When I was young, Opium was the Hot Ticket in Fragrance. And not just Opium, but Cinnabar, Coco, LouLou, Poison, Obsession, Tabu, Youth Dew, and Shalimar. Seems like everyone was just drenched in resiny, spicy, heavy Orientals that, to my young nose, were related to Chemical Spills, Nuclear Power Plant Accidents (anyone remember Three Mile Island? Or worse, Chernobyl?), and Industrial Waste. Opium ruined more cultural gatherings than I could shake a stick at, and all I really knew about it was that it was, duh, an Oriental.
I had a friend at college who seemed to be going through the same things that I was – we suffered through first year together. We conferred, discussed, and giggled over all manner of issues. And we sighed, in tandem and at a distance, over Smoky Charles, who had stunning smoky gray eyes, and Gorgeous John from the Basement, who was as Cary Grant as a college freshman could be. We liked performing in musicals; we both played the piano (she far better than I); we both sang in the chorus; we loved novels and poetry and romantic English love stories. Suzanne and I dithered over whether or not to ditch our long-distance boyfriends, and rolled our eyes at our mothers’ ridiculous worries. We haunted the thrift store for elegant vintage night wear and cashmere shrug sweaters – which, at the time, were long out of style – and diamante’ brooches. Occasionally she let me borrow that thrift-store black velvet dressing gown with ivory crocheted lace. Together we counseled our friend Beth on how best to flirt with a fun, handsome boy we all knew: Mark ImpossibleLastName.
Three years later, Mark and Suzanne would marry, a few months before the end of college, telling her worried mother that they “just couldn’t wait to live together.” Gasp! How shocking! Getting married in order to have, you know, S-E-X!!
Suzanne had long wavy strawberry-blonde hair, loved Asian décor, and enjoyed making toast over the bulb in her desk lamp. She could make waiting for a bus fun. Her faults? 1) She simply could not manage to arrive anywhere on time. 2) She could be oblivious to other people’s moods. 3) And she wore Cinnabar.
She wore it discreetly, instead of bathing in it as so many Opium-lovers seemed to do, but it was the one most frustrating thing about her. I remember saying to her once, when I was having a supremely bad day (it involved a calculus test, among other things), “I could never wear those Oriental perfumes. They’re so heavy and dusty and strong.”
She serenely told me, “I know you couldn’t, but they’re very Suzanne.” She shook back her hair, releasing a wave of Cinnabar (ugh), and then smiled at me. “Let’s go find something for you.” The Something turned out to be a very, very small bottle of Coty Ex’clam-a’tion!, a straight-up sweet rose floral that I eventually ditched along with that boyfriend (um, yes, the one that SSS Tabac Aurea reminded me of). I don’t regret saying goodbye to either one.
I spent years afterward saying to people, “I like perfume, but no Orientals please. I don’t like them at all.” I had no idea what, exactly, an Oriental was, but I thought it meant, “nasty thing that smells like Dust of the Crypt.”
Fast forward fifteen to twenty years, and I’ve gotten interested in perfume again, now that the bombastic 80’s and the soap-and-clean laundry smells of the 90’s have fallen out of fashion. I rediscover an old love, Coty Emeraude… and am utterly stunned to find out that my Darling Emeraude is, yes, an Oriental.
Oh, yes, it is. And it turns out that many of the scents that I love, that I just adore and feel the most “me” when wearing, are Orientals too. Shalimar Light comes to mind, as does Natori, Tom Ford Black Orchid Voile de Fleur, Amouage Lyric Woman, Ormonde Jayne Ta’if, Bal a Versailles, Parfum Sacre’, Citizen Queen, L’Heure Bleue, Organza Indecence, Bvlgari Black, Rumba, Bois des Iles, Dolce Vita, La Myrrhe, and Tocade. Whew. And I don’t even own all of those – but all of them feel comfortable and warm and lovely, and in some way like a second, beautifully-scented, skin. They’re weighty and smooth – ornate and lushly detailed – luxurious and beautiful.
Suzanne and Mark did finish college; they’ve been married now for nearly twenty years and have four lovely children. I haven’t seen her since 1999, when Gaze was a baby and Suz was pregnant with her third. We’ve only been corresponding through Christmas cards for years, but I have recently found Suzanne’s email address and will be contacting her soon. I’m hoping for more news than will fit on a Christmas card. I can’t wait to find out what perfume she’s wearing these days, and I can’t wait to tell her how wrong I was about Orientals!