Monday, April 15, 2013

Oscar de la Renta Oscar (original, 1977): fragrance review

Some perfumes the minute you put them on feel like you've slipped into a pair of black satin slingbacks or a silk peignoir in ivory. Oscar by Oscar de la Renta had felt that way to me for the better bulk of my adult life. In fact I used to adore the way it smelled on my mother, no stranger to spectacular perfumes, such as her favorites Cabochard and Dioressence. 

The original Oscar (1977) is a remarkably complex perfume, quite attenuated in its current formula compared to the grand dame that was the vintage juice from the 1970s and 1980s, which shows a remarkable kinship (and debt) to Coty's L'Origan and Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue. For this reason, but also for the way it extrapolates past and fuses it into the future, beyond mere nostalgia, it is of great historical value to see what makes it tick.

Oscar de la Renta's original perfume: a complex composition 

In many ways the introduction of Oscar by Oscar de la Renta on the market in 1977 meant a revival of the floriental bittersweet genre that the two classics had paved after many years of inertia. Despite L'Origan being formulated around perfumer's bases (i.e. ready made blocks of "smells" composed for perfumers skirting the issue of reinventing the wheel each time), both the Coty and the La Renta perfumes are resting on a basic chord of carnation (the spicy constituent eugenol is a key component of the perfume), orris, violet (methyl ionone), orange blossom and ambreine, all ingredients in about equal measure but for the ionone (which is doubly dosaged compared to the rest). Jean Louis Sieuzac, the perfumer of Opium (YSL), Farenheit, Bel Ami and Dune (Dior), sure knew a thing or fifty about how to create a frisson of excitement!

The floral heart however is particularly complex in Oscar de la Renta: the jasmine core (resting on both hedione and Jessemal), with rose, hyacinth and ylang-ylang included as well, produce a particularly sweet floralcy. The tuberose fragrance note is the mule's kick; purposeful, corrupt, expansive, can't miss it. Accessorizing notes of heliotrope, coumarin (the tonka bean note), musk ketone, benzoin and opoponax give a resinous, powdery and sweetish character that veers both compositions into the floriental genre (In fact L'Origan can be claimed to have historically introduced the genre in the first place!). The heliotrope and "powder" with a contrasting top (anisic in L'Heure Bleue, spicy in Oscar) are the basis of the tension that is so compelling in the Guerlain perfume as well. It's not hard to see how both can be memorable.

The addition of Vertofix (woody note close to cedar) in Oscar provides the woody background, with a small footnote of sandalwood and a mossy base reminiscent of the famous Mousse de Saxe "base" popularized by Caron. The powdery character is further reinforced through the resinous orris note and the mossiness. This contracts with the fresh top note comprising citruses (orange, bergamot and mandarin), basil, linalool and a fruity accord.

The above review pertains to the original composition which was prevalent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, somewhat attenuated due to "corrective surgery" (aka reformulation), Oscar is less smooth, with a harsher feel that doesn't lure in the way the vintage did, and less of its tuberose kick; in a sea of fruity floral sameness it retains some of its retro vibe, but it can come across as somewhat dated rather than wow, though the drydown phase is pretty good still. Lately the Oscar de la Renta house shows encouraging signs of picking up with its Esprit d'Oscar fragrance and its more "exclusive" collection of Luxuries fragrances, so I'm hopeful that where the botox failed the new generation fillers might prove successful. It remains to be seen.

The perfume's imprint

The progeny of Oscar de la Renta itself isn't without merit: Loulou by Cacharel (1987) owes a debt to the development of its tuberose and oriental notes to Oscar's floriental formula. The side by side testing of both gives an interesting glimpse into the intertextuality that is perfume creation; quotes of past things are happening in later perfumes all the time. Vanderbilt (an American classic from 1981) is also influenced, a sweet floral with white flowers in the heat (honeyed orange blossom, jasmine), heliotrope, vanillin, abstract woods (provided by aromachemical Iso-E Super) and musk in the base and a contrasting citrus and green fruity top note, but with no spice and very little coumarin or ylang-ylang to speak of.  The contrasting nuances help make the perfume memorable.


  1. Anonymous11:50

    Oscar classic is one of my best perfumes ever.Layer by layer it transform ans every layer worth a big applause.
    Later ı discovered one of old Ungaro(ı think Senso)perfumes is similar to it.

  2. Anonymous11:52

    I adored Oscar during the 80s. The body lotion was wonderful, too. I was shocked when I later tried the reformulated one. :( I have a vintage parfum mini to sniff when I feel the urge. --Lilybelle

  3. Anonymous03:29

    I love reading your posts and learn so much every time,
    Portia xx

  4. Anon,

    thanks for the most intriguing comparison! It's ages since I last smelled Senso. (I did like Ungaro d'Ungaro though, that I do recall). Noting down to do side by side at some point. Thanks!

  5. Lilybelle,

    it's a great pity when something we love gets distorted and we are not even warned about it... :/
    I sympathize.

  6. Portia,

    thank you so much for your lovely compliment which means a lot coming from you who are so enthused with perfumes yourself and so good in describing them.

    Hope you have a lovely rest of the week!

  7. Lovely review!
    "Oscar" to me smells like mother (even though my mother never actually wore it); such a wonderful perfume!
    I found a very old bottle of the body bath at a Hondos Center in Pallini and I had to get it, still use it during winter from time to time.
    Let me just say that Vertofix as a woody aromachemical is somewhere between cedar and vetiver (closer to vetiver in my opinion).
    Also, don't underestimate the contribution of basil to the perfume as a modifier (even in traces). It compliments the ylang ylang very well and gives to the heliotropin and to the perfume as a whole, a distinctive olfactory nuance.

  8. ION,

    glad you found the review enjoyable and on the spot.

    I love your reference on the motherly attributes of Oscar. You have a great point there. My association has to do with my mum actually wearing it at some point, but it does feel like a kind, giving person would wear this. local Hondos always hides the old stuff at their storing room (to send back to the warehouse I presume, this happened with testers) or have them in those big unsightly "baskets" for picking, which ruins the whole "a ha!" moment of discovery....

    Thank you for the Vertofix mention: I was wondering whether it has a bit of the smoky earthiness of vetiver. I can't bring myself to think it is just like vetiver (which I love), but somewhere in between sounds like a better description than mine.

    As to basil, I guess basil being such a lovely spicy note it would make sense that it would be a good modifier in such a context. Alas, I do not detect it in the modern incarnation at all.
    Do you know of any still in production fragrances that are distinctly basil-featuring? (Manifesto has been discontinued...) Its' a note I love!

  9. Thank you Ms Vosnaki!
    Traces of basil one might find in a number of perfumes (it is neither too common or too rare I think).
    One perfume that comes to mind is "Drakkar Noir", "Hugo Boss" has it in traces, maybe "Dune" (female) had a tiny bit as well. One can't be sure unless the actual recipe is published which, as we all know, it is never the case.
    Sometimes, a company might say there's basil in it only because there's a basil accord in it (which might not contain basil Essential Oil at all!).
    One thing your readers should know is that basil EO has a prevalent anisic-liquorice olfactory side (close to aniseed and it does smell very much like "ouzo") maybe because not only the leaves but also the flowering tops of the plant are used for the extraction or so I've been told.
    Therefore, basil is occasionally used in combination with aniseed EO or anisic aldehyde (sometimes with estragon as well) as is the case I believe with the infamous "Brut", where the main character of the perfume is given by those two modifiers.
    Personally, I prefer to use basil in all my rose-carnation accords since main aromachemicals of these flowers like geraniol, citronellol and eugenol can also be found in this essential oil!
    And it works lovely more often than not, I have to say..

  10. ION,

    εγώ ευχαριστώ! Πολύ ενδιαφέρον!

    To be honest, I really want a basil dominant scent for my collection and though those you describe do feature some, it's hardly the protagonist. (In Dune I can't smell it at all (what I get is deertongue, though they don't list it in notes; typical)

    Brut is one which does remind me of that in a very macho fougere skeleton, which is probably why I never borrowed it (even though I do borrow masculine fragrances very often). Is it still any good? Been ages since I last smelled it.

    I do know about the anisic categorization, in which some of my favorite materials falls (such as acacia, lilac, licorice...) and a few of my favorite perfumes (SL Douce Amere, Loulou, for instance). I agree that basil would be stellar in a carnation accord, since it's so rich in eugenol (how much is the current ratio allowed for basil EO?)

    Come to think of it, maybe our cultural background attests to the prevalence of aniseed & basil smells in our preferences, via ouzo, tsipouro, aniseed-flavored bread & cookies, fresh salads with basil, pots of it sitting on the window sill...That you're actually working with the raw materials yourself probably allows you to create non-IFRA compliant wild compositions, which is something I envy you about!

  11. Thanks again Ms Vosnaki!
    It's funny but today I was passing by Sephora in Glyfada and this girl gave me a blotter of "Luna Rossa", the new masculine of Prada I believe.
    This is a perfume with the basil stamp all over it!
    Another classic but not exactly favourite perfume that has it (there, it works as a modifier and rather cleverly I feel), is "Antaeus".
    The essential oil can be used up to about 0,5% in the fragrance concentrate (that's before dilution) while the absolute up to 2%.
    Still, I find it enough, as it is a very powerful smell that will overshadow the rest with ease!
    "Brut" still smells lovely, yes! I am surprised it's not in your "borrow list"; many women like it for themselves, it's a well known fact. :-)
    IFRA, is no law. There are laws for certain ingredients which differ between Europe and America and that makes it hard, as at times, different modifications of the same perfume must be done for different markets. The situation is rather chaotic.
    It is those laws one should follow, certainly not IFRA.
    Personally, I don't wear perfume on my skin (only rarely), for the very simple reason that it lasts and develops better if sprayed on hair (low, at the back of the head) and on clothes. Perfume was made for one's clothes, I see no reason to spray it on our skin honestly!
    For the perfumes I do for my limited clientele I am roughly in accordance with the laws though (thanks to Iso E super and Hedione, basically).
    Let's be honest.

  12. Ion,

    thank you for yet another fascinating comment.

    I haven't tried Luna Rossa, though my guest contributor reviewed it on these pages. Now I'm psyched to search for it.
    As to Brut, again I'm gaining courage to seek for some, as per your advice. (I do love Antaeus and wear it frequently!) Perhaps like with the old Santos and Givenchy Gentleman (which I love as well) I had wrongly pegged Brut as a bit "macho" . Then again, nothing sillier than adhering to such classifications.

    Regarding application; I think the skin application was marketed very purposefully in order to reinforce a certain image of perfume as seduction accessory ;-) (what do you have on when you've removed your clothes?) Myself I apply either on skin, hair on clothes depending on effect desired and perfume chosen.

    Very inspiring commentary on following/non following IFRA! (and yes, hedione and iso-super are in everything nowadays, it's funny how some companies can't bring themselves to admit it).
    I admit that your work has me very intrigued now; do you only do custom-order work? (If you'd rather not divulge more publicly, please drop me a line at my email and put ION in the subject line so I can salvage it from spam folder which sometimes unknown addresses end up in; just a precaution).

  13. Hello again Ms Vosnaki,
    "Givenchy Gentleman" is a perfume I adore. A very masculine and yet noble creation, one of the very best!
    My fascination with perfumery is old and I basically got involved in it for two reasons.
    The one was curiosity and the second was my inner need to expand my artistic territory by connecting olfactory creations with my portraits.
    Thank you for your interest, I am not sure this is the moment to take it more publicly as I am in the process of preparing my next portraits project and my main focus is there.
    I do work however, more than 80h/month on perfumery accords and if you want me to send you samples of my perfumes, experimental accords, accords inspired by your reviews and comments (this kephalis+coumarin combo was very interesting!) and/or funny stuff like my "Coca Cola" perfume or a perfume that represents my sense of "clean", I'd be glad and excited to do so (basically, I'd like to have your opinion on my work as well)!
    Let me know, and we talk through email. ION

  14. Anonymous23:59

    The original formulation was divine; the new formulation is not worth wearing. So disappointed as I thought it was my forever scent . Looking for a new fragrance.


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