Welcome to this next installment of Scent Semantics! This month’s word, from Portia, is “brilliance”. I hope you had a wonderful May Day, and will enjoy a month of the flowers that April showers are said to bring!
For this month’s post, I first thought I would write about Cartier’s Carat, which I have and like very much, since I associate the word “brilliance” with jewels, especially diamonds. But the more I thought about it, the more I leaned toward writing about Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, with a related name that also evokes brilliance, but a scent that is much less familiar to me. In fact, before opening it to write my “Scent Semantics” post, I’m not sure I have ever smelled it on myself before, though I have smelled it.
I can explain. The bottle and travel spray of White Diamonds that I have came from my late mother-in-law’s personal collection. She didn’t have more than a few fragrances, and she loved Elizabeth Taylor’s launches. This makes total sense, as she was born the same year as Miss Taylor, and she was also a curvy girl who came of age in the 1950s. She loved little luxuries but didn’t have much budget for those, especially after raising five children, so Elizabeth Taylor’s fragrances were an affordable option (several are “bargain beauties”). After she died, my daughters and I helped my dear sister-in-law clear out her room in the assisted living and skilled nursing residence where my mother-in-law lived during her last years. I found a couple of unopened bottles of White Diamonds and Passion, and I asked my sister-in-law if I might have them. She is a darling and she quickly said yes, of course, I should take them. I don’t really use them, but every time I see them in my fragrance cupboard, I think of my dear mother-in-law and how much I loved her.
I really did love her. She wasn’t perfect by a long shot, and she sometimes made decisions that I didn’t agree with or even (a few times in 30 years) found hurtful, but I have so many happy memories of her. She was a large, comfortable woman who had grown up in Fremont, Nebraska; the middle daughter of three girls, whose father was a small-town banker. Her childhood was in many ways pure Midwestern Americana, though not without its own complications. Her father was a very strict, old-school Irish Catholic, who never accepted the changes of Vatican II. He wouldn’t let her go to the University of Nebraska for college in the early 50s, because he thought it was a hotbed of Communism. So she went to the University of Minnesota instead, and from there to teach in California.
The great adventure of her life was when she took a job teaching in an elementary school on an Air Force base in Germany, where she met my father-in-law (who is still with us, at 91!). They married within mere months of having met, and started a family there. My husband, the second child, was born in England where they had moved to another Air Force base. I still marvel at the spirit of courage and independence she showed, going overseas to work, marrying a man her family had never met, traveling around Europe, giving birth to two sons in two different countries. Her parents must have been gobsmacked!
So it doesn’t surprise me that she gravitated to the kind of big, bold, 1980s perfumes that were quintessentially Elizabeth Taylor’s calling card. First, there was Passion, in 1987, followed by White Diamonds in 1991. Both were such smash hits that they inspired an entire generation of celebrity fragrances. White Diamonds is said to be the most successful celebrity scent of all time, with sales easily topping $1 billion since its launch. That would pay for a lot of actual diamonds! Here’s how the fragrance is described by the Elizabeth Arden company, which bought the rights to it after Miss Taylor’s death:
The name epitomizes singular star quality – radiant, extraordinarily rare and overwhelmingly beautiful. A rich, sensual, floral fragrance with the endless brilliance of a rare jewel.
So what does it smell like? Created by master perfumer Carlos Benaim, it is an aldehydic white floral, with that sparkling top note I associate with aldehydes. A note about aldehydes: I know some perfumistas dislike them, but several of my favorite fragrances have strong aldehydic openings (Chanel No. 22, I’m looking at you!). The opening of White Diamonds is indeed strongly aldehydic, but not unpleasing to my nose. Opening notes also include bergamot and orange. From there, it opens up like a bouquet of white flowers: lily, neroli, tuberose, jasmine, with yellow floral scents from ylang-ylang and narcissus. I’ve read conflicting lists of notes for White Diamonds, one of which includes rose, violet, and iris, but they do seem mostly to agree on the white and yellow florals; some also list cinnamon and carnation. The lists I’ve seen also agree on the base notes: oak moss, patchouli, musk, sandalwood and amber.
White Diamonds is polarizing, partly because it does strongly evoke the late 80s/early 90s. It definitely qualifies as a “BWF” (big white floral), which will always turn off some people. Some commenters in online forums call it a “granny scent” or “old lady”, and I understand why although I think that’s an offensive term. I think it’s because it was marketed to middle-aged women of that era, who became my generation’s mothers-in-law, and our children’s grannies; and it was so popular that many grannies did in fact wear it. Nevertheless, it won awards including a FiFi, and in 2009, it was entered into the Fragrance Hall of Fame. Some day, no doubt, people will say that SJP Lovely is a “granny scent” because their grandmothers wore it in their youth!
White Diamonds isn’t subtle, either, any more than Elizabeth Taylor was, with her huge diamond jewelry, her many marriages, the bouffant hairstyle she wore in the 1980s and 1990s, her larger-than-life persona and style. Its opening is assertive and powerful, especially if one applies more than just a couple of light sprays (two is plenty). But like Miss Taylor, who became an early activist and lifelong advocate for people with AIDS, as well as a major philanthropist supporting research into it, it has hidden depths. After the va-va-voom opening, it becomes softer and soapier, with a touch of spice that makes me believe it does in fact have at least a touch of a carnation note. As it dries down further, those warm base notes take over, and they are very well done. In fact, they are so soft and warm that they remind me of a fur coat or stole, which also seems very appropriate for Elizabeth Taylor. Remember those Blackglama ads?
Interestingly, Elizabeth Taylor apparently wore another powerhouse fragrance as a younger woman: Bal a Versailles. The stage of White Diamonds that I like best is the final stage, when all the big white floral notes have faded, though still detectable, and that warm, soft base is most evident. Have you tried any of Elizabeth Taylor’s fragrances? There are several flankers of White Diamonds, although I think the original has been discontinued. I recently picked up a bottle of her Gardenia, which I’ve been told is another bargain beauty.
Remember to check out the other “Scent Semantics” posts by five other bloggers!