Why vintage?

why vintage

I have two reasons for delving into vintage perfumery. First, excellence. Second, it’s ripe for excavation.

In perfume, the word vintage is a little like the word niche. It means different things to different people and tends to cause confusion in a discussion. Here are few definitions, all of which I’ll accept: Perfumes no longer produced. Early versions of extant perfumes that that have been changed significantly from their original forms. Perfumes from ‘extinct’ genres. Fragrances from before the 2000s/1990s/1980s—you choose the cut-off date. Vintage perfumery isn’t monolithic, but early to mid-20th century perfume was largely modeled on the French tradition and tended to adhere to high standards. Perfumery, like wine, cuisine and fashion, was a paradigm of French style and aesthetics and standards were maintained both by regulation and social convention.

Though the customs of perfumery were camouflaged, there were formal, codified methodologies and practices. The qualities and dynamics of the olfactory materials in use were well understood and a sophisticated aesthetic was the rule, not the exception. Perfumers searched for intricate beauty and their audiences sought complexity and superior work. Focus-group mediocrity hadn’t yet infected the industry. Perfumes were gorgeous.

If there was a drawback, it was that the perfume industry overvalued tradition and the status quo. The chypre, the mixed floral, the oriental, the fougère were idealized genres. The goal was to strive for perfection within an established form, not necessarily foster nonconformity. Exploration was tolerated. Iconoclasm, not so much.

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The techniques and principles of perfumery were deliberately concealed, but there is evidence: the perfume itself. There are tenets and practices buried in vintage perfumery that we’ve barely started to unravel. A few writers are leading the pack and if you’re looking for smart interpretations of the meaning and history of vintage work, spend some time reading the experts. Elena Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine. Barbara Herman from Yesterday’s Perfume and Scent and Subversion. Gaia Fischler of The Non-Blonde. André Moreau from Raiders of the Lost Scent. Monsieur Guerlain. I dabble, but these writers are the real deal. If you ever have two days to spare, sit down and read the entirely of Perfume Shrine. It is an outstanding exposition of the historical concepts of perfume and the fundamentals of composition.

Whether, or better yet, how perfume is art is an ongoing discussion but without an understanding of the history of the form, the debate is limited. The art/non-art canard usually leads nowhere but in this instance, denying perfume’s artistry serves to maintain the regrettable secrecy of the past.

Perfume is the result of creative and intellectually rigorous work and the abstract nature of the form focuses attention on aesthetics and values. Perfumes can be read and looking closely at vintage perfumes helps decipher the language. Following the work of a perfumer wasn’t an option during most of perfume’s history, since the perfumer wasn’t named. Today it’s possible retrospectively to read a perfumer’s work and career.

Naysayers will say that chasing vintage is mawkish and regressive. It’s like burying your head in the sand. The fact is that looking to the past doesn’t imply anything except perspective. Nostalgia is a problem not because it looks backwards but because it is sentimental. Any art form that creates an artifact (film, visual art, literature) can be interpreted and recontextualized over time. Why not perfume too?

 

(image suzanne-vintage.com)

  5 comments for “Why vintage?

  1. annemariec
    07/09/2016 at 04:26

    This is a lovely piece, but if we are to avoid sentimentality we have to acknowledge that not all perfumes of the past would have adhered to high standards. There would have been cheap, bad derivative perfumes, just as there were cheap, bad novels and cheap bad films. Like a lot of poor quality stuff, it does not survive. A glance at the database available at Perfume Intelligence demonstrates that for many decades of the c.20 there were hundreds, probably thousands, of cosmetic and perfume houses putting out many, many perfumes. A lot of these perfumes might only have been on the market for a few years and the vast majority have not survived. Who now remembers the house of Goya, for instance? Over 50 perfumes released in about a 50 year period. All of them gone.

    Many of these busy houses seem to have put out stuff at the cheaper end of the market. Only the relatively well-off could afford the Chanels, Diors and Guerlains that we venerate today. There has surely always been a lot of product on the market that would not have been haute perfumery, but produced for shop girls, factory hands and suburban housewives.

    I admire the work of all the writers you mention but they tend to focus on the survivors, not the long lost. Mainly they base their writing on the perfumes that have washed up on eBay and estate sales. Lizzie Ostrom takes a different approach for her book Perfume: a century of scents. She delves into the cheap and obscure because she not necessarily interested in the quality of the perfume per se (in some cases she may not have been able to smell the perfumes she writes about) but in what we can learn about the past through this particular cultural product.

    Sorry for the length of this! Interesting topic.

    • jtd
      07/09/2016 at 21:41

      Hi, annemariec,

      Thanks for joining in and commenting. I take your point that not all vintage perfume kept high standards. I’m actually a fan of some of the schlockier, hokey vintage perfumes. Still, I’m often surprised at how well-made many of the perfumes geared for the low end of the market were. One advantage of a market designed to fill specific categories (chypres, florals, fougères, etc) is that the inner workings of the genres were so well-understood that making excellent versions of them wasn’t difficult and didn’t require rare materials. The codes were broken, so to speak.

      I’m phrasing vintage as one option among others–independent/niche, mass market, artisan–that are currently available. As a practical matter the vintage perfumes I refer to are specifically the ones that *have* survived to the present–the ones to be found on ebay, etsy or the like. I write about them to share my excitement for perfumes that are a viable alternative to perfumes produced today–perfumes that are currently available though no longer produced.

      The prospect of a deeper analysis is fascinating and I’m very excited to read Lizzie Ostrom’s book. It sounds like an interesting dive into the broad history of perfume as a cultural artifact.

      • annemariec
        07/11/2016 at 01:44

        Oh I hope you do get a look at Lizzie Ostrom’s book – it’s terrific! And that is not to disparage the work of the other writers. Ostrom could not have done what she has without them. Barbara Herman’s book is another absolute favourite.

        I like your point about the genres being so well-understood that excellence could follow on. How wonderful it must have been to wear Charlie! (for instance) when it first came out. A great fragrance at an affordable price marketed to women who had their own money at their disposal. Wonderful!

  2. 07/08/2016 at 08:53

    For me vintage is “no longer possible” either because of discontinuation, reformulation or regulation. “No longer possible” is also a nice metaphor for all we miss, have missed or regret having missed.

    • jtd
      07/09/2016 at 06:38

      The “no longer possible” category is a big one. I wonder if we’ll apply it to the growing number of releases each year as there will likely be a growing number of discontinuations as well.

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