Vintage Perfume: A Free Trip To Las Vegas

Patty invited me to comment on my recent foray into vintage perfumes for those of you thinking about exploring that direction.  I have never been to Las Vegas.  I don’t feel the need as so many of life’s other experiences hold some of the same thrills: By way of example, the roll of the dice when you buy a bottle of vintage perfume.  There are many possible outcomes:

Roll #1:  The Trip Down Memory Lane.  If you’re old enough that the perfumes from your high school days are now “vintage”, this is a possible experience for you.  After all, scent is considered to be the highest form of memory trigger.  You smell that old familiar smell and all the experiences or feelings rush back to you.  I get this with a vintage Chanel No. 19.   So many perfumes have been discontinued or reformulated into something unrecognizable from its former self.  Original Chanel No. 19 was hugely popular when I was in my late teens in college studying business, wide-eyed and taking in all the possibilities the world had to offer.  Classy menswear ala Chanel was en vogue as women were making new strides into the corporate world.  Chanel No. 19 was the scent I associated with this time in my life.  Not sweet, but a little edgy and green-tweedy.  I wasn’t sure I liked it at the time, but I was drawn to it.  I recently purchased two vintage miniatures.  This taught me an important lesson in vintage perfumery – buy quality.  The EDT was simply awful and had “turned” while the extrait sent me rushing back to the ‘80’s in every good sense without the big hair.

Roll #2:  The Trip To The Old Lady’s Home.  I recently learned a new word to describe certain perfumes – a “scrubber”, as in a perfume that sends you screaming for the sink to scrub it off, hoping it will not linger.  With vintage perfumes, you have to learn patience and sometimes you have to fight the chance to scrub prematurely.  Perfumes age quite differently, some with grace and some with vengeance, and a few just go quietly into the night.  Some age badly because of their formulations and some age differently bottle-to-bottle, perhaps because of the size of the bottle, the strength of the perfume, or how they were stored.  The top notes take the age-related damage first and sometimes “turn” to what has been described as an “old lady” scent.  As a result, you have to display a little patience.  What starts out to seem like a “scrubber” might be a gem after fifteen minutes or so.  Then again….you may just smell like everything all wrong with badly-aged little old ladies.  Vintage perfumes are definitely not to be experimented with before an out-of-house event!

Roll #3:   Leaves you wondering.   A Perfumista Peer insisted that I absolutely must purchase any bottle of Mary Chess Tuberose I ever found.  I read the reviews and it was described as a “gas-huffing” tuberose.  In my stumblings about eBay, a bottle came up on a Buy It Now and I obeyed.  It took forever to arrive as my curiosity grew.  I promised to at least share the bottle.  I grew pensive with the question of whether I would be willing to share as promised.  It arrived.  I cracked the bottle… and… nuttin’.  It just didn’t strike me as anything like my anticipations.  So, the question arose, why?  With vintage perfumes there is always the chance that you have been duped and you are not getting what was advertised.  There is a chance you got a bottle stored in some sweaty attic that has suffered all the damage therefrom.  There is a chance the particular perfume has simply been lost to time because it’s essences were too delicate to stand the test of time.  Without having experiences the fragrance of the original, you have no reference point.  So, was it me or was it a problem with the Mary Chess?  Nothing pointed toward the seller being dishonest.  Only someone with experience with this scent would know what it was supposed to smell like.  Perhaps my expectations had simply been overinflated, but this was no “gas-huffing” anything.  Vintage perfumes can leave you with a lot of questions.  Should you roll the dice again and get a different bottle?  This means, like a trip to Vegas, you should never invest what you’re not ready to lose.

Roll #4:   Waltz In Classy Old Hollywood.  I wouldn’t trade living in my technologically blessed place in the timeline for anything, but I can appreciate in awe the craftsmanship of yesteryear in a beautifully handcrafted antique.  People used ingredients and invested time in creating objects d’art that we just don’t see today.  A vintage perfume can be a time-suspended waltz with Old Hollywood glamour.  That was my experience with a vintage bottle of Lucien Lelong Tailsman.  I was exhausted and going to bed early with an achy arm.  The Tailspin seemed from a bottle sniff to be very iffy.  I figured it was a good time to test it out when I wasn’t going anywhere.  It went on very old man in a Classic Old Spice sort of way, which to clarify, is not a compliment from me.  Then my fatigue took over and I fell asleep.  I slept through that fifteen minutes of damaged top note judgmentalism and then my aching arm woke me up.  I awakened to all the depth and craftsmanship and classic beauty that can waft from a vintage bottle of well-crafted perfume.  Something fabulously non-synthetic and timelessly graceful.  And it’s the thrill of finding something like this, something not every woman next door now has, that keeps me intrigued with vintage.

  • teri says:

    NOZ KNOZ…what is the freezer trick? I’ve got a huge bottle of Moment Supreme that I really don’t want to wreck the bottle to get the stopper out as the bottle itself is so attractive. thanks!

  • Mals86 says:

    I love rolling the dice on vintage stuff! You’re so right – never ever spend more than you’re willing to gamble, because sometimes the purchase is a complete bust.

    I have bought multiple bottles of vintage Emeraude because I love it, and while some of them are perfect (orientals/florientals seem to survive aging fairly well), some of those pretty little bottles contain absolutely ruined juice. Same deal with vintage No. 5 parfum – one bottle is STUNNINGLY GORGEOUS, two are terrific after ten minutes, and one smells like nothing at all. And the micro-minis of Jolie Madame? Smell like three variations on a theme.

    Aldehydes and citrus notes are infamous for turning and smell either like nondescript “old lady perfume” or like nail polish remover. Sadly, I love aldehydic florals so several of my longed-for treasures turned out to be a bust.

    But I love the thrill of the hunt…

  • Teri says:

    I recently devoted an entire year to seeking out as many of the scents of my past that had some sort of meaning to me as humanly possible. As a project, it was quite successful. I found so many wonderful things from my past and the joy I receive from the memories they conjure is immeasurable.

    Overall, I’d say I’ve been 75% successful when it comes to ‘keepers’. I’ve had some spectactular failures (a bottle of Eliz Arden Blue Grass that was unspeakably bad, various factices sold by sellers who had no idea what they actually had, expensive bottles of this or that with glass stoppers that I could never convince to come out of the bottle), but I’ve also had some amazing and wonderful finds (Emeraude extrait, 6-oz bottle of Patou’s Joy as perfect as the day it was poured, Yardley Oh de London and Sandalwood creme perfume from the ’60s in perfect condition)

    I’m now completely addicted to vintage collecting. I enjoy the hunt/chase as much as I enjoy the occasional big big find, I think.

    • nozknoz says:

      LOL – a factice that was described as perfume is the only thing I’ve ever gotten around to actually returning for a refund.

      You’re right: stoppers are another challenge. I’ve managed to open almost everything – except a couple that I’ve broken. 🙁 In addition to the freezer trick, I sometimes apply drops of ordinary alcohol around the opening for a day or two two and that helps to loosen them. It’s always nerve-wracking, though!

  • Rena says:

    I recently started with vintage perfumes by buying a cheap estate lot off of ebay–over 30 bottles ranging from empty to full for under $50. I have found several loves so far–very vintage White Shoulders (precameo), Inoui, Imprevu, vintage Emeraude. Nothing in this collection has turned, though some things aren’t to my taste (1988 Avon Night Magic Evening Musk for example). Emboldened by this success, I recently got another estate lot, from which I love Prince Matchabelli’s Holly Berry so far (if anyone has any info on this scent, I’d love to know it). Oops, I might be in the process of becoming a random vintage lot addict…..

  • Loved your article, and I do certainly love “rolling the dce’ on vintage perfumes. Like Nozknoz, it has mostly worked out. I try to at least get the perfume in a bottle I like so at least if all else fails I get a nice retro bottle at least.

    I find it hard to determine quality on ebay though. I have a $14 edp of Jolie Madame in an ugly bottle with a cheap, scratched up metal cap that smells heavenly and a recent more expensive purchase of Chant d’aromes extract which smells just–I don’t know–it’s very dark and refuses to develop–just keeps that very dark “old lady’ smell and never blossoms into the Chart d’Aromes I hoped would be a better version of the present. Oh well,still got another rosebud bottle at least!

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  • nozknoz says:

    For a couple of years, I bought a lot on ebay, and really enjoyed it. I only stopped because I am trying to spend less, and I suppose I also found most of the things I was looking for originally.

    It mostly worked out. I haven’t had too many negative experiences, but the really maddening ones are not that the scent had turned, but that it was perfectly good – however, that the seller did not pack it carefully enough and it leaked or in one case, the worst of all, the seller decanted the stoppered bottle into an empty bottle of Caron Royal Bain de Champagne whose very distinctive residue permeated the one I had bought. What on earth was she thinking???????

    But it mostly worked out, and, while there are certainly many new scents I love, I’d still be combing through ebay for vintage if I could afford that much temptation!

  • annemariec says:

    I’ve rolled these dice quite often and I agree with your point under no. 3 – don’t roll the dice unless you are prepared to lose. I have had several experiences with turned top notes recently and have become very cautious.

    One thing vintage fragrance has taught me is to appreciate and to invest in quality NEW fragrances. If you find a new or newish release that delights you with its quality and craftsmanship, and you know it’s a keeper – buy it. In 10 years time you will be glad you did. You may even be the proud owner of the ‘vintage’ or ‘pre-reformulation’ version of that fragrance! Don’t assume that everything old is going to be better or more interesting than today’s releases. There would have been plenty of cheap crap on the market in 1972 as well, it’s just that it has disappeared. As hopefully all poor quality products do.

  • OhLily says:

    I confess, I really enjoy revisiting all the oldies. I haven’t bought anything that I haven’t smelled before, it can be risky enough with those I’m already familiar with. No huge disappointments so far, one had turned and a couple’s top notes had deteriorated, but that’s not too unusual if you buy a fair amount of them. The deteriorated top notes are a huge issue for me, and some green florals and green chypres seem to be touchy in that regard…and those are my faves! My solution(since I can’t resist) is to keep it relatively cheap and invest some time looking over what’s out there and when. I do love a good hunt, lol!

  • Musette says:

    I’ve rolled all four of those perfume dice at one time or another (and definitely have rolled FWitch’s #5!). I think for most of us every single one of those rolls is part of the fun – as long as you don’t get stuck on 2 or 3 too often!

    xoxox :Devil:

  • FragrantWitch says:

    Great article, Cathy! I havent explored too deeply into vintage for a couple of reasons, one of which is your reason number 2. What if I get all excited and then it turns all nursing home on me? I also have a reason number 4 which is ‘What if I fall madly in love with a hard-to-obtain/crushingly expensive fragrance and pine for it for ever after?’ so sometimes I feel ignorance is bliss. I have a few vintage things that I adore, like Arpege and Shalimar extrait, and I think I’ll stick with those…at least until temptation proves too great!