The Fragrance of Old Things

Walking around the old châteaux in the Loire Valley, I kept cataloging the scents–damp stone, varnished wood, fading lilies, old tapestries. In the Château de Saché where Balzac used to stay for prolonged periods of time, the damask upholstery of the chairs heated by the morning sun gave off a waffle like sweetness, while the green cabinet in the Château de Chenonceau, out of which Catherine de Medici ruled France for 30 years, had a salty whiff of driftwood. Though the former residents of these places are now ghosts–just names in history books, monuments, symbols, it seems through these scents that they linger still, in the shadows.

Old things, things touched by many hands, things bearing marks of time, always drew me. It seemed that they might have their own spirits. Years later when I had the chance to spend time in Japan, I realized that this idea was less fanciful than it seemed, and the whole system of Shinto beliefs is based on the idea that everything possesses a spirit. A place. A tree. A stone. A writing pen.

Might this be one of the reasons why I enjoy old perfumes? Bottles of Shalimar, Violetta di Parma, Cabochard contain not only beautiful smells, but also many stories–the stories that their creators infuse into them as well as the stories that their wearers have added. Wearing them is to add one’s own story.

My perfume today is Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée.

What draws you and why? Perfumes, books, memories?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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81 Comments

  • RAMIN1215: the light = color ( the secret of color) May 9, 2018 at 7:44am Reply

    • Victoria: What do you mean? May 9, 2018 at 9:41am Reply

      • ramin1215: Hello . I am sorry . I can not speak English. When I saw the clock and the light I wrote this. May 10, 2018 at 12:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: Makes sense now! Very poetic. May 12, 2018 at 10:25am Reply

  • Anne: I also love the classics, because I imagine their long history. Perfume, books, of course. May 9, 2018 at 8:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, definitely, books also for me. May 9, 2018 at 9:42am Reply

  • Anne: I forgot to add my classics:
    Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum
    Guerlain Chamade
    Chanel No 22
    I’m still trying to figure out Guerlain Mitsouko. Could anyone help me out with this? May 9, 2018 at 8:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Mitsouko is a complicated perfume, and the best recommendation I’ve gotten about it is simply to revisit it time to time. It doesn’t mean that you’ll end up enjoying it, but you might see new facets. Or maybe it’s just not for you. It does seem different from your other favorites, at least the ones you’ve listed here. May 9, 2018 at 9:44am Reply

      • Cyndi: I used to love Mitsouko. I wore it all the time in my twenties and received many compliments on it. But, today I have a difficult time with it. I own the EDP and will not part with it. However, I don’t love it as much as I once did. I thought it was because of the reformulation. It just doesn’t have the same “magic” for me that it once did. So disappointed! May 9, 2018 at 1:58pm Reply

        • Victoria: Perhaps that’s the reason. It doesn’t smell the same, and although I still like it very much, I can tell the difference. May 9, 2018 at 2:13pm Reply

  • rosarita: Besides perfume, my passions include vintage sterling silver jewelry and costume jewelry, and scarves and handkerchiefs. Old sterling has a unique smell of age and patina that remains even after polishing and the scents of vintage scarves many times have traces of old perfume mingled with the dust of age. I love to imagine how these things were chosen: was it a gift, did someone choose it from a department store to specifically accent a suit or dress? Much of my silver is from the American southwest. Did someone buy it as a vacation souvenir? My mother is 90, and she and her friends collected “Indian” jewelry in high school, wearing rings on every finger and cuff bracelets stacked up their arms. The cheaper sparkling parures of the 50s could be found at the five and dime, did a mother purchase a set for her daughter for Christmas or before a big dance? Thanks for this post, V! I get such pleasure from my collections and don’t have much opportunity to talk about them. ❤️ May 9, 2018 at 8:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Your collection sounds so beautiful. I also love costume jewelry and scarves, so hearing you talk about your collection made me smile. Guessing what story each item holds is a pleasure, isn’t it? May 9, 2018 at 9:48am Reply

    • Anna: Rosarita, I loved your comment. I love the old Southwest silver. It sounds like your mother had a wonderful collection. The old pieces are very special. Thanks for your post!! May 10, 2018 at 11:42am Reply

  • sandra: Scent twins with you today!

    I love vintage posters of perfumes, especially Guerlain..when I am at the spa or boutique and look at all of them as well as those gorgeous bee bottles.. May 9, 2018 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I love them too. At some point you could buy them for pennies on Ebay. I’m not sure if it’s still the case. May 9, 2018 at 9:45am Reply

  • Gina: perfume, books, poetry, horses, yoga

    They all are mediation and prayer for me. May 9, 2018 at 10:02am Reply

  • MMKinPA: I have my dad’s old wool West Point blanket. It smells of him, at least in my mind. I also have a collection of my mom’s scarves which have the same effect. And i kept her bottle of Perfumers Workshop Tea Rose, which she had as long as I can remember so for me – old. May 9, 2018 at 10:11am Reply

    • Severine: Wow! What an amazing way to remember one’s father! May 9, 2018 at 10:39am Reply

    • Victoria: These are such poignant ways to remember your parents. I also have a bottle of a perfume that once belonged to my great-grandmother. Whenever I open the bottle, I think of her. May 9, 2018 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Severine: Books, art, jewelry, embroidery, design, architecture, fashion, perfume, cooking and baking. I am hopelessly girly!
    Also: writing. I’m a pathological scribbler. And living in fantasy… Lol! May 9, 2018 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: As Sei Shonagon of Pillow Book said, how sad we would be if writing didn’t exist. May 9, 2018 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    The main reason I love to buy vintage fragrances is the story I imagine behind them. Many of the bottles were used earlier, by someone who loved them and used them during the best times of her life.
    Shalimar is a grand dame with impeccable style. Diorissimo embodies a romantic lady who daydreamed a lot. Diorella is outspoken and up to date. Miss Dior is reckless and fun. Opium is bold and exotic. Poison is seductive but lethal in high doses, addictive in small doses. And Chanel no 5 is the wise older sister who wraps all men around her finger. May 9, 2018 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: You have such vivid images fitting with each perfume. I enjoyed reading them. May 9, 2018 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Klaas: Hello all! I am in love with the city of Paris, and am especially romantic about the 1900 – 1920 era. Les Ballets Russes, the birth of modernism, Art Deco and – sadly – the Great War. It was the centre of the universe at the time and attracted artists from all over the world. Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Isadora Duncan, Pablo Picasso and Eileen Gray to name just a few……..

    It was also the time whem some of the most iconic perfumes were created: Arpège, Narcisse Noire, Shalimar, Chanel nr. 5, Mitsouko……and the list goes one.

    If I could time travel I’d go to the premiere of le Sacre du Printemps at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, along with Jean Cocteau, Claude Debussy and Gertrude Stein. Just the thought makes my heart skip a beat! May 9, 2018 at 11:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Please take me with you! I also find that whole period fascinating. For myself, this period goes into the 1930s, especially for literature, but the two decades you mentioned saw such so many great artists and writers. And perfumers! May 9, 2018 at 2:09pm Reply

      • Klaas: I’d be happy to take you along, and to extend till the 30’s! So we can include Elsa Schiapparelli and my Holy Grail in perfumery Vol de Nuit. May 10, 2018 at 6:24am Reply

    • Alicia: According to her memories at the debut of The Rite of Spring there was also Coco Chanel. Her affair with Stavinskt might have been inaginary (according to his family , friends and second wife), but how not to remember her in Victoria’s site? Still, no Chanel’s fragrance perfumed the
      According to her mémoires Coco Chanel was also at the debut of The Rite of Spring.Sill no Chanel fragrance perfumed theballet. Of that I am certain. It was written and danced for the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev adored Mitsouko, and went to the extreme of bathing the curtains of the theatre with his beloved scent. Le sacré du Prinptemps smelled of Mitsouko.
      When I was a student at Stanford University in California, I saw one of Stravinsky’s last performances. He was an old man, very small and frail, conducting his Oedipus Rex with miraculous energy. He died the next year. Among my most beloved treasures is the intangible image of elderly Igor transfigured by his own creation. May 9, 2018 at 6:33pm Reply

    • Alicia: Excuse the many typos. Someone came and interrupted my writing. When I returned to it I only noticed a blank and started again. The typos are my fault, as I sent the message without rereading it. Please, excuse me. May 9, 2018 at 6:39pm Reply

  • rickyrebarci: I enjoy physical and personal objects that connect us to times past. I have my mother-in-law’s jewelry and I always feel her wonderful spirit when I wear it. So I wear it often and will pass it down to my son’s children later on. I also cherish a small little glass pin jar that belonged to my grandmother. When I look at it I can see it sitting on my grandmother’s dresser and me asking her if I can play with it. She always said yes, because she knew I was a very careful child and would never break it. May 9, 2018 at 12:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a sweet memory! 🙂 May 9, 2018 at 2:10pm Reply

  • Ann: I second what others are saying, and also I would add: views. That is when I am looking out an old window, or standing outside somewhere scenic, I like to think how the view would have looked to someone 50, 100, 300 years ago. Living in the SF Bay Area, it is fun to imagine what the first explorers saw when their ships entered the Bay–the same hills, many of the same trees, the same inlets… same birds, fish, grass…. and then I try to imagine the view before the first explorers… Also when I am visiting an old house (or chateau!)… I imagine it is a hundred years earlier as I look out of the windows, subtracting the new to go back in time. May 9, 2018 at 12:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that’s a great observation. Being able to imagine all of those places as they once were and as they were once seen by others. May 9, 2018 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Carla: This makes me want to light my candle Dans l’Atelier de Cezanne. We just bought a house in the historic district, a Victorian built in 1891. It is not practical but it is full of the romance of the past in my mind. It’s good to think of the people and events who went before. May 9, 2018 at 1:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Congratulations! May you be very happy in your house. And yes, do light your candle and enjoy its scent. It definitely evokes the old chateaux for me. May 9, 2018 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Madaris: My favorite old smell is from my book collection, encased in a glass-fronted bookcase that came with our 1921 house. For the past 20 years, I have acquired library copies of all of my adored childhood favorites. Some took years to procure but the end result is very satisfying. May 9, 2018 at 3:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that’s a real treasure! What were some of your childhood favorites? May 10, 2018 at 12:28am Reply

  • Gabriela: What a beautiful post! I enjoy looking at photos to travel in time. I imagine how people lived, if they were happy or not…

    I love old things, I have a pair of boots and the older they get, the more beautiful the leather becomes.

    My birth chart says I was born old. Makes me feel wise but sometimes out of place too. May 9, 2018 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Browsing at the flea markets, I’m always drawn to the old photos. All of the stories behind them!

      I know what you mean. Still, being that way has so many advantages. May 10, 2018 at 12:34am Reply

  • Jo: Thinking ‘L’Air de Rien’ May 9, 2018 at 4:51pm Reply

  • Emilie: Oh what a beautiful post Victoria! It made me feel all dreamy and nostalgic.

    Today I am wearing No.22 which also evokes this feeling in me. I am also wearing my gold and garnet heart-shaped locket passed down from my great grandmother (who I was lucky enough to know for 10 years). I agree that objects, perhaps because of the hands they have passed through, can be said to have a soul. I always feel close to my great grandmother wearing her jewellery but also more connected with my family’s history. It makes me feel part of a story that will continue long after I’m gone too.

    I also love old books! Especially collections of folk or fairy tales with beautiful illustrations. I can spend hours trolling bookstores for treasures! One of my most beloved books is a 1905 edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s Exotics and Retrospectives, bound in the most beautiful shade of blue with faded gold edged pages. It smells wonderful too! May 9, 2018 at 10:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Such a lovely image, Emilie! You made me see and even smell the Hearn’s book. I’ve read only his Japanese ghost stories, by the way. Do you know his other writings besides the book you mentioned? May 10, 2018 at 12:22am Reply

      • Emilie: Yes, I actually discovered his writing through a collection of Japanese ghost stories called In Ghostly Japan (was this the book you read? I love the chapter on incense). I’ve only read one other of his works, called Kokoro. May 10, 2018 at 1:24am Reply

        • Victoria: He collect such fascinating material. I would like to read more of his books.

          In general, Japanese ghost stories are among my favorites. May 10, 2018 at 4:14am Reply

  • PEMA: I’ve become aware of the beauty of old fragrances thanks to you, Victoria. I thought they were too classic or old-fashioned. I judged them by one sniff and didn’t try to listen their beautiful stories. Now I think I can do better. 🙂 May 9, 2018 at 10:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so happy to hear it! I don’t always wear those perfumes, but when I do, I feel that I’m traveling back in time. Just to have that option is great. May 10, 2018 at 12:27am Reply

  • Undina: Associations, connections between things, serendipity probably draw me the most.
    When I saw the title, my first thought was that you were playing on words (“of old things” – “of all things”), and that drew me into the post.
    I do not like either old things (unless we’re talking about art or architecture) or old perfumes (unless I “knew” them when at least one of us was young) but I like perfumes with a long history (and talented “reformulators”). May 10, 2018 at 4:22am Reply

    • Victoria: You know, you’re right, because that play on words was in my mind when I was writing this post. It was a part of another idea. That many antiques are beautiful is something many would agree on, but I find that there is also beauty in things that are old and that show the signs of age and use. That beauty may not be as obvious, but when one finds it, it’s such a memorable experience. May 10, 2018 at 4:46am Reply

  • rosarita: I have really enjoyed this post and all the thoughtful comments! May 10, 2018 at 9:38am Reply

    • Victoria: I did too! So many interesting observations. May 12, 2018 at 9:40am Reply

  • Danaki: I have many obsessions. Perfume and the smells of flowers and grass around me. These take me places all the time. Also, crystals and gems…not only because of their dazzling colours but how they represent hidden subsurface chemistries, histories and geographies…they are fascinating to me. Old photographs of people and places, I always wonder about the lives of the individuals in the pictures, their thoughts and feelings, their destiny. Old photos of places (buildings or nature) are also magical things. May 10, 2018 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: An interesting comment on gems and stones. And so true! May 12, 2018 at 9:42am Reply

  • Anna: Beautiful reflections, Victoria. I do believe that inanimate objects have spirit as the Shinto belief. Especially when we are aware of this, being in a special place has so much more meaning. Wearing a special perfume can take us back to former memories or allow us to be so much more in the present moment. May 10, 2018 at 11:39am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree very much. You put it so well. May 12, 2018 at 9:43am Reply

  • Anna: Wanted to say also the photograph was so lovely and fitting for this article. The delicate little china figurine and the lily of the valley in the crystal vase. A wonderful tableau. May 10, 2018 at 11:45am Reply

    • Victoria: I found it in my grandmother’s cupboard. I’m not sure what year it’s from, but I’m sure that my great-grandmother bought it. May 12, 2018 at 10:25am Reply

  • Notturno7: Dear Victoria, what a lovely post!!
    I also have a passion for objects from the past and it could be because I’m so immersed in classical music that I daydream about the composers, their joys and sorrows, long lost loves and passions, and things that inspired them.
    And I just love, love, love vintage perfumes, antique stores, flea markets and finding little treasures that make me wonder about lives of previous owners.
    Thanks to you and also The Guide, I discovered some perfumes that really make me feel like time travel. Just a dab of extraits of Vol de Nuit, Mitsuko, Narcisse Noir, Femme, Bellodgia or Nuit de Noel, L’Air du Temps, Bois des Iles or No 22 or …… and I’m transported somewhere else into another era and it’s great playing the piano inspired like that.
    When I opened your post I was wearing this mini dress but with a 100 year old pendant that my mom’s close friend gave me last summer and that belonged to her old aunt so the timing of this was perfect!!
    One year I went to play a small concert in London and ended up finding a gold and moonstone necklace that was from 1890s in a fancy jewelry store that had a lot of antique jewelry. The box was made of leather and it was soooo old and exquisitely made. I don’t know what has gotten into me but I thought ‘hey I’m performing Brahms tomorrow and he could have been alive when this necklace was made so I might buy it’. I sent my sister to pick it up the next day but they gave her a different box. I was so preoccupied with the concert that I didn’t complain as I was on the plane out of the country the next day but I still regret that box didn’t make it with my beautiful necklace. May 11, 2018 at 5:12am Reply

    • Victoria: How I wish I could hear you performing Brahms. Your jewelry sounds so beautiful. May 12, 2018 at 10:26am Reply

      • Notturno7: You’re so kind, dear Victoria. Thank you.
        I’ll finally finish my all Chopin CD this year but Brahms pieces along with Schumann will be on the next CD.
        Maybe I’ll email you a little audio link of my Brahms until the CD is ready!
        I hope you’re still planning to write the book. You’re a wonderful writer and we love your blog 😀💕 May 13, 2018 at 3:59pm Reply

  • Filomena: Absolutely beautiful photos! May 11, 2018 at 11:39am Reply

  • Austenfan: When I visited Azay-le-Rideau in I think 2012, I swear the attic smelt just like ELdO’s Rien. And the garden at Chenonceau was full of the smell of Wisteria. That is the bigger garden nearer the river.

    My strongest olfactory memory is the smell of the garrigue in Provence. I first smelt it in 1986, and whenever I catch a whiff of it again it is such a powerful experience. On my recent trip to the Jura there were plenty of lilacs in bloom. They always remind me of you, as you often mention how fond you are of their fragrance. May 12, 2018 at 5:33pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello Austenfan, your comments on lilacs reminded me of my wait at the bus stop last week. There is a beautiful lilac in full bloom next to it. Sitting under it on a stone wall, I felt enveloped in the perfume of its flowers. Some little bunches of flowers had fallen onto the wall and pavement. So, I picked one up and kept sniffing their beautiful scent all the way home. Such joy! The lilacs strongly reminded me of FM En Passant. It made me appreciate how beautifully close that perfume was to the real thing. May 13, 2018 at 4:45am Reply

      • Austenfan: En Passant is such a clever perfume. It must be really difficult to get lilacs right.
        Even driving in my car I would know when I passed a lilac bush. The scent was that strong.
        Have you ever tried Vacances by Patou? It’s a lovely spring floral with a lot of lilac in it. May 13, 2018 at 8:17am Reply

        • Notturno7: Hi Austenfan, I like your correspondence with Silvermoon.
          Do you have an advice where to find Vacances? I’ve been trying for a while and no luck yet. Never saw it on ebay although I keep looking. May 13, 2018 at 4:10pm Reply

          • Austenfan: I got mine (at full retail price!) at ausliebezumduft. They have a sample service as well so that is always good to know. And I’ve seen it at Senteurs d’ailleurs in Brussels.
            I’ve also seen it on and off on various Notino sites, but I’m a bit weary of that company, although I’ve never bought any stuff there.
            I think I’ve seen some of the Heritage Collection Patous on Ebay, but I’m checking European ebay. (I’m sorry but I can’t remember which side of the Atlantic you are). May 13, 2018 at 4:36pm Reply

            • Notturno7: Wow! Thank you Austenfan!
              That’s great to know. I’m in the U.S. so maybe I’ll call and see if they’ll ship it to me.
              If you find that you have an extra bottle 🤔I’d be happy to purchase it from you.
              I wonder if it’s a extrait or a different concentration.
              Victoria, thank you for the lovely post and photos. Just wonderful!! May 13, 2018 at 5:39pm Reply

              • Austenfan: Mine is an Eau de Parfum, I don’t think the current version is available in any other concentration. And I’m sorry to say that mine was only a recent purchase and not one I’m willing to part with in the near future 😉 May 14, 2018 at 6:32am Reply

                • Notturno7: Thank you so much for the info, dear Austenfan!
                  LOL!!
                  I love the fact that you’re not ready to part with it 😉, that’s the best recommendation!
                  Sorry! I meant to reply right away but have been working too much ( to pay for all these amazing fragrances 😂) May 15, 2018 at 11:20pm Reply

              • Victoria: I’m so glad that you liked it. May 15, 2018 at 3:45am Reply

              • Victoria: Ausliebezumduft should ship to the US. May 15, 2018 at 3:46am Reply

    • Victoria: That garden wasn’t yet blooming fully when we visited, but it had many tulips and other spring flowers.

      The garrigue is one of my top favorite scents ever. It smells like nothing else. May 15, 2018 at 3:29am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Dear Austenfan, thanks so much for this other suggestion. Somehow Vacances has slipped me by – and I see that Victoria gave it five stars some years ago. So, now I shall definitely look for it. And, yes, lilacs are so beautiful – smell and looks. May 13, 2018 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Austenfan: I completely forgot to reply. I think Victoria gave 5 stars to an older version of Vacances than the one I have. But I also think she once mentioned somewhere that the reformulation is quite good. Anyway, for what it’s worth; I think it’s utterly wonderful and well worth sampling. May 14, 2018 at 6:37am Reply

  • Aurora: It is wonderful that the ‘chateaux de la Loire’ inspired you to write this article. I remember visiting Chambord at dusk, deers were grazing in the park, I will never forget it. May 13, 2018 at 9:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I will write more about them, since there were so many amazing things to discover there. May 15, 2018 at 3:49am Reply

  • Madaris: Bulldog Sheila by T.F.W. Hickey, A Spell Is Cast by Eleanor Cameron, The Happy Planet by Joan Clarke, Secret of the Sandhills by Kitty Barne, The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink, & Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes. That’s just a few of the “chapter books” I read as a child & have found again. May 16, 2018 at 2:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for mentioning them. May 17, 2018 at 6:50am Reply

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