Saturday, February 25, 2012

PERFUME IS NOT MILK: Is the price of perfume too high? A Socratic Reply

Ceci n'est pas un parfum

I have seen a number of complaints by perfumistas in various forums about the price of perfume. The question whether perfume costs too much was opened up as a general topic of discussion by the recent case in which a French court fined a number of perfume houses for having engaged in price-fixing practices, which was said to result in artificially elevated prices for consumers. On its face, this judgment may seem to make sense in the capitalist worldview which now holds sway. There is supposed to be free and open competition, right?

As a matter of fact, the question is considerably more complicated in the case of perfume than in cases involving generic products such as milk. Why? Because a perfume house has an intrinsic monopoly on the perfumes it creates, with a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of those creations. This makes e-bay hawking, gray-market decanting, and the various and sundry practices of other unlicensed retailers potentially dangerous to perfume houses themselves in a way that competition between various dairies is not. You have no doubt seen this phrase written on many a perfume box:

Cet article ne peut être vendu que par les dépositaires agréés
[nom de la maison]

Not found on bottles and cartons of milk... Milk has its own special labels and designations and requirements, but not because Bessy the cow is supposed to be producing a completely different liquid from Betty the cow. No, milk is milk, though of course there are different percentages of fat in different grades of milk. Those grades depend not upon the precise identity of the cow from which the milk came, nor the dairy where she happens to live, but only upon how the milk is processed. 

Perfume, in contrast, means nothing detached from the name. Everything turns on the provenance of perfume: Is this really Chanel no. 5? means Was this produced by Chanel?

Identified Online as "Vintage Fake Chanel no. 5"!

In asserting that perfume is not like milk, and represents an exceptional marketplace case, I do not mean to suggest that I side categorically with the perfume houses on every issue. I have railed Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery before (and no doubt I will again!), and targets of my critique can be found in every camp, including the houses, for example, when they produce cheap imitations of classic perfumes and fob them off under the same name, claiming that all of this came about out of a necessity to comply with IFRA restrictions through reformulation. In reality, it seems quite clear that many reformulations have been undertaken for crassly economic reasons, and this was going on long before the IFRA arrived on the scene to stick its officious nose into perfumers' ateliers.

My various critiques overlap and intersect in sometimes unexpected ways, and it may not always be clear whose side I'm on, so perhaps I should clarify my position once and for all: I am on the side of good perfume. If houses produce good perfume, then I'm on their side. If they focus exclusively on business at the expense of art, then they may become the object of my critique. If they produce bad perfume, then the price becomes irrelevant, because I won't buy it. In any case, whether they produce bad perfume or good perfume, it is my considered opinion that the price of the perfumes which they produce is the prerogative of houses themselves to decide, given that they are the unique source of their own products.

Notwithstanding the considerable interest of the peculiar features of the quasi-monopolistic perfume house marketplace, which will be the theme of another salon post where I consider more closely the French court case, I would like to focus on a different sort of question today. Let me begin by bluntly asserting that I find complaints about the price of perfume quite puzzling, especially when decried with such stridency that the speaker appears to presume that there is some sort of natural right to perfume. Take a close look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you will see that the right to perfume is conspicuously absent from the document. And well it should be, it seems to me.

Yes, although it will make me even more unpopular than I already am, I come here today with a contrarian perspective on the perfume-price question. Stated starkly: I completely disagree that perfume costs too much, and I strongly suspect that those who complain about the price of perfume have simply not thought through how it compares with other products and services for which they regularly pay quite a bit more.

Prices are fair or “outrageous” only in relative terms. It is utterly irrelevant that my great-grandparents used to be able to mail letters for a penny or buy a hamburger for a dime or a gallon of gas for a quarter. In considering the perfume-price question, my own perspective can be understood, at the first and most obvious level, by simply “doing the math,” so to speak. But the relevant comparison is not between what perfume costs today and what it cost fifty years ago.

No, to assess the “fairness” of the price of perfume today, one needs only to compare the cost of a “perfume experience” to the cost of nearly any other form of diversion or product consumed, and you will discover that, in fact, perfume is one of the best bargains around—even at high-end niche prices, and even at full MSRP. If you care about perfume, then, it seems to me, you should be willing to pay for it. If you cannot afford everything (as most of us cannot), then you must make choices and determine where your priorities lie in deciding how to dispense with your modest “entertainment” wallet share.

That's a fairly simple take on the price of perfume which involves comparing it to the price of a concert or a ball game or a case of wine or a night out on the town, all of which can easily cost more than a large bottle of perfume, which may last an entire year—or even longer! All of this seems so obvious to me and so utterly undeniable that I find it truly perplexing that so many people should have issues with the price of perfume.

No one forces anyone to go to concerts or to dine in fine restaurants, and no one needs perfume to survive. These are choices we make, and if we value perfume more than an afternoon at a sporting event or a night out on the town, then we should be willing to pay for the privilege of being able to wear it, should we not?

Now, some may deny that perfume is like a night out on the town or attendance at a sporting event, for it is a product which we possess, although it is true that it is consumed and therefore will eventually be used up, just as a pair of shoes must eventually be thrown away. Let us, therefore, concede for the sake of argument this point—setting to one side the “events in a bottle” which are the perfumes of the house of Serge Lutens—and compare the cost of the luxury item which perfume is (whether event or thing and, in some cases, both...) to the cost of virtually any other luxury item.

Compare, for example, the cost of a bottle of Hermès Hermessence eau de toilette to the cost of the same bottle housed in a dyed pebble-leather sheath. As of today, a 100ml bottle of the perfume purchased from the house's website costs 175 euros (= $235). When housed in a dyed pebbled leather sheath, it costs 415 euros (= $558). This means that the cost of the sheath is 240 euros (= $323). That is the price of the added aesthetic value presumably imparted by the covering. In other words, the perfume itself, what is contained within the bottle, is cheap, relatively speaking, compared to, well, anything else in the Hermès luxury line!

Some will no doubt protest: no tiny piece of cured and tanned cow hide should cost so much! But it does, and if you wish to be able to fondle it in your clammy little hands, then that is the price which you must be willing to pay. Can you live without it? Of course you can. Just as you can live without perfume. Perfume is not milk—or flour or rice or any other staple of life—and if you want it, you should be prepared to pay the price asked by those who create it for you. C'est simple, comme 'Bonjour'.

Having removed the cap from this bottle of Hermès Amazone, HRH Emperor Oliver
affirms the fondle-worthy, paw-palpable beauty of the pebbled leather case.

Now I am not one to tell people who or what they ought to be, nor what they ought to do or own. I do hereby aver that Aristotle was right to assert that, in effect, “You are what you eat [do],” but whatever that is or will be, it is up to each person to decide for him- or herself. Although I have expressed it in a facetious little phrase, Aristotle's theory is compelling, albeit rather simple: if you want to be a virtuous person, then you should act virtuously. So, for example, you may not initially be courageous, but if in the face of danger you force yourself to act as a courageous person would, then eventually you will be a courageous person, habituated as you are to acting courageously.

Aristotle's theory works in the opposite direction, as well, to explain how initially innocent people may end up vicious, petty, and mean. I leave the construction of such an example as an exercise for the reader. Just choose any cad you know, imagine what he was like when he was born, and what he must have done to become who he is today.

To return to the ostensible topic at hand, all that I am really saying, to invoke the wisdom of another sage from ancient Greece, is: Know thyself. Yes, my fragrant friends, by examining your priorities as reflected in your very own spending habits, you can learn a great deal about yourself, above all, what really matters to you and, therefore, who you are. There are infinitely many examples which we might consider in order to illustrate the basic point, but I offer here a specific example from my personal experience. (What else could I do?)

If you are a city dweller who possesses an automobile, though public transportation is easily accessible and taxis stand ready to serve at your beck and call, then you have decided that your car is more important to you than are all of the things which you could do or buy using the money you would retain, were you to renounce your car.

I have often marveled at the number of privately owned cars in cities such as Paris, New York, London, Buenos Aires, Berlin, and Boston, where I currently reside. I honestly wonder whether people really enjoy driving in such congested urban settings, which are a far cry from the land-locked states of middle America, where one can drive for hundreds of miles in serenity and solitude without encountering a single soul—whether afflicted with road rage or not.

It seems abundantly clear to me that cars in a big city are an encumbrance, no more and no less. Why? Above all, because your mind must constantly be in scheming mode, ever vigilant, in order simply to protect the mass of metal which is your vehicle. Are you parked on the right side of the street? Did you put enough money in the meter?? Will your beloved automobile be tagged and towed??? If you go out of town, will you return to find it booted, gutted—or simply gone????

Does it make a lot of sense (or any!) to drive to a destination where there is no parking available—whether free or not!—hence necessitating that you leave your car two miles away and walk that entire distance, despite the fact that you supposedly number among the urbanly mobile? Should rational people be driving cars to their health clubs, where they then proceed to spend an hour walking briskly on a treadmill?

The answers to these and many other questions have persuaded me to believe that in fact having a car in a city, far from being a luxury, is a hindrance to happiness and an impediment to peace of the highest order, verging even on irrationality. Now, I realize that there are special circumstances (children would be one), which may make it somewhat less irrational for some city dwellers to persist in their ownership of a car. But sticking with the example at hand, the case of sherapop: If someone gave me a brand new car, I would give it away. Or, perhaps, more likely, I would trade it in for perfume...

The money which I do not spend on procuring, maintaining, and protecting a car which I do not even need, and the mental space freed up by having one less stupid thing to worry about, together lead to the irresistible conclusion that, for me, life without a car is a form of freedom, not a deficiency. No, I am not car-less, I am car-free.

In saying this I am not claiming to be morally superior or anything of the sort. Yes, it is indeed true that it has become fashionable of late to reduce one's carbon footprint, as they say. In my case, it is a mere coincidence that doing what makes me happy happens also fortuitously to benefit the environment and diminish the need for rapacious wars abroad.

You may of course vehemently disagree with my stance on urban car ownership. You may love the feeling of power and freedom which you derive from knowing that you can get up at 3am and drive alone to another state—or country! You may not therefore believe that having a car in a city is ridiculous, even if it is true that you spend more money on your car than on all of your other pleasures rolled together, including perfume. To city-dwelling car owners who persist in complaining about the price of perfume, I can only reply: what is the price of your auto insurance premium?

Tell me what you spend your money (and time...) on, and I will tell you what you value. The same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to virtually any other possession which is not necessary to your existence. There are necessities, and there are necessities, of course, and they will obviously vary from case to case, just as a car becomes a necessity to someone living in a rural part of a land-locked state. But each and every one of us chooses to own some things but not others, and the things which are of high enough priority to us, we find a way to acquire, while the others we forgo. In conclusion, to reiterate:

Know thyself.

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?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Question of Vintage

A Valentine's Day Massacre

In a delightful scene of Martin Scorsese's 1990 film Goodfellas, Henry Hill's concubine Janice is showing off her “kept-woman” apartment to a couple of her girlfriends and leads them into the bedroom, where she unselfconsciously remarks, "This is where we spend most of our time." One of her friends walks over to Janice's chest of drawers, picks up a bottle of perfume, removes the top and sniffs as she approvingly observes, "French," a knowing look in her eye.

It will be considered sacrilege by some, but I feel compelled here to confess that whenever I hear the word vintage roll off a perfumista's tongue, I think of Janice's friend. The word vintage has acquired such a magical allure that the mere mention of it seems to fill listeners with awe and admiration for whatever object it is being used to describe. I am fascinated by this fascination with all things vintage, and above all perfume, probably because I simply do not understand it.

In fact, I have been puzzling for quite some time over the profound reverence which many perfumistas exhibit toward what have been identified as vintage perfumes. Fragrance community websites all have their forums where “vintage lovers” convene to discuss their latest acquisitions and to strategize about how to get their nose on others. I have never participated in these discussions, first, because I have no idea what they are presumably talking about and, second, because I have serious reservations about the entire enterprise of “vintage perfume” to begin with. And I do mean enterprise.

What's in a name?

First, and most fundamentally, I do not understand what the term vintage is supposed to mean. My distinct impression—and please correct me, if I'm wrong—is that the word has been appropriated from the world of wine. Whatever the precise origins of the term and the story that led to its current use, vintage is being applied now, with ever greater fervor, to perfume.

Apparently, despite the fact that I myself never made any effort whatsoever to acquire any vintage perfume, I own quite a large volume of the stuff, including my bottles of Christian Dior Dolce Vita and J'Adore; Guerlain Samsara, Mahora, Jardins de Bagatelle, Champs Elysées, Chant d'Arômes, Terracotta Voile d'Eté, and Shalimar (among others); Jean Patou Sublime, Joy, 1000, and Sira des Indes; and Yves Saint Laurent Champagne (now known as Yvresse).

Guerlain Samsara (1989) = Vintage

Rochas Femme (1989) = Not Vintage
On the other hand, my bottles of Rochas all seem to be reformulations, so they are apparently not vintage, despite the fact that reformulated Femme dates to the same year as unreformulated—hence vintage—Samsara! So it appears that all of the bottles of “vintage” perfume in my collection became vintage simply through having been acquired before the perfume in question was reformulated! One rather odd implication of this common understanding of the term vintage would seem to be that every single brand new bottle I own is also vintage, having yet to be reformulated.

In the case of discontinued perfumes, everything in the category is, by definition, “vintage”. In the decades to come, long after Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson have departed from this world, will people be clamoring for bottles of Believe, Midnight Fantasy, Fancy and Fancy Love for the simple reason that they are old? What about Aquolina Pink Sugar or Vera Wang Rock Princess or ____________ (fill in the blank with any currently popular perfume which you personally regard as unwearable junk)? My point here is a simple one: even more problematic about the whole vintage enterprise is the undeniable fact that sophisticated perfumistas do not agree contemporaneously about which are the greatest perfumes. Why in the world should they agree about the past?

That question leads directly to my second major concern. As I think through the implications of any specific definition which might be said to capture “vintage perfume”, I become confused as to why anyone should care more about those creations than about any others. It is obvious, of course, why gray-market decanters aggressively promote the notion that “vintage” is better than non-vintage perfume. As one peruses the offerings at The Perfumed Court—run by three nice housewives armed with pipettes, or so the urban legend goes—one begins to notice that certain especially high-priced items appear to be so because they carry the resplendent epithet vintage.

Such items seem most likely to have been acquired from e-bay by the decanters and then sold as veritable treasures, genuine antiques of sorts. Now, why such perfumes should be considered any more likely to be what they are claimed to be than when they are bought directly from e-bay is a question which those who frequent decanters appear rarely, if ever, to entertain. But, my fragrant friends: You cannot have it both ways. If the ladies who make up The Perfumed Court are simply housewives trying to make a bit of money the good old-fashioned American way, then there is no real reason for believing that they are any better at assessing the authenticity of vintage perfumes than is anyone else. I rest my case.

So the set of first-order concerns I have about the enterprise of vintage perfume is identical with each and every one of the problems which may arise in acquiring used perfume from e-bay. Those problems transfer immediately to vintage perfumes acquired from decanters because, in most cases, the bottles would seem to have been obtained from e-bay or through e-bay-like channels. Perfumes are acquired and then marked up and re-sold by decanters, whose christening of the bottles as “vintage” seems to be taken as some sort of certificate of both authenticity and quality. Soyons sérieux. Let's think through the history of a vintage bottle of perfume.

The Toll of Time on All Things

Suppose that a bottle of vintage perfume was produced in 1961, just to pick a year out of a hat. That's fifty years ago. Many perfumistas were not even born at that time, but I think that the changes which have transpired over the course of the life of a person who was born in 1961 illustrate very well how much can happen to a thing—any thing, including a bottle of perfume—during a period of five short decades. A tiny little human being is born bright and shiny new with fresh tender skin (if caucasian, the baby's skin may be as white as snow). She has no apparent linguistic capacity initially and weighs very little.

As the infant grows, her cells change as a result of both biology and environment, or nature and nurture. Slowly her skin becomes thicker, she learns to speak, and eventually to lie, and the state of her soul as of her body may have as much to do with factors external as internal to her. Girls born into posh wealthy households do not generally, for example, grow up to become prostitutes. This does not mean that wealthy people are more virtuous than poor people. No, it means only that they tend to be considerably less desperate.

In the case of a perfume born in 1961, there is no inherent biological mechanism in place which leads the perfume to evolve and change, but what is indisputably the case is that the molecules initially present do begin to show their age, so to speak, as the years flitter by, exactly as a human being's body and face begin to show traces of age. The rate and extent of the visible signs of aging have something—and perhaps a great deal—to do with what the person does.

A person who regularly quaffs large volumes of water, takes vitamins, eats leafy green vegetables, wears sunscreen, and generally avoids toxins such as cigarettes, alcohol, BHT and artificial sweeteners (which always seem to be identified as carcinogenic a couple of decades after their approval by the FDA!), may look significantly younger at age 50 than a chain-smoking alcoholic who spends her days lounging about outside under the blazing sun attempting to achieve the darkest possible tan. Perhaps her idea of exercise involves the lifting of a glass of rum and Diet Coke to her lips. Having once been young and beautiful, it may never occur to her alcohol-addled mind to adopt preventive measures such as sunscreen to forestall the ravages of time.

Suppose that two such people were twins. In spite of their identical origins, if two biologically similar people conduct themselves in radically disparate ways, they may end up by looking very different by the age of 50. Similarly, I would like to suggest here, two bottles of the same batch of perfume produced at exactly the same time—indeed, drawn from the very same vat—may travel very different paths to what they eventually become fifty years later down the line. In the best case scenario, a vintage perfume will have been well-cared for, shielded from heat and light, rarely if ever opened, and thus effectively preserved to the maximum capacity in its optimum state.

The perfume may well still have changed, at least to some extent, because molecules fall apart over time just as even the most vigilant, pro-active woman's skin will wrinkle, notwithstanding the thousands of dollars she may spend on creams, lotions, and various and sundry other treatments over the course of her life. Eventually, even a woman who has availed herself of every conceivable technique by which to forestall the effects of time will look old. Maybe not at age 40 (cf. Jennifer Aniston), or even at age 50 (cf. Demi Moore), but if she is lucky enough to live to be 80, she will look old: it's a fact. Some people may look “young for 80,” but of course that usually means something like “closer to 60.” By the time people reach the age of 90 or 100, they have wrinkles on top of wrinkles, no matter what they do—not that they care by that point.

The perfume which is well-cared for over the course of decades, too, will show its age eventually, because the chemicals which make it up have degeneration trajectories as well. There is a reason, after all, why newly launched perfumes carry a “use by” advisory label and icon. Some labels on the bottoms or boxes of perfumes recommend use within 36 months from the time it has been opened, and thus exposed to air, which initiates the breakdown process of the chemicals contained therein.

With bottles not under vacuum pressure—such as hand-poured decants in spray atomizers—the perfume is exposed to air and begins to evaporate almost immediately. This explains why perfumes in screw-top bottles or with removable bulb atomizers often decrease in volume whether or not one has been wearing them very much. I have also noticed that purple- and blue-colored perfumes sometimes turn brown after only a couple of years. They may still smell okay, but this is a clear sign that change has already taken place, and is currently underway.

My question for all of you vintage-enamored perfumistas is simply this: When you purchase a vintage perfume, are you getting the bottle analogous to the woman who takes meticulous care of herself and adopts pro-active measures to protect her skin and health? Or are you getting the bottle analogous to the woman whose motto is best summed up Carpe Diem or, perhaps, Whatever?

Who is in a Position to Certify Authenticity and Quality?

Obviously, everyone who is selling vintage perfume claims that they are offering you the first, not the second kind of bottle. But how can you know this? Even if you believe that the person with whom you are dealing is honest and forthright, what if that person was not around during the previous four decades of the perfume's life? It seems quite clear that perfume which is currently being well-cared for cannot regain what it has already lost any more than a woman who laid out in the sun, chain-smoked and drank heavily for thirty years can reverse the damage done.

In fact, on reflection, it seems to me that the odds of getting the first rather than the second sort of bottle are much worse than even. Why? Because every single person who is selling a vintage perfume either does not care about perfume (and perhaps happened upon it through an inheritance or by gift) or else he or she needs money. Why else would they even bother selling it? Whichever of these two happens to be the case, the odds seem to me quite slim that the bottle which is being vaunted as a precious vintage perfume to you, a potential buyer, is going to be in very good shape.

These are of course mundane practical concerns regarding whether or not you should trust people who are trying to fob their old, unwanted perfume off on you in order to earn a quick buck. The more they can build a case for the pristine perfection of the vintage perfume which they are trying to sell, the higher the price they will be able to command. Who among e-bay sellers will confess that, in fact, they themselves did not even exist at the launch of the purportedly “perfect” vintage perfume now in their possession? And, if it's so perfect and precious, then why are they trying to get rid of it? I ask most sincerely.

These questions lead directly, in my mind, to another major source of skepticism about vintage perfume purchases. They are being sold by people who need money. This makes what they say seem about as dependable as the words of bounty hunters being bribed with bags of cash to give up the names of terrorists. The most obvious problem with that procedure is that the circumstances in which such bounty hunters thrive are precisely those in which their regular avenues of employment have been obstructed—usually by regime change brought about by war. Under the circumstances, a bounty hunter may very well feel fully justified in lying in order to acquire the means of sustenance required for himself and the innocent members of his family thrown into crisis by the advent of war. But I digress...

Now, setting all such practical concerns to one side, the question of vintage ramifies in many other far more philosophical directions, as well. One is that “vintage perfume” offers an example of a deeply engrained cultural contradiction. On the one hand, we value and laud everything bright and shiny and new. So each time that a new perfume or series of perfumes is launched, we rush to obtain samples and pen our reviews. But, according to the vintage view of things, old perfumes are better than new perfumes.

Many perfumistas appear to be seduced in opposite directions simultaneously: nostalgically toward the past and progressively toward the future. New niche launches are viewed as a cause for celebration, while vintage perfumes are also sought out. At the same time, many new perfumes (especially mainstream) are mercilessly trashed as knock-offs, while virtually all old perfumes are worshiped as great. In some ways, The Question of Vintage is the flip-side of The Question of Niche, because today's sought-after vintage perfumes were none other than yesterday's mainstream launches. 

A few astute perfumistas such as Action have stood up to the nouvelle vague of niche, but many perfumistas both venerate vintage and demand innovation for the sake of innovation in the very next breath. These contradictions eventually lead back to The Tower of Babel 2 and the question whether in perfumery we seek beauty or novelty, art or function. The underlying assumption among vintage aficionados appears to be that anything vintage is automatically beautiful, though most of it they have not and could never have sniffed.

I ask, therefore, most sincerely: What is the point of lamenting long-lost perfumes (as Turin and Sanchez, co-authors of The Holey[sic] Book are wont to do), and what, precisely, is supposed to be the point of sniffing and writing about perfumes stored under argon gas and inaccessible to 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of humanity?

I entreat you, my dear fragrant friends and fellow travelers, to offer solutions to these conundra and, above all, to illuminate the errors in my thinking about vintage perfume!