This is the part 2 of a series answering some very FAQs about vintage perfumes: the myth, the obsession and the quest for oakmoss. Part 1 is here.
I just started my perfume journey. Should I seek vintage perfumes first or should I concentrate on what's available?
As a beginner you will first want to discover and understand your taste and preferences. There's a lot of great stuff out there and the process of figuring it out and wearing what you love is incredibly satisfying. Learning about perfume also includes perfume history, of course, and that means the classics. My suggestion is to start with the current formulas- Patou, Chanel, Guerlain, Lanvin, Dior, Caron and others, see which ones interest you more than others and seek out older version. Once you do, ask yourself: Do I like the vintage better or maybe not? Does it affect the way I think about the perfume and the house? Does it make me want to try other perfumes from this line/further explore a specific note or genre? Proceed from there, but don't get caught up in the chase. If you're new to perfume you will be busy enough sniffing the ones currently on the market.
Isn't it better to leave the past where it belongs? Why should I spend my time and money on vintage perfumes?
That's a very valid way to look at things. Seeking and collecting vintage perfume is a road to heartbreak because some things are mostly irreplaceable. It's also expensive and requires time and effort, especially if you're on a hunt for specific items. However, the argument for this quest is education. There's a certain point in one's perfume obsession when curiosity takes over and you want to know what the real Mitsouko smelled like or why many of us are so angry at Dior. I definitely don't think everyone should go out and buy every old bottle of Shalimar he or she can find, but there's something to be said for acquiring samples, even small one, and educating your nose.
Is there a specific perfume house or perfume category that are better as vintage?
Some people will tell you everything used to smell better, others will say that it's pointless to even buy modern versions of certain Guerlain or Chanel perfumes. As I said above, starting with the classics is a good idea. It gives you an idea of the changes in the industry. That leads us to chypres and other oakmoss-based perfumes that have either changed significantly (Mitsouko) or were completely discontinued because of the restrictions on the use of this raw material (Parure). If you're interested in perfume history it's also a good idea to track down the classic Coty perfumes from the days when this house still had some integrity. Vintage Emeraude and L'Aimant are relatively easy to find and reasonably priced. It might be an eye-opening experience to smell them.
How much vintage perfume is it reasonable to have in a balanced collection?
This is really and truly up to you. As I said above, keeping some samples for reference can certainly be all you need to educate yourself. A perfume collection, in my opinion, should be about the fragrances you love and wear. Some people have little interest in modern perfumes and prefer to only wear vintage. Other are very concerned about smelling dated and out of fashion. I love my vintage perfumes and wear them often. I try (not always successfully) to keep a certain balance because I feel it's more important to support the indie perfumers working today. But I do love my vintage perfumes and still seek them actively.
How can you tell that a vintage perfume is still good for use? How do you know when it has gone off?
The first rule is that if smells good then it's wearable. If you sniff a perfume that has already completely turned you will not want to wear it- it might smell very vinegary or like a paint thinner. But sometimes the top notes have gone off (especially if they were citrusy) but underneath the weirdness there's still a beautiful composition waiting to be discovered. You won't know until you try, but don't go spraying or dabbing anything on your neck or anywhere sensitive. Just like with other cosmetics, a limited skin test is your best way to go until you know you're not allergic to whatever is in the bottle. And don't buy anything that doesn't smell good to you. It's not worth it.
More vintage perfume Q&A in a couple of weeks. Please feel free to add your questions, ideas and suggestions.
Photo from an old online auction.