Saturday, 6 April 2013

An Estate Windfall - And Why Vintage Perfume Is So Much More Than Old

Source: Vintage Perfume Vault
A friend's husband lost his father recently.  I am of that age where people around me are being orphaned left and right, and many of us have not just organised funerals but cleared and sold our parents' houses.  Mine lived apart, hence the possibly surprising plural.  Tony's mother died some years ago, and his father carried on living in the marital home.   Now that he is gone, it fell to Tony to sort the place out, including his mother's effects, which his father had not touched since her death.   You can tell where this is going, can't you...?

Yes, the other day over dinner at their house, Tony whipped out a pink cloth bag containing a purse spray, plus two other tiny miniature perfumes, and announced: "Here you go - there are more where they came from, and I'll fetch the rest when I am up at the house next."  My mini-haul comprised about 4ml of Coty L'Aimant, Lucien Long Indiscret and Goya Pink Mimosa.   Well, the Goya is empty in fact, but still smells of something prettily floral.  Pink Mimosa came out in 1947, Indiscret in 1935.  My research suggests that the two minis are most likely from the 50s or 60s, but if anyone has a more exact idea I would be glad to hear it - maybe they aren't that old?  The Coty L'Aimant has a price tag of £2.25, which places it in the era of decimalisation at least ie post 1971!  It does additionally have one of those high pressure spray mechanisms that I associate with older bottles - when were they phased out, I wonder?

Shocking pink and a fierce squirter!

L'Aimant is still readily available in drugstores for very little money - you can pick up a boxed set and still have change from a tenner.  The vintage version smells classier than the current formulation - like Rive Gauche crossed with very expensive soap.  I am not really drawn to soapy perfumes, but it is a very elegant example of the genre.

The Lucien Lelong is on the face of it absolutely not my thing - one of those fierce spicy orientals - the only modern equivalent of which I can think of being EL Spellbound.  Here is Angela of NST's take on an Indiscret estate find of her own from the same era:

Civet and spice and all things (strangely) nice!

"My guess is the bottle I bought — flat, octagonal, with gold cap and rubber stopper — was from the 1950s. On skin it smelled spicy, woody, powdery, and floral and was reminiscent of Millot Crepe de Chine but with a definite clove note. Its floral heart was tight and seamlessly blended, giving the shape rather than the distinct fragrance of jasmine, ylang ylang, carnations, and other flowers I can’t suss out."

Donna of PST also reviews the vintage Indiscret:

"However, once it’s been on the skin for a while, it reveals itself to be the real thing, as the distinctive rich, spice-laced heart notes are still there, and once I got over the opening I loved it."

I have nothing to add to their descriptions really.  Indiscret reads rather severe and aloof to me (spiky, not fluffy!) - and the carnation and/or clove is too jarring for my taste, though it softens with time.  Yes, by the far drydown, it had taken on a creamy, almost dreamy aspect, with the florals still prickling with spice and mired in civet.  I should have hated it, but found myself oddly mesmerised.

More vestigial molasses than perfume

As for the Goya, the best I can say about the scent itself from the rim of the bottle is that it is an indistinct spring floral - however, I had a lot of fun with it otherwise.  I am not sure there is a word for the perfume bottle equivalent of potato printing.  If anyone can tell me what this black inky stuff is, I would be fascinated to know.

Is it a leopard?  Is it going to come off with pumice stone?

Now I can't pretend to say that sniffing these perfumes brings back memories of Dorothy, as Tony's mother was called, because it doesn't.  I never met her.  I did attend her funeral as it happens, but that was mainly in the capacity of chauffeur.  I do, however, like to imagine the 50s through furniture - I own a cabinet from that period which once belonged to the someone's granny in Bootle - I love to imagine where it has been and what it has "seen".

Must sort out those cables

In summary, I have never been especially interested in vintage scents, not least because so many seem to be of this austere oriental or chypre style, but I am not "agin" the category either - I very much sniff as I find.   I guess my newfound love of period furniture easily crosses over into an appreciation of old artefacts generally, including perfume.  Yes, my recent windfall has definitely piqued my curiosity in vintage scents,  and I await with interest to see what Tony comes back with from his next decluttering session at the family home...


  1. It's a sad post :(

    I do not like vintage perfumes: most of those that I tried have a similar smell of old perfume. I might be curious to smell it or to test but I've never wanted to wear any of them as my SOTD, SOTE or any other acronym.

    But congratulation on your haul and I hope to read more about hidden treasures in your friend's parents' house.

  2. Hi Undina,

    It is true that the circumstances of my inheriting these perfumes are sad - an ill wind and all that. I do think it is nice that I can connect with this lady I never knew through her fragrance collection.

    I understand your reticence around vintage scents, and I wouldn't call myself a big fan at this point - I am just exploring what lands in my lap and being pleasantly surprised so far. Or interested, certainly!

  3. I am quite a fan of vintage perfume! I have inherited a couple from my grandmother ad bought a number of vintage decants.

    So far my experience is that generally vintage scents are of better qulity, less synthetic... With age they have a tendency to loose their top notes, but I´m not very fond of top notes, so that's fine with me! One of my vintage perfumes is a huge bottle of Madame Rochas and I must say that the scent of my vintage is soo different from the current formulation that it seems to be a completely different perfume! The new one is nasty, cloying and synthetic compared to the old one. After that experience, I´m never buying a current formulation if there is vintage to be found! I have my eyes on a decant of Indiscret, and I´d love some vintage Shalimar...

  4. I await to hear what else comes your way. :)
    I enjoy vintage scents but don't actually wear any not so much because they smell well, like "historical perfumes" but more because I wouldn't have any left and they are not easy to come by anymore.
    I'm glad you enjoyed the Lucien Long one, that's one slow step down the civet/animalic/dirty line... ;)

  5. Hi Nadja,

    Nice to hear from you again, and interested to learn that you are a bit of a vintage fan. I only know the current Madame Rochas, but I can well believe your bottle is a different - and superior - animal. The biggest contrast I have ever spotted is between my vintage Blue Grass from 1975 or so and the present wan apology!

    Sometimes vintage stuff is off or smells too strong for my tastes, but when it is in good nick and a congenial perfume style, it can blow you away!

  6. Hi Ines,

    I am as surprised as you that I am taking this step down the civet/animalic/dirty line - who would have thought it five years ago! I know what you mean about vintage perfumes feeling "historical" - that might actually make me hesitate to wear them in fact, I don't know why. Harder to relate to, though interesting to smell. And there is also the aspect of using them up, as you say.

    Am off to my friend's this afternoon - he has more "gear" for me, and reckons something may even be older than the last lot. Am full of suspense...

  7. That photograph of your hand instantly called mehndi to mind-- the color of the perfume traces is very reminiscent of ceremonial henna-- beautiful.

    I greatly anticipate learning what other vintage treasures your friend uncovers for you-- and hope that there are many stories to go with them.

  8. Hi olenska,

    I see what you mean about henna-ing - hadn't occurred to me!

    I got a ton of stuff today - still reeling from the size and age of the haul. From the 50s to the 70s at a conservative guess. Several FBs that were BNIB and we broke the seals. Okay... ONIB - Old New In Box? :-)

  9. I love they way you shared your discovery of these "vintage" scents, the melancholic feeling paired with curiosity, friendship and benevolence.
    I was at my parents house recently, were small bags hold the remnants of a huge collection of miniature perfumes I collected in my teens (20-25 years ago). I tried again some of the perfumes that survived my family's multiple relocations (and my own absence), and didn't enjoy the experience much. Scrubbers would be a good definition!! The only two miniatures I cared for had already been brought home with me(a glorious early version of Egoiste and a Violetta di Parma soliflore).
    One could conclude I am not into vintage scents, but the truth is that I love only the extra-vintage perfumes, i.e. those produced before the 1950's (I also love several of their reformultaions!).
    I had the chance to familiarise with some of the older classics at the Osmothèque once, and was baffled by how modern they all smelled, much more than the reformulated versions of the few still in production.
    Vintage is a difficult word to handle: it can mean too many things.
    But like you, I'm always curious to smell old and new stuff! I wish you to find a gem in the scented packages your friend will bring you next... He must be a sweet friend and I am sorry for his loss (and for the lengthy comment!). let us know!

  10. Love that cabinet!

    My experience with vintage has been less than successful. I don't really have any scent memories of things my mother/grandmother/aunt wore, because they rarely if ever wore any kind of fragrance. The scents they recall are gram's apron when she was making batches of pear preserves - oh if they could only bottle that!

    I did venture into purchasing a few bottles of vintage 'grand dames' on ebay. Those that the established perfumistas often hold forth as incomparable and now ruined by new formulas. A few I bought because I did remember them from my youth, Emeraude, Tabu, Caleche, some Carven and while there were still wafts of what I'd remembered about them, after a very short time I found them kind of blending together into one 'vintage fume' kind of aroma, almost interchangeable. And none of them lighting the fires that the newer and usually niche frags do for me today.

    I think no matter how well stored they've been time begins to do them in, yet there is still that siren call they can exert. I just purchased a small bottle of vintage Houbigant Chantilly because of a special memory when it was given to me as a gift when I was 16. I'm hoping this one won't begin to smell like all the others soon after opening, but I have my doubts :)

  11. Hi Zazie,

    Lovely to hear from you - you and your lengthy comment are most welcome!

    I enjoyed reading about your encounters with those old minis and about your definitions of vintage - I agree it is a very loosely used term. It has come to mean 'second hand clothes' now here too, and puts a genteel spin on so many old things - shabby chic artefacts and I don't know what.

    You are a serious 'vintage' lover I infer if you like to explore the decades prior to the 50s. How interesting too about your experience of the Osmotheque - I should make a trip there sometime.

    I have already taken custody of the next haul of old scents from my friend's house clearance, and it tops the few items he initially found by some margin. Am basking in one today and cannot believe my nose. I shall do a post on that soon, once I have tried everything properly!

  12. Hi Kathy,

    I am with you on the scent memories front. Well, I dimly recall my mother wearing Tweed, but I don't actually have a scent memory of that as such - more of soap and talc that she also used, or which we children bought for her at least. So I can relate to your vivid memory of your grandmother making pear preserves!

    I also know what you mean about the generic vintage 'fume aroma! It would be some kind of a green / chypre / forbidding oriental thing for me. There are a few variations, but I do know what you mean. And this vintage aroma can smell both samey and relentlessly old fashioned.

    Now by coincidence Chantilly is one of the perfumes in my latest haul and I am loving it. If your own Chantilly is less than satisfactory, I could send you a snifter of mine - I have both the edt and edp!

  13. Thanks for such a kind offer, I'll let you know if my Chantilly disappoints. The photo in the auction is what convinced me to try this one, it is dark and lovely without looking like syrup so I'm hoping..... :)

  14. Hi Kathy,

    My bottles are a medium maple syrup colour to give you an idea! Not sure if that is an indicator of good condition or lesser age, but I have EDP and EDT if you fancy trying either!

  15. I've spent a lot of time around vintage perfume and it can be quite hit and miss. It can have turned; you may not like it the style; or you may not now what formulation you have if it is a fragrance that has been reformulated many times. (Indiscret may have gone through a number of distinct iterations.) And the vintage perfume has its own snobbery ('you have not smelled Mitsouko unless you have smelled VINTAGE Mitsouko').

    But like any investigation of the past, vintage perfume gives you perspective. You can discover what people used to like. There is no equal to smelling things like Habanita, Bandit, Dioressence and Rochas Femme, especially if you can get your hands on some vintage, to understand what strong women used to wear. You can smell Miss Dior and think how women in the late 1940s longed for a returned to glamour and femininity. If you've smelled a lot of old style chypres and orientals, you can understand why the blandness of L'Eau d'Issey and CK One seemed such a like a release in the 1990s. And afert smelling plenty of vintage, you can understand the blend of classical and modern forms in the work of some niche perfumers, especially Patricia de Nicolai and Andy Tauer.

    I don't actually wear much vintage any more and the only perfume I insist on wearing in vintage form is Dioressence. The modern stuff is unpleasantly harsh, to my nose.

    Anyway, so to go on at such length. I envy your vintage haul, if not the sad circumstances in which it has come to you.

  16. Hi annemariec,

    Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts on vintage - it is good to hear from people who are more familiar with the category. I have definitely tried vintage scents that have turned or which I have not cared for generally. And I am certainly in the position of not knowing what formulation I have, also with this latest, much larger haul that I will report on soon. And I would be really curious to know. I can't even trace the bottles with any degree of precision.

    There's an idea for a useful reference site for perfumistas - a chronology of bottle styles for all the major scents. And maybe it exists already but I haven't managed to find it.

    I am relating to my vintage windfall very much in the way you describe ie as a kind of time travel. They are mostly glamorous and strong or soft and feminine, but so far removed from the chemical blandness of the 90s wave of clean scents, as you say.

    I have been wearing a couple of vintage scents all week in fact, which I am surprised to be doing, frankly, but they are surprisingly wearable.

    Oh, and I once likened the current Dioressence to embalming fluid, though it was at the very start of my hobby when I was just discovering easy access designer scents. In hindsight, for all that it is a shadow of its former self, I think I was being a bit harsh in my comment!

  17. Cabinet envy. That is all. :)

  18. Hi Natalie,

    Ha! I do like it myself. Bought for a song on Ebay though it needed quite a bit of TLC. And by a strange coincidence, all the items of furniture in the living room - chairs, cabinet and occasional tables - have little bandy walnut legs. I feel I can hardly go into the room without doing a plié at the very least!

  19. Embalming fluid! Oh no! Modern Dioressence is not that bad, but I know what you mean.

    I always call down thanks on those wonderful bloggers who do sometimes post guides that help date vintage bottles. From memory I think Perfumeshrine has done this for a few of the classic Diors. And Mals has a great review of Emeraude and some other Cotys with illustrations of the various bottles. Vintage ads help a bit too. But there are many traps for the unwary, or even the wary ...

  20. Hi annemariec,

    I did say it was a bit harsh of me, hehe, and I wouldn't say that now about Dioressence. A bit prickly / tingly, maybe? ;-)

    I did have a trawl through the blogs in fact, looking for features on various incarnations of the scent bottles in question. Perfumeshrine and Mals' blog were indeed on my radar, and I also scanned some vintage ads for my Soir de Paris mini featured in my latest post. However, I have not managed to identify the age of these bottles with anything approaching certainty - I did spot a photo of my small Madame Rochas bottle going for quite a lot of money on eBay, and the blurb claimed it was from the 60s, but who is a trusted authority, I wonder?

    Also, the puffer bottle I feature in the post is by Andre Philippe. I found an antiques shop selling another example by him from the 1920s, but I have no idea how long he / his company was producing bottles - maybe his career spanned many decades and mine is from the 50s or later? As you say, it is all a bit of a minefield!