin-scent with white florals practically radiating from it's heart. It almost overwhelms me with smothering overbearing 80's style sillage but it was the perfect 1980's rendition of a suntan oil type of vacation scent. If you've seen the neon-colored pink, yellow and green trim of the box logo, well, it fits the scent perfectly.
Kaleidoscopic and buttery sweet with a faintly mossy dry-down (enough to keep your nose returning to tease it from the killer tuberose ylang-ylang combination). But I can't share those technicolor sensations with you if I just stick to the scent's GC profile, and wonder if it is really more of a chypre or a floral-musk. Ironically I feel just a little that the authors rely a bit much on the very same thing they caution perfumers not to rely too heavily on- that is, the GC analysis.

And GC MS is important- oh, so important to the chemistry side of perfume making. But I think in order to discuss perfume fairly, as art and as product, as when we are reviewing it, I think we need to stick very closely to our own impressions of any scent we're talking about. I would rather hear your own free associations and reports about what you think you smell, than just hear you rattle off a list of compounds. I am somewhat torn because I do love to read lists of notes but when I see that so many perfumes keep boiling back down to lists of similar ingredients, everything blurs into differing proportions of a small set of super-scenting chemicals like Hedione, Methyl Ionone or Galaxolide (just a fancy name for polycyclic musk, kittens), Iso-E and a few ubiquitous florals (rose/jasmine) and woods, vetiver and whatever decoration you throw on top. It's hard not to feel overwhelmed and somewhat jaded at the same time.

A GC MS machine...
But the danger in becoming jaded is that you really don't bother to stop and smell carefully anymore, or force yourself to make those associations that made smelling things so much fun in the beginning. So if you think Bvlgari Black smells like burning rubber, then please just say so- it tells me so much more than if you'd just rattled off the list of what was in the juice. In the past and unless they had the recipe, most perfumeologists had to rely on their noses in order to suss out what was in any given juice. It required effort, imagination and creativity. Plus, the more you know about scent and molecules, and organic chemistry, the more leeway you realize there is in smelling perfumes. Sometimes, rare notes appear and you catch little novel sub-tides inside of a complex composition. Some of us can smell things that others of us can't, or in smaller proportions. These little eddies and variables contribute much to the overall experience of a scent, to say nothing of our own internal experiences and tastes. And it's all of those little things that really help us pull more about the scent out of ourselves than if we stick to a "guided by notes" type of discussion.

Because with GC, there is no more need to guess about notes. You just toss a little of your sample 'fume onto the machine and maybe in twenty minutes or less, if you can read the print out or use the software to edit it, and you will be able to pick out and name all of the organic molecules that are in your sample. You even get the order of vaporization, and information about the relative magnitudes of constituents in it. No need to risk a guess and maybe sound stupid with your super smart perfume friends when discussing notes of a new, or rare lost perfume. Why is that so many of us act more like Mensa flunkies than simple scent junkies? No wonder it's been a sore point for some of those who've labored to train themselves to smell without the benefit of such tools!

Maybe I'm just arguing this way because my love of [rare] perfumes was ignited after I'd left my job in the analytical laboratory. I find it a little ironic that I used to run samples on GC/MS machines and idly wonder what ot do with the last 4 or 5 spaces in my machine... I even edited the raw data myself. And I won't lie... if I still worked there, I doubt I could resist the temptation to load up a few extras with my special 'blanks'. Of course I'd want to analyze some of my own perfumes. But I can't and so for now, my reviews will remain as they have, dealing mostly with trying to paint scent impressions for you with words, and dealing less with strictly dissecting out note lists and comparing to some known standard... although, as I've said before, it is a two edged thing.... So know that when you come here, you will find both educated and sometimes totally in the dark guesses. But at least you'll know the impressions are my own and for what it's worth, they're alway honest, mostly from the heart and not so much the head...

The Vintage Perfume Vault where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives!

photo credits:
Lady with rose: diditrocious 'regal nose'
L' air du temps: Ysatis: ebay.cgi
CG MS: uaf.ed
Chimps smelling roses:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Next Vintage Perfume Review: Ravel FAUN!

It's been almost a month since my last post, and that's something I never wanted to do... but the recent quiessence of this blog belies the reality of my life. The closing of May marks the end of an incredibly hectic work year. I'm living with the truth of the old saying that whatever doesn't kill you, only leaves you stronger, or luctor et emergo, as they say.
Summer vacation starts June 1st so look for the upcoming review of a rare vintage perfume- Ravel's FAUN, circa 1940s. I'm also slowly putting together a very limited sample package of some of the recently reviewed perfumes featured here on TVPV, which I'll be sending to a couple of perfume bloggers that I know. So stay tuned, and maybe you can hear what they think of some of the perfumes I've brought out of the vault. And I'll be back in full force in June! In the meantime, in the photo you see my bottle of Ravel's Faun- it's not a fancy presentation, but don't let the Chanel knock-off presentation fool you...

The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.