When I visited Mexico City for the first time, the place I wanted to see more than any other was Frida Kahlo's house in Coyoacán — the Casa Azul. Since that trip, Casa Azul (Museo Frida Kahlo) has been spruced up, and hidden wonders within its walls discovered: many of Kahlo's fantastic clothes and other personal belongings — hairbrushes, decorated (and bloodied) orthopedic corsets she used after her many spinal surgeries, Kahlo's prosthetic leg, sunglasses, lipstick, nail polish (Revlon's vibrant red "Orchids to You")...and perfume.
Over the years, I've noticed friends sometimes keep empty perfume bottles for years. Often, the perfume was an overseas purchase and couldn't be easily replaced. Sometimes, the fragrance was extinct or a particular bottle rekindled memories of a certain someone or some place that gave happiness. I was intrigued when I found out Kahlo kept an empty bottle of Dana Emir.1
My first gallery talk at the Seattle Art Museum was on Frida Kahlo in an exhibit titled Mexican Modernism. I was lucky I could look at some of her most amazing works up close for over three months and share my passion for her art and life with visitors. At the end of the exhibit, I was depressed. Would I ever see those paintings again (they were part of a famous private collection)? As I started my car in the museum garage after giving my last Kahlo tour, I shouted out: "Goodbye, Frida! It was wonderful to see you!" The moment the words came out of my mouth, my car's interior light, which had not worked for two years, came on. Of course, I interpreted this as Frida's personal response. After I saw a photograph of Kahlo's empty Emir bottle, I went to eBay and said: "Frida, I want some Emir!" And there it was, a small bottle of Emir Parfum from the 1950s ("unopened, in original packaging"). I clicked "BUY IT NOW", and here's Emir's story.
The Dana perfume house was founded by Javier Serra in Barcelona, Spain, but relocated to Paris after its debut release: Tabu, in 1932. For many decades, you'd find Dana fragrances in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, not Walgreens.2 Inspired by Persia, Emir was developed by perfumer Jean Carles and released in Europe in 1936, but didn't find its way to the US till after World War II (it debuted here in 1947). Looking at the Emir advertisements, I imagined Emir's "exotic" appeal to an over-the-top personality like Kahlo, who dressed (and painted herself) in fabulous "costumes" and dramatic jewelry.
Judging by its packaging, my bottle of Emir parfum is between 60 and 65 years old, but it smells surprisingly fresh. The perfume opens with vibrant floral-fruity aldehydes (rather peach-y in character). Quickly, Emir caramelizes its opening accord and I begin to smell an incense and immortelle-like combo; then, abruptly, a smooth leather scent is added to the mix. The heart notes of Emir are dusky and musky with glints of syrupy rose and jasmine. As Emir heads to its conclusion, I smell a floral-tinged, powdery amber accord that includes dusty, singed spices (clove-cinnamon). Surprisingly, Emir's longest-lasting phase comes late: a mossy, dainty rose-jasmine accord, a scent so clean and "pure" it could be worn by a child.
I can easily imagine Kahlo wafting a strong dose of Emir as she walked about in her flouncy skirts and rebozos. Kahlo was a dog lover, and I bet her adored Xoloitzcuintles smelled faintly of Emir after receiving hugs or napping with their mistress; perhaps her husband, Diego Rivera, put a drop or two of Emir on his neck or wrists to remind him of Frida.
The rest of the Emir-Kahlo story is a mystery. Did she buy many bottles of Emir...or just the one large bottle found in her possessions at Casa Azul? Was Emir a gift? Kahlo wore Schiaparelli Shocking, too (she must have been a Jean Carles fan-girl); did she love Shocking more than Emir? Was she a perfume loyalist or was she promiscuous with perfume like most of us reading Now Smell This?
Dana Emir was "retired" in the mid-1970s, but if you search online, you can find vintage bottles for sale around the world. Since I knew nothing about Emir till a few weeks ago, I'm thrilled Kahlo introduced me to it and that it was a happy experience. Now to drape an Emir-dabbed handkerchief over a large poster I own of a Kahlo self-portrait. I'll let you know if Frida has anything to "say" about it!
For those lucky enough to be in New York City before Nov. 1, 2015, check out Frida Kahlo: Art | Garden | Life at The New York Botanical Garden.
To view Kahlo's Emir bottle and other personal items discovered in her home, look here.
2. Dana has changed hands numerous times, and the company is now known as Dana Classic Fragrances.
Note: Top image is Frida Kahlo, June 15, 1919, by her father, Guillermo Kahlo [cropped] via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom image is Diego Rivera with a Xoloitzcuintle dog in the Blue House, Coyoacán via Wikimedia Commons.