Why did Cinnabar fail to beat Opium?
Cinnabar was released a year after Opium (1977) and for this reason the two have been compared, but even though they are both ambers, Cinnabar is less like Opium and more akin to an older perfume, Youth-Dew.
Cinnabar was composed by Joséphine Catapano (with the help of Bernard Chant) and it’s basically a slimmed down version of Youth-Dew - her big hit from 1953. To give it its due, Youth-Dew is described by Calkin and Jellinek in their book Perfumery : Practice and Principles, as ‘one of the most original and influential of perfumes’.
Youth-Dew is a gritty-spicy, resiny (and floral) amber, which Cinnabar takes and peels back the spiciness and the hint of flowers to leave a plain, sweet & sour, powdery-resiny amber. This is what Lauder released as their follow up to Youth-Dew, shortly after the appearance of Opium.
Resinous materials are known to have sour off notes at the top, and while Youth-Dew effectively masks them with clever accords of ‘almond’ and salicylate fizz, Cinnabar’s stripped down profile lets these sour notes leak through – giving it a slightly unpleasant cast.
By contrast, the masking effect of top notes can be seen in Cinnabar’s rival Opium. Opium has a strong head accord which includes mandarin orange, which, in their commentary on Opium, Calkin and Jellinek relate to Shalimar’s ‘orange, lemon, mandarin and bergamot’ (1925). Orange notes are a good match for resins, and are well suited to masking their off notes. (This is one reason while Shalimar starts off its languorous animalic profile with the seemingly unrelated tones of citrus.)
The ability to hide off-notes is one major advantage Opium has over Cinnabar, but there is a more significant consequence of this. The lack of top note finesse makes Cinnabar feel like one of those old ‘theatrical’ perfumes, where time is devoted to ‘scenery shifting’ before the main event gets under way (a nice image there from Luca Turin). By contrast, Opium would be a TV film, ready to roll as soon as the programme begins. Opium was a new type of perfume structure, one that had to perform from the word go. Something which is so much the norm these days it’s completely taken for granted. With a bright and instant appeal, Opium was in this regard very much the modern perfume. Cinnabar on the other hand, with its reliance on an old structure and a clunky and partial opening phase, felt like it had been rather left behind.
The basic problem with Cinnabar is it had nothing new to offer, just a streamlined and incomplete version of what was the rage in 1953.
But it wasn’t just a lack of ideas that hampered Cinnabar, according to Calkin and Jellinek, Opium introduced ‘a number of more modern materials’. Whether it’s the case that Cinnabar also introduced new materials - I can’t say, but its dominant theme of cinnamon (which is just one of the threads of Youth-Dew) recalls to my mind “Granny’s pot-pourri” - more than any modern, or indeed classic perfume. The main innovation that Cinnabar introduced to its Youth-Dew derived structure is a powdery sub-theme, which can be strongly felt in Tabu – the Amber composed by Jean Carles in 1932.
Where Cinnabar turns it’s back on innovation and looks inward, Opium brings together ‘the two types of oriental [sic], represented by Youth-Dew and Shalimar’ (again Calkin and Jellinek). They go into some technical details but we can characterise the two principles as Spicy, and Citrus. Not counting cinnamon, which is there in spades, neither of these two principles can be said to have much impact on Cinnabar.
The orange head accord - which is a major part of Opium, and Shalimar before it – and the gritty-spiciness of Youth-Dew are nowhere to be seen in Cinnabar. And, as a consequence, if you smell Opium side by side with Cinnabar, as no doubt many people were doing in the late seventies and early eighties, Cinnabar feels rather dull by comparison.
In the end, Cinnabar lost to Opium because it was backward looking, and tied to an outmoded vision of perfumery that had its heyday twenty five years before. By contrast, Opium was modern, forward looking and had a vibrant sunny head accord of orange; something that was just coming into vogue in Europe, with the advent of orange juice, which took the form of a powder you dissolved in water at home. It’s strange to think that just as Cinnabar was being wheeled out, a product called Rise and Shine was being advertised on TV; orange juice in a sachet, it may have been full of artificial ingredients but I bet it contained orange oil; a schtick that Lauder clearly missed.
Kellogg’s Rise and Shine advert from 1978