Yesterday's Magazette

5 – Fabulous Fragrances

Fabulous Fragrances

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.

— Vladimir Nabokov


I once described a fictional character as “the kind of woman who, when she walks into a department store, the perfume spritzer lady doesn’t approach her.” That’s pretty much me. They seem to sense that I’m someone who doesn’t anoint herself with fragrance (save bath gel/shampoo). There is one bottle of perfume in my bedroom. I don’t recall buying it; maybe it was a gift. Without going to look, I could not say its name. I enjoy pleasant aromas as much as the next person, but I’d be more inclined to pin a sprig of rosemary to my collar than to dab a scent behind my ears.

Here’s what I know about vintage perfume. In the 1940s, women were thrilled to receive Evening In Paris, perhaps as much for that cobalt blue bottle as the fragrance. Lily of the Valley Toilet Water was popular, but I never understood why anyone would buy a product called toilet water, not even when it’s spelled and pronounced Eau de toilette. I can name a couple of other perfumes from the past: Calvin Klein’s Obsession and Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds. Dior and Coty marketed fragrances and, of course, Avon ladies came calling. In my heyday, I used White Shoulders or Chanel No. 5 (does that ever go out of style?).

Imagine my surprise when I recently learned that vintage perfumes are collectible. Lest I reveal any more ignorance on the subject, I’m going to let collector Aimee Trochio educate us.

MDC: First, Aimee, I learned from one of the sites you sent me that there is a perfume lexicon. Is perfumista the correct term for connoisseurs of vintage perfume, or does that cover someone who enjoys both old and new fragrances?

AT: It’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek term for perfume obsessives, and yes, perfumistas can refer to people interested in both vintage and recent perfumes. It’s a variation of fashionista (those who are fashion obsessed).

MDC: Vintage is a polite term for old. So hasn’t vintage perfume gone stale, lost its potency?

AT: Sometimes it has, but it’s actually a lot like wine. It depends on how it’s been stored. Bright light, heat, and contact with the air will degrade perfumes prematurely, and certain materials (like citrus notes) have a tendency to break down before others. But if a good quality perfume is kept out of sunlight and is sealed well, it can smell great after 50 years or even more.

MDC: Why vintage perfume, instead of current scents?

AT: Well, there are a lot of great recent perfumes that I love, but the quality and concentration of natural materials is often much, much higher in vintage scents than in recent commercial perfumes. The scents are often much edgier and more interesting than the stuff that’s currently produced! Leathers, chypres, big florals, and animalic scents––they have a beauty that challenges you, rather than being eager to please. There’s a common perspective among many perfumistas that the perfume industry is now dominated by the use of synthetic notes created in a lab, which are less complex than natural materials. The trends are celebrity marketing (in which the actual scent doesn’t much matter, because the consumer is buying into the glam factor of the celebrity alone) and fruity florals for the easy-to-market “yum factor” of fruit-compote topnotes

MDC: Where do you find vintage perfumes?

AT: On eBay, at antique shops, estate sales, that sorta thing! The hunt is part of the fun—you never know where you’ll find a treasure that’s been languishing in someone’s closet for 30 years.

MDC: How many fragrances do you have?

AT: I’m almost afraid to count them! I have at least 70 or 80 full bottles, and maybe 30% of those are vintage. The rest are recent commercial, luxury, and niche (meaning they are made by small, independent, quality-driven makers) perfumes.

MDC: So, when you go to dab on a fragrance, do you select a particular one for an occasion, or close your eyes and grab a bottle?

AT: I probably toss on blue jeans rather than think about what to wear more often than I ought to, but I nearly always take a few minutes to deliberately choose which perfume I want that morning. It depends on the season (dense, spicy perfumes would be suffocating, for instance, during the long, hot Texas summers) and the environment I’ll be in (no sultry, animalic florals at work, for example). And it depends on my mood. Sometimes I want an extra layer of luxurious armor before I go out in the world. Sometimes I want a snappy, green, assertive scent for confidence. Sometimes I just want something low-key, pretty, and cooling for a hot day. Of course I have lots of scents that make me feel sexy—luscious florals and musks. I even have a scent that I put on when I want to have a good cry! Perfumes are art to me—they can make you feel things.

MDC: Are there perfumes you’d like but don’t have, in case I see one at a yard sale that I’d like to buy for you?

AT: Oh there’s always the never-ending wish list. At the top of mine are Chanel’s Bois des Iles, Dior’s Diorling, and Rochas’ Jolie Madame.

MDC: Do you also collect the bottles, or the ads? I looked at old ads on the Internet and they’re fascinating. One showed a bra with a little pocket into which a scented sachet could be tucked.

AT: It’s funny, there’s a total disconnect most of the time between perfumistas and ephemera collectors or bottle collectors. Shopping on eBay is fantastic, but you have to compete sometimes with the bottle collectors, who are a very different breed of collector from a perfumista. A perfumista is after the juice and wants it in good condition, but the bottle collectors are after rare bottles—they’re glass collectors, really, not perfume collectors, and they often drive the prices up in the hunt for a rare bottle. Very annoying for a perfumista, who often couldn’t care less about the bottle, except for the extra cherry-on-top enjoyment of dabbing their treasured juice out of an attractive or historically evocative bottle. The bottle/box combination a perfume arrives in is called presentation, and true perfumistas will look for simple presentations rather than fancy ones, because bottle collectors won’t be interested in them. But don’t get me wrong—cool presentations or fabulous old perfume ads can be really fun, too! Some old ads, like Dior’s from the 40s and 50s, for instance, were illustrated beautifully by René Gruau.

MDC: What’s the oldest fragrance you’ve found?

AT: I have a bottle of Lanvin’s Scandal (a fantastic floral leather no longer made) that’s probably from the 40s. The stopper was broken off and sealed, so I had to drill through the bottle to decant the juice. That right there illustrates a perfumista’s level of commitment to the juice and lack of interest in the bottle! I decimated that bottle with my DeWalt drill.

MDC: That conjures a funny image. Kind of a World War II Rosie The Riveter look. And I like the term juice. Do you have a favorite vintage fragrance? Or is that like asking a parent to name her favorite child?

AT: That is a hard one! But probably my favorite for a lot of reasons (including the great condition the scent is in even though it’s about 20 or 30 years old, and the beauty of both the bottle and the juice) is a bottle of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue extrait.

MDC: Do you have any Buyer Beware tips for novices?

AT: Gosh, yes! When buying vintage perfume, the condition is not apparent unless you can smell it beforehand. It’s really important to ask lots of questions and know what you’re getting. Two common heartbreaks, for example: You buy a bottle still sealed in the box, only to discover that the perfume inside has totally evaporated with time (grrr…this has happened to me), or you buy a bottle that looks beautiful and then find out it is a factice, which is a large display bottle filled with colored water, not perfume!

MDC: One last thing–referring to the quote at the top of this article: Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it. Is there a scent from the past that triggers a memory for you? It might be someone’s perfume, but it doesn’t have to be.

AT: Oh absolutely; I think that’s true for most of us. The smell of lilacs will always remind me of visiting my Grandma Sybella’s house in Iowa when I was a kid. The smell of pine tree sap takes me straight back to climbing trees in Wisconsin. The smell of a certain perfume will always remind me of cold winters in Boston in my 20s—that was before I became very interested in perfume, so I wore the same one all the time.

MDC: Thanks, Aimee. I’ll keep my eyes and nose open for perfume when I scout around yard sales and flea markets.

Vol. 37 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Summer- 2010

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