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On the Scent: A Certain Vintage

By (October 1, 2011) 4 Comments

To the perfume lover, vintage perfumes are a dangerous draw. There is reason to worry that after falling down the vintage rabbit hole, one may never want to return to the above-ground mall.

That’s because they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore – many of the ingredients common in vintage perfumes are no longer in use due to reduced availability, ecological or health concerns, prohibitive costs, changing tastes, or some combination of the above. So if you like what you smell in vintage perfumery – real oakmoss in chypres, natural ambergris and civet, unctuous musks, a high percentage of natural floral absolutes – it may be difficult to accept what’s being manufactured today.

The threat, then, is that you’ll fall head over heels in love with something in very limited availability. Let’s say you’re smitten with a bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum from the ‘50s. Once it’s gone, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find the same vintage again, or that, if you do, it will be in the same condition or remotely affordable.

Hunting down your vintage loves is a lot more complicated than driving to your local Sephora, and you stand to be a lot more disappointed with what you get:

• In terms of condition: Perfumes can keep almost indefinitely if properly stored, out of heat and light and preferably in the original box. But older, open, and unboxed bottles (either pre-owned or testers) run the risk of being ruined, especially in the top notes – and the impression upon first application is often the most memorable part of the perfume.

• In terms of availability and cost: Generally speaking, the longer a perfume has been discontinued or reformulated, the more difficult it becomes to find bottles, and the more expensive extant bottles become. Immediately following (or sometimes preceding) a discontinuation, inexpensive bottles tend to flood the discount markets (online stores as well as big-box discounters like Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx). These disappear, depending on the perfume’s popularity and reputation, rapidly or over the course of years. Eventually, you’ll have to fight for a shot at your long-lost love with other bidders on eBay, unless you should be so lucky as to spot a bottle at a thrift store, flea market, or yard sale.

The flipside, of course, is that living perfumers have materials at their disposal which didn’t exist in the past, including novel synthetic molecules and purified grades of natural materials. If you crave a little Iso E Super or dihydromercenol in your juice, vintage perfumes won’t get you very far. It’s also true that perfume fashion has changed considerably over the decades, and not all perfume lovers will necessarily prefer vintage styles.

A combination of fear and justification has prevented me from exploring vintage perfume until now. But over the past couple of years, I’ve amassed a decent collection of samples from vintage bottles. (For those curious, these were mostly obtained through snail-mail swaps with other perfume writers and bloggers. We’re an acquisitive lot, and giving some of our acquisitions away helps assuage the guilt.) So I thought it was high time I dug in and started sniffing out the differences.

For the purposes of clarity: “Vintage” is a relative term. It may refer to very old perfumes which have been out of production for years, or older formulations of classics that are still in production (nearly always in modified form), or even relatively recent perfumes discontinued in haste. I’ve specified to the best of my ability which definition applies to the below perfumes. Unfortunately, the exact vintage of my samples is unknown. (It would be very helpful if perfumes were labeled like wines; alas, they are not.)

Jean Patou Eau de Joy – Eau de Joy is still sold, I believe, under the name Joy eau de parfum, but this branding dates to the mid-‘50s, so the formula is very likely different now. My bottle (which I bought from an estate sale on Craig’s List) is equal parts sweet, pink rose and the most animalic jasmine I have ever smelled, evoking dirty underwear and animal farms. I used to find the jasmine nearly overwhelming and definitely unpresentable, such that I would never dare to leave the house in it. After leaving the stuff untouched all summer, I’m finally smelling the rose in Joy, and it now strikes me as a gorgeously realistic garden-fresh floral, with the lemony-fruity aspects of rose coming through clear as a bell to balance that heady jasmine. Whatever else is in here (some frosty aldehydes, civet in the base) is merely a supporting player – this is basically a soliflore, if rose and jasmine could couple and have a pretty baby (complete with smutty Brooke Shields reference). It’s as simple as a floral can be while still showcasing the complexity of natural flowers. Joy is a classic for a reason – if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying till you smell that rose.

Gucci L’Arte di Gucci – L’Arte di Gucci, born in 1991, is exactly the kind of perfume I love: a rich, dirty rose, bright red and fruity at first, with booze and honey facets, some minty geranium and a bit of aldehydic fizz for interest, drying down to a musky, patchouli-dark base. In short, there’s nothing wrong with it and there’s no good reason for it to have been discontinued (true of so many of the lost). But, while it’s too bad that this perfume is no longer available, I can’t say there is nothing else like it on the market. Though they all have their own character, similar rose chypres with dark bases include Agent Provocateur, Estee Lauder Knowing, and even Miller Harris Geranium Bourbon – though L’Arte di Gucci is sweeter than any of these. For a rich, honeyed rose (that lasts forever and ever), try Sonoma Scent Studio’s Vintage Rose. For something less dark and mossy but still satisfyingly quirky, there’s Etat Libre d’Orange Rossy de Palma, Tom Ford Noir de Noir, By Kilian Liaisons Dangereuse, or Guerlain Rose Barbare (with which it shares a slightly sour note like Belgian beer – I attribute this to aldehydes). There are also many, many well-received rose perfumes that are still in production and that I’ve yet to try. Do I want some L’Arte di Gucci anyway? Yes, of course I do.

Coty Emeraude – Right away, the pale green juice of this parfum de toilette hits me with a double-whammy of difficult vintage effects: the powdery, anisic Play-Doh accord familiar from Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, and a bitter citrus note. Together they smell very vintage and very perfumey – I was instantly reminded of some miniature bottle of perfume that I stashed in a drawer as a child and smelled from time to time, though I didn’t like the way it smelled. (I’m quite sure it wasn’t Emeraude, but it might have been Shalimar. They were both created in the early 1920s and share a number of materials.) With time, the Play-Doh effect (usually due to a combination of almond-like heliotropin and vanilla or tonka bean) dies down, but it never completely shakes a certain medicinal vibe. The first time I wore Emeraude felt like a chore. On further wears, the top notes remained difficult, but I warmed to the cuddly sweet drydown. Though still in production, the version available in your neighborhood drugstore is universally agreed to be dreck – whereas the genuine article is considered by some to be superior to Shalimar.

Cartier Panthere – The top notes in the parfum de toilette concentration of Panthere, composed by Alberto Morillas and released in 1986, have the powdery, old-fashioned quality of a classic floral oriental in the L’Heure Bleue mold, but Panthere trades out the medicinal bitterness seen in Emeraude and old Geurlains for extra sweetness. It feels like a softer, looser-haired version of Maurice Roucel’s 24 Faubourg for Hermes – there’s plenty of orange blossom, along with some other smooth white florals, but more fruit, spice, and vanilla, so whereas 24 Faubourg is a bit stern at first, Panthere is more of a pushover, like the nanny who lets you eat cake for breakfast. (It also reminds me of another Roucel creation, Roberto Cavalli Oro, but that one’s much spicier and louder, with a neon-orange glow: sort of a disco eggnog.) There’s a touch of tuberose in this, but by no means is it a tuberose-dominant composition, unlike ‘80s powerhouses such as Poison, Carolina Herrera and Giorgio. Nor is it as feral as the name might suggest. Panthere is both pretty and proper, meaning adult women can wear it and smell reminiscent of dessert without feeling like mall tweens. However, all signs indicate that only its flanker (the perfume equivalent of a sequel), Panthere Eau Legere, is still in production, and bottles of Panthere are hard to come by. That said, it wouldn’t be impossible to find a similar scent.

Fendi Theorema – An oriental fragrance with a cult following, composed by Christine Nagel and released in 1998, Theorema is like a cross between the orangey-spicy eggnog accord of Roberto Cavalli Oro and the woodsy-spicy incense of YSL’s (also discontinued) Nu, or, if you prefer, Ormonde Jayne Woman – Nu, Ormonde Woman and Theorema all share an exotic, peppery cardamom top note, while Oro’s spice is more all-American: cinnamon and nutmeg. The base is sandalwood, amber and vetiver, creamy but not too sweet – it retains a bit of edge. (Next to this, Panthere smells a little wimpy.) It’s delicious, but almost impossible to find in full bottle form these days – there are still minis floating around at online discounters (my teensy bottle was about $10). But if you love Theorema, or think you would love it, I urge you to seek out Oro, Nu and/or Ormonde Woman, all very good and still available at reasonable prices. Oro is the cheapest, but admittedly, also the least refined.

Guerlain Vega – Vega is Guerlain’s answer to Chanel No. 5 (coming 15 years later, in 1936), or, more likely, Chanel No. 22 – all three are aldehydic, but Vega more closely resembles No. 22 in its intense, candy-like sweetness. When used in such high concentration, aldehydes have the effect of a soft-focus lens, rendering everything flatteringly fuzzy and blurring the distinctions between notes. In any of these compositions, it’s hard to make out the actual florals; it’s like you’re looking at them through a frosted shower door (a fitting metaphor, since aldehydes also smell like soap). Vega smells very old-fashioned and very feminine, a little bit powdery and a little bit animalic, like all Guerlains from that era. It borrows its orange blossom directly from L’Heure Bleue, and in fact, as it dries down and the aldehydes fade, the vanilla comes front and center and Vega morphs into a straight oriental. While I recognize that it’s a beautiful and classical perfume, I don’t particularly care for it – when aldehydes come paired with this much sugar, they tend to remind me of deodorant. However, if you love Nos. 5 and 22, you owe it to yourself to try this. It is still in production, but many of the Guerlains have been recently and badly reformulated, so look for an older bottle (eBay is your best bet).

Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles – Bal a Versailles, launched in 1962, has a reputation for being a so-called “skankfest” – a perfume with plentiful civet, castoreum, cumin or other animalic materials that render it suggestive if not straight-up NSFW. Accordingly, I was a little worried about this one, but my sample of vintage eau de cologne is on the gentle side of animalic. Rather than musk, sweat, or panties (effects which in fairness may be amplified when sprayed, whereas my sample was dabbed), I smell a rich, oily leather accord, topped up with slightly powdery orange blossom and backed by earthy patchouli, with a chewy, tobacco-like sweetness that calls to mind Liz Zorn’s beautiful Meerschaum. Although it’s billed as “for women” (not that it kept Michael Jackson, and plenty of other men, away), it reads as a masculine to my nose, at least initially – sort of a floral fougère (see Le Troisiemme Homme). However, get enough on you (I spilled about half the vial on my second application) and a big, sweet orange top note comes out to play, femme-ing it up for a short while – but overapplication also accentuates the animalic side of the orange blossom and leather notes, and reveals a slightly urinous element which may be a dose of civet. Coupled with the fruity top, it’s rather a bit much. That’s vintage for you! If you, like me, ever accidentally overapply, not to worry: you can wash most of it off and leave only the delicious drydown, which reminds me of the tail-end of Paco Rabanne Pour Homme: a marvelous leathery musk, sweetened with amber and vanilla. Attention bargain-hunters: this can be had very cheaply through online discounters. Do a web search.

Dior Dioressence – One evening not too long ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had the pleasure of meeting the illustrious Luca Turin, thanks to mutual connections (not the storied six degrees of separation, but only two). I was wearing Gucci Rush, and of course he recognized it from across the table, then asked if I’d ever smelled the original Dioressence, the structure of which was similar to Rush. I’ve wanted to smell it ever since, and recently a fellow perfume fiend sent me a sample of the vintage juice (along with several others included in this column, bless her heart). Unfortunately, I think I got the wrong version. What I smell is a very masculine version of a chypre, leaning toward a fougère, with a quite minty geranium note over a musky, mossy patchouli base. Three things push it into stomach-turning territory for me: a dirty-sweat aspect, a vaguely peachy fruit note, and some aldehydes which smear together and amplify them both. According to Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, the 1969 version was “a big, lactonic affair,” but at some point it became “a green chypre with a good barnyard note.” While I disagree that the barnyard note is good, that must be what I’m smelling. This Dioressence smells like the ‘70s in the way that sketchy old movie theaters smell like the ‘70s, like sleazy cologne and body odors and questionably dark carpets. The drydown is more palatable, but recedes into a sort of boring fougère. This is one I just don’t quite get. I much prefer the weird cloud of Rush, with its hairspray edge and almost buttery richness, belying the classic vanilla and vetiver base – the effect is so odd, and so unlike anything else I’ve smelled, it’s hard to believe they still make it.

Dior Diorella – This eau de cologne, created by perfumer Edmond Roudnitska in 1972, a cologne-cum-chypre-cum-green floral, smells utterly fresh and not nearly as intimidating as some chypres from this era, with their bone-dryness and sharp angles. It’s similar to, but more floral than Roudnitska’s Eau Sauvage, created for men eight years earlier, though both feel easily unisex. Diorella is also slightly foody in a hard-to-place way, probably due to a signature melon note. (Le Parfum de Therese for Frederic Malle contains the same, less successfully, and reminded me of some kind of casserole). Among recent offerings, it reminds me of most of the beautiful opening of Patricia di Nicolai’s Weekend a Deauville: herbal, citrusy, full of hyacinth, very zingy and springy. I’ve heard Diorella described as strange and animalic, but to me it smells fresh, clean, approachable and presentable. It’s becoming a pattern with these vintage scents – either I’m not very suggestible or the past wasn’t quite as scandalous as I’d like to believe. (By the by, all Dior perfumes from this era follow the naming convention of Diorsomethingsomething – see also Diorling, Diorama and Diorissimo. Isn’t that chic!)

Lanvin Scandal – Speaking of scandals: Lanvin Scandal, released in 1933, opens up on an accord I’ve not sure I’ve smelled before, aldehydes and leather. The aldehydes are dry and bracing, as in White Linen or First (as opposed to sweet aldehydic florals like Chanel No. 22 or Vega, above), letting the gently animalic base shine through. The emphasis is on “gently” – as in Bal a Versailles, the leather accord is more suggestive of upholstery or luggage than of a live, heaving animal, human or otherwise. In my sample of vintage extrait, the aldehydes burn off quickly, leaving behind a sexy, masculine leather with the barest hint of florals. It’s fascinating that this passed for a feminine perfume – it smells a little like a mechanic, or at least the inside of a car. But, as leathers go, it’s very elegant. The drydown, in fact, is so elegant as to bore me – it’s dry leather all the way down. I prefer the way Cuir de Lancome slowly melts into golden styrax.

Following my bout of vintage sniffing, I’m pleased to report that all is not lost: I haven’t tumbled irretrievably into the vintage abyss. I may enjoy perfumes created five, ten, or twenty years ago more than the average perfume that comes out today, but those bottles, for the most part, are not impossible to find or unconscionably expensive. Very vintage perfumes, on the other hand – those launched before 1950 – don’t tend to ring my bell, though I expect in time my mind may change.

I’ve also found that, after about two years of frequent testing, almost everything I smell reminds me of something else. So while there’s no replacement for your favorite perfume, no replica of the magical scent your mother or grandmother wore, there is often something similar to be had – even something nearly or equally as good. Further – and I may be more optimistic on this front than the average perfume critic – I have faith that niche and independent perfumers, if not the bigger outfits, will continue to put out perfumes that rival the quality of past greats.

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.