Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Avon Calling: Occur! (With a Draw, My Door to Yours)
Nearly every American of a certain age remembers the neighborhood Avon lady. Avon, like Tupperware, was a massive Mid Century door to door phenomenon, with millions of dollars exchanged annually, and every home seemed to have at least one Avon item sitting around somewhere, generally in the vicinity of another American mainstay, Estee Lauder merchandise. Avon was famous for its nearly infinite array of collectible bottles - in the shape of owl, telephone, train, auto, peacock, snail, bell, ram's head, et al. My grandmother had a box in her attic full of these bottles. All in their original packaging (NIB as they say on Ebay), they looked as if they'd never been used.
The only Avon fragrances I remember from childhood were twinkly, bonnie type affairs with names like Cotillion, Sonnet, and Field Flowers. Sweet Honesty, which epitomized these, was ubiquitous among little girl tweens I knew, and smelled like something trying to make its mind up between shampoo and seduction. If I did smell any of the more mature fragrances in the brand's line up, I probably lumped them all together under the usual adjectives: powdery, say, or stinky. Years later I moved closer to my grandmother's town and was able to visit more frequently. Scouring local antique shops, I came across what seemed like an endless revolving door of these colorful bottles and perfumes.
I first smelled Occur in one of these shops, in its most recognizable bottle, curved black metal with a gold top. Like a lot of fragrances at the time, it was a "cologne mist spray", which simply feels faulty to someone now used to today's jet stream atomizers. Occur and Timeless (another Avon favorite, related in many ways to Occur) sat together on a glass and gold metal tray in the shop and were more than half empty. They smelled funky to me and I assumed the contents had long ago turned.
That was pretty early on in my renewed acquaintanceship with perfume - long before Habanita, Cuir de Russie, or any number of classics it took me a while to fully appreciate. A lot smelled funky to me; a lot smelled different in a way I wasn't used to and therefore decided wasn't my thing. I smell Occur now and can't believe I didn't love it then, because there's really nothing like it, even now that I've smelled over a thousand perfumes and my idea of "my thing" has expanded to such an extent that I'm just as likely to wear and appreciate an old school animalic as a niche floral. I felt just as turned off, truth be told, when I first smelled Muscs Koublai Khan, but Avon is a lot lower on the totem pole in the cultural imagination than Serge Lutens, so it's much easier to dismiss, and reappraisal is much less likely.
Released in 1962, Occur(!) is, to me, far more satisfying and arresting than Koublai Khan, and really almost every other modern animalic scent I've smelled and loved, short of, maybe, Frances Kurkdjian's Absolue Pour le Soir. There really is no bright up top business happening in Occur. It starts with an odd but well judged combination of indolic, aldehydic florals, spices (cardamom and coriander, both discernible), and, allegedly, bergamot. I challenge you to identify anything resembling bergamot. There really isn't much of an "up top" to Occur in general. It's a basenote enterprise the moment it hits the skin. What I smell, more than anything, or believe I smell, is myrrh, patchouli, civet, oakmoss, vanilla and amber. As with the recently reviewed Epris, by Max factor, Occur's floral components aren't the alpha dogs in this dog park, and they know it.
The secret weapon here is coconut (I'll say that twice. The secret weapon here is coconut), and the combination of coconut, gardenia, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, and all the above mentioned heavy hitters produces a strange, fascinating effect, fattening up everything with just the right trace of buttery gourmand. Occur is a pretty sultry scent. It's no delicate flower. Yet it isn't exactly a powerhouse either, despite what its ingredients and its initial bombast would lead you to believe, and my praise of its animal hide notwithstanding, it's also incredibly pretty. It soon settles down pretty close to the skin with a leather-infused coconut- and patchouli-centered softness. Like Epris, which is also classified as a floral chypre, Occur seems more like an oriental to me, referencing, among other things, Shalimar, Youth Dew, and another Avon fragrance, released two years earlier, called Unforgettable. With its coconut, almost caramel effect, Occur recalls another of my Max Factor favorites, 1956's fantastic (and, like Occur, fantastically under-appreciated) Primitif. In a wonderful review of Primitif, Yesterday's Perfume called it "deliciously skanky", and the same could be said of Occur. If I were to look for a contemporary kinship I would choose Serge Luten's La Myrrh, which embodies similarly arresting incongruities, and makes them work (nevermind the skank with La Myrrh, which doesn't go there).
Occur is easy to find on Ebay, which has become an online version of the old Avon door to door model. While the black metal bottles are probably the earliest incarnations, their contents are difficult for sellers to judge, generating vague guestimates as to how much juice they contain. The atomizers on those bottles don't always work splendidly, if at all, and vendors don't always test them before listing (and shipping). I've never tried the heptagon shaped glass bottles that come in striped black boxes, with skinny black caps, but they look to date from the eighties or thereabouts (I could be wrong). Most of what lies between will be splash bottles - though the fragrance was recently reissued as part of the "Fragrance Traditions" line up. I've tried the Fragrance Traditions version, and while it's perfectly decent, it doesn't have the full bodied oomph of older formulations, nor their weird piquant high points. What it does have is slightly better longevity, so it's a bit of a six or half dozen kind of thing. If you're lucky, you'll find one of the half ounces perfume oil versions. Whether you opt for boot, bell, candlestick, or bell bottle, look for the vintage, and expect to pay anywhere from 10-30 bucks.
I'm having a good time exploring older, less well known fragrances lately, Avon first and foremost among them. I'd love to hear about older Avon fragrances you've smelled. So far, I've gotten hold of Occur, Timeless, Unforgettable, and Charisma. I'll draw a name from the comments and send off a sample portion of vintage Occur.
Here's a wonderful post on Unforgettable, with some information on the early and contemporary Avon sales model, by Olfacta.