'Dating' Perfumes : The allure of vintage scents

21st March, 2016

Scrolling through social media, it's hard not to notice hundreds of foodie photos, some with half-eaten dessert crumbs or a shot of someone's now warm but elegant foufou dinner, but for me, I'd rather tuck into a good cooking show. Wait! Did I just say cooking show?

I'm hooked on watching Giles Coren, The Million Dollar Critic sitting in a restaurant, one-beady, bushy-eyebrow cocked, staring down the camera lens exclaiming that he must order the least-likely thing on the menu with pompous glee. Then there's CNN's Anthony Bourdain of Parts Unknown. Watching him calmly saunter through war-torn countries or dine in three-star Michelin restaurants, he is the glut foodie king. I love to watch him slowly appraise and sniff each morsel as if a jewel was set before him; holding the plate to his nose first, understanding each and every ingredient, how it was made and how it pairs with other food groups and libations for me is curiously mesmerizing.

The Great British Bake Off

Then there's the Great British Bake Off where ordinary British home bakers seem to create the extraordinary that would befit the Palace de Versailles in a riper time. Their culinary knowledge stretches, like their dough, to the touch of the sciences and ingredients that can complement or clash producing Downton Abbey desserts fit for royals.

Flipping over stations and subjects, I'm also addicted to the very funny Jerry Seinfelds' Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee. The segment intros curiously start with the camera panning some incredibly hot automobiles; vintage, modern, international but the information Seinfeld authoritatively declares are fascinating nuggets of history about each car down to the minutiae. I would love to be his passenger in any one of them.

So it led me to question of what attracted me to these shows in the first place? and it hit me! What all these devotees have in common is the hunger for experience and to absorb and impart knowledge from every angle, from very era and how it has evolved over time. Whatever their topic, they are masters or are mastering and curating as connoisseurs.

Collecting, experiencing, speaking and writing about subjects by passionate people is always alluring to those who share the same passion but as new things hit the market, and the trends become more short-term, many are now focussing on just one new hot trendy element to the exclusion of everything else. Included in this lends some tend to “date” fragrances as if they were too passé to even acknowledge.

But if you take another luxe category, such as a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk, would one call it dated? In this day and age, it is very desirable indeed according to an article on AOL where recently a 1915 steamer trunk was appraised for $6,000 and can reach up to $39,000+ based on the quality and artisanship. If something is well made, has pure aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship, it can only appreciate with time.

The fashion industry, certainly a cousin and sister-in-arms to the fragrance industry is very reliant on past designs that influence today's latest trends. Says Dale Peers, Professor and Costume Coordinator of Seneca College Fashion Resource Center in Toronto, Canada of the importance of history in her field "Everything old is new again. There are classic styles that are repeated because they are flattering to the female (and male) form. But, seldom do we replicate or duplicate the past." The legacy of fashion techniques is forever present. Says Peers: "Fashion designers take inspiration from the past, filter it through the present to design the new and future styles. We also know that studying our history helps us to avoid the pitfalls of the past." She says of her students, "If you look at many of the trend forecasting sites they almost all have a category or will identify a trend that has historical origin."

Noted Creative Director and Global Fashion Designer, Lucian Matis, whose outfits were worn by the Canadian Prime Minister' wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau on their big trip to Washington recently, has drawn inspiration from many established designers and houses of the past. One of his biggest influences is the House of Prada, established in Milan in 1913. Says Matis on the impact of his learning curve, "I've always been by inspired Prada. Miuccia is able to take old sewing techniques that are the basis of well-constructed garments, and combine them with trendy and fashion-forward silhouettes that have obviously been very well received by the consumer base. I do believe that in order to create a future one must understand the past."

Owning a piece of history will never go out of style. Would one identify a vintage Chanel suit as "dated"? Now more than ever, fashion lovers devour anything vintage to incorporate into modern wardrobes be it an outfit, accessory and fragrance. Would a mint Chanel suit circa 1950 or Hubert de Givenchy little black dress in mint condition garner that catch-phrase too?

Also under the artistic umbrella is the music industry. I recently noticed tribute postings to the late David Bowie, where many young people had no idea who he was, but the hits on Vevo claimed his new video garnered 51 million views on the announcement of his death. It would be nice to think some younger types who were curious revisited his works? I had to ask my nephew, Myles Bendeth who is a Drums and Bass Music Producer/Writer/DJ and who also works at a music store, "Do younger music lovers do their homework on the classic greats?" His reply was refreshing, " I found the younger generation who are music buffs have an open mind. Some even wear Pink Floyd shirts when they come the store”. I wanted to know how deep his passion goes and his reply gave me hope. "For me, I watched documentaries on Jungle music to learn where it's from? read books, researched on Youtube and listened to all the music since it's inception. I have to know this stuff! There's production techniques that I just wouldn't know if you did this blindly".

Hopefully, many will still yearn to learn as much as they can about the roots of their passions but as trends shift and change making what's new, far more important than what has been; this paradigm shift is becoming wider each year. As Millennials become our new dominant market thrust, how much do most actually know about vintage and classical perfumes? I frequently hear the term "smells like my Grandma" but what exactly did Nana wear? and which special ingredients went into that bottle to make it the way it did?

With the ever-changing markets and trends that are hot for only a blip in time, with each short-term launch, what will constitute a vintage or classic fragrance in the future? Some reformulated classic fragrances are still available on perfumery shelves. Taking the time to smell the original formulation against the new can be a lot of fun and sometimes challenging. This is how we train our noses for the small changes and tweaks that occur with these reformulations.

It's those hard-to-find vintage scents that make it a good treasure hunt not only for investment purposes but also for the aesthete/connoisseur too.

Many current fragrance industry honchos are still inspired by vintage and classical perfumes and some, even wear them with great passion.

Anais Anais

Prolific fragrance collector, perfume journalist and owner of boisdejasmin, Victoria Frolova views the collection or smelling of historic fragrances this way: "I think it's important to smell them. They inspired and continue to inspire new launches, and they're a part of history. You can't understand contemporary perfumery without referencing classics, but above all, many offer such beautiful experiences." Frolova opines the launch of “Anais Anais in 1978 as a great example as one of many that were fast and innovative in its' time and where there were no regulations or restrictions on certain notes as there is today.” Which is very en pointe. The different classifications in the mid to latter twentieth century offered up multiple and even new classifications, all derived from the genus of the originals.

Michael Edwards

Learning the history of perfumes from classifications are also paramount for current perfumers and perfume lovers today. Fragrance Author/Expert's Michael Edwardsclassifications take the perfume lover through thousands of perfumes and their ancestral links and accords. Edwards, is also an authority and aesthete of the finer vintage and classic scents sees it this way “the scents of the first half of the 20th century smell so different, almost heavy when compared to today’s fresh, fruity florals or gourmand orientals. They are different, quite different because they were created as statement perfumes for a small, highly sophisticated audience.”

Here’s the key: wear them differently, lightly. Treat them not as signatures to bedazzle the world, but as personal treasures. Above all, enjoy the experience
As one who categorizes literally thousands of fragrances, past and present, he is a great advocate of sniffing the greats. He says with great passion: “Why bother? Because if you don’t, you’ll never smell scent-heaven. Here’s the key: wear them differently, lightly. Treat them not as signatures to bedazzle the world, but as personal treasures. Above all, enjoy the experience.” He also believes in smelling the originals to the reformulated versions today. Says Edwards “Classic fragrance reorchestrated are the other side of the coin: Mitsouko, Shalimar, Must de Cartier and Joy by Jean Patou, Bandit (1944) and Robert Piguet’s Fracas (1948) despite their reformulations to meet modern standards, smell marvellous. Others, such as Worth’s Je Reviens sadly, have faded. Vintage or classic, you’ll miss so much pleasure if you pass them by.”


Other fragrance industry heavyweights agree.

Aldehyde 44 by Le Labo
Senior Perfumer, Yann Vasnier of Givaudan (Aleksandr, Arquiste, Bang Marc Jacobs, Costa Azzura, Tom Ford, Panache, DelRae) says: "I've been attracted pretty quickly to vintage and classical fragrances, starting with the Chanels and Carons from the 1920s, wearing, as a teenager, Cuir de Russie, Bois des iles and Tabac blond." He discovered these at the Osmothèque in Versailles before, during, and after his ISIPCA training. He goes on to say "What's most important about keeping the legacy of these classics is a reference to culture and knowledge. When these fragrances established themselves during periods of history, they reflected how people were feeling, trends of the day and historical events.” It's certainly a positive shift that more and more people are interested in the history of fragrances, the ingredients, the craft, and the perfumers." His historical ode to the classic aldehyde in Chanel No 22 is his Le Labo Aldehyde 44 which keeps the tradition alive.

Senior Perfumer, Bruno Jovanovic of IFF (Boss The Scent, Cheeky Alice, Vivienne Westwood, Dries van Noten for Frederic Malle) also believes knowing the history can give a precious hindsight into the creative process behind a contemporary fragrance. Says Jovanic, "A perfumer should absolutely know about the history of his/her craft. It’s like a painter who wouldn’t know about Impressionism, Soleil Levant”. To me, its an aberration." He references to the classic Guerlain and Coty catalogues as an example. “I am constantly looking at them for inspiration, always trying to modernize some gorgeous accords that were created in perfumery’s glorious past. If you want to create the future, you have to be aware of the past."

Ruth Sutcliffe, former Fragrance Designer for Coty and Clairol and now President of Scent Guru also agrees that all who are truly passionate about fragrances, should be open to all kinds of fragrances and have at least, some working knowledge be it smelling or knowing a bit about the classics that have come before. Her philosophy equates to our DNA "Think of it this way: There is an inherent need to know where each of us as human beings come from. What is our lineage? Who are wme related to? The same goes for perfume. Where does this new wonderful scent inherit their characteristic from? What perfume was the innovator that began the trend?".

She claims vintage fragrances as her inspiration for creating many modern scents says Sutcliffe: "My preferences are for Mitsouko, Chanel No. 19, Chant d’Aromes, Chamade, and of course, Eau Imperiale. I drew quite a bit of inspiration from some of these classics for Celine Dion (Always Belong was loosely inspired by Chanel No. 19, and Signature from Chamade). I have also loved Fahrenheit, so notes of violet were used in Nautica Voyage."

When it comes to fragrances, there are a few differences. For starters, there are classic scents, brands that can still be found on perfume counters that have early roots such as Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps, Dior's Diorissimo, YSL's Opium, Guerlain's Shalimar, Lauder's Aramis, and Lanvin's Arpège for example. Bearing in mind, most of these have had to be reformulated either due to the extinction of many farmers and manufacturers of a particular note or due to IFRA (International Fragrance Association) bans where certain ingredients are now replaced with alternative notes or a synthetic version of the same.

Then there are hard-core vintage, those established Houses and Designers of yesteryear and conversely obscure perfume names that would suit the die-hard perfume conquistador. These might include: Indiscret by Lucien Lelong, the original Chypre de Coty, La Rose de la Rosine (1912) or Cocktail Dry by Jean Patou (1930) as examples. To smell the earliest perfumes that are coveted today, if visiting France, one must include a visit to the Osmotheque Fragrance Museum in Versailles. Check out their incredible list of vintage perfumes here: Other great museums worth checking out are The International Perfume Museum in Grasse, In Andorra Spain, The Perfume Museum or check out Venera’s Perfumery blog for a list.

There still remains, if one looks hard enough on dusty perfume counters and online websites, a literal treasure trove waiting to be sniffed, and experienced but one must be stalwart and always open. There will be imperfections over time including oxidation due a long shelf life and possible muddiness in colour due to sunlight or particular degradation of oils making some stickier than others but don’t let that turn you off. There are still still rare stunners out there and if patience is on your side; some dry-downs can still possess a beautiful base and heart note to lose oneself in.

What differentiates all these categories though, is that unlike fragrances, most are still available to view and admire where the fragrance industry can be compared to the extinction of some flora, fauna, mammal and animal species that will never grace this planet again. Perfumes of the earlier Twentieth Century are vanishing at a quicker pace into the ether and over the next decade, may cease to exist at all as even today, established houses are losing many classics to be replaced with new scents that have no correlation to the style of the house or brand.

The hunt can be exhilarating and exhausting. Some are literally now cost-prohibitive as seen on eBay. As time progresses, we have seen some elevated prices but one doesn't have to purchase a vintage or classic scent to be wiser. Should you come into the possession of a sample or bottle and sniffing a perfume, by writing your your impressions in a diary will keep not only the names alive but your perfume acumen immense. Find like-minded people in chat groups or in person or create your own groups for one-on-one experiences.

There are many places to meet like-minded devotees to share impressions, samples, histories and stories. Basenotes.net has some wonderful vintage and classic collectors who are more than happy to exchange ideas, thoughts and maybe some samples in exchange for your finds. On Facebook, there is also https://www.facebook.com/groups/jadorelesparfum/ and many bloggers who specialize in vintage fragrances.

You also may want to check out those old pharmacies/chemist shops; you know, the ones with the dusty shelves or old-world Duty-Free stores off the beaten track. Other places can include flea markets; antique shops; older perfumeries and traditional menswear establishments. Also check out estate sales, garage and car boot sales. There are gems left to explore if you dig deep enough.

There are many online sites that still sell vintage minis, or small decants such as: Ruby Lane, MyScent (etsy) , Vintage Perfume (eBay) and other small groups who dedicate much time to the art.

Ask older family members what they wore and what their memories were. This opens up a dialogue of beautiful stories untold. They also might have a bit left on a handkerchief or in a bottle for memory’s sake.

Finding classic perfumes can be a little easier in mainstream perfumeries and the key is to not dismiss them easily or date them. Michael Edwards' outstanding book "Perfume Legends" is the quintessential read for anyone interested in the roots of classic perfumes and the people behind them. His classifications are the DNA from which all modern perfumes are born, niche included.

If a perfume is blended with quality materials, through artisanship that is unique and different, regardless of its pungency or accords, it can erase time and make one unique. Be it a learning curve or something you would wear amongst your other fragrances; the history of perfume is transcendent where time stands still for as long as the sillage can jolt the heart. Throw out the phrase "Smells like my Grandma" and instead, ask her what she wore and why –and did she keep any back for you to smell?

Your knowledge can also be your future legacy for generations to come. Your passion will keep these names and impressions alive.

Instead of "dating" vintage and classic scents in a negative way, we need to encourage those naysayers to literally "date" or try on a classic. When a scent is well blended, regardless of launch date or name, and is made with quality oils and masterful ingenuity, it is timeless.


If you're interested in Vintage Perfumes you may wish to check out our new Vintage Perfumes Forum

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About the author: Marian Bendeth

Marian Bendeth is a Global Fragrance Expert based out of Toronto, Canada. Marian has won six fragrance industry editorial awards for her writing. You can find out more on her website marianbendeth.com

Website: http://www.marianbendeth.com/


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      • donna255 | 22nd March 2016 11:00

        Thank you wonderful article.

        I once managed to get a copy of Michael Edwards Perfume Legends from the local library. Gorgeous photos and very interesting read.

        As a teenager in the 70s, I remember buying Rochas Femme, Dioressence. I had no idea or even heard the word chypre. I just loved them. Sadly today's version of Femme is nothing like the one I bought. I did manage to buy very cheaply a few years back on Ebay the pdt which is the one I do remember.

        Unfortunately what I see today is teens and twenty somethings rushing to buy the celeb fragrances, just because of whoever's name is on the bottle. I read recently someone complaining about a co worker saying her Katy Perry was too strong. Others commented how would she have managed the 90s powerhouses such as Obsession and Poison. It then turned out the woman wore Angel!!! So it was the overly sweet synthetic celeb fragrance she did not like(good for her), not actual someone wearing perfume.

      • rum | 22nd March 2016 11:10

        What a fitting article to co-incide with the Basenotes Vintage Perfume discussion forum!

        I recall seeing Michael Edwards at a recent Exsense lecture talking about Oud and the West's love affair with it. Loved his way of talking very much and have since been reading more and more of his stuff.

      • hednic | 22nd March 2016 14:36

        What an interesting read!

      • Carolyn M | 22nd March 2016 16:31

        Wonderful article thank you, Marian. I have the Michael Edwards 'Perfume Legends' book to which you refer - a beautiful thing to own!

      • Sillage6 (article author) | 23rd March 2016 03:39

        Thank you for your comments!

        I truly hope more and more people become more interested in learning the history of fragrance. I hope your new group will educate newcomers and all of you experience some treasures you've never smelled before too!

        Marian Bendeth

      • kumquat | 1st April 2016 16:13

        A well-considered article. Classic scents are works of art for us to appreciate and study. I'm always amazed at how many people seem to have a cursory interest in Chypres but when it comes to the real thing, they balk. Most of the scents created today that are given the name "chypre" don't come close. I find it strange that there is apparently interest in the genre and yet the actual implementation is so far off. The real genre is beautiful and should be preserved, IMO. I hope articles like this will educate folks about the terminology that is preferable and accurate.

      • Foustie | 8th April 2016 00:26

        What a beautiful and informative piece. Thank you.

      • badpuddytat | 16th April 2016 23:06

        I love this article, though it makes me mourn all the classic scents I will never smell once or never smell again.

      • PerAxel | 14th May 2017 20:47

        I would very much recommend that if you like a classic fragrance BUY IT NOW. The article listed many classics. The EU has come out with so many regulations about scents. Oakmoss which is in many many scents can no longer be used as some people are allergic to it. The list of banned products is extensive. These classical fragrances just can not be reformulated today so they smell like the classic. You can not use the scents anymore. They smell different. Frequently as nice, but not original. So I would recommend buy them now.