old/new—digging (into) vintage

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The business of niche perfumery is gridlocked. The combination of two opposing forces is pushing perfumery to a tipping point and the market is on track to slam the brakes soon. The first is the escalating pace of new perfumes and the second is a concept called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. The principle holds that the perceived value of a commodity (eg. perfume) declines with each additional unit consumed. The second (or twentieth) bottle doesn’t provide any greater satisfaction than the first. It’s like an addict chasing the first, the greatest high. But there are bright spots, notably the reinvention of retired genres like the chypre by a varied group of artisanal perfumers. They propose a neo-classical style as an alternative to the post-modern tack niche usually takes.

Traditional perfumers learned their craft by building and manipulating accords. Contemporary perfumers have hacked the chypre and are taking it for a ride. They often work in reverse. Rather than starting with building accords, they deconstruct them and screw with them. Their source material is the work of the perfumers who saw the chypre as the ideal form: Jean Carles, Edmond Roudnitska, Guy Robert and Germaine Cellier.

These vintage perfumes are an enormous asset to curious perfumers, but they’re buried treasure to perfume aficionados. There are a great number of fumies who know in detail both the last 15-20 years of ‘niche’ and decades of vintage perfume. They have followed independent perfumery for long enough to recognize the doldrums and have an alternative: their vintage collections. Whether a couple of old bottles or a dedicated drawerful, vintage perfumery is a mature field to harvest while indie perfumery goes through a fallow spell.

These neoclassical perfumers and their audience share a love of the same historical perfumes and they want to push the discussion beyond nostalgia. This current trend is custom-built for those of us who dig both vintage and independent perfumery. Juggling both in your head is easy if you’re into it, like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It takes no particular effort and gives a broader perspective to contemporary work. It’s not so much new vs. old as a continuity from then til now.

I’m hoping to write more about both recent artisanal work and vintage perfumery. I want to find a way to discuss them simultaneously. Though they were produced decades apart, I experience them together today.

Starting now with Bandit.


(image La Merridienne, Van Gogh)

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  1. brock says:

    What a wonderful, much needed series. Thank you!

  2. Grayspoole says:

    I’ll be reading your old/new series with great interest, Jtd. I investigate and collect vintages not because I am antiquary, but because they are simply great perfumes. And I continue to test and buy new perfumes, usually from independent perfumers, but it is rare to find a new perfume that is as good as my old ones. I sometimes wonder if some of the folks who are hyping some perfumes of the more disappointing neoclassical niches have ever smelled a well-preserved example of the vintage precedents, but I try to keep an open mind. Right now, I’m tracking down as many of Paul Vacher’s compositions for Le Galion as I can, and so far, every one has been outstanding. I was led to try Vacher’s Gardenia (1937) after experiencing Tauer’s Gardenia (2014), and I think both compositions are equally relevant and wearable today.

    1. jtd says:

      In looking up Paul Vacher for the piece on Bandit I saw how many of the original le Galion perfumes he composed. I’m interested in following individual perfumers through vintage. It’s an advantage we have today that was impossible at the time the perfumes were composed. No one knew who the perfumers were!

      I have just started writing something about Guy Robert. I don’t have every perfume that he made, but I have about half. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on these perfumers by any means. It would be great to have all of the perfumers work, but I will try to write realistically from what I do have. I’m trying to be practical.

  3. Ines says:

    I like this idea. It’s actually what I’ve been doing – slowly dipping into my vintage collection while waiting for the love I used to have for perfumes to come back in full force. :)

    1. jtd says:

      Ines, exactly! I think there’s a way to see vintage perfumes fumes as a continuity rather than ‘museum pieces.’

  4. Cook.bot says:

    Ohhhh, this is gonna be fun. Every scent you mentioned in your Bandit piece is in my Most Treasured Vintage drawer. After reading it, I wondered if it would be possible to create a chart, like a family tree or org chart, to demonstrate the connections and begats.

    Hoping you cover Diorella and her siblings/descendants soon.

    1. jtd says:

      Cook.bot, I’m trying to find a way to cover Diorella and Roudnitska. Do I focus on everything he’s done? Diorella’s place in a specific line (Moustache, Eau Fraiche, Parfum de Thérèse, Eau Sauvage, Diorella, Ocean Rain)? Femme/Diorella–the rotten fruity chypre and its sequel nearly 30 years later?

      I’m going to have to think about that one.

  5. lalunnaturals says:

    I started my collection of vintage perfumes as a library of precedents for my fragrance design. A vintage perfume could serve as inspiration for a new take on an old accord or could help inform a design concept.

    However, I’ve always been mindful of the fact that many vintage perfumes do not survive the vagaries of time untouched. In many cases, top notes have degraded lending an initial sour impression. In addition, there is the element of time itself. One cannot time travel (despite my best efforts) and so one’s perception of a vintage will always be through the lens of the present, not the past.

    That said, I’ll try to remain patient while you gather your thoughts on the subject!

    1. jtd says:

      lalunnaturals, you’re right about the eventual degradation of perfume over time. All perfumes are on a slow but stready decline from the moment they’re bottled. I was sniffing a number of versions of Shalimar and Mitsouko yesterday with a friend and the discussion of how perfumes vary over time was really interesting. Aging can reveal a perfume and having a 5, 10 and 20 year old version of any given fragrance can lead to interesting discussion.

      It’s exciting that you incorporate analysis of older perfumes in designing your fragrances. You seem to have a practical application of Luca Turin’s premise that perfume is a form of portable intelligence.

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