Ambergris, Castoreum, & Civet

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A few weeks ago I bought some animalic aromachemicals (synthetic) online because, being a lover of the vintages, I wanted to familiarize myself more deeply with these notes. I bought ambergris, castoreum, and civet. These are, along with musk, the animalic notes that have been used in perfumes for many decades (centuries?), especially in vintage perfumes. Nowadays, these ingredients are rarely used because they are out of style, but before the 90s – and especially before the 80s – animalic notes were very popular in fragrances.

Ambergris Essence: On one end of the spectrum, this smells like bad breath, rotting teeth, putrefaction. But on the other end, there’s an intoxicating salty sweetness reminiscent of ocean air. It reminds me a lot of vintage Miss Dior, a fragrance that did contain ambergris. I almost want to say that old Miss Dior was primarily ambergris in its drydown rather than oakmoss or patchouli or what have you. Now, I have a vial of real ambergris tincture from AbdesSalaam Attar and it lacks the sweet component, smelling very much of bad breath and bacteria. And I also have a small bottle of Amway Ambergris Oil, a synthetic ambergris single-note from the 70s, and conversely, it has NONE of the rancid, bad-breath quality – it just has the lovely salty, resinous sweetness. This Ambergris Essence I’m reviewing unites both qualities together into one. Sometimes when I sniff it, it reminds me of the smell of a guy when he stumbles in after a night out with the boys, and you can smell his liquor/tobacco breath, and whiffs of his masculine cologne, and the cold air outside still clinging to his coat. The smell of this Ambergris Essence reminds me of that, sort of.

Castoreum Blend: This is black in color and smells very smoky, quite similar to rectified birch tar, which I’m sure it has been used in combination with a lot. Its look and smell place it somewhere close to used motor oil/charred grease. Underneath the smokiness is a subtle animalic, pheromonal purr – like a warning rattle from a snake. Castoreum is used in leather fragrances like Cuir de Russie & Cabochard to give a rough, dark, dangerous quality.

Civet Essence: Oh, my sweet lord…This is just incredibly raunchy and repulsive smelling. It adds complexity when combined with other ingredients and it’s a fantastic fixative but on its own it is really disgusting. Some argue over whether civet smells like poop or like pee. This synthetic civet I have smells like both, brought together in a litter-box inspired assault on the nose. But more accurately, it smells like the bedding of an animal. Anyone who has kept a ferret or similar type of pet may be familar with the raunchy smell of their cage or bedding: a smell of poop & pee surely, but also of wild pheromone smells. If you’ve gone to the zoo and seen a majestic tiger or lion kept in a small enclosure (like I have…pretty heartbreaking) you may have caught a whiff of its cage: the smell is raunchy and wild, a poop and piss laden assault on the senses, but again – with something more, some raw animal pheromone that evokes warm sleeping quarters, predatory danger and fear, and raw carnality and power all at once. The dirty cage of a mammal: that’s what this civet smells like. Very wild, and very concentrated.

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Bat Sheba by Judith Muller (1966)

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Around 1966, Judith Muller released three separate perfumes in her new Bat-Sheba perfume line. They came in beautiful hand-painted amphora bottles that evoked the weathered artifacts of ancient archaeology, which – then as now – was a national passion in the state of Israel. Her perfumes were very popular both in Israel and as souvenirs for visitors. The fact that there were three different Bat Sheba fragrances is a source of some confusion for people – many people think they are smelling the original Bat Sheba, when in fact they are smelling one of its flankers. The original is simply called Bat Sheba. The two flankers, which were released around the same time as the original, were called “Bat Sheba – Woody Modern” and “Bat Sheba – Exotic Oriental.” These two flankers are labeled with their distinguishing subtitle somewhere on the bottle’s label (often on the backside of the hanging tag, while the front of the hang-tag always just says “Bat Sheba”) or on the box. Below is a picture showing both the front and back of these two flankers’ hang tags. One wonders why Judith Muller would name the two flankers so similarly to the main fragrance, with packaging that makes it hard to distinguish between all of them. This has undoubtedly lead to quite a bit of confusion among people seeking the specific fragrance out of the three that they originally smelled & fell in love with.

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The original Bat-Sheba is a striking rose chypre with a heart of distinctive, sweet-fruity notes, drying down to a chypric base with patchouli, musk, & a hint of Iso BQ leather. I’ve owned a couple mini bottles of this original Bat Sheba and it smells so luscious, the sweet fruity notes are ripe and unique, complementing and binding with the floral bouquet for the full duration rather than merely acting as fleeting top-notes. It’s unique and mouthwatering, and it was composed, according to Judith Muller’s daughter, by legendary perfumer Ernest Shiftan at IFF.

Now onto the two Bat Sheba flankers. I have two examples of each of these, but they’re in different states of preservation. I’m reviewing the ones that smell the freshest, my mini parfums in the picture:

Bat Sheba – Woody Modern was a bitter green-aldehyde with hyacinth & powdery florals. It smells very similar to the pure parfums of Fidji & Norell, which all came out around the same time, and smells remarkably similar to her perfume Judith, released in the ’70s. Was this one discontinued due to all the name confusion, and then re-released as “Judith?”

Bat Sheba – Exotic Oriental starts off rosewood-y, drying down somewhat honey-like, with sweet vanilla & balsams in the base.

Between 1970 and the early 1980s, Judith Muller continued to release new fragrances. Here are my own brief descriptions of these others:

Shalom (1970) – a chypre; like a dryer Bat Sheba, lacking the former’s sweet/fruity notes. Very fleeting, gone in 5 minutes on my skin.

Sharon – Very hard to detect on my skin…After 10 minutes, I think I’m smelling a sweetish aldehydic floral a la L’Aimant, Le Dix, L’Interdit, etc.

Judith (1975) – I mentioned above that ‘Bat-Sheba Woody Modern’ is very similar to this one, and Judith may simply be that same fragrance, renamed. It’s a floral in 1960s style, very similar to Fidji or Norell (pure parfum) with bitter-green florals, powder, & woody base.

JM – a light & fresh floral of late 70s/early 80s; a slight buttery quality keeps it from smelling too shower-fresh or “80s shampoo”-like. In the same vein as Le Jardin de Max Factor but with a subtle buttery note.

Iris Gris by Jacques Fath (1947)

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I own so little of this rare beauty that I treat it like a delicacy, wearing it only on special days. Today I finished renovating the staircase in a 100+ yr old house (which, incidentally, has irises growing in the backyard, just to come full circle with this.), so I dotted some Iris Gris on the top of my wrist, then spent the day happily painting the risers on the staircase, trying to catch whiffs of IG through the paint fumes. The first time I ever inhaled this perfume, it’s dominant accord of sweet, jammy fruit immediately brought to mind a milky pink cough syrup from my childhood, (maybe Amoxicillan?); I took a sniff and my mind exploded with memories of a childhood sick-day with some carnival-pink syrup taking the edge off as I lay on the couch & merrily watched Pinwheel on Nickelodeon channel. Random, I know…Don’t judge me! Champagne, by YSL also evokes this pink cough syrup memory for me. But only those two perfumes. Interestingly, both fragrances feature a so-called “peach” accord, with iris & subtle spice.

OK so, about these fruits in Iris Gris…Although they’re labeled ‘peach,’ they don’t register as peachy to me. I would call them ‘undefined fruits.’ And in the same way that a floral bouquet in perfume can be symphonized by adding aldehydes, or a dish can be made strangely mouthwatering by adding MSG, in Iris Gris the prancing & preening fruit notes are given distinction by their fated partnership with iris, which takes a supporting role for most of the duration. Despite the sugary head-rush of fruit in Iris Gris, the aromachemical Persicol (aka undecalactone, aka peach-aldehyde), which on its own is a bit dusty & harsh, is not overdone in original Iris Gris…unlike the modern attempts to recreate IG where Persicol swiftly overtakes the composition for hours. (I wonder if Osmotheque’s modern reconstruction also features such an overwhelming Persicol note?)

There’s also a subtle spice in IG, maybe a quarter-pinch of cinnamon fairy-dust or something, to deepen its zingy zip. Iris Gris is joyful, bright, spring-like, slightly powdery, sweet, fruity, and icy cool…As it dries down further & further to its namesake accord it begins taking on that singular quality orris has, becoming more & more iron-y as time passes: that spectacular matallic quality that good iris in fragrance possesses, a hint of licking a silver spoon. And unfortunately, you would almost need to have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth to afford a full bottle of this stuff.

Ramu by Kenneth (1966)

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I figure I could be the only one out there who is familiar with Ramu perfume. This is a long-forgotten scent from the late 1960s, but there was a time when Ramu by Kenneth was sold at fancy department stores right alongside power-players like L’Air du Temps & Rochas Femme. It’s now long forgotten by seemingly everyone…except yours truly. The story of Ramu is an interesting one, and the scent itself is distinctive and beautiful.

In the 1960s, hairstylist Kenneth Battelle was gaining national acclaim through his associations with women like Marilyn Monroe & Jacqueline Kennedy. He famously repaired & redefined Marilyn’s over-processed hairstyle by creating for her a softly sweeping, child-like doo. And she considered him a close friend. He was Jackie O’s hairstylist of choice, designing her signature bouffant, and he styled her hair just moments before the motorcade that would see her husband, President John F. Kennedy, fatally shot in 1963. In the early to mid-1960s, Mr. Kenneth was a famous figure whose increasingly high profile led people to seek his autograph at airports. He had the It Factor during this time, and his lavish NYC salon was THE place to be for pampering, relaxation, lunch, and gossip.

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Ramu Perfume by Kenneth

It was against this wave of high success laced with tragedy (the deaths of Marilyn & JFK) that Kenneth released Ramu perfume. It came out in 1966, the same year Star Trek debuted on television, and apparently was originally intended for clients & customers of the Kenneth salon. In some old articles promoting the new perfume, it’s mentioned that the name Ramu means “to love” in Sumerian, the ancient Mesopotamian language of the people who built the first cities circa 4,000 BC. The Ramu logo on boxes & full-size bottles even come with the name spelled out in the ancient cuneiform figures of the Sumerian language. Kenneth may have misjudged the depth of the ‘60s trend toward far-out cultures & mysticism: while many people at the time were becoming fascinated with the esoteric, the arcane, and the occult, this ancient Sumerian angle may have been too “high concept” and baffling to potential customers, because the perfume seems not to have sold very well. It’s high price tag and lack of advertising also likely left customers un-enthused. There were many micro-mini sample bottles of Ramu perfume given out, and these tiny bottles can still be found for sale online once in a blue moon, usually in vintage perfume lots, scattered amid tiny vintage bottles of Ma Griffe, Fidji, and the like. By 1968, Kenneth had released a cosmetics line as well and secured a distribution for his products at select department stores all across the country. I have found only two store ads featuring Ramu perfume, and both date from 1968.

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Ramu Perfume

I love how in this Lamson’s ad, Mr. Kenneth is pointing with two fingers like a priest performing a benediction…(And the Ramu perfume is his holy water.)

So what does it smell like? A sumptuous and beautiful chypre, with a narcotic & honeyed rose/jasmine heart binding with a high quality orris, set upon a woody vetiver, patchouli, oakmoss base accord. The fragrance is very unique and beautiful. It smells like the love child of Bat-Sheba perfume (Judith Muller) and  La Rose by Rochas (a stunning chypre created in 1949 by Edmond Roudnitska). It’s pretty breathtaking stuff, tenacious and deep, honeyed and slightly aromatic: an exalted chypre with perfect proportions and balance. I think this was a very high quality fragrance, I don’t think Mr. Kenneth skimped on this formula at all. Indeed, in interviews he talks constantly about pampering women with luxury in his salon, and this perfume attests to that. The little box to my sample says “Made in France” and I would love to know who the perfumer was. One of the vintage articles mentioning Ramu describes it thusly: “a jasmin-rose floral complex complimented by patchouli, woody vetivert, and mousse de chene.”

I don’t know when Ramu was discontinued. I was introduced to the scent by acquiring a micro-mini in a perfume lot. I applied some and was completely smitten. But when I googled, there was nothing to be found: no pictures of bottles, no reviews, only one or two mentions online, literally. Ramu was a fragrance that never gained a foothold and was lost to time. It has completely slipped through the cracks of vintage-perfumedom. I write this post in hopes that people who do remember Ramu or who find a bottle of it will google and find this post – not be met with the lonely sound of crickets like I was when I searched for online Ramu info.

I now own several tiny mini bottles and one partial half-ounce bottle that I feel so lucky to have acquired. If you have memories of Ramu to share or could provide pictures of your bottle or packaging, that would be fantastic.  (And if you have any Ramu to sell, please comment here, I’m definitely interested in buying it!)

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Ramu by Kenneth Perfume

Mink & Pearls by Jovan (1968)

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Mink & Pearls by Jovan came out in the late 1960s, my favorite perfume decade. This was the first Isobutyl Quinoline leather chypre that I was able to embrace when I started my vintage journey some years ago – I had found scents like Azuree & Cabochard much too rough for my delicate sensibilities (that has changed, I now adore Bandit & modern Cabochard…but still can’t do Azuree), but Mink & Pearls had all the right moves to hit my sweet spot, perched as it is between rough leather chypre and sweet, narcotic floral. I discovered this scent in 2009 when I acquired a vintage Jovan sample set.

Mink & Pearls features clary sage alongside a  gorgeous, sweet jasmine, plus a slew of animalic chypre ingredients like castoreum, civet, & musk. And of course oakmoss, Isobutyl Quinoline, and woody notes are in there as well, though for me the animalics really are the star of the show. There may be a teeny tiny hint of vanilla in the base as well.  I used to go through my grandmother’s leather purse when I was little and to me, Mink & Pearls really does remind me of that scent memory: like the smell of granny’s leather purse with some random cosmetics, a tiny bottle of Norell, and a stick of Double Mint gum at the bottom.

I have this in the EDT and the pure perfume, and to be honest I favor my darker colored EDT. I somewhat dislike the pure perfume because it’s extremely bright with a celery-like sharp greenness. The EDT I have is darker in color (have the top notes mercifully degraded?) and this darker juice loses the sharp celery-like notes of my pure perfume. I like just a small hint of the sharp green celery-notes, so I spritz a bit of my deeper-smelling EDT, then put a pin-prick dot of the pure perfume on my skin…That way, I’m getting the best of both worlds.

This is such a complex and unique smelling chypre. Sometimes I feel like people are dismissive of vintage Jovan scents just because they became low-end drugstore scents in the 70s. They had some real beauties during that time period though, and Mink & Pearls was one of them. It’s the fragrance that first put Jovan on the map. I hope to write about other lost Jovan scents in future posts.