Collecting Vintage Perfume: An Interview with Barbara Herman of Yesterday's Perfume


27th July, 2012

Have you ever been tempted to buy a vintage perfume on-line? After a few disappointments, Lila Das Gupta turned to expert Barbara Herman of the blog 'Yesterday's Perfume' for advice.

Barbara Herman is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, LA, who has been collecting vintage perfume since she began her blog in 2008. In that time, she has amassed hundreds of classic fragrances, obscure gems, and vintage perfume ads. She is currently working on her book 'Scent and Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume' which will be published by Lyons Press in 2013.

How did you come to collect vintage perfumes?

I read Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s book Perfumes: The Guide and found their descriptions of discontinued, reformulated, and vintage perfumes intriguing. My first purchase was Bandit (Piguet), followed by Diorella (Dior). From there, I was hooked. Vintage perfume is qualitatively different from contemporary perfume. Not all of it is better, of course, but when it’s good, it’s stunning.

What do you define as vintage?

 

Anything at least 20 years old.

What are the best places to find vintage perfume?

 

I wish I had a lot of time to go to estate sales and flea markets, because that’s where you can get things a little cheaper. But I get most of my vintage on eBay if I can afford the full bottles. Otherwise, I go to sites that sell decants, like The Perfumed Court, Surrender to Chance, or the Miniature Perfume Shoppe for minis. I also swap with my perfume friends (readers and other perfume bloggers), who I’m lucky enough to have to send me things. (Perfume lovers tend to be a generous group, who really, really want you to have the full perfume experience! I love that.)

Have you ever found anything particularly thrilling or valuable?

 

Really, any time I encounter a vintage perfume I’m thrilled, and they’re all valuable to me! It’s like meeting a new person, reading a new book, or trying a new dish. Exciting. More, more, more seems to be my relationship to all perfume, not just vintage.

But a few finds stand out. Finding a $2 sealed mini Le Numéro Cinq by Molyneux was exciting, in part because I found it poking around a store in Berkeley, CA that sold vintage paper products, so it was unexpected. It was also fun to research its back-story and discover all kinds of lore about it, for example, that it was “the other No. 5 perfume.” And it’s gorgeous. It was also great to find a $3 bottle of the otherwise difficult to find Blue Carnation by Roger & Gallet at an outdoor flea market.

Early in my collecting, Baghari by Robert Piguet blew my mind, because it was the first vintage I smelled that had an incredible erotic “roundness” and warmth to it that I’d never encountered in contemporary perfume. I wanted to eat my wrist the first time I sniffed it. Smelling Baghari (and then later, a vintage Chanel extrait a reader sent me) is what convinced me that animal notes in perfumes made a huge difference in the scent’s effect — what I often describe as its “erotic undertow.” It’s an uncanny, disquieting feeling, and I love it. I’m glad that animals are not killed/abused anymore for perfume ingredients, but it’s inescapable to conclude that an intense dimension of perfume that used to be there is now gone. Synthetic animalic notes aren’t the same.

Are there any golden rules about collecting vintage?

Start off small, with a decant or mini of iconic vintage perfumes, or an oldie you remember from your past that you’d like to smell again. If you’re ready to invest in a full bottle, educate yourself. The Internet is your friend. Look at old ads and find out what the bottles looked like in their various incarnations, from first release to later ones. (Perfume bottles are often part of the perfume ad.)

For example, even though I’ve generally had a good experience with eBay, it drives me crazy to see reformulated Vent Vert by Pierre Balmain passed off there as vintage. A cursory look at the old bottles would show you that vintage Vent Vert shouldn’t have an opaque plastic “wind” cap or the name in cursive, as the reformulated Vent Vert does. Vintage Vent Vert and the reformulation are two completely different perfumes. One is a field of bitter, peppery greens with a radiant rose heart in “Surround Sound,” and the other, a thin, tinny tune coming out of a half-broken speaker. Sorry, no comparison.

Sometimes the color of the juice will tell you its age, too. For example, vintage Chanel No. 19 is not green, as it is now. And if you’re going to buy an investment perfume from eBay, make sure you know what the vintage is supposed to smell like (maybe through a decant first) and make sure that the seller has as good reputation and will accept returns. I’ve heard of unscrupulous sellers putting regular perfume into old bottles and passing it off as vintage. If you have an idea of what the vintage is supposed to smell like and what you get isn’t even close, return it. You can’t, however, return perfume that smells “off,” so I often ask sellers, “Does this still smell good?” and see if I can get a reasonable answer. Eyeballing the juice is also one way of figuring out if the perfume was stored properly, but that means knowing what it looked like fresh. If the juice looks dark brown, and it was originally light colored, it’s obviously off.

At the end of the day, collecting vintage is a bit of a crapshoot, so the risk has to be worth it to you. You can also swap with other collectors, on Makeup Alley, Fragrantica, and of course, Basenotes. I’ve never done that, but I do with my readers, other perfume bloggers, and Twitter/Facebook perfume friends.

 

What sort of prices can you expect to pay? Tell us the range

 

If the perfume is rare or in demand, eBay prices can be absurd. For example, right now, there’s a 2 oz. bottle of Bandit extrait for $900. A 1 per center could pay that; the rest of us 99 per centers are going to have to settle for a small decant or some of the vintage minis that pop up from time to time. Otherwise, it seems that for in-demand vintages that are not scarce, anywhere from $20 - $100. Sometimes, auctions on eBay happen at odd hours, or for whatever reason, no one’s looking for your perfume at the moment, so you just have to be persistent. There are still deals to be had. It's at yard sales and flea markets that you tend to hear about people paying $10 for a vintage Mitsouko. That's just not going to happen on eBay!

The longer I collect vintage perfume, the more I realize that once you have a few of the classic, iconic vintages under your belt, the real exploration begins with obscurer scents, which you can often find for relatively cheap prices on eBay. For example, figure out which perfume category you like the best, get the Haarmann & Reimer perfume guide, which lists perfume pyramids and organizes perfume into its fragrance category (Floral, Green, Chypre, Oriental, etc.), and start collecting some obscure perfumes in that category. I’ve found some incredible vintage perfumes that way, particularly in the Green and Chypre Animalic category (both of which are my favorite styles). For example, I’ve stumbled onto fantastic obscure 1930s leather perfumes few people know about for $15 or less on eBay. You can read about my discoveries in my book coming out next fall! But I’ve also written about a lot of my finds on my blog, too.

Anything that constitutes great value?

 

If you’re starting your collection and want to dive right in, Lanvin classics like My Sin and Arpège tend to be inexpensive on eBay, and they give you a solid idea of how sexy vintage florals can be. (I’m convinced My Sin is an aphrodisiac.) To get a sense of the quality of drugstore brands (and to dip into vintage perfumes with animal notes) try Tabu by Dana, Intimate by Revlon, or Primitif by Max Factor. 1970s fragrances like Aliage by Estee Lauder and Enjoli by Charles of the Ritz tend to be easy to find and inexpensive, and smell wonderfully fresh and modern.

Some people have had disappointing purchases when perfume hasn't been stored correctly... Right. That’s the biggest risk in buying vintage, aside from it being a fake! If a perfume is exposed to heat, sunlight, or too much air, it will go bad. Sometimes a vintage perfume spray rather than a stopper bottle or cap is the way to go then, or a perfume that is in its box and/or still sealed. If you luck out and it smells good, store it in the fridge if you can, or at least away from heat and light. I have a 1930s My Sin by Lanvin I got still in its box that smelled heavenly, seemingly without a note out of place, so it really does all depend on how it was stored.

Do you buy modern perfumes as well - or do you always look to the past?

Because I’m writing a book about vintage perfume, I devote less time these days to modern perfumes, but I’m a huge fan of contemporary perfume. Sometimes I write perfume descriptions for Lucky Scent, so I’ll get a peek at what’s out there. And I was able to go hog-wild on a recent smellathon trip to NYC. I’m always curious to know what Serge Lutens is doing; I’m researching Olivia Giacobetti’s work for a chapter I’m working on about the future of perfume; and I’m currently obsessed with Christopher Brosius’s scents for CB I Hate Perfume. There are many, many others. So I definitely have my eye (or nose) on the future, too. My day-to-day scents range from the ordinary to the exotic. I don’t have a signature scent. I rotate Gucci Rush, Tom Ford Black Orchid, Boadicea the Victorious Exotic, CB I Hate Perfume Musk Reinvention, Andrée Putman’s Préparation Parfumée (an Olivia Giacobetti creation), and sometimes one of Jean-Claude Ellena’s lovely Bulgari or Hermès scents. It could be anything, really! A Twitter friend once said the term “perfumista” should be replaced with “’fume ho” (as in "whore"). That would be more apt in my case!

Which are the most popular houses?

I’d say the holy grail vintage perfumes are Guerlain and Chanel of course, and Caron, Lanvin, and other big names. For the rest, it’s a “lost” scent that reminds them of someone or some time that they’re chasing. For example, I was very happy to find Calvin Klein’s first perfume and Madeleine Mono perfume. Few would call these known masterpieces, but they both smell like my past .

What is your forthcoming book Scent and Subversion all about?

 

Scent and Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume (Lyons Press, 2013) will look at the way that modern perfume can be seen as a commentary on society as well as a pleasant-smelling accessory. We buy perfume because it smells good, but throughout the 20th century, what that means has changed and has often reflected (or subverted) whatever the prevailing values were. By looking at vintage perfume and vintage perfume ads from decade to decade, I want to analyze perfume’s response to culture.

For example, it’s interesting that in the 1920s, when women had little power in the public sphere, many of the perfumes marketed to them smelled complex, tough, and erotic. But in the so-called post-feminist, pornified era, many mainstream perfumes for women were one-dimensional candy-fruit bombs with no complexity or erotic dimension to them at all. It’s a little ironic.

I deliberately start with Guerlain’s Jicky (1889) and end with Demeter’s Laundromat (2000) because I’m also interested in why modern perfumery started on such an embodied, stinky note (Jicky is famous for its overdose of civet, the cream from the Civet animal’s anal gland) and ended with such clean scents, Laundromat being hyperbolically representative of clean!

Scent and Subversion will also include chapters on the history of perfume and the perfumers who created the masterpieces; a guide to understanding the language of perfume notes (ingredients); descriptions of over 300 vintage perfumes spanning the 20th century; a look at the online subculture of perfumistas, a largely feminine and queer space, which is itself subversive; and the last chapter will look forward by featuring interviews with contemporary perfumers I consider visionary. And last but not least, it will also be lavishly illustrated with over 100 vintage perfume ads I’ve collected over the years.

What are your personal favorite vintage perfumes?

Oh, Lord. I know I’m going to leave something out: Bandit by Robert Piguet, Diorella by Dior, Baghari by Robert Piguet, Chanel No. 19, Fille d’Eve by Nina Ricci, Rumeur by Lanvin, Vent Vert by Pierre Balmain, Jungle Gardenia by Tuvaché, Djedi by Guerlain, 1970s-era Femme by Rochas (cumin-leaden!), Sikkim by Lancome, Fete de Molyneux, Aliage by Estee Lauder, and Miss Balmain by Pierre Balmain. That’s off the top of my head!

Why was perfume/ different/ better/ worse then?

I don’t generally lament that "things aren’t what they used to be,” but if you love perfume, it helps to know what came before, and some things about vintage perfumes were better. For example,

1) There was a wider sense of what women could wear, including accords we consider masculine today.

2) Oakmoss and other crucial perfume ingredients were not banned or overregulated. (Respected perfume writers Octavian Coifan and Luca Turin have publically declared that there will not be any real Chypres made after 2010 because of IFRA’s limit on how much oakmoss can be in perfume. An entire fragrance classification — gone!)

3) There were quality inexpensive/drug store brands. I just can’t think of anything right now I could buy at the drug store and appreciate. It's all so synthetic!

4) Scents in the past seemed to have more roundness and depth — in general — than today, perhaps from animal notes and certain musks that are no longer considered safe.

5) Complex scents with difficult notes were mainstream. For example, the civet dose in Jicky or bitter galbanum in perfumes like Scherrer, Bandit, and Vent Vert. Now, it’s largely niche perfumers who are creating challenging perfumes.

 

Have you ever smelt anything that you would rather had stayed 'lost'?

 

I can’t think of any by name, but sickly sweet perfumes with lilac and hyacinth as predominant notes are a turn off.

You can read more from Barbara's on her blog at: YesterdaysPerfume.com and her Twitter account is @Parfumaniac

 

'Scent and Subversion: A Century of Provocative Perfume', Lyons Press 2013

"Barbara Herman trains her eye (and nose) on 20th century perfume as a medium that reflects on — and often rebels against — conventional attitudes about gender, sexuality, and the body."

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About the author: Lila Das Gupta

Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist with an interest in all things olfactory. Lila also organises the Perfume Lover's London meet-up group.

Website: http://www.meetup.com/Perfume-Lovers-London/

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Comments

    • Reminiscent | 27th July 2012 10:17

      Interesting interview, thank you for posting it. I agree that minis are a great source of valuable vintage perfumes. Miniature collectors are more interested in the bottle and the box and do not care that much about the content so most miniatures on the market are full and have not been damaged by sun light. Getting a few minis of a sought after perfume can actually turn out to be much more affordable than getting a full bottle.

    • CAM1956 | 27th July 2012 11:52

      Oh my goodness, Tabu by Dana - such a long time since I've seen this mentioned; a dear friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, used this when we were in our late teens/early twenties - she nicknamed it 'instant brothel'!!

    • Possumbility | 27th July 2012 14:49

      I can't wait for this book. Thanks for such a great interview.

    • furrypine | 27th July 2012 16:38

      Thanks for a great interview. Yesterday's Perfume is so interesting to read, I hope she gets back to updating it more regularly when the book is published.

    • Michelle_H | 27th July 2012 20:48

      What a great interview, and I am looking forward to reading this book!

    • Alityke | 28th July 2012 17:40

      Oh how I lurve civet and real chypres. I'm all agog waiting or this book

    • jujy54 | 30th July 2012 05:47

      So agree that "roundness" seems past recapturing. Ms Herman is a formidable enabler for us vintage fumeheads.

    • kuanyin4 | 19th August 2012 16:57

      I agree with everything wholeheartedly with one big exception. A dark vintage is not necessarily "off", if by off you mean turned. It will be different than the original, of course and you can fully expect that the top notes are gone never to return. Being a lover of what looks like the Coca Cola syrup of old drugstore days, I actually feel sad to read that! Many people prefer the dark syrup of vintage Shalimar and others that started off light.

      Another format for vintage perfumes that are as close to original as you will find today: nips. These have almost always been stored in cardboard tubes or boxes, hence away from light. They are completely encapsulated in their plasticene container with only a speck of air, if that. So heat would be the only possible damaging element and that seems less likely as these are so small and easily stored in a drawer or closet. I have had the pleasure of a Schiaparelli Shocking nip, which is delightful and they are not hard to find. Although I would choose the dark goo of most vintage bottles of this scent any day. It took fully two nips to get enough scent to test it and even then it was light. I adored it, but when I got a bottle and it was more concentrated - I was over the moon!

    • Guest 3 | 6th November 2012 20:36

      Looking forward to the book! :)