Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vintage perfumes

Confession: I troll ebay. Unlike some of my favorite swap-partners, I haven't become buddies with the lovely Naz at Canada's The Perfume Shoppe, I haven't maxed out the credit cards at, I haven't asked relatives making a trip to Paris to bring me Serge Lutens bell jars from the non-export line, and I don't have the Washington, DC Chanel boutique's phone number on speed dial... (you know who you are!) No, me, I'm an ebay shark... I have a constant search going for "Vintage perfume," and - not to toot my own horn - have snagged some real, rare bargains over the summer.

I like used bottles. I don't mind if someone has opened the bottle and used the juice inside; I don't care if the seller picked up a battered bottle at a thrift store or estate sale, or made a lucky discovery of Aunt Sadie's Stash of Vintage and Discontinued Perfumes. I don't care, particularly, if a scent is no longer in production and cannot ever be replaced with a backup bottle. I find that vintage perfumes have a presence. They open doors into a magic past, in which I can be that Film Noir Dame, or that Perfect Lady in Chanel, or that red-lipsticked Femme Fatale, or even my younger self...

Some of them I love. For example, I might sell my soul for some vintage, perfectly-kept, Emeraude parfum. In fact, if I had to downsize my perfume collection to one scent (the thought hurts my head!), it would be vintage Emeraude. And I have two bottles of vintage Chanel No. 5 parfum, one more beautiful than the other, that make it easy to see why it's sold so well over the years: this stuff is stunning. And I have a teeny-tiny bottle of Jolie Madame parfum that is so gorgeous that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Some of the vintage scents are interesting, but not really to my taste. Balenciaga Le Dix was much like Chanel No. 19 in feel, if not in actual smell - cool and businesslike, but lacking the boot-stomping oomph that makes me love No. 19. Patou Adieu Sagesse was pretty for an hour, with a fresh carnation that made me smile, followed by a fast fadeout. Lucien LeLong Indiscret was a richly peach-citrus floral that felt like Real Perfume - and then it degenerated into a Youth Dew mess (as you can guess, I'm not a fan of the big resiny orientals; more on that tomorrow.) Coty L'Origan parfum was, yes, a near twin of Guerlain L'Heure Bleue, but without the angel's wings that lifts L'HB into the air. Vintage Arpege is so rich that wearing it feels like eating way too much dinner.

And some of these vintage scents are just awful! I cannot always tell whether the scent has suffered from age or problematic storage, or whether my tastes are sufficiently modern that I find these scents unattractive. Or, of course, whether I Just Don't Like Them, which happens with even well-received modern niche scents like L'Artisan Passage d'Enfer (Pine-Sol shaving cream!) or Iris Pallida (sweaty old man wearing faded cologne). Lanvin Via was a big ol' chunk of galbanum that never eased into the promised florals; so was Estee Lauder Private Collection parfum. Caron Infini confirmed for me that I must really dislike lactones.

Then, too, I've gone through the looking glass, searching for perfumes from my own scented past. Sometimes I think to myself, Wonder what the original Chloe, or Aspen for Women, would smell like to me now? or Sure wish I could remember what the original Victoria by Victoria's Secret smelled like, and I really wish I'd had the money to buy some way back when. Or, Boy, I really loved Emeraude and Tatiana back in the day; I'd love to wear them again. And then off I go to ebay, fishing in somebody else's closet for a piece of my past. These are the difficult ones to open and smell again. Am I the same person? Clearly not. My nose knows somewhat better than it used to know, and I'm older/presumably wiser/different.


My 70's-era Coty Emeraude Parfum de Toilette is, unquestionably, Queen of the Drugstore Perfumes. It smells better than I remember, and I love it more than I ever did as a teenager in the 80's.

I had some Diane Von Furstenburg Tatiana eau de toilette in the late 80's - which I remember as being the scent that my mother, the White Floral Hater and wearer of No. 5, thought was the worst thing ever; that 70's bottle of parfum is beautifully spicy tuberose, and brought back memories of college.

I also own an early-90's bottle of Victoria's Secret Victoria - fairly easy to find on ebay, and usually cheap, because Victoria's Secret's marketing department was dumb enough not to put any sort of identifying label on that pretty glass laydown bottle, making it difficult to identify by people who don't remember what it looked like. Luckily (for me!), the bottle is distinctive by shape and by the deep periwinkle-blue cap. Anyway, the top notes have suffered greatly, and it doesn't seem to be just my own bottle - I have two other friends with bottles of this truly lovely chypre floral, and they both say the top notes are frightening, with various hints of Hairspray, Pool Chlorine, and Maple Syrup! However, patience is rewarded - ladies* used to smell like this airy concoction. Official notes are impossible to find (trust me, I've searched), but I can definitely discern rose, violet, a hint of muguet, a wisp of tuberose, and possibly peony, followed by a lovely drydown of what seems to be sandalwood, vetiver, gentle oakmoss, and a cool, dry amber.

* We won't even discuss the enormous changes in Victoria's Secret's inventory and attitude since I first became aware of the brand, mid-1980's, except to say that the idea of "pretty lingerie for women who want to feel feminine" seems to have been usurped by the idea of "garish undies for teenagers who want to show off said undies." Enough said.

My most recent vintage find? Balenciaga's Michelle. Created in 1979 and discontinued some time in the 90's, it was sold in parfum and in EdT. A review should be posted tomorrow - because testing it caused a seismic shift in my attitude toward perfume.

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