I first started digging into how to procure my own selection of vintage perfume fairly recently, after reading recurring laments over how certain perfumes are not the perfumes they used to be. Since becoming the proud owner of samples and full bottles of Coty’s Chypre, Guerlain’s Shalimar and Parure, Jean Patou’s Joy, and an absolutely divine Chanel No. 5, all from the 60s – oh, and a bottle of original YSL’s Paris from the 80s, I have come to understand the pure bliss associated with quality, old-school stuff.
To get started with vintage scent, I highly recommend reading Scent and Subversion by Barbara Herman. A good blog to visit on vintage scent is Yesterday’s Perfume, which is actually Barbara’s blog.
Why get your hands on an older bottle of perfume?
Aside from the desire of many to simply collect (indeed, there appears to be quite the market out there just for the empty bottles than once contained the precious liquids), a strong reason for buying vintage perfume may simply be that it is discontinued, and getting an old bottle may be the only option. An even stronger reason has to do with reformulation. Perfume formulas change for various reasons, including budget constraints, raw material scarcity, changes in business ownership, and, sadly and increasingly, bans on certain ingredients.
Chances are reformulated perfumes are still in business because they were successful in prior version, so you are likely still going to find quality in perfumes that have a long history. Connoisseurs of fine fragrance often whine about how reformulations have led to a degradation from the original, and based on the few original formulas I’ve had the pleasure of sniffing, this is probably true for many fragrances.
The richness of many now illegal or extinct compounds can only be enjoyed in saved bottled memories available though auctioning networks and other sites. Many sellers offer decants of their precious liquids as a way to allow the curious just a taste of these exquisite, expensive gems. If you’re a collector or general lover of perfume, you may not necessarily want a full bottle anyway; you may just want to get a whiff of the original formula to increase your olfactory knowledge or simply to indulge in the memory of a loved one who used to envelope his/herself in that particular long-lost, nostalgic scent.
Where can you find vintage perfume?
I got my current wee little collection almost all at once from different vendors on Esty, but other obvious markets include auction sites such as eBay or eSnipe. Google “vintage perfume” and ye shall find.
How do you know if the perfume is legitimate or if it has gone off?
The short answer is – you can’t, really. A certain amount of trust is required, and definitely you should arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible before venturing into auction sites in particular. I knew what I was looking for beforehand and did a fair bit of research and comparative shopping. I contacted the vendors will several questions before committing, and I recommend doing the same.
Like wines, perfumes change over time; a vintage perfume may evoke the scent it had when it was first bottled, but it is not the same scent even if the perfume was stored carefully. Note that because they are largely alcohol-based, perfumes and colognes do not typically spoil, despite the fact that many manufacturers claim that perfumes are meant to be worn within a year of bottling. I don’t feel either side of this debate is wrong, since perfume is such a personal choice.
The delicate top notes of any perfume, old or new, are always the fastest to fade, and in vintage bottles you will definitely not be able to enjoy those notes as they will have dissipated. The solace I find there is that even if those notes were preserved, they’d be gone on my skin in a few minutes. At first application you find many a vintage perfume to be a tad vinegary or acrid, but if given time to settle down, its beauty will hopefully present itself.
There are certain aspects to aging perfume that can help you be an informed consumer, and here are seven for you to consider.
Light is perfume’s worst enemy. Check with sellers to confirm that the vintage item you have your eye on has been stored in the dark.
Perfumes still in the original box are likely the best protected because most sealed perfume boxes will completely block out light. However, some packaging will not protect the perfume bottle from light, so it is always best to check a picture of the packaging before assuming that brand new perfume has been well protected. Other factors affecting a perfume’s aging process include the bottle’s seal, the way the vessel is stored, and even the colour of the glass.
When buying splash perfume or parfum, make sure the bottle is sealed. The cord must be criss-crossed on the stopper, and you’ll see what’s called the baudruchage in better pictures, the little transparent membrane sealing the stopper to the bottle. That said, it’s possible to buy an impeccable unsealed bottle of juice.
Perfumes that are packaged in a roller ball bottle or are applied with by dabbing onto to the skin are not the best choice for vintage perfumes in particular, unless of course the bottles have never been opened. This is because rolling on dabbing perfume can introduce small amounts of dirt and body oils back into the perfume bottle, which may have become rather nasty with contaminants over time. Sprays and atomizers are a better choice for another reason: They last longer than bottles with stoppers since they don’t permit as much air to reach the perfume. The alcohol and volatile oils in perfume evaporate quickly, making air the enemy of perfume longevity.
Another factor to consider is the colouring of the glass bottle. Dark bottles will protect the juice inside from light, but the downside is you can’t get a good look at the liquid.
Evaporation of oils and alcohol is a given over time, and therefore does not indicate that a bottle advertised as unopened should be taken for a scam product. In the world of Cognac, makers call this la part des anges, meaning the angel’s share. Instead of being suspicious of an unfilled bottle of vintage perfume, you may be wise to think the opposite. A too-full vintage bottle may point to an unscrupulous vendor buying up empties and refilling them with something else.
5) Perfume Colour Changes
Fragrances containing jasmine and orange blossom have a tendency to turn to orange quite quickly, and darken over the years to a nearly caramel colour. Shalimar is often darker when it is very aged, and that does not mean it’s bad. That said, a darkened colour is generally not a good sign. Avoid buying anything with what looks like sticky bits of caramel-like tar at the bottom of the bottle, unless you’re getting an absolute bargain. I’ve read of people rejuvenating old juices by adding a drop or two of vodka, but I’m not sure about that! If the liquid is murky, I’d avoid it. Chances are there are dead skin cells floating around in it, or decomposing bits of glass or who knows what!
6) Fragrance Family
Those that draw more from the long-lasting side of the perfume family tree will retain their character for longer than those that are lighter and more volatile. Certain compounds oxidize faster than other, namely the citruses, lavender, and aldehydes. That said, my 60s Chanel N°5 is pretty darned perfect, in my opinion. I would love to have gotten by paws on a version from the 30s, but that is a rare and expensive find.
If the perfume has been properly cared for, any probable damage to the scent that may have been done will have been to the top notes, which as I stated earlier dissipate in as little as a few minutes anyway, so you’re not losing that much. You will most definitely regain that loss when you start enjoying the development and interplay of subsequent notes of these more complex, quality fragrances from the past. Caron, Guerlain, and Chanel are brands known for their ability to retain quality over the years.
7) Seller Reputation
Especially if buying from auction sites, check the reputation of the seller. Are there many sales and many satisfied companies? That does not necessarily guarantee you will get what you hope to get, but be weary of vendors who have not established any reputation at all.
How can you date a bottle?
There are reference books out there for bottle collectors, but you can always consult vintage perfume advertisements on OKADI to see how and when a bottle was released on the market. You can also search perfume historian Octavian’s website 1000fragrances. Good historical information can be found on Perfume Project in addition to Perfume Intelligence. Don’t forget to explore fragrance forums for advice as well.
Previous to WWII, most fragrance was sold on in extrait form (the most concentrated dilution of fragrance – read more here), so if you see a box or label with parfum, this means that it was produced afterwards. Likewise, it’s worth noting that from the 50s on to the 70s, fragrances labeled eau de cologne were less concentrated versions of the original extrait, often very true to the original (yes, there are often differences in forumula among different dilutions), so don’t assume a vintage eau de cologne is the lighter version we would classify it as today. The exception is and eau de cologne predating WWII, which would literally be cologne with some notes of the perfume added. You may also come across parfum de toilette on some labels, which indicated a stronger concentration than today’s eau de toilette. Eau de parfum only came into existence 1980s. With fewer standards back in the day, each house had its own policy regarding concentration, but regardless of when it was created, a perfume’s strength also depends on the ingredients used.
Presentation affects price!
If you value the scent over the fancy bottles, definitely opt for the simpler packaging. Some fragrances in the vintage realm come in beautiful bottles that may be pricier than the juice they contain. Fragrance house often offer less ornate bottling, so go for that version where possible (unless of course you value the bottle as well). That’s what I did when purchasing my precious Shalimar.
Believe it or not, light, heat, and air degrade perfumes more quickly than age itself. Perfumes can actually keep almost indefinitely, although they may change or weaken over time. A perfume rarely loses its scent completely, and some especially potent notes even become more intense as they mature, taking on more depth and charm. This is enough to make vintage perfume hunting worth the time, money, and effort for the connoisseur. Perfume vessels in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs still have traces of scent in them, after all. My guess is that if ancient flasks of perfume in museums were not kept behind glass, visitors might still be able to smell the ghost of the scent it was.