Perfume Mythbusters: Vintage Perfume

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I’m not sure if there are distinct stages of being a perfume lover but there are many common experiences we all share. One of those is trying a “vintage” perfume. What I mean by that is an original bottle of a classic perfume that is over 10 years old and often is as old as 50-60 years. The moment of trying your first vintage perfume is usually followed with a statement along the lines of, “they just don’t make perfume like that anymore”. When it comes to certain ingredients that is definitely true especially now scarce to find authentic ambergris or real musk from the musk deer. There is also another part of the equation too as many who love vintage fragrances love the depth and subtle power inherent in these older bottles. There is then a belief that what they are smelling is somehow truer than a modern version, that is the myth I am here to bust this month.

Coffee-flower-in-jojoba-maceration

Coffee Flower Macerating in Jojoba Oil

When you are smelling an older bottle of perfume you have to take into account what has been going on over the years in that bottle. One thing that has been going on is continued maceration. When making a perfume which is high in natural ingredients there is a phase of the process called maceration. What this means is once the perfume concentrate is diluted in the desired solvent, usually alcohol, it is left to sit for a number of weeks at reduced temperature and away from light. What this allows for is these natural materials to reach a steady state where the perfume reaches consistency of odor profile. As I’ve mentioned in the past natural raw materials are not one molecule they are actually mixtures of often hundreds of different molecules. When these are combined with other natural raw materials and diluted there needs to be a settling out period. This is most often done on as large a scale as possible. The perfumer will check over time until the blend reaches a congruency from three or four different samples over different days. At this point it is transferred to a bottle. Now if the perfume is all synthetic this process is totally unnecessary as those are single molecules and need no settling out. While the early maceration is done on a large scale it does not stop once it is in the bottle. Especially when we are talking time frames of tens of years. Maceration is now a much more gradual process but when measured over many years it is still going on. This is what most often produces the softness many remark upon when trying a vintage perfume. Just like a fine Bordeaux wine a 1961 vintage is much smoother than a 2011 vintage. Time does smooth out all things. The continued maceration also accounts for the blurred less definitive transitions also found in vintage perfumes.

1950's shalimar

This sealed bottle from the 1950's was filled right to the neck when new, notice the gap now because of evaporation

Second is good old evaporation of the top notes. Top notes by their very nature are meant to be volatile and the idea that any of these still remain in a perfume that is ten years old stretches the concept of simple physics. Even if the bottle is sealed once the top notes begin to evaporate they are now in vapor form and if there is even the slightest gap out they will go. To my knowledge there is no vintage perfume which has been so meticulously sealed as to prevent this most basic of processes from happening. The effect this has when smelling a vintage perfume is you get right down to business and go straight for the heart and base notes. This is probably what gives the impression that vintage has more depth because you aren’t distracted for a second by any top notes because they are no longer there.

baccarat shalimar bottle

Vintage Baccarat Shalimar Bottle half-filled with air and clear to let light through

Third is if the bottle has been opened at all or exposed to sunlight for any period of time. Oxygen and sunlight are the natural predators of many perfume molecules converting them into all manner of things. Some of which still smell good and some which definitely don’t. It is either, or both, of these twin plagues which make a perfume go “off”. In the best case it can still leave something behind which smells good but anything like what it smelled like when it was put in the bottle, not likely.

nicolai

Patricia de Nicolai

For me one of the most eye-opening experiences to this phenomenon was when Patricia de Nicolai of the Osmotheque exposed me to the versions of some of my favorite older perfumes from the Osmotheque. Through the help of the perfume companies the Osmotheque has original formulae for many of the classic perfumes and makes fresh new batches of them for their library. As I experienced these fragrances in their complete glory with top notes intact and lively paired with the heart and base notes in the vitality of their youth I realized these were the real vintage perfumes. We had a group experience of this at Esxence as we had an Osmotheque version of Edmond Roudnitska’s classic Rochas Femme. Everyone was surprised at how different it was to any version they had tried previously. If you love vintage perfume you must go to the Osmotheque and really smell the vintage perfumes you love it will give you a whole new appreciation for them.

I am not saying vintage perfumes are not lovely in their own right.  They are also not really anything like the original fragrance put in the bottle you own either. That is the myth of vintage perfume.

Mark Behnke

8 thoughts on “Perfume Mythbusters: Vintage Perfume

  1. Thanks for the article, Mark. I have quite a few vintage fragrances and I have always been aware that the years have changed them. I still adore them in their softened, topnote-deprived, altered state. Styles, regulations, ingredients and consumer preferences have changed over the years and my nose is still drawn to the older classics.

    As I was reading your post, I was thinking of Femme. I have 4 or 5 vintage bottles and they all smell different, due to age, concentration, and light and air exposure. But I keep looking for the elusive, perfect bottle that doesn't exist. You're right. I can only smell it at the Osmotheque. 

    • Melissa,

      Many of these are still beautiful in their own right but once I had my eyes opened by the Osmotheque it made me appreciate them even more. You are someone for whom a trip to the Osmotheque is almost a mandatory requirement. đŸ™‚ I do know that Christophe Laudamiel is trying to get a NYC branch up and running but to my knowledgs it hasn’t happened yet.

      Mark

  2. Another great article. Thanks, Mark!

    And I think I read it in one of your articles… a specific ingredient that is often the reason a vintage fragrance goes "off" . . . was it one of the musks??

    • Elizabeth T.,

      Yes the nitro musks are sensitive to light and any vintage fragrance which has high levels of musk in it probably had nitro musks in it especially prior to the mid-1960’s. If those perfumes were exposed to light thet defnitely are a bit worse for wear at this point.

      Mark

    • Lovely article!  Maybe the location to shoot for is LA instead of NYC? Although I realize the flight is longer. Would be so lovely to have one here in the States.

      Excellent article. The Neroli is obviously one of the first to burn off. When I blend real organic essential oils here at home, they always need time to blend, to absorb each other. I've often been surprised at how powerful one fragrance can be over another. Sandalwood can easily get overcome by other scents. And, Cistus, or Labdanum or Rock Rose, can overcome almost anything even giving Vetiver a run for strength.

      Although the vintage bottles are lovely, I'm surprised they did not use darker glass to protect it from sunlight as it's so destructive to the real essential oils molecules. I suppose vanity wins over practicality.

       

      Thank You Again,

       

      Annette Vanderzon

      LaMagie(tm) Aromatherapy

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