Two Shades of Chinese Red

If you are interested at all in American success stories,  you will at some point hear the tale of Estee Lauder.

She was the doyenne of cosmetics retailers, the woman who founded an empire on the basis of her chemist uncle’s face creams.  She started life as Esther Josephine Mentzer in 1908 and married Joe Lauter in 1930.  The name was changed to Lauder to give it some easy to spell but non-ethnic cachet, and, one cannot help but think, an extra Spencerian flourish in the gold lettering on every pale blue box of face cream.

She began the clever practice of gifts with purchase, which of course had the desired effect of getting customers used to the Lauder brand, and hooked on more than one product.  The company’s great best seller though was the perfume called Youth Dew,  produced in 1953, actually as the perfume of the Estoderme Youth Dew face cream. Youth Dew was developed into a scent but didn’t become a blockbuster until added to bath oil.  The initial price was under ten dollars which made Youth Dew if not exactly a screaming bargain, definitely something a woman could save up for out of her weekly shopping budget.

If the smell of Youth Dew seemed slightly familiar, that was because the scent was close to that other oriental bestseller Tabu (by Jean Carles), but this version was better behaved.  It was better priced than most French perfume, and that made YD the first perfume that American women bought for themselves.  Though unfortunately my mother never did, she stuck come hell or high water to Tabu, more’s the pity.  The company grew and thrived on Youth Dew profits, 80% of Lauder revenues by the mid-fifties.  They had struck oil. Bath oil, that is.

There were the inevitable battles with other cosmetic companies, the most wily and unpredictable of which was Revlon, under CEO Charles Revson.* He always seemed to steal a march on the competition. It was not Revson, however, who posed the greatest challenge to the Lauder perfume empire, but rather the ever eccentric designer Yves Saint Laurent.  In 1977 his company released a new perfume marketed with tremendous fanfare and a party aboard a Junk in New York harbor, Opium. (Incidentally, that was one of the first major releases to have an inexpensive recipe, as recounted in The Perfect Scent.)

Mrs. Lauder thought she smelled something less sweet than a spicy Oriental in the winds that filled the red silken sails of the Opium Junk that night, she smelled a rat.  Opium was uncomfortably close to Youth Dew, and she for one, was not going to stand by and allow some substance  addled French man to sell her perfume to baby boomers on the basis of a couple of twists to the formula, and a reference to drug culture.  That was not going to happen.

Enter Cinnabar, also a spicy Oriental, also a strong opinionated perfume that had serious lasting power, an Eastern referential name, and Chinese red packaging. Cinnabar came out in 1978, as I suppose, the first generational successor to Youth Dew.  Cinnabar was launched at Lord and Taylor’s where the black velvet clad sales women made sure that the customers knew that Cinnabar was not only better than Opium, but cheaper too.  To begin with in the states Cinnabar outsold Opium, although in the long run, probably the YSL fragrance did more business.

I decided to revisit all three fragrances myself. The experience was rather like touring an old battlefield, to see how they have held up thirty four years later.  Youth Dew it goes without saying is still Youth Dew, so well known that the first cadences of the perfume are as familiar to you as the first few bars of the national anthem.  Youth Dew is the “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” of Stateside perfumery.  It’s something you just know by heart even if no one in your extended family ever wore it.  Your second grade teacher did, or the local head of the PTO, or else the lady who worked at the post office. Basically, Youth Dew is up there with apple pie.

Things get a tad more complicated with Opium and Cinnabar.  For starters, Opium has been reformulated, and now is much quieter than the garrulous old girl I was acquainted with in my teens.  She’s not so much of a talker now, there is a hushed atmosphere, and a smell in the dry down like burned down candles.  This is a muffled scent now, a fever dream of a perfume, and possibly it does recall an opium den, sans the smell of unwashed bodies.  The similarity to Youth Dew is there, but is less pronounced than when it first came out.  In fact, unless you pointed the sameness out, I don’t think people would immediately think of Youth Dew.  They would probably reference Coco or Cinnabar first.

As to Cinnabar, that has changed quite a lot over the decades.  It is now more flowery and thinner, and is missing the tremendous clove note that it used to have, the one that fooled me into thinking someone was drinking a bottle of Coke nearby.  This fragrance by comparison with the one I smelled in 1980 is…discreet?

How times change.  Cinnabar, smelled from a bottle at Saks this morning is now understated.  Who’d a thunk it?  Youth Dew is unchanged to my nose, or nearly so and Opium is only a facsimile of its former self, if a pleasant one; bottom line, if you want the perfume closest to the original experience stick with the Youth Dew.

Hey, it worked for Estee.

*”Wily” is perhaps a little kind. This is the fellow, after all, who said to one of his senior executives: “Look, kiddie. I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard, and don’t you ever try to change me.”


“I don’t meet the competition, I destroy it.”

On the plus side, he did give to charity.

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6 Responses to Two Shades of Chinese Red

  1. bloody frida says:

    you know, I have been thinking about getting Youth Dew and this post sealed the deal!

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      You know because it’s the Fourth of July this week it just struck me that we don’t always think of the real good ole made in the US stuff, and Youth Dew is that for sure. Happy Fourth!

  2. Meg says:

    “(T)he first cadences of the perfume are as familiar to you as the first few bars of the national anthem. Youth Dew is the “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” of Stateside perfumery.”

    Tonic water really is very, VERY uncomfortable when it comes out your nose. ;)

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      No simile too silly, no image too ridiculous to employ in the pursuit of the perfumed zeitgeist!

  3. fleurdelys says:

    I’m a great admirer of the Lauder fragrances and have worn several throughout my life. Youth Dew has been a favorite for years. There is a streak of citrus running through it (lemon, to my nose) that gives it a lightness and sparkle you wouldn’t expect from a spicy fragrance. (My aunt, giving me a hug when I was wearing it, told me I smelled “fresh”!). Cinnabar, on the other hand, is just to heavy for me – maybe it’s the incense. Opium never smelled interesting to me, I preferred my YD! The quality of Lauder perfumes in relation to their prices just can’t be beat.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      They are good. Youth Dew seems to have stood the test of time, and it is still a very reasonably priced quality perfume, which is nice when the cost of a decent bottle often climbs over a hundred USD. This is one that qualifies as a signature scent. Gotta love it.

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