This blog can occasionally get breathless about perfume classics, and if you start me on Après l’Ondée, you’d think that you haven’t lived until smelling this Guerlain perfume from 1906. There is nothing wrong with admiring classics and sharing one’s enthusiasm about them, but I would like to provide some balance to the veneration of perfumes made before most of us were born. There is a fine line between acquiring a taste for new combinations of materials or unfamiliar notes and forcing yourself to like a perfume just because it has a pedigree.
First of all, not all fragrances made decades ago were great, so just because perfume is old, there is no guarantee that it’s special. There used to be just as many copycats, slapdash affairs, and lots of crass (and sexist) marketing in the past, so romanticizing the era misses the point. Even Jacques Guerlain created numerous failures before coming up with gems like Mitsouko and L’Heure Bleue. Similarly misplaced is the idea that liking classics is an instant mark of sophistication. I can’t think of less sophisticated perfumes than Dana Tabu, Schiaparelli Shocking or Estée Lauder Youth Dew. They’re loud, brash and impudent, and that’s their very point. Great perfumes to be sure, but refined they are not.
Second, many classics have been tweaked over the years. I covered more of this topic in My Perfume Was Reformulated! What to Do?, so here I will just note a few points that relate to classics. In some cases, the alterations were made because the ingredients have changed. For instance, as fat based enfleurage was superseded by more efficient techniques, the scent of jasmine essence became brighter and more nuanced. Even tiny differences like these have significant consequences for the perfume formula; human noses are extremely precise and recognize the slightest deviations. Changes in ingredient processing made reformulations necessary, but now we have a double whammy of cost increases and ingredient regulations. The result is that pretty much everything on the market older than 2-3 years has been altered. Some reformulations are excellent, others less so, but if you smell No 5 today and believe that it’s the same perfume Coco Chanel selected in 1921, you’re mistaken. (For the record, I love the current version of No 5).
To put it roughly, to smell Diorissimo, Caron Narcisse Noir, Miss Dior and Yves Saint Laurent Opium in their current versions is like seeing Monet’s Water Lilies interpreted by another artist. Not quite the same experience, although the new interpretation might be special. In the same vein, the aforementioned are now interesting perfumes on their own terms, but they don’t resemble the original versions. I don’t wish to encourage vintage snobbery, however. We just need to keep the classics in perspective and recognize that they change with time, sometimes not for the better.
This brings me to another point. Perfume is the product of its era, created for a specific audience and following contemporary fashions. Truly timeless fragrances, even among classics, are few, and one may not enjoy the aesthetic that was prevalent during the 30s, 40s, or 70s. I’d rather bathe myself in Lancôme La Vie est Belle than wear Jean Patou Joy. I recognize it as an iconic perfume, but when I put it on, I feel like I’m trailing my great-grandmother’s coat with a fur pelt collar, tail and whiskers intact–it was fashionable back in the 30s, she told me. Some vintages are too retro for my taste, both in clothes and perfumes. I’m a product of my own time too, for better or worse.
The different aesthetic may be the reason to delve into classics, and there is a phase when you adjust to the different effects, heavier doses of floral absolutes, mosses or animalic notes. If you’ve never smelled an old school chypre in its inky moss and tangy leather glory, you’re in for a shock (or a treat). But when you read reams of text on the beauty of Mitsouko or No 19 and finally sample them, the shock might be not the perfumes themselves but the realization that you don’t like them.
When I was new to fragrance and didn’t yet know my tastes, this was never a pleasant feeling. Is there something wrong with my nose? Are my samples off? How can a fragrance described as the most expensive floral on earth smell like water left over from a wilted bouquet?
There was nothing wrong with my nose or the perfume. It was simply a lack of chemistry. If you find yourself in a similar position, chalk it up to your own unique tastes. Some of these fragrances were created to be polarizing, and the perfumers working on them were deliberate about touching a nerve. As Germaine Cellier once remarked on Robert Piguet Bandit, “I didn’t make it to be likable.” At another point in time you might smell Bandit and appreciate its dramatic leather, but today it might merely smell aggressive and harsh.
A perfume hobby is flexible enough to include all sorts of approaches and can be anything from a search to find a signature scent to a PhD dissertation level of geekiness. The beauty of this pursuit is that whatever form it takes, it’s rewarding. You smell aromatic things, you think, you delight in something so intangible, so fleeting and yet so poignant. Approaching perfume classics is not too different. Enjoy them for what they are–fragrances that influenced perfume history and gave different eras their unique scents–but also remember that you have your own world to perfume, and not all classics may fit its spirit.
Which perfume classics do you struggle with? What fragrances have you tried hard to like only to discover that they don’t touch you?
Images: 1–by Bois de Jasmin; 2–1956 ad for Jean D’Albret Ecusson; 3–1946 ad for Bourjois Mais Oui; 4–Shalom Harlow by Patrick Demarchelier, 1996, Chanel Coco ad.