Collecting Vintage Perfume: A Sensory Pursuit

Scent is our most evocative sense.

Photograph of flapper applying Shalimar, via:

Conjuring both memory and emotion, our sense of smell creates new memories and helps us to recall those long forgotten. For some, the recollection of tender childhood moments is intertwined with the scent memories of perfumes our mothers and grandmothers wore. These classic fragrances were distinct in their makeup and very different in character to the reformulations on the market today. Many of the ingredients have been banned or regulated out of use. Some have simply been re-imagined to cater to modern tastes. A whiff of the current Chanel No. 5 is just a whisper of what it used be when Marilyn Monroe wore it to bed. And the modern version of Guerlain's iconic Shalimar isn’t nearly as dirty as it’s reputation precedes it to be. Long gone are the days when there were three things a lady never did: smoke, dance the tango, and wear Shalimar.

In recent years, the IFRA (International Fragrance Association), has worked aggressively to ban and restrict the use of many natural and animal ingredients due to a rising concern for human health and the environment. Known allergens and natural musk are amongst the ingredients most heavily affected by these controls. Unfortunately, these are some of the ingredients that gave classic perfumes much of their charm. Although new reformulations of the classics may smell similar, they are at a loss for the notes that gave depth of character, distinction, lasting power, and subtle blending nuance to the original fragrances. The women who have worn these fragrances for decades will be the first to share their disappoint in the recent changes, for they are the ones to have lived in them.

One of the restricted ingredients is oakmoss, a tree lichen that grows mainly in the mountainous Balkans, has been deemed an irritant to sensitive skin by the IFRA. As it is an essential ingredient for all chypre accords, many perfume houses have been forced to rely on synthetic approximations as stand-ins for oakmoss in their new fragrance formulas. The idiosyncrasies of such a complex scent are not easily synthesized. The current reformulation of Chanel No. 5 is an example of a classic perfume that suffers from the use of new mossy aroma materials. Guerlain, however, has cultivated and patented its own species of oakmoss to meet the IFRA’s dermatological standards. This means that Guerlain’s classic Mitsouko retains much of its original character in its current reformulation.

The recent regulations of historically important notes are just one of the reasons vintage perfumes have become so desirable to collectors. The only way to experience the craftsmanship and artistry of the noses behind these scents, is to sniff the original juice.

In our upcoming January 23rd Premier auction, we feature a collection of classic perfume that includes a sampling from three of the major fragrance houses of the 19th Century: Guerlain, Caron, and Chanel. The following is a brief chronological history of vintage perfume as told through this collection.

Jicky, Guerlain, 1889

Lot 1381 includes three bottles of vintage Guerlain perfume in their original presentation boxes.

Created by Aimé Guerlain in 1889, Jicky was the world’s first modern perfume. It was completely unisex and incorporated both natural ingredients and the newly discovered synthetics: coumarin and vanillin. As a fougere, it’s main accord is a contrast of astringent lavender, bright citrus, and dusty oakmoss. Jicky also famously contains an inordinate amount of civet. Civet is a glandular secretion obtained from the African civet cat. Its scent is fecal when concentrated; but sweet when dilute.

Jicky became the fragrance worn by dandies and was reportedly a favorite of a young Sean Connery. The original flacon takes the shape of a 19th Century pharmacy jar, while the quadrilobe stopper resembles a champagne cork.

Apres L’Ondee, Guerlain, 1906

Lot 1380.

Apres L'Ondee was created by Jacques Guerlain in 1906. It was born of the vibrant arts movement of the Belle Epoque-- it is a perfume of a landscape. The composition is much like an impressionistic watercolor or pastel in it's attempt to capture a sun-warmed garden after a spring shower. Translated from french, Apres L'Ondee reads: “After the Rainshower”.

It is a delicate combination of orange blossom, violet, iris, spicy carnation, and vanilla that features a synthetic never-before used in perfume: Anise Aldehyde. The Louis XVI style flacon was created by Pouchet et du Courval.

Mitsouko, Guerlain, 1919

Lot 1381.

Mitsouko was created by Jacques Guerlain in 1919. It was a product of the japonisme (an obsession with all things Japanese) that enveloped Europe during the Victorian Era. The perfume was inspired by a fictional love story popular at the time. The heroine, Mitsouko, is the the wife of a Japanese admiral who falls in love with a British officer during the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. With both men gone to war, she must wait with dignity to see who will return to her.