"Wear a little something, and a lot of SKIN. SKIN, the Bonne Bell Fragrance for outdoor girls." - 1975 ad for Skin Musk by Bonne Bell*
"If warmth had a smell, it would be SKIN." - 1979 ad for Skin Musk by Bonne Bell
The idea that Skin (or Skin Musk) was marketed to teen girls in the 70s just goes to prove that perfume styles are culturally determined, changing with the mores, lifestyles and politics (gender and otherwise) of the times. What are teen girls wearing now? Princess by Vera Wang? The latest shlock from Kim Kardashian?
First off, Skin Musk smells like a masculine scent — a modern, niche masculine scent! It starts off with some kind of bright note, probably bergamot, but its development is what makes it interesting. It is weird, however, that a scent for teen girls would be so animalic, and the ad so provocative. What exactly is an "outdoor girl" doing outdoors besides giving come-hither looks while wearing bikini tops?
Because it's called Skin, you have to get really close to it to smell it. There's an almost indistinguishable floral note (rose?) embedded in a complex mix of wet cardboard, that flinty, sulfurous scent after a match is lit, sandalwood (according to Perfume Shrine) and of course, musk. As it dries down, a wonderful nutty, non-sweet vanilla warms the skin (my favorite part) and stays as a sheer veil of spicy warmth.
Skin has the rich, multilayered sensuality of CB I Hate Perfume's Musk Reinvention, which is one, modulated low growl in a bottle. And although it has some overly synthetic-smelling moments, Skin reminds me a bit of L'Artisan's Dzing in its "what the hell am I smelling exactly?" effect.
Musk, along with other animalic notes, was a popular key note in perfumes in the '70s. Soliflores Soli-animales, if you will. In my writeup on Alyssa Ashley's Ambergris (part of a trio that included Musk and Civet**), I included this quote from the Alyssa Ashley website regarding the return to animalic scents:
"At the end of the '60s. . .music changed, habits changed, fashion changed. The young generation, starting from the USA and England, embraced oriental philosophies looking for a simpler more natural lifestyle. This new style of living also reflected itself in perfume. Young people no longer wanted the sophisticated fragrances worn by their parents, but embraced the simple ones whose roots lay in oriental culture. The hippies and the flower children bought the fashionable essential oils and in 1969 Alyssa Ashley launched their first product, Musk Oil."
Synthetic musk is a mysterious note.*** It can smell clean and fresh (so-called white musks that are in laundry detergent and many perfumes), or it can smell warm and skin-like. Nitromusks (now banned) in vintage perfumes such as Chanel No. 5, Primitif, and Fame by Corday have to be experienced to be believed. They add a caramel-y warmth that crackles and feels like a punch in the gut at the same time. Disquieting, disturbing, unsettling — erotic, in other words. Two of my favorite contemporary musks are Serge Lutens' Muscs Kublai Khan and Frederic Malle's Maurice Roucel-authored Musc Ravageur. (Rrrreow. Love the name, too.)
In Chandler Burr's wonderful book The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, he reveals the machinations behind two perfume launches, telling parallel stories about the creation of Hermès's Jardins Sur Le Nil by Jean-Claude Ellena and Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely. We find out that one of her favorite perfumes, in addition to an Egyptian musk oil she would buy on the street in New York City and Comme des Garçon's $150-a-bottle Incense Avignon was...Bonne Bell Skin Musk. (Burr describes her bottle as having a green cap, which means it's the later iteration; I have the 70s version, an oil, with the gold cap. I've heard they smell quite similar.) I don't know what Lovely smells like, but I think SJP has marvelous taste.
If I didn't already think the 70s were the best decade ever, Bonne Bell's Skin has sent me over the top.
* Any chick who's ever been into makeup has probably tried Bonne Bell's awesome Lip Smackers lip balms at some point. With flavors like Peppermint, Bubble Gum, and (my favorite) Dr. Pepper, those scents helped to define my teen years. (And if you're over 30, the amazing Ten-o-Six lotion has a similarly time-transporting scent.) Bonne Bell was started in 1927 by Jesse Bell, a man in Cleveland who whipped up lotions and potions in his basement and sold them door to door. It became a multi-million dollar company and still exists today. (Bonne was Jesse's daughter.) Skin musk, from what I've heard, has been discontinued but you can still find it online.
**Rarer than the civet animal itself, Alyssa Ashley's Civet perfume is almost impossible to find. In my three years of perfume obsession, I've seen it on eBay (the perfume hunter's version of the wild), only once, just recently. The going rate? Starting bid, $650...we'll see if anyone bites.
*** Chandler Burr on real musk, not the isolated musk molecule that is synthetic musk: "But Tonquin musk is animalic in its most elevated form. It is a perfumery raw material that was extracted from a gland under the lower stomach and before the hind legs of the male of the species Moschus moschiferus L, the Tibetan musk deer. Not muscone, the molecule found at 2 percent inside this stinking cream; Tonquin musk is the real, natural, glandular product. It is one of the most astounding smells you will ever experience. It is, to put it most precisely, the rich, thick scent of the anus of a clean man combined with the smells of his warm skin, his armpits sometime around midday, the head of his ripely scented uncircumcised penis (a trace of ammonia), and the sweetish, nutty, acrid visceral smell of his breath. There's simply no other way to describe it."