One Thousand Scents

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Been There, Done That: Estee Lauder Cinnabar, Part 1


In 1977, Yves Saint Laurent made a huge splash in the world of perfumery by launching a huge, brazenly sexual scent with a noxious, unthinkable name: Opium. "Launch" is the right word, too: since subtlety was impossible and pointless, Saint Laurent threw a party on a tricked-out Chinese junk.

Estee Lauder was not pleased: she considered Opium a knockoff of her (by then twenty-year-old) Youth-Dew, a rich, spicy oriental scent that made her a success. Still, there was no denying the popularity of Opium, or its impact, so she did what any smart businesswoman would do: she made a knockoff herself. A copy of a copy!

According to Ann Hodgman, cookbook writers have a saying: "Three changes and it's yours." If you take someone else's recipe, that's theft, but if you alter it sufficiently--sun-dried tomatoes instead of the red peppers, molasses replaced by honey, eggplant standing in for zucchini--then you can call it your own. The same is presumably true in the world of commercial perfumery; an exact duplicate of a commercial scent (and they do exist) is reprehensible, but a tinkered-with, inspired-by scent is a valid composition.

Released one year after Opium, Cinnabar is a direct allusion to its moneyed forebear in almost every imaginable way. Opium has recently been reformulated, as is the way these days, and I haven't tried the new version, but luckily I still have a little of the old eau de parfum, and although you might mistake Cinnabar for Opium (or vice versa) at a quick sniff, wearing them side by side reveals that they are actually two quite different things. Cinnabar--named for a substance that is used to make Chinese red lacquer, and therefore a clear allusion to Opium's packaging without sharing its mystery and forbidden allure--is nicer than Opium; toned down, rounded off, genteel. Opium is feverish sex in a by-the-hour hotel room; Cinnabar is necking in the back seat of a car and then a drive home. Both are clovey-spicy, dripping with Orientalia; but Cinnabar is sweeter and flowerier, the rutting-animal quality replaced, or at least masked, by a heavier dose of vanilla and amber.

The packaging, too, tells a large part of the story. The Opium perfume bottle was a stunningly beautiful object

inspired by a Japanese inro; the eau de toilette and eau de parfum versions were marketed in equally Asian-inspired bottles, generally with calligraphed leaves embossed onto the glass: there have been many variants for flankers and special editions, but they have all hewed to one of these two bottle types. (The reformulated Opium is housed in a bottle influenced by the original perfume bottle, with a nod to bamboo.) The current Cinnabar EDP, on the other hand, is marketed in a generic flaçon without a trace of personality or individuality: the box is Chinese red and bears a gold embossment like a Chinese coin, but that's as far as it goes, and this seems like a mistake to me--or at least an admission that Cinnabar cannot compete with Opium on the oriental battlefield.

I have long been impressed by Opium: it seems to me a thing of genius not only in its composition but its packaging and marketing: it clearly took inspiration from many different sources, but somehow became the ne plus ultra of its kind. Cinnabar isn't anything of the sort; it feels like a copy of something, a fuzzy photostat with something missing. And yet Cinnabar perversely is more appealing--friendlier, more likeable--because you wear it rather than having it wear you, as Opium does. And I can't really make up my mind, but I think I like Cinnabar better.

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