Saturday 27 November 2010

FAQ: How do I remove a perfume stopper that's stuck?

There is something to be said for those spectacular vintage perfume finds... the scents of yesteryear that you might have stumbled upon at a yard sale, or triumphed over others to win in an online bidding war. Fortunately more often than not, the item turns out to be well preserved for it's vintage, but occasionally the one thing standing between you and enjoying your ultimate fragrance find is the ground glass stopper - one that simply won't budge!
Possibly the most frequently asked question I receive from antique perfume enthusiasts is "How do I remove the stopper?" ...
With so many differing opinions online, I can only suggest the methods that have worked for me with maximum results and minimum risk.

Stubborn ground glass stoppers won't shift usually for one of two reasons: either the stopper has expanded slightly inside the neck of the bottle over the decades, or perhaps perfume residue has hardened between the stopper and the bottleneck, forming a glue-like seal. In both instances, I have on numerous occasions managed to remove stoppers with the following non-destructive method.

You will need:

The perfume bottle in question
2 plastic pipettes
A soft cloth
A few drops of of cooking oil
Access to a refrigerator/freezer
A good measure of patience

First of all, its a good idea to clear a workspace. Take your time and handle the bottle and materials with care. Start by giving the bottle a gentle wipe with a damp cloth (avoiding wetting any paper labels), particularly around the neck area so that surface dust and residue is minimised.

Step 1: Take the cooking oil and a plastic pipette and draw up just a small amount of cooking oil.
Carefully pipe the oil slowly and evenly in the small space where the glass stopper and bottle neck meet. Try not to flood the area, but be sure to turn the bottle slowly and ensure you have evenly oiled the rift. (The idea is that this will act as a light lubricant when the time comes to try and remove the stopper). Once you have piped the oil onto the neck of the flacon, set it aside for 15-20 minutes. Resist the urge to twist it at this point.

Step 2: Take the perfume bottle and gently place it inside your freezer. (Frost free is ideal so that there is no risk of damage to the paper labels). Leave the perfume to sit inside the freezer for approximately 20-30 minutes. The perfume itself won't freeze due to the high alcohol content, but the glass will shrink ever so slightly. After 20-30 minutes, remove the bottle and take it back to your clean work area. It is more than likely small beads of condensation will have formed on the outside of the bottle. Hold it firmly in the soft cloth at the base, and fold the cloth over the top of the stopper so you can get a firm grip of it. Applying a reasonable degree of pressure in a clockwise direction only, try and twist the stopper. (In the case of a perfume bottle with a fluted neck, then pull the stopper upwards with a very slight twist). You may need to attempt this several times. 9 times out of 10, here is where the stopper will pop off or hiss as it lets the trapped perfumed air loose for the first time in decades!

Step 3: Here you have to work rather fast. Set the stopper down for a moment, and immediately use the cloth to clean around and inside the open mouth of the bottle. Try and wipe up as much of any remaining cooking oil residue that might be present before it trickles down into the juice. Pick up the stopper and thoroughly wipe the oil residue from the stopper too (you may even see the tiny beads of oil on the surface of the cold glass). Take a look inside the bottle and see whether you can see any tiny drops of oil floating on the top of the solution. If yes, use a clean pipette to extract it.
If the stopper has old caked-on perfume residue around it, wash it off carefully under warm water with a soft cloth, and dry it thoroughly before placing the stopper back into the bottle.

Once loosened, (provided you do not get the bottleneck and stopper coated in perfume residue again), you should be able to open your bottle without any trouble each time thereafter.

Note: I would advise you not to knock the stopper on the side of a bench in an attempt to "shock" it into shifting, nor would I advocate heating the glass bottle in any way as the results can be both unpredictable and disastrous.

In extremely severe and unfortunate cases (usually if the glass is extremely thin and delicate or if the handler is very impatient), the stopper can occasionally snap off, leaving the decorative part in your hand, and a glass plug inside the bottleneck. This link provides the best possible advice I have found regarding a method to both salvage the perfume, and repair the broken stopper.

Happy vintage perfume hunting, people!

Monday 22 November 2010

Scent and the Sexual Division of Labour

As far as perfume is concerned, have you ever given much thought as to why a the scent of a peony or a rose is immediately associated with a woman, and the aroma of leather or cedar automatically attributed to a man? For the better part of a century now, men and women have been wearing scents based on an antiquated stereotype: one that advocates men as hunters / providers (without whose efforts the family unit would cease to exist); and women as compliant (docile, uneducated) nurturers / gatherers.

The partitioning of perfume by gender is a relatively recent concept. Until the mid to late 19th century, soliflore (single flower) toilet waters were used by both men and women. At that time, a perfumer's orange water, rose water, or lavender essence was considered entirely gender-neutral. The first "blended" fragrances (one of the earliest of which was Aimé Guerlain's Jicky) using a variety of essences to create perfume "narratives" is where the division of scent based on gender began to take flight. In the instance of Jicky - it was a scent well received by men, however its wide appeal to women saw to it that it was later marketed to the female sex.

So I wonder, at which point in history were single scents assigned a gender?

Lets think about it. I surmise that it came about as a result of our social and economic climate at the time. At the turn of the last century, women were considered the guardians of virtue and righteousness and were expected to comply with this concept. With only a tiny fraction of women in the workplace (most as unskilled factory workers), they were assigned traditional roles as mothers and home-makers - those given the charge of child-baring, food-gathering and food preparation. Denied education in most circumstances, women resorted to menial methods to make money; selling handcrafts, flowers and food in local markets and stalls. Could it perhaps be then that single-scents followed suit and became associated with the roles women took on in society?
Even in modern times we describe feminine scents as 'soft', 'sweet', 'delicate', 'pretty', 'floral', 'fruity'...

Men on the other hand had greater access to education and worked as labourers, merchants, hunters, tanners, agriculturists, industrialists and so on... jobs that required brains and brawn. Is there any wonder then, why scents described as 'musky', 'woody', 'spicy', 'leathery', 'earthy', are commonly attributed to masculine fragrances? As 'blended' perfumes increased in popularity in the early 20th century, might the role of the male population at the time have had an impact on the raw materials used and the gender they were assigned?

I ask you, are we doomed to reek forever of the sexual division of labour?

Well, I don't know how soon we will move on entirely, but our social consciousness has certainly evolved some over the past 50 years. The 1960's saw a steady stream of women entering colleges and universities and emerging with degrees and doctorates; arming them with great skills and even greater ambitions. Nowadays, as we strive to find a sense of balance in our lives, our gender is playing more of a peripheral role in our careers, relationships and interests. Men are now child-carers and interior decorators, and women attorneys and fighter pilots. Perhaps this gradual turnaround resulted in the barrage of unisex scents produced in the 1990's, and continues to contribute to the blurring of lines between fragrances and their respective sexes today.

Whatever the truth, the future stands to reveal our next trajectory in perfume and the perfuming arts. I only hope I stick around long enough to observe it.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Donna Karan Signature

The creative tendrils of American born fashion designer Donna Karan reached the shores of Australia in the mid 1990's following the launch of her DKNY Jeans fashion line and signature perfume 'Donna Karan' (1992) - an eau de parfum presented in an alienesque flacon designed by her late sculptor/painter husband Stephen Weiss. When the perfume launched in both hemispheres, it created a stir... its exotic and unfamiliar bottle was staunchly modern, but also vilified publicly for its provocative, phallic form. Weiss later commented:

"I didn't set out to create a bottle shaped like a penis . . . it wasn't like I said to myself, oh, how can I make this thing more penile? I did a book with 100 forms and I happened to pick the one that looked like a phallus."

Whilst initially the flacon was distinctly masculine in appearance, a print campaign in support of the launch presented the bottle in a resolutely feminine way... the media spotlight only drew more attention to this indignity, but alas it seemed the beauty of the perfume inside was not triumphing over the immodesty of the bottle. Donna Karan (the edp) was withdrawn from sale a few years later.

Over a decade on, in August 2008, Donna Karan relaunched her discontinued fragrance lines from the 1990s - this time in understated, columns of smokey brown glass; her signature scent amongst them. Now, without the obvious distraction of the bottle, Donna Karan Signature can finally reap the accolades it deserves as a wonderful dry, woody leather chypre for women.

I do not find a whole lot of evolution between the first spritz and dwindling drydown, but this suits me just fine... I adore Signature right out of the bottle. It opens with a narcotising blend of rich florals and spice accords. There is a rather luxurious lily / rose / neroli combination that tumbles over a sublime bed of patchouli, amber and creamy sandalwood. Interestingly, I find it is both embracing and warm, and yet in some ways rather solemn and unemotional. I can't help but feel I am experiencing a return to perfume stylings of the early 20th century with its hint of napped suede and a huff of pleasant soapiness. Donna Karan Signature is gratifyingly beautiful, but possesses a vacant emptiness... a pang of reflection, much like that which I celebrate in my beloved Vol de Nuit. Recommended for both women and men, Signature has definite presence and leaves a soft perfumed wake behind you.

At this point in time I feel Donna Karan has finally found her moment. It may have been almost 2 decades in the making, but her Donna Karan Fragrance Collection offers much to be explored.