Monday, February 20, 2012

The Question of Vintage 2: The Moral of the Mystery Scent Vial Trial and Related Ruminations

Are people who engage in discussions about vintage perfumes
ever really talking about the same thing?

I continue to ask this question most sincerely but have yet to receive a satisfactory—or any—answer from vintage-lovers themselves. We are obliged, therefore, my fellow fragrant travelers, to forge on without them. The time has arrived at last to regale you with the tale and share the results of a recent experience of mine which bears directly on the never more weighty topic at hand.

Having recently completed a Mystery Scent Vial Trial (marvelously mentored by salonista Awesomeness), The Question of Vintage has been pressing more and more insistently upon my mind. Indeed, the question achieved an acute sense of urgency as a small group of my perfumista friends attempted to determine the identity of the perfumes contained within four vials prepared by Awesomeness and marked only with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The Mystery Scent Vial Trial involved a mixture of vintage and reformulated classic perfumes. Some of the vials contained perfumes, I would later learn, which I had never smelled. Others I had tested in name, but in composition? That is another matter altogether!

If the Estée Lauder Youth Dew familiar to me was not from the same formulation as the one in the vial, much less the same batch, can I really make any claims or assumptions whatsoever about Youth Dew in general? Can anyone, pray tell? If I have only ever sniffed the reformulation of a classic perfume such as Coty Emeraude, should I be able to recognize a vintage sample when I come across it?

Through the now historic Mystery Scent Vial Trial 1 (we'll be doing more of them, I am delighted to be able to report), I discovered that the answer to the questions in both cases was a resounding No.

Reformulated Youth Dew smelled different enough from my experience of vintage Youth Dew to sow doubts in my mind, causing me first to guess that the vial contained that perfume, then to retract my guess, and finally to settle once again on Youth Dew as the best candidate, though the composition had obviously changed. If the truth be known, I eventually gravitated back to the correct answer, not only because I could not come up with anything else that rivaled the contents of the vial in sheer stinkiness, but also because no other perfume in my experience had ever looked the same!

Yes, Youth Dew, the ironically named Platonic Form of Old Lady Perfume, is the only elixir in existence empirically indistinguishable from the dehydrated body fluids of a nonagenarian who chain-smoked Camel straights for seventy years. The perfume has been reformulated, but for ready identification—or perhaps in a half-hearted gesture of hypocritical veneration—the appearance has been kept more or less the same.

The most surprising and problematic of the Mystery Scent Vial Trial cases involved vintage Halston eau de cologne, of which I happen to have a bottle in the back of my armoire, although I never use it and do not recall any occasion on which I ever did. I do not know why, to be honest, but that's the way it is. Come to think of it, it may have had something to do with the fact that someone I knew wore it, someone whom I, let us say, did not want to emulate... In any case, what I discovered when I compared my vintage Halston edc in a side-by-side test with the vintage Halston edc in the vial was that, lo and behold, they smelled nothing alike!

All of this was of course grist for my skeptical mill and specifically supported my contention that even two initially identical perfumes, drawn from the very same batch, can transform radically over the course of the years since they parted ways—separated at birth, so to speak—in the manner of identical twins given up to two different adoptive families.

But the results of Mystery Scent Vial Trial 1 also offer, more generally, further grounds for my relative cynicism about the entire enterprise—and it is one, you may rest assured, thanks to decanters—of vintage perfume. Which reminds me: I recently learned from a quick cyberstroll through a few decanter aisles that my vintage bottle of Balmain Ivoire is worth … drum roll ... $4,000!

That's right, believe it or not, The Perfumed Court charges $199 for a 5ml decant of a perfume, a 100ml bottle of which I picked up from a discount emporium for $20. How could this possibly be? you may well be wondering, and not without reason.

The answer is disarmingly simple: discount emporia are not in the vintage business. They are in the “get rid of large palettes of old boxes of old perfumes as quickly as possible” business. They know that young perfume users (the most frequent consumers of their wares) are usually looking to acquire new launches and celebrity perfumes.

This is how and why we perfumistas can sometimes enrich our collections with a bottle of Balmain perfume for $20. Are the bottles vintage? Sometimes they are; sometimes they are not. It's all a game of chance. This same bottle lottery of sorts makes it possible for decanters, too, to transform “leftovers” and “undesirables” acquired from discount emporia into veritable gold-mine finds, as the case of my $4,000 bottle of Balmain Ivoire amply illustrates.

So what's wrong with that? you may ask, and not without reason. What, indeed, is wrong with marking a bottle up from $20 to $4,000? That's only 10,000%, after all.

The questions are no doubt proliferating and surfacing rapidly in your mind, not unlike the bubbles of a freshly opened bottle of Gerolsteiner mineral water:

Is sherapop some kind of communist??

Is she asserting the existence of a military-industrial-congressional-media-pharmaceutical-perfume decanter complex???

Don't decanters deserve to make a living just like everybody else????

Calm down, calm down, my fragrant friends. Yes, of course, they may do whatever they like, and if people are foolish enough to pay the prices they ask for their decanted perfumes, then they deserve what they get—whatever it may be! Which reminds me of a tangentially related topic...


I must confess to a complete lack of understanding of the recent case in which a French court fined a group of big perfume houses 40 million euros ( = 53 million U.S. dollars) for price-fixing policies which resulted in ... charging their customers too much? What?? Isn't that just capitalism???

Well, it's clearly the case that here, in the good old plutocratic United States of America, whoever has the gold makes the rules. Isn't that, after all, why CEOs in this country earn more in a year than a dozen functionaries and grunts do together in a lifetime?

I might understand such a case if it involved fining companies for, say, withholding milk from small children and thus jeopardizing their lives. (Of course that would never happen—I mean the fines...) But … perfume? What is this world coming to?

Well, assuming that the judgment sticks (which would surprise me, frankly), one thing is clear: the French government needs to enlist some of their francophone friends in Montreal to send some mounties on mooses down to investigate the practices of the persons working behind the scenes at The Perfumed Court posthaste!

Of course, there are much swifter and surer solutions to these nagging concerns, and you may rest assured that the power brokers at Estée Lauder (one of the implicated companies, most of the rest of which were French, dont LVMH) have been strategizing assiduously, day and night since the judgment, not only to evade the abominable fine but to reveal the intrinsic corruption of the French justice system which led to this outrageous and flagrant mistake.

For those of you who do not already know, here are the current members of the Estée Lauder Empire, er, Group:

  • Estée Lauder
  • Aramis
  • Clinique
  • Prescriptives
  • Lab Series Skincare For Men
  • Origins
  • Tommy Hilfiger
  • M•A•C
  • Kiton
  • La Mer
  • Bobbi Brown
  • Donna Karan
  • Aveda
  • Jo Malone
  • Bumble and bumble
  • Michael Kors
  • Darphin
  • American Beauty
  • Flirt!
  • GoodSkin Labs
  • Grassroots Research Labs
  • Sean John
  • Missoni
  • Tom Ford
  • Coach
  • Ojon
  • Smashbox
  • Ermenegildo Zegna

This ever-lengthening list leads one quite naturally to inquire: What will the future bring?

Would it really be such a stretch to add General Electric to the Estée Lauder Group portfolio? I think not. From there, a resolution to the problem at hand would of course be academic, and I've no need to spell out the details of what this would involve to you, my astute fellow fragrant travelers.

Then again, on the off chance that one of the dull members of the duct tape crowd is lurking about—no doubt looking for a topic of discussion a bit more interesting than “What's your favorite Creed?”—perhaps I should sketch out the broad outlines of how the story would proceed.

With General Electric under the auspices of the Estée Lauder Group, the enthusiastic support of the United Nations—and, more importantly, the power to back it up—would also be in their clasp. Should the confused French government persist, they would never, ever succeed in extracting the money, since they themselves do not possess the military means by which to threaten any consequences for refusal to comply.

To those who believe that France's veto power at the U.N. might be more than nominal, I can only reply: so did Dominique de Villepin back in 2003. Remember the invasion of Iraq? A violation of international law according to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan himself? Need I say more?

Suffice it say, then, that with the acquisition of General Electric by the Estée Lauder Group, the French court folly (as it will be written into history by the victors) would be definitively resolved. Meanwhile, on another front, the three housewives armed with pipettes and vast stockpiles of vintage perfume—in addition to all of their analogues strewn across the broad underbelly of this land—would be summarily vaporized by Predator drone. Alas, such a victory for us would be merely Pyrrhic, for animal rights activists, too, would suddenly and not-so-mysteriously evaporate from the face of the earth.

Well, for now, rather than spinning out any further dystopic fantasies, let us just hope that the French government will begin importing large shipments of Peet's coffee very soon. Where were we? Ah yes,...


Salonista and fellow fragrance fanatic Fruitdiet reports that a palette currently being emptied at Amazon contains ... drum roll ... vintage Balmain Ivoire! If you drop what you're doing right now—yes, navigate away from this page—and rush to place an order at Amazon immediately, you may or may not be sent a bottle from that very same propitious palette, and your possible treasure may turn out to be just a cheap reformulation dud. On the other hand, if the decanters obtained their (appreciated) $4,000 bottle from e-bay, it may also be a cheap reformulation, unbeknownst to them. Three housewives armed with pipettes. Yes, Charybdis and Scylla rear their ugly heads once again...

Awesomeness pointed out in a comment on The Question of Vintage that if you can date a perfume by its bottle, then that's always a good thing. The woman not only smells sublime; she also speaks the truth, which is of course divine. I believe that dating bottles obtained from purveyors of perfume who are not a part of the decanter-vintage enterprise (not quite as insidious as the merely hypothetical military-industrial-congressional-media-pharmaceutical-perfume decanter complex...) is actually more likely to reveal the age of the perfume inside.

Why? Because discount emporia are not thinking in big price terms. They are thinking in little price terms multiplied by lots of bottles—again, warehouses and palettes. In stark contrast, e-bay peddlers of perfume—and their moral equivalents, gray market decanters—are thinking in vintage terms, wringing their hands together as they calculate the maximum price they will be able to command for a single vintage perfume persuasively promoted and divided into tiny "hand-decanted" (quoi d'autre?) aliquots.


Our lengthy excursus embedded within an excursus of what may have seemed to be dubious relevance does in fact eventually lead us back to the crux of a far more substantive concern: the breakdown in communication between perfumistas occasioned by the simultaneous existence of two completely different perfumes bearing precisely the same name and produced by the very same house.

Call it the problem of Estée Lauder Youth Dew, or the problem of Balmain Ivoire, or the problem of Guerlain Mitsouko, as you like: it's all the same problem, and it is now in virtual ubiquity as a direct result of IFRA restrictions-rationalized reformulations running rife.

Yes, far more serious than the first Tower of Babel problem of variable hyposmias, anosmias, and hyperosmias, which is exacerbated, of course, by skin chemistry, vintage perfumes and their reformulations constitute one of the greatest sources of breakdowns of communication, another notable case of, yes, none other than the Tower of Babel in perfumery.

I implore someone, anyone, anywhere, to please answer these questions at last:

Are people who engage in discussions about vintage and reformulated perfumes which go by the same name even talking about the same thing?


  1. Well, Shera Pop, that was some posting! Perhaps I need to try switching Peet's with my Level 5 Seattle's Best (which I am sad to say I am out of, and drinking 2/3 Level 5 with a scoop of House Blend!) as you are really on a roll! I apologize for not making it to the very first "A Question of Vintage" post and shall try *time and caffeine levels allowing* to sound off!

    First and foremost, I agree with what you were saying about eBay and am leaning towards believing that "three housewives with pipettes" urban legend. I have purchased a few "vintage" (defined by me as older formula/usually discontinued/pre-IFRA meddling) perfumes from there. So good. I DO always buy from those who have 97-100% positive feedback (no one is ever happy all the time!) and who ship quickly. I did, however, when offered my much coveted LE PARFUM set for in excess of a grand...balk! *shudders*

    Vintage to me simply means "older", and perhaps (usually since the IFRA got involved) richer versions. Usually that "v" word means original or older than 25 years...I am astounded that DIOR Homme Intense (released in 2007, wasn't it?) has already been reformulated and now, in 2011, those bottles are being labelled VINTAGE!! I consider vintage things like IMARI (yes, it's Avon...I know!) from the 80s. Today it is a far cry from what it was oomph, no balmy incensiness, not grandeur. Rare Sapphires (gorgeous grapefruit, lily of the valley and vetiver scent) discontinued in the early aughties; while Rare Gold and Rare Pearls (fiddly dee dee), in the modern reformulations *pedestrian compared to my vintages*, continue to sell thousands of bottles. (?!?!?!)

    What vintage means, to me, is more of a "real perfume" type of smell and not the watered-down-to-within-an-inch-of-its-scent-life "perfume by numbers" that is so ubiquitous these days. Something gorgeous, that's dripping in civet and heady swirls of REAL oakmoss (not that tree moss crap) rich with flowers spices and woods and something that smells like it should and did when no one (actually) appreciated it.

    *takes breath, prepares for Part 2*

    1. Greetings, Gypsyparfumista! Thank goodness you have the gumption to dive into my chaotic ramblings and impart some order to this discussion!

      I love your working definition of "vintage", and I do think that you are speaking for vintage-lovers here when you say, in effect, that "real perfume" has a sort of depth and complexity which all of the reformulations--in effect, watered-down muzak versions of classics--lack.

      The mystery in all of this is: What in the world is going on?

      How can so many perfume houses have been taken over by accountants and industrial chemists who fail altogether to grasp the beauty of vrai parfum--or else they just don't care? Why would someone go into the perfume business if they did not love perfume?

      Perhaps the answer to that question is contained within itself.

      Keyword: BUSINESS...

  2. {PART TWO}

    Vintage, by definition, is as follows:

    From my Illustrated Oxford University Dictionary (that I picked up for a DOLLAR at a yard BUCK I ever spent!) VINTAGE (not pertaining to wine) is defined as: (adj)1-of high quality, esp. from the past or characteristic of the best period of a person's *or Houses* work 2-of a past season. THAT is a definition I believe we, as parfumistas, can "work" with. *winks*

    It is true that when I smelled Vial 4 (in the same mystery sample challenge) I was SURE it was Estee Lauder; but, (to me) it was NOT the Youth Dew I know (and happen to LOVE) as I use the BATH OIL as pure parfum would be used-dabbed (or slathered) as need or mood dictates. The edp used in the "challenge" was nowhere near as thick or "earthy" as mine is/was. Again it is possible that though they may have come from the same batch one was kept safely in the back of the armoire and the other sat out (on a dressing table or bathroom counter *for some portion of its life* and changed, albeit subtly).

    DECANTING, in and of itself, can cause the juice *usually sealed until spraying* to come into contact with the air and thus begin to oxidize or "break down". I do not claim to understand all of the intricacies; but, common sense tells ME that if you keep them cool and in the dark they will smell better than the things I have seen (and smelled) at swap meets that have been under a blazing sun for God knows how many years and stored in someone's shed, when not being hawked, exposing them to extremes of heat and cold (depending on geographic area).

    I have many vintages (including some from the 50s and 60s) that were lovingly kept by the original owners, and secondary owners *if any* and this leads us to a question of provenance. Do you know when it was actually made, where it was, how it was stored, and what you are really getting? I only get "vintages" I own are from the owners and I try to get as much information as possible BEFORE PURCHASING! My DIOR Dioressence eau de cologne (in the houndstooth box and label) smells WAY better than its modern analogue (to my nose anyway). As does the LALIQUE bottle L'Air du Temps edt splash I got Mother for Christmas this past year. Vintage does NOT always mean better...but it usually does mean heavier, more quality ingredients and more OOMPH (I love that onomatopoeia) than current releases and those from the last few years do.

    Many Yves Rocher vintages that I own smell downright nasty from the bottle (like they have soured or turned and the aldehydes have breathed their last breath) BUT when they hit the skin...they still bloom wonderfully and smell way better than most do today (for real)! I am not a vintage-o-phile, per se, but I do appreciate the construction of a magnificent perfume and am happy to say I have many in my collection. In 99.999996785& of specific perfumes...they do smell better, at least to me. Better meaning more projection and lifespan, more depth and complexity and less wan in general.

    1. Excellent, this is what I have been waiting for, Gypsy Parfumista: a defense of the entire vintage operation. You have persuasively explained the mindset, I think, of vintage lovers in your post.

      At the same time, you are not blinded to the problems which arise naturally with vintage perfumes. I love your example of "swap meets under the blazing sun." Yes, that is a huge source of my skepticism--not swap meets, in particular, but the general lack of information about how any vintage perfume was cared for.

      My suspicion is that lots of them have been passed from swap meet to swap meet to garage sale to garage sale, BEFORE ending up on e-bay or in the decanters' dark, cool, storage rooms. By then, of course, the a lot of damage has already been done.

      You also frankly acknowledge what vintage lovers and detractors have often reported: these perfumes, as natural products which therefore naturally degrade over time, either lose their top notes or they turn slightly (or very...) sour and off-putting.

      The difference between someone like you (a vintage lover, albeit a circumspect one...) and someone like Guusje, who eloquently explained in a comment on The Question of Vintage 1 why she eschews "old" perfumes in general, is that you think that the drydown is worth the wait, while vintage detractors are more interested in the overall experience. If it starts out gross, then it is in some ways... gross!

  3. In closing, I would like to say:

    In answer to your two questions, Shera Pop, I would venture this:

    1) They are (or should be) smelling the same things if they know (beyond reasonable doubt) that what they are smelling is INDEED a vintage scent version (was it well kept is another story) of what they are sniffing. I can be numbered among those who prefer the VINTAGE Dioressence EDC to the more modern EDT. I also prefer the vintage Diorella to the more recent one(s). Don't get me started on the whole "Miss Dior" duplicity debacle either! *giggles wickedly*

    2) As with any FAVORITE anything I think it says YOU LOVE IT and would prefer to wear it over anything else. Mitsy (as we call Mitsouko in some circles) is gorgeous, especially the least I think so; despite, it being called (by one of my dearest fragfriends) "the most depressing scent ever". I would say that Mitsy is indeed a classic (whether vintage or modern) and signified someone who liked earthy oriental scents in general.

    I am loathe to pick a "favorite" perfume; as I am someone who wears whatever happens to strike my fancy at any given time or intrigue me in the least. I say D&G BY Man is my signature because if I had a 50 or 100 ml bottle I would wear it AT LEAST once *maybe twice* a week.

    Unfortunately, I had a large bottle, gave it away (thinking I could replace it for the same $20), found it discontinued and now cannot afford to pay the "gougers" on eBay who know what they have and extort people who love it without mercy. I might add that it was discontinued in under ten years AFTER of its release BECAUSE NO ONE WAS BUYING IT! Now (that you can't get it readily or easily) EVERYONE wants it and the scalpers are laughing all the way to the bank! *sighs sadly*

    Vintage (as defined above by Oxford) is pretty right on, and as far as vintophiles go: I "get" where they are coming from (for the most part, like nichophiles) but consider myself an omniphile *I love evrything...pretty much!*.

    Older does not always mean better, but it does mean (especially for me as I grow older) something that harkens back to a by-gone time (of which the 90s, I guess now, could be included *giggle*) and is something more "ballsy" and "in your face" than today's perfume releases are. Think iron fist in velvet glove *the early versions* of Pour Monsieur by CHANEL.

    Smell swell all! *hugs*

    1. In this part of your post, and especially your answer to question #1, I think that we may part ways somewhat. I am not at all convinced that referring to something as "vintage" Mitsouko or whatever perfume is under discussion, picks out a particular perfume.

      It seems to me that every single stage in the degradation of a vintage perfume is going to smell differently. This means that depending upon how two aliquots from the very same vat were cared for, they may smell like entirely different perfumes.

      In your discussion of why the Mystery Scent Vial Trial of Youth Dew did not smell to you like Youth Dew--because you use the bath oil--you seemed to be gravitating toward or at least sympathetic with my view, but you stopped short.

      In your answer to question #1, above, I see that you really do not agree with me. In my view, the lesson of the Mystery Scent Vial Trial was that two "vintage" samples of "the same" perfume may smell entirely different, and so it doesn't make sense to say that we are talking about the same thing.

      Halston was the example which made the case most persuasively, to my mind. With Youth Dew, I had tried "vintage" and the sample was reformulated, so there was no surprise in the fact tha they smelled differently. Conversely, with Emeraude, I had only smelled the reformulation, but the Mystery Scent Vial Trial was of vintage. Again, no surprise, really, that they did not smell alike, since they are totally different perfumes.

      The key case was Halston: both my Halston edc and the Halston edc used in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial were "vintage". Yet THEY smelled like completely different perfumes! This case demonstrates, it seems to me, that the label "vintage Halston" (or substitute any other perfume) need not refer to the same thing at all.

      How many different "vintage Halstons" exist? In theory, an uncountably large number, since every time slice and every set of environmental conditions to which any aliquot has been subjected is going to generate a different perfume. Sometimes the variations will be small; other times, they will be huge.

      This seems to imply that when people engage in discussions about "vintage Halston" they may not be talking to each other at all, because they are referring to completely different objects in the world!

      Memoryofscent brought up a corroborative example in a comment on The Question of Vintage 1 (which I meant to include in the original post, but I must have got sidetracked by my doubly embedded excursus...which you so deftly side-stepped, I note (-:).

      In memoryofscent's experience, different "vintage" samples and bottles smelled entirely different, thus demonstrating the same skeptical thesis, it seems to me.


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