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.
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?