The vermilion room… Cinnabar by Estee Lauder The Perfumed Dandy’s Classic Collection


She wasn’t a grade school teacher always. This woman has a past.

Taking a break from marking books of summer holiday reminiscences rendered in schoolboy scrawl, she decides to look again at the photographs.

Just five years after Nixon, she too went to China. It was ’78 and the next year an embassy would open in what everybody still called Peeking then.

Someone had to ready it for the arrivals.

Who better than the wife of the man who would be first cultural attache to the land of the Cultural Revolution?

In an uncommon moment of decor diplomacy, it was decided to break from American tradition: to forgo a little piece of the Uncle Sam overseas. Local sensitivities relating to cultural imperialism were judged to preclude the parochial neo-classicism of a White House away from home.

So the style would be Sino- American, through and through.

In the photographs, honeyed polaroids sweetened almost sepia by age, she sees the rooms she would never return to.

A jade green vestibule with minature orange trees standing guard at every entrance, each bright fruit wired for sound when entertaining.

The blue and white willow pattern reception room, where concealed cinnamon and clove spiced incense burned, to purify the guests before they met The Man.

A second function room in saffron yellow, great imitation Ming vases filled with jasmine, ylang ylang, and lilies right next to shameless shaker pots stuffed full of imported American roses.

A pause to shake the great man’s hand then onwards to the piece de resistence.

A perfect antique vermilion lacquered box into made dining room.

A jewelled chamber of glistening red walls.

At its centre, beneath a glittering crystal chandelier, a rosewood oval table.

On the table sit solid amber place settings while to all sides it is surrounded by fine chairs polished in resins that smell purposefully of vanilla.

Inviting you to sit with a hand that slices air made thick with clouds of smoked bezoin and more cloves, the Ambassador, carnation in buttonhole, clears his throat, prepares to speak.

But she never took her seat at the Ambassador’s table, never dined in her dining room.

Her cultural attaché, so it turned out, came from a culture of casual violence and even more casual sex.

A divorce.

Everything settled six months before the dust sheets could come off the jade, willow pattern blue, saffron and vermilion rooms.

A return home and a career to support her new daughter.

What could be more respectable than a small town grade school teacher with an uncommonly beautifully decorated home?

Her manicured and painted hands close the black gloss, hard covered album and returns it to its own red lacquered box.

She reads from the exercise book before her, scribbled in childish hand:

‘This summer I went to China….’

Cinnabar is the common ore of mercury.

Beautiful and toxic.

Perhaps this is why at Estee Lauder counters they keep this object of a certain striking beauty hidden from sight.

For there seems no logical reason to conceal this warm, generous and welcoming pseudo-oriental scent.

Yes it is a version of China about as real as the model factories and swarms of smiling children Pat Nixon met in 1973, but this perfume knows that it is half way to being propaganda and for that reason never takes itself too seriously.

A bright and cheery, flag waving entrance of citrus leads swiftly to an “hallway of the people” with a determinedly spicy architecture. Here, structural elements of near sanitary cloves and almost strident cinnamon ensure that other softer elements do not sag.

Thus, when incense and vanilla and florals and bezoin come wafting through their route is defined and directed and a brisk and clear order to the whole assembly is maintained, as though some benign school ma’am were keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

Perhaps this is where it all went wrong for Cinnabar: where other perfumes of this genre let it all, and then more, far much too much more, hang out, it kept its nerve and retained its composure.

At the time that might have felt a little too tight lipped, severe even.

Looking back it seems, just like Cinnabar itself: an act of unwaivering poise and impeccable judgement.

Is this a role suitable for a man?

Things have moved on and today there are such things as diplomats’ husbands I believe…

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.

The Perfumed Dandy


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22 responses to “The vermilion room… Cinnabar by Estee Lauder The Perfumed Dandy’s Classic Collection

  1. One of your best and so much fun to read again… I really want to try this Cinnabar

  2. This was so very clever! Well done, Dandy! I love Cinnabar. I haven’t thought of it in years. Now I have to go searching…

  3. Cairo Rose

    In high school while my friends wore Opium I dared to be different and lavishly spritzed on Cinnabar. I treasured that long lasting, potent concoction, but then in the 80s everything was big and BOLD. Such a delightful vivid review of a treasured perfume too long forgotten.

    • Dear Cairo
      Well, if The dandy might say so, you dared right…
      As we may discover sometime soon, I found this to be much preferable to the other big orientals of the period.
      Trust your unimpeachable taste.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  4. Brilliant. Hilarious. Fabulous pictures!

  5. (in my own review of this one I found myself talking about wigs and retirement homes, but I like yours better – very inspired!)

    • Dear Ginza
      Indeed I look at that photograph and I think of First Lady Pat Nixon and I too think wig and retirement home…
      But not so much when I smell Cinnabar, if only nursing homes did smell so pleasant for most people.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  6. Lilybelle

    I think this is one of your best reviews so far, all done in those honeyed polaroids that mellow the brilliant colors with time and nostalgia. Just brilliaint all around.

    • Dear Lily
      Thank you so much for your comments.
      The Dandy had an “instamatic” camera as a child, and many of my earliest memories are now slowly turning to a slightly syrupy sepia.
      A metaphor one supposes for what time also does.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

      • Lilybelle

        I had one of those cameras, too. That does it, I’m getting down the box of old photos today. I’ve been meaning to do that for a while now so I can scan them into my computer. I wonder whether any fragrance memories will emerge.

      • SallyM

        A Kodak Instamatic! My favorite Aunt who – how synchronous – was married to an ambassador, gave it to me for my 10th birthday. I thought I was so grown up! How I remember that funny little cube on the top for the flash…

      • Dearest Sally
        What a lovely bit of synchronicity! I was given a similar camera art around the same age and felt myself to be every inch as grown up… though I would have to wait a few years before gaining an ambassador friend…
        Yes, those flash cubes, the ones I had were disposal, three or four shots and then it was time for the next. And a aroma, a little like gunpowder mixed with a chemistry experiment that they left in the air afterwards…
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  7. When I was a kid I think my first exposure to life in China came from a memoir by Shirley Maclaine — dubious! Love the schoolteacher with a deep past and the control to keep the scent in check. Love this post.

  8. Reblogged this on The Perfumed Dandy. and commented:

    Happy Chinese New Year All! A memory from a different time not that long ago, when the east seemed terrifically far away. I hope to be fully back in touch soon. Yours ever, The Perfumed Dandy

  9. SallyM

    Wonderful post – evocative and inspiring. I have a tiny vintage bottle of Cinnabar that was almost forgotten till I read this review. I remember how I loved to alternate it with Opium back in the day when everything was BIG. I must dig it out and revisit…

    • Dearest Sally
      Yes, these were perhaps the two perfumes that really started that particular phase of ‘bigness’. Sadly, Opium really isn’t what it was, so we should be especially grateful that Cinnabar has lost none of its seemingly inexhaustible power: this is still a scent that can fill a room with just a few sprays.
      Hurray for that say I, especially these days when that can be said of so few fragrances.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  10. Bee

    Great review – really captures the daring and mystery of Cinnabar – as well as the fun! This was my signature scent in the 80s. I confess I once sprayed it through the letterbox into the home of a lover who dumped me to remind him of what he was missing – he came back of course!!! That lover is long gone now but I still love Cinnabar and wear it often – I will never be without a bottle in my collection – just in case I need it…..

    • Dearest Bee
      Now that is what I call a story…. spraying any scent, but especially one as expansive as this Lauder, through a letterbox is quite a neat little ‘look what your missing trick’!!
      Lovers come and go but Lauder lasts forever… if no one has told them, someone should, it would make a brilliant slogan for them.
      You’ve started my week off with a smile on my face, which is appropriate, for Cinnabar does the same thing too.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  11. Dear Mr Dandy,

    A very apt and celebratory review for Chinese New Year. Cinnabar and Opium, as you know, were launched within months of each other and it’s almost impossible not to compare them. I have always preferred Cinnabar as it is more interesting with more different levels, and “rooms” as you might put it. I find Opium flatter and more ubiquitous.

    Hurrah for a celebration of beautiful Cinnabar and those techniclour 70s memories.

    Your friend

    • Dearest Iscent
      You know, it’s near heresy to say so, but I find myself in agreement: I rather think I prefer Cinnabar too.
      I mean, it is no contest between Estee’s well kept and enormous oriental and that flat, bland, chop suey that l’Oreal flog these days. But I rather think the original Opium was given a run for its money by this less well received (in Europe at least) and apparently totally independently conceived, fine fragrance.
      So splendid to be back in conversation.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

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