Why Should I Try Vintage Fragrances?
With all of the new perfume releases each month, all the new niche perfumers and natural perfumers and small batch perfumers out there, you may think you don't have time to smell the "old stuff". But if you don't, you will miss a very important part of the perfume world.
Yann Vasnier, perfumer at Givaudan states: "What's most important about keeping the legacy of these classics is a reference to culture and knowledge. When these fragrances established themselves during periods of history, they reflected how people were feeling, trends of the day and historical events."
Bruno Jovanovic, perfumer at IFF also believes knowing the history can give a precious hindsight into the creative process behind a contemporary fragrance. He states: "A perfumer should absolutely know about the history of his/her craft. I am constantly looking at the classics for inspiration, always trying to modernize some gorgeous accords that were created in perfumery's glorious past. If you want to create the future, you have to be aware of the past."
As a beginner you will first want to discover and understand your taste and preferences. There's a lot of great stuff out there and the process of figuring it out and wearing what you love is incredibly satisfying. Learning about perfume also includes perfume history and that means the classics. If you truly love perfume you have probably wondered about vintage fragrances and why people say they don't make them that way any more and why they are mad about some beloved fragrance being reformulated. Samples are the perfect way to educate your nose and relive some of your old memories.
It's important for any perfumista to smell vintage fragrances because they are part of history. They are so different from the fragrances that are produced now. Michael Edwards, expert in the classifications and history of perfumes, is a great advocate of sniffing the greats. He says that "if you don't, you'll never smell scent-heaven. Here's the key: wear them differently, lightly. Treat them not as signatures to bedazzle the world, but as personal treasures. Above all, enjoy the experience."
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 to bring back memories of a loved one who used to wear that particular long-lost scent.
Why People Are Interested in Vintage Fragrances
I know it sounds strange that you would purchase a fragrance that smells like alcohol the minute you spray it or one that you have to wait several minutes for it to smell nice, but that's part of the beauty of the vintage scent. It's that anticipation of getting to smell your long lost youth, or your college days, or any memory that you have and quite honestly, not too many things smell as beautiful as a vintage fragrance. When you first smell that vintage scent, you can almost summon back a loved one.
While I work on this project, I am reading the most fascinating book, Scent & Subversion, Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman (from Yesterday's Perfume blog). I highly recommend this book as reading for anyone who loves perfume in general but especially those who love vintage perfumes.
The attraction for many collectors is that the formulas for famous perfumes change over time, often because perfumers have to remove ingredients used in the original formula that have been banned or restricted by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). The IFRA regulates the guidelines for safe usage of chemicals and oils in perfumes. So vintage scents often smell very different from their modern versions. The fact that perfumers cannot use oakmoss, musk, civet, castoreum and many other notes has totally changed the way our favorites smell now.
Most companies will not admit that their formula has changed. The reasons could be IFRA restrictions, a reduction in costs, or to follow fashion trends. The term "vintage" covers a wide range when you are using it in reference to perfume. What most people are looking for when they say "vintage" is any pre-2000 fragrance because that was the beginning of the EU restrictions which caused many fragrances to either be discontinued or reformulated. It also refers to an older perfume which has been discontinued by the manufacturer. So a vintage fragrance can mean a fragrance from the 1920s to one person or a bottle of the original version of any fragrance from the 1970s or 1980s.
There is a great resurgence in anything retro or vintage right now. Middle-aged people want to buy products they associate with their youth and there is a growing nostalgia for just about anything old. Sniffing discontinued fragrances is all about the memories that they invoke or finding your old, beloved favorite fragrance smelling the way that you remember it before it was reformulated. Music, fashion and now 1970s perfumes and aftershaves are making a comeback. Sales of the current versions of these fragrances are increasing particularly among younger customers who are embracing all things retro and don't know what the original smelled like. The original vintage versions of these fragrances are huge sellers on eBay and vintage fragrance websites. Some popular ones are: Brut, Charlie, Opium, L’Air du Temps and Anais Anais.
Musk notes are experiencing a revival as well. The vintage animalic fragrances are popular because they contain real animal scents no longer able to be used in perfumes. One of the most popular is Coty’s Wild Musk as well as Jovan Musk Oil, Civet and Ambergris and those same scents from Alyssa Ashley, Bonne Bell and Coty (all in vintage form, of course).
Why does fragrance bring back memories and feelings of the past? Because smell triggers the associative memory of clusters of events and feelings. We use this “memory” part of the brain to help us identify a particular scent because we can’t describe an odor. The closest we can come is to describe it in relative terms: “It smelled like ...”. A whiff of fragrance sends our brain searching in our “memory bank” of smells for old associations and connections that might help define the aroma. This is why, when smelling a rose today, you may suddenly have an image of your grandmother’s garden or your mother kissing you goodnight.
Things to be Aware of With Retro or Vintage Fragrances
How Long Will It Last and How Should It Be Stored
No matter what anyone says, perfume is not like meat or dairy products; there is no expiration date. One of the biggest factors that will affect vintage fragrance is if it is not properly stored. The ideal location is a cool, dark place like a special storage box or an extra drawer. Avoid the bathroom at all costs because it can get hot and steamy and makes for the worst conditions for a perfume! Fragrances with a higher content of essential oils have a much longer shelf life. Essential oils contain no fatty acids and are not susceptible to rancidity like vegetable oils.
Over time, the aroma and color of a scent will change. However, keep in mind that with proper storage, a well-made fragrance can last for many years. The most incredible example of this comes from Ancient Egypt. When the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened in 1922, jars and vessels were found and one of these contained a perfumed unguent, or solid perfume, still beautifully fragrant after thousands of years!
Usually when you find a bottle of perfume that smells "off", it probably doesn't have anything to do with its age but more to do with how it has been handled. The three enemies of perfume are temperature, light and oxygen. If a perfume is stored at a high temperature it will cause many of the more volatile components, usually the top notes, to evaporate. This leaves the less volatile notes and that can completely change the smell. Light, particularly sunlight, is ultraviolet radiation and many of the molecules used in perfumery can react with UV radiation and chemically change to something less pleasant to smell. If you store your perfume on a windowsill which gets direct sunlight this process can happen pretty fast. Temperature and light can easily be controlled by anyone just storing their perfume properly.
That leaves oxygen. The presence of oxygen happens as you use your perfume. The more you use it the more of that empty space in the bottle contains oxygen from the air. Temperature and sunlight can damage a perfume fairly rapidly however oxygen does it much slower. One reason is the air in the bottle is only interacting with the surface of the liquid in the bottle whereas with light or temperature which interact with all of the liquid in the bottle. So the more you use a fragrance, the more you keep adding oxygen and allowing for it to slowly interact with the perfume. However, this is a process that will take years. Fragrance does not begin to be affected until it has been sprayed at least once. It is the introduction of oxygen to the perfume that starts the gradual degeneration of a scent. With the proper care and storage, perfume can last for a long time and retain its original scent. Prior to 1978, many fragrances were vaporisateurs (French for spray, atomizer or vaporizer). In a vaporisateur, liquid perfume was held under pressure and then when the actuator was pressed, the contents would be released in a fine spray usually by means of a propellant gas. Nowadays CFCs can no longer be used because of the concern for the ozone layer; however, they were very useful in keeping the fragrance fresh because air could not get into the bottle. This is one of the reasons why samples and decants of vintage fragrances are perfect. When choosing the fragrances that we sell on our website, we try to purchase sealed bottles and those we know have been taken care of and we don't have them for a long time before they have been all decanted out.
When you are smelling an older bottle of perfume you have to take into account the 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. While the early maceration is done on a large scale it does not stop once it is in the bottle. Maceration is now a much more gradual process and accounts for the softness many comment on when trying a vintage perfume.
When a scent is well-blended and made with quality oils, it will last regardless of when it was created. Expensive perfumes which are made from rare essential oils tend to last for a longer time than simple drug store scents. A perfume made from natural flower or fruit extracts usually stand all tests of time. An herb based perfume like lavender can last indefinitely while balsamic, oriental fragrances (those are the notes most conducive to vintage-style aging), can last decades. Opium and Obsession, are good examples. They contain strong woody notes, such as patchouli and vetiver, which improve with age. Pure perfume extraits will last the longest due to the absence of fillers, alcohol and additives.
Perfumes are designed to remain evenly mixed if they are stored properly. Shaking perfume incorporates air throughout the perfume accelerating its breakdown. Linen closets are a great place to store perfume. They are dark, free from excessive humidity, and they keep the bottles protected from bumps and falls. Unfortunately, not all women have the space in a linen closet, and a high-use closet can lead to more chances for an accident to happen. Decorative boxes are another good way to store perfume. The boxes protect the bottle from any environmental factors and may be easily moved and stored.
There are many conflicting views on storing your fragrance in the refrigerator. The Fragrance Foundation, the premier resource for expert fragrance information, says: "It's important that you keep your fragrance protected against extreme cold or heat. Only colognes and toilet waters should be stored in the refrigerator. Perfumes should not be exposed to extreme cold or heat because either may upset their delicate balance. Notes can be affected by extreme temperatures."
And from another expert, Chandler Burr: "All my serious perfumes are in my refrigerator—the crisper is loaded with them," he explains, adding that he believes they can last for years that way. Burr warns that light, heat, and variations in temperature and oxygen can destroy perfume over time, which makes the fridge a safe haven of sorts.
And yet, one more expert, Michael Edwards states: "Keep your fragrances in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and heat sources (such as radiators). Extreme heat or cold will upset the delicate balance of the oils and change their scent. If you prefer one fragrance in winter and another in the summer, you’ll extend their life between seasons if you store the bottle in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator."
The Fragrance Doesn't Smell the Same as You Remember
Any perfume you will have for a very long time will eventually change. Citrus notes go first, sometimes herbs lose their piquancy, spices can go flat and flowers can sour. That is a process which will take many years before you notice it. Scents do change over time, just as fine wine or liquors change as they age. Certain scent molecules are more prominent in younger formulas, lending a boldness or brightness, while other notes are created and accumulate as things stew in their own juices. As some notes fade, others emerge or become uncovered adding depth to the formula. So the character and color of a fragrance will usually changes as it ages. 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 has been stored carefully. That is why purchasing from us is safe. We have tested all fragrances to make sure they have not "turned".
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. Top notes by their very nature are meant to be volatile. Even if the bottle is still sealed they go into vapor form and if there is even the slightest gap they will get out. When you smell a vintage perfume you are going straight to the heart and base notes and this gives the impression that vintage fragrances have more depth because you aren't distracted by any top notes. So when you first apply the fragrance, you may find a vintage perfume to be a bit vinegary or alcoholy, but if given time to settle down, its beauty will still be there.
Discoloration is not always a sign of extreme aging in perfumes. Some compounds, particularly natural vanilla-based aromas, are prone to darkening and may turn golden or brown after a relatively short time. Chemical changes will make a perfume change colors or take on a milky appearance. Jasmine and orange blossom take on a tangerine color over time and some resins and balsams will thicken over time as the alcohol evaporates. Some vintage juices are dark to begin with - Youth Dew is a prime example but when many years have passed it can be nearly black.
So overall, there will be imperfections over time including oxidation due to a long shelf life and possible muddiness in color due to sunlight or particular degradation of oils making some stickier than others but don't let that turn you off. There are still some stunners out there and the dry-downs still possess a beautiful base and heart note.
The short answer is yes, it is safe to wear vintage perfumes. It is safe to wear a vintage fragrance just as it is safe to wear any perfume. Skin can definitely become irritated by many different perfumes but that is regardless of the age of the product. I know that my skin has reacted slightly when testing the vintage fragrances we offer. I'm not sure if it is a note like oakmoss, but I will get just the tiniest bit of burning which is gone in less than two minutes. If you are actually allergic or chemically sensitive to a particular scent molecule it will not matter whether the product is old or new. The issue of allergens and perfume restrictions have played a significant part in vintage perfume hunting.
The Difference Between Cologne, Parfum de Toilette, Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, Parfum and Extrait
You might think that extrait (parfum) would be the strongest version of the fragrance with the most sillage but it often wears more subtly than other formulations and closer to the skin. It also tends to present the most sophisticated version of a fragrance and some perfume companies reserve their best quality material for their extraits. Previous to WWII, most fragrance was sold in extrait form. If you see a box or bottle labeled parfum this means it was produced after the war. From the 1950s to the 1970s, fragrances labeled eau de cologne were just less concentrated versions of the original extrait, often very true to the original. Don’t assume a vintage eau de cologne is the lighter version we would classify it as today. The exception is an eau de cologne predating WWII, which would be cologne with some notes of the perfume added. You may also see parfum de toilette on some boxes or bottles. This indicates a stronger concentration than today’s eau de toilette. Eau de parfum only came into existence in the 1980s.
The Fragrances That We Are Offering at Surrender to Chance
While no vintage fragrance is truly fresh, we have spent considerable time amassing fragrances that are still sealed in packaging or which have been stored properly, away from heat and light. We are taking the guesswork out of purchasing an auction or an item at a flea market or estate sale. All of our fragrances have been tested to make sure they have not "turned". That is not to say the fragrance will smell exactly like you remember for the most part because of the top notes.
Sometimes the more volatile top notes become funky or disappear altogether (especially if there's citrus involved), but even then the heart and base are most likely intact. Perfumes do change over time, sometimes they deepen and become richer (just like wine), other times they lose their oomph. Two bottles of the same perfume can easily age differently, often due to small differences in the amount of air that got into the bottle. You can't predict it which is why our fragrances are perfect for you.
Well-made fragrances may appear (or even smell) a little funky at first, but they’re still good. In Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, they write: “Very old fragrances, even when well-kept, tend to darken and develop a nail-varnish smell, which fortunately fades minutes after you put it on skin. If you make sure you give the perfume time to breathe before inflicting it on others, usually you can happily wear fragrances that at first sniff seem past their prime.”