Buying vintage perfume is a great way to think green, because there’s a lot of existing stock out there looking for good homes. But noble intentions aside, the real reason so many fumeheads chase old juice is that formulations change over the years. Your great-granny’s Mitsouko isn’t today’s blend – which isn’t to say one’s better than the other; I leave that to the critics and personal preferences. But if you yearn to know how a perfume’s creators meant it to smell back at the dawn of its creation, you may find yourself hunting in the back of cupboards and online.
There are a couple of reasons why recipes change, one being the regulations on allergens imposed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). Manufacturers have been forced to find replacements for the traditional ingredients that gave blends their distinctive edges (for more information visit www.ifra.org).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Sarah McCartney, the perfumer behind 4160 Tuesdays (www.4160tuesdays.com). “Many perfumes were discontinued because the ingredients were so dangerous. Before the 1970s you could put anything in perfume. Regulations are there for a reason. I’m wary for those who buy really old perfume and wear it on their skin. There’s a certain bravado about flouting regulations, but they are there for a reason.
“Remember, perfume used to be made for your clothes and not for your skin. When I want to wear my 1930s treasures, I use a scented handkerchief and I have Les Parfumables, ceramic discs made in Limoges which you can use to release the scent in a rounded way: they have been made to hold and release the complete fragrance for weeks, and are safe” [nb both are sold on her website in the accessories department].
McCartney, who also sells decants from her collection of vintage scents, reminds me that perfumes are tweaked to keep apace of fashion trends (for more on this, try Barbara Herman’s book, cited below). “The biggest changes to recipes happened leading up to the sweeping regulations in 2000; before that, many of them smelled the same over the years. So don’t pay bucketloads for a 1950s bottle of something if you can get one that’s cheaper from the 1990s.”
Since 2000, she says, “the deep, fruity, floral scents of the 1980s and 1990s have gone, or have a feeling of being less significant, shallower. Many of those scents smelled that way because of natural rose and jasmine, and some beautiful synthetics – the damascones – that smelled like thick, soft, velvety roses. All these materials are severely restricted now.”
In other cases a perfume’s formula changed when its owner was bought. “For example, Houbigant sold some of its brands to Dana, and Chantilly was never the same. I adore Chantilly, but only the 1950s and 1960s versions – but there’s no way I’m putting that stuff on my body. Handkerchief and gloves? Perfect.”
Paris-based Denyse Beaulieu, author of The Perfume Lover and the Grain de Musc blog (graindemusc.blogspot.com), says: “There are two different approaches to buying vintage. A bottle collector will want to have a sealed presentation and will not touch it. But for those of us who want to experience perfume, presentation is not an issue. It’s worth remembering that in the past, perfume bottles had two types of presentation, a fancy bottle and then a plainer rectangular glass bottle with just a label. That’s what you should be looking for, if it’s a perfume that interests you, because if you’re bidding at an auction or online it will be less costly, because you won’t have the bottle collectors after it. They are our arch nemeses, willing to pay a premium price for a fancy presentation.”
What else should you look for? “The optimum case is when there is a box, because it means perfume has some chance of having been protected from light, its biggest enemy. Ideally it should be sealed as well, although it’s completely normal that even a sealed bottle will have a certain amount of evaporation, that can’t be helped. Sometimes you’ll take a chance and buy a box that’s still got its cellophane on, and when you open it, although you know it’s never been opened, it still has evaporation – because air finds a way. But at least you know it hasn’t been touched. So with a box and when the bottle itself is sealed, that’s a fair bet.”
It’s ironic that the ideal bottles to chase are the very ones you can’t see or sniff before you buy. What else should you be aware of when buying vintage?
Denyse Beaulieu says:
Tip: For a general ball park of when a perfume came out I Google vintage ads, where the year is indicated, so you’ll know that a particular presentation was linked to a specific time period. Then when you’re hunting online you can look for things closest to the launch date.
Tip: If you’re interested in perfume history, and want to find bargains, try to explore outside the very big names. Guerlain and Chanel, for example, have such high recognition that the pricing will be crazy. Try for brands that are not so big now, such as Houbigant. Take a chance on older things that are more obscure, and avoid cult fragrances all the perfume lovers want to get.
Tip: The top notes may be off but give them a chance to evaporate before you write off your purchase. If it doesn’t get back on its feet and you’re out a lot of money, you could try to sell it back to a bottle collector. A lot of perfumes will have changed. None are impeccable, that is impossible. Even if you have several bottles of a scent you’re crazy about, the bottles may all smell a bit different not only because of age, but because the formulas vary a little bit over the years. And each bottle has had its own history, in terms of exposure to heat, light etc.
Tip: I store most of my vintage perfume in the refrigerator in a sealed box, so the butter doesn’t end up smelling like an accident in a perfume factory. When you pull them out you’ll notice the cool alters the scent a bit. It goes back to normal after a little while.
Tip: Don’t go over the top. You’ll never wear all of it. We all go through that phase of crazily eBaying. If I live to be 95 and don’t buy another bottle ever, I could still be embalmed in perfume.
Tip: In my experience miniatures tend to go off quickly. I’ve never found a mini in a good condition, maybe because they’re often on display, or because they’re not meant to be worn that much so they’re not as well sealed as a normal presentation.
Tip: Beware of display models when you’re shopping online. They will be filled with coloured water or coloured alcohol. Be sure to check for this. If the bottle has been opened, try and ask the vendor to check if it’s actually perfume in there.
Tip: I have found things at antiques markets. Try estate sales, even yard sales and thrift shops. You might find older things that are not the fanciest, but you may get good surprises. In France there are auction sales and fairs devoted to perfume. They’re very focused on bottle collecting, but you can find bottle collectors who are selling their overflow, and things like that.
Sarah McCartney says:
Tip: Swap with friends. Visit your granny and see what’s at the back of her cupboard. If you have a particular old favourite, ask your friends: someone might have a bottle they don’t want.
Tip: Keep your eyes open when you are travelling: you might find an old chemist or perfume shop, with perfume sitting around in the back room. Snoop around boot sales. Hunt out perfume fairs [nb charity shops are not allowed to sell open bottles, but if you volunteer at one …]
Tip: It’s a little like gambling, so know your budget. Ask yourself: what’s it for and what money do I have? But if you want one special thing, by all means, pay for it.
Tip: Look on a perfume website like Basenotes to get an idea of what others think about a fragrance.
Tip: You can make yourself very unhappy looking for a long lost fragrance, or you can enjoy the hunt. I want a bottle of Le Feu D’Issey, but no way am I paying someone £150 for 50ml on eBay. I don’t need it so much that I want to be held to ransom.
Tip: Reading the ingredients is a great clue to the perfume’s age. Some people assume that a scent without a barcode is vintage. Nope. barcodes are relatively modern but not all small companies have them. Older blends have shorter ingredients lists and it’s less common now for colours to be listed on new labels. All perfume companies in the EU (so international ones all do this) must list the allergens. If you see a label that calls the perfume “fragrance” not “parfum”, it’s from before 2000. The world agreed on INCI names for 2000, and on standardised labelling.
Tip: Not everything old is good. Some perfumes were discontinued because they were god-awful.
Tip: If you are a diehard and you have the chance, book one of the public sessions at the Osmotèque (www.osmotheque.fr) in France. I smelled a 1931 Chanel No 5 there. It was much brighter and soapier than the current blend, with more aldehydes. The Osmotèque is the perfume library founded by Jean Kerléo and currently presided over by Patricia de Nicolai.