September 09 2011
Fragrancephiles – I hope you have enjoyed my voyage thus far into the obsessions and preoccupations involved in vintage fragrance collecting. If your interest has been piqued, and you feel ready to seek out a treasure for yourself, here is an introductory guide. NB: this is the one time where “spray and pray” is in fact an effective strategy.
To navigate the field, Emily Maben, head of marketing for Penhaligon’s and an avid vintage perfume collector, recommends Roja Dove’s book, The Essence of Perfume, which features a number of fragrances from the early 20th century, together with their styles and characteristics. Basenotes (www.basenotes.net) is a great online community, while 1000fragrances, a blog written by Octavian Coifan (1000fragrances.blogspot.com), carries erudite entries on perfume history.
Go online: Ebay is one of the best places to find vintage fragrances, “but it’s better if you can be specific and search by fragrance name,” advises Maben: “A generic ‘vintage perfume’ search doesn’t work.”
Veronica Pirie of the perfume detectives’ agency Sublime Sourcery (www.sublimesourcery.com), who goes under the name Nana, recommends that you ask questions of your seller: “You need to know where they found the perfume, how long they’ve had it, where they’ve stored it, is it sealed? Above all, find out whether it has been kept away from light, which is most likely to spoil the formulation.” As with all Ebay purchases, check seller ratings and feedback comments. Some have been known to purchase empty bona fide vintage bottles, only to fill them with dupe liquid when selling on.
Even with a good seller, it is impossible to be 100 per cent sure if the perfume will smell as you remember or hope, just as with wine. Perfume can evaporate slowly in the bottle, and it’s fairly normal for the top notes to go over time, while the texture will go more treacly and the colour will deepen.
Be prepared to pay through the nose for the most in-demand perfumes: anything in good condition from Caron, Guerlain, Patou, Balmain and Rochas (pictured: Caron’s Nuit de Noël). As I was writing this, an original and unopened bottle of Caron’s mesmerising Narcisse Noir was selling on Ebay for £950.
If having a full-sized, original bottle doesn’t matter, and you just want to smell the stuff, take a look at The Perfumed Court (theperfumedcourt.com), run by three women in America with a vast collection of fragrances they decant to order. As an indication of the value of some vintage perfumes, just 0.5ml of Chypre de Coty sells at $24. Want 5ml? You’ll be paying $244.
Root around. At vintage fairs, you are unlikely to find traders specialising in perfume as the market is still quite specialist: “Instead, dig around retro clothing stalls for hidden treasure,” says Nana. “I’ve often found scent boxes hidden under piles of gloves or scarves. Once I found an unopened original box of Coty’s Chypre – I couldn’t believe it!” Be prepared for plenty of disappointing forays, though a keen eye should reap a reward sooner or later.
Above all, perfume is made to be worn. So unless you are buying to invest, open the bottle, dab some on, and let the adventure begin.