I was delighted to see that the discussion and online buzz surrounding Barbara Herman's excellent book, Scent & Subversion made more people give vintage perfume another chance. I got several emails this week asking for advice about starting a vintage perfume collection. Basically, my lovely readers wanted to know where and how to start, how much to spend and what to look for. All good questions. Obviously, Barbara's book is a great place to begin. The reviews in the book will give you a good idea about what you're smelling as well as some general background. You can also refer to her blog, Yesterday's Perfume, and also check out my previous Q&A posts on the subject: Part 1, Part 2, and How To Shop For Vintage Perfumes. But tonight I'll try to answer the most basic question: Where to begin?
Start with what you know. It makes little sense to go seek fragrances you never smelled before, especially if you're not familiar with their current formulation or with the perfume house. A great first step would be to go back to a perfume you used to wear way back then-- try to find a version from the year(s) you loved it. The same goes for a perfume a loved one used to wear-- it'll trigger beautiful memories and you will recognize it and smell the nuances. Some of these perfumes will surprise you with their sophistication. That was how I felt when I rediscovered the Anais Anais of my youth.
If you're new to vintage I'd also recommend starting modestly. Of course, if money is not an issue by all means- bid on that pristine Baccarat bottle and enjoy it to the last drop. But assuming resources are limited I wouldn't spend a fortune on something I'm not sure I'm going to love. Besides, some drugstore and mass market brands of decades past had beautiful perfumes that were interesting and well-crafted. Max Factor, Revlon, Fabrege, and especially Coty had incredible gems. It's still easy to find them today at semi-reasonable prices.
We all want bottles of Iris Gris, Djedi, Doblis, or Chypre de Coty from the 1920s. But these are the rarities that are very hard to find. It's too easy to become obsessed and spend a lot of time trying to find the Holy Grail only to end up frustrated. Given enough time and patience you're likely to come across some of these unicorns. Eventually. But don't let the desire blind you to the charms of a good Norell that is right there at the thrift store. Some of the easier to find perfumes are Shalimar eau de cologne, Coty Emeraude, L'Origan, or L'Aimant from the 1960s, 70s or 80s. Everyone wants a good bottle of Lancome Magie Noire, but Magie is easier to locate (and usually cheaper). Chanel No.5 is much more common than Cuir de Russie, and you'll have fun comparing different versions.
I'd also recommend paying attention to classic masculine fragrances even if you're the girliest of girls. Some of the vintage manly classics are loaded with oakmoss (Ralph Lauren Polo) or birch tar. As a bonus, they're usually cheaper. The same goes for the very easy to find vintage Estee Lauder (Youth Dew is probably the most widely available extrait de parfum). Miss Dior is practically everywhere and it's a real masterpiece, and since I mentioned masculines, the same goes for Eau Sauvage.
One last thing: too high expectations might cause bitter disappointment. You might not like some of the classics and the vintage versions can smell too foreign and hard to wear. There's nothing wrong with you or with your taste if galbanum is not your thing or if you dislike aldehydes. Vintage style can be an acquired taste, for one, and sometimes it just doesn't click with you. So what? I know serious perfume connoisseurs who just don't enjoy these things (I'm married to one). Give them a chance, but don't force it. Perfume in every form is here for our pleasure. Let's have fun.
Photo: 1966 Coty counter via beautymouth.com.