This article was originally published in Maclean’s, May 19, 2011.
When Krista Janicki walked into Fritsch Fragrances in Kitchener, Ont., last fall, what she saw might have made other shoppers turn away. The counters were cluttered, the shelves a “higgledy-piggledy jumble” of old perfume boxes and bottles. The back quarter of the store was impassable, blocked off with boxes and furniture. She wasn’t dismayed, though; she was delighted to see decades-old bottles of Bandit, Emeraude, Arpège. “It was like finding treasure,” says the collector and blogger who specializes in vintage perfumes. “The dustier the box, the better!”
Conventional wisdom says perfumes don’t age well, but a new breed of collector is defiantly searching out discontinued perfumes and old versions of classics still in production. “The new versions just don’t smell as good,” says Margot Adam of perfumeniche.com, a Canadian site that sells samples of hard-to-find perfumes. Adam started her search after finding that fragrances her mother used to wear—L’Air du Temps, Madame Rochas—didn’t smell as she recalled. At first she blamed her memory, but then she learned many of those favourites had been reformulated in ways that noticeably altered the scent.
Perfume formulae are rarely constant. In the past, changes were driven by Mother Nature—or accountants. One caused variations in the quality and availability of natural ingredients, the other substituted less costly ones. Chanel stopped using civet, harvested from the musk glands of civet cats, in the late 1990s, while the soaring costs of endangered Indian sandalwood have pushed many companies to opt for synthetic isobornyl cyclohexanol. In recent years, there’s been a third force: industry efforts to cut back on allergy-causing ingredients, to avoid labelling requirements or outright ingredient bans.
“The industry is afraid of people who are afraid of perfume. You know the ones—they view perfume as a kind of second-hand smoke,” says Tania Sanchez, co-author with Luca Turin of the influential book Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Sanchez, who has allergies herself, contends the scent changes are so dramatic that she and Turin are revisiting their top-rated perfumes and reissuing reviews in a new book this fall, The Little Book of Perfumes. Among the ingredients subject to limits are natural ones like rose, jasmine, citron and oakmoss—the latter a key ingredient in classic perfumes such as Mitsouko, Diorella and Rochas Femme. So far, no artificial substitute for oakmoss has been found, so fragrances based on it simply don’t smell like they used to.
“If you are a perfumista and have loved a fragrance for 40 years, I can understand you wouldn’t want it to change,” says Stephen Waller of the Brussels-based International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the group driving the self-regulatory efforts. But, he says, since limits were first imposed in 2000, reports of fragrance-related skin irritations have declined by half. The group’s efforts prompted the Natural Perfumers Guild to launch the Outlaw Perfume Project in late 2010, geared to creating perfumes with some of the 174 ingredients on IFRA’s restricted lists. Bans on hormone-disrupting or neuro-toxic chemicals make sense, the guild argues, but rash-inducing ingredients should just be labelled. “We label peanut products,” says Janicki. “And peanuts can actually kill people.”
For now fanatics are left scrambling to find older versions of favourite scents, driving up prices for those dusty bottles. “Two years ago you could pick up an ounce of a vintage Guerlain on eBay for $100. Now, it’s hard to get for under $300,” says Patty White, co-owner of theperfumedcourt.com. She and others say they’ve been victims of at least one online fraudster who filled empty vintage bottles with non-vintage scent. And if they do find genuine vintage perfumes, the perfume may have turned. “It’s roulette,” says Denyse Beaulieu, a Canadian fragrance expert based in Paris.
As for Janicki, she’s returned to Fritsch’s more than once, purchasing vintage Je Reviens and others and reviewing them on her blog, Scent of the Day. “Collecting vintage perfumes is like being interested in the hard-to-get girl,” she says. “They’re not easy. They don’t bore you.” And the chase is all part of the fun.