I devote one column a month to perfumes which have crashed and burned to end up in the Dead Letter Office. When I started Colognoisseur this month’s Discount Diamonds entry was scheduled to be part of that series. Then like a phoenix, Estee Lauder Cinnabar, rose from the ashes three years ago. It sits right on the edge of my $50 limit for this column. It is such a great fall perfume I’ve decided to fudge my criteria just a tiny bit.
Cinnabar was born to three influential perfume personalities. Estee Lauder was hands on, as creative director, in 1978. She asked perfumers Josephine Catapano and Bernard Chant to design an answer to the blockbuster Opium. Ms. Lauder wanted her own Oriental at a lower price point. They would form a softer Oriental which still retained a decent kick. Seems like a recipe for success. Except it failed. There are times when something permeates pop culture so thoroughly it removes all opportunity for competition. This is what caused Cinnabar to find its way to the discontinued shelf in the late 1990’s.
Then for some reason Estee Lauder, the brand, re-launched it in 2015. It is somewhat different than the original because of formulation restrictions. I’d really like to know who did the reformulation because I like it very much. It retains all of what I enjoy from the original. Just to be clear this column is describing the new 2015 version and not the original 1978 version.
Cinnabar is a simple construction of spices florals on top of a classic Oriental base. The modern version is the same with a lighter touch here and there which I only noticed when I had them on side-by-side. To my nose the differences are negligible.
It opens with what almost became a Lauder trademark of the time aldehydes and bergamot. There is a fizz across the early moments before the real business of Cinnabar appears. That is the heart accord of clove and rose. This is a big obstreperous accord full of 70’s attitude. It is balanced without going over the edge. It also really accentuates the spicy core of the rose. The currently available version of Cinnabar had to reduce the percentage of clove oil. The reformulator has found some neat tricks to get the volume back up where it was. The base is patchouli, sandalwood, and incense. It is the classic Oriental base, only thing missing is a touch of amber.
Cinnabar has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
Cinnabar can be found right around the $50 a bottle limit. It is an excellent choice for fall if you want to add a new spicy Oriental to your rotation.
Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.
When I was a child I looked up to the adult men around me for the cues that would help me become like them. Besides my father another influential figure in my childhood was my Uncle Harvey. He was the white-collar flip side to my blue-collar father. Uncle Harvey was a South Florida defense lawyer. He wore a suit and tie. Although when I would see him the tie was loosened and the top button opened showing he wasn’t that fond of the tie part of the uniform. I enjoyed spending time with him because he was an early adopter back in the 1960’s. He had the first color TV. Later, he had the first remote control for that TV. He leased a new Cadillac Coupe de Ville every year which exposed me to the latest in new automotive advances. There was a scent to all of this for me too. Uncle Harvey was an Aramis man. Aramis was the scent of Uncle Harvey to me. I received an Aramis soap on a rope for some occasion and I was surrounded by the smell in my daily shower for a month or so. It imprinted on my forming scent personality that this was what a professional classy gentleman smelled like.
Now fast forward to 1984 as I am assembling my first professional wardrobe and accessories in my first job. As I was looking through the perfumes at the men’s fragrance counter in Macy’s I saw a familiar name Aramis but now there were four versions. The original, Aramis 900, Devin, and JHL. I knew I wanted to be my own man so Aramis was never in the running. But the moment I smelled JHL I knew this was going to join Polo on my dresser.
Joseph and Estee Lauder
The story behind JHL is it is the initials of Estee Lauder’s husband Joseph Harold Lauder. Ms. Lauder wanted a fragrance which captured him. For this she turned to perfumer Josephine Catapano. What they developed was a modern streamlined version of Aramis.
JHL opens with a more pronounced herbal mixture pushing against citrus. It is a very classic pairing but Ms. Catapano shapes the herbs with a set of spices; cinnamon, allspice, and clove. This provides a soft warmth for a spicy rose to take the lead in the heart with. The woods come next; fir and sandalwood married to patchouli and oakmoss. Incense and vanilla finish the development.
JHL has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.
I still wear JHL as one of my suit and tie fragrances. There has always been a palpable scent of class to it along with a memory of Uncle Harvey.
Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.
If I was to offer up a pop quiz and ask this question, “Name the first American designer fragrance?” I bet, notwithstanding looking at the title of this article, few would come up with the correct answer. Norell was the first American designer fragrance. Charles Revson of Revlon and perfumer Josephine Catapano were the creative team behind the perfume representing fashion designer Norman Norell. Norell became the first perfume to feature a huge amount of galbanum in the top notes. It was a trailblazer in many ways. In 1968 it was debuted in the luxury department store Bonwit Teller. It sold $1 Million dollars in its first year. Today heavily reformulated it can be found in any drugstore franchise fragrance cabinet.
In 2015 it was thought the Norell name needed to be recaptured in the fragrance sector. Perfumer Celine Barel was asked to create a new version called Norell New York. Ms. Barel has made a perfume which definitely has some of the same components but they have been altered in strength and prominence to create something similar but different.
Norell (1968) opens with that blast of galbanum. Smelling it now that doesn’t seem to be different than many very green perfumes on the market. In 1968 this was a completely unique opening. The galbanum moves into a full floral heart of hyacinth, rose, and gardenia. Ms. Catapano adds the twist of using clove and cinnamon leaves to provide a long tail on the galbanum and a real accentuation of the spicy core of the rose. In many ways this is also the trendsetter for the spicy floral heart which will explode in the 1970’s. The base is another ahead of its time piece of work as it takes a large amount of oakmoss and softens it tremendously with sandalwood, vanilla and orris. It was a supple foundation which would also not become fashionable for another 10-15 years. If there is one word to describe Norell it is green.
That is not the word I would use to describe Norell New York (2015). This time I would say floral. Ms. Barel does hearken back to the original with a bit of galbanum in the top but it is matched with an equal amount of pear. The heart is floral dominated but instead of rose Ms. Barel uses jasmine as her focal point to which gardenia and peony provide the supporting roles. Here the green has been cut off at the pass and we are in more traditional fruity floral territory with the pear and florals interacting. The place where Norell New York most closely resembles the original is in the base as Ms. Barel uses sandalwood, vanilla, and orris. Her stand-in for the oakmoss is a particularly earthy patchouli. All together it is a really excellent re-creation of the original’s base.
One final experiment I performed with a strip of Norell and Norell New York was I gave it to a group of women who are similar in age to me in their late 40’s early 50’s; four out of the five preferred the older Norell using words like “classic”. I also tried the same exercise with five women in their late 20’s early 30’s and the result was the opposite; four out of five preferred the more recent version. Those women all had a strong reaction to the original calling it the dreaded “old lady” smell. I pointed out the base was similar in the new version but they all like the fruity floral opening so much that it seems that similarity didn’t matter.
If I was presented a bottle of the original Norell in a pristine well-preserved box I would obviously choose that. But the Norell which I find at my local CVS has been cheapened by reformulation so much that it has lost much of the original verve it had. Which is why I am pleased that Norell New York exists. By using a slightly different name and allowing a perfumer instead of an accountant to modernize the brand. The new release is a much more fitting representative of the first American designer perfume.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample of the original Norell provided by an anonymous donor. The current Norell was purchased by me. Norell New York came from a sample provided by Bergdorf Goodman.