When entering the world of perfumery, we’re also entering a multi-faceted world, combining the old and the new.  How perfumes smell today is quite different from what they used to fifty or one hundred years ago.  Trends, fashions, regulations, world political climates and other factors have altered perfumery through the ages. I use the term ‘modern’ when referring to perfumery because perfumes have been used in one form or another for millennia, but the last 150 years dramatically changed perfumery to what we know today.  What ancient cultures considered ‘perfume’ thousands of years ago is obviously not the same as what is worn as perfume in modern times.  I recently read an article about a group of scientists who are trying to recreate a perfume worn during the time of Cleopatra.  If you’re interested, you can find that article here.  Other attempts at recreating ancient perfumes have been made, a notable one being Lily Bermuda’s ‘Mary Celestia.’ But when speaking of perfumery, this is more on the lines of ancient perfumery rather than ‘vintage.’

Modern perfumery (that is, perfumery that has been around since the 1800’s) is quite different.  Chemists began developing materials not used in the past; materials such as aldehydes and ionones, for example.  Within this spectrum of current perfumery’s timeline, once can divide perfumes into ‘vintage’ and ‘modern’ categories and is what I am writing about in this post.

Benzyl Acetate

Early in modern perfumery, perfumers worked mostly with raw, natural materials.  That is all they had available.  Raw materials were unstable, so a perfume could vary in scent from one material to another due to weather, soil conditions and other factors. As technology advanced, new materials, now synthetic, were being introduced into perfumery, changing forever the nature (and stability) of the craft.  As early as 1855, a material like Benzyl Acetate was being discovered.  Today, most floral perfumes contain this material, which is a component of Jasmine.   Coumarin, another substance still used quite often today, a component of Tonka beans, was discovered in 1868.  By 1900, the discovery of Phenylethyl Alcohol, Vanillin, Citronellol, Ionone, Methyl Ionone and the first synthetic musks had revolutionized the way perfumers created their masterpieces.  By early 1900, Aldehydes would revolutionize perfumery further, with Chanel № 5 being one of the first perfumes to contain a large dosage of these materials.  Not long after, materials like Hydroxycitronellal and Linalool would also alter the creation of perfume.  Further discoveries would bring new materials that would change the industry.  From the 1940’s onward, Calone, Iso E Super, Hedione, Lilial and Galaxolide were introduced to the world of perfumery making it what we know today.  As master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena wrote, “By the end of the 1930’s, all the major synthetic products used today had been discovered.” [1]   Further changes are now being experienced, not only by companies creating new, environmentally friendly materials, but through increasing regulations.  The recent ban on the materials Lilial and Lyral has sent the perfume industry into a tailspin.  If you consider that most of the perfumes available today are now in need of reformulation or will be discontinued altogether, because they contain one or both of these materials, this is quite an upheaval!

My attraction to perfumery was not only because of my love of scent, but also because I wanted to create something different from the tired smelling perfumes I could find at a department stores.  With new generations taking over perfume demand, ones who generally view life and people more in terms of group-think rather than the individuality expressed by the two previous generations (Generation X and Baby Boomers), perfumery is reflecting this by creating perfumes most which imitate each other, creating a uniformity that lacks uniqueness.  Boring comes to mind.  I can visit any given store’s perfume counter and sample 10 different trendy perfumes and find they all smell very similar. It is almost a ‘check-the-box’ of aroma materials. Eventually, ‘Niche’ perfumery came on the scene to actually counter this trend. Niche perfumers are reclaiming perfume as a luxury product.  Most of these niche perfumes sell in exclusive boutiques and on-line, at much higher cost because of the use of costly materials, but offer the diversity and depth of scent many are craving, but not getting elsewhere.

niche perfumery

This is another reason why I started working with perfumery.  I like perfumes that contain materials often too expensive to buy in a perfume found at a shop, unless I want to shell over $500 to $1,000 dollars for a bottle.  In a way, this is one of the reasons why niche perfumery has taken over a substantial portion of the perfumery market.  More people want something different, and something ‘real.’  It is unlikely that a perfume you spend $150.00 for at the store will contain much of real Boronia, Plumeria, Rose, Jasmine or Orange Blossom oils, if at all.  A niche perfume, however, usually will…albeit costlier. Perfume companies have a large overhead, a lot of money invested in training, development, packaging, product and past product failures. All that is passed on to the consumer. Creating simpler perfumes with less raw materials and more synthetics, while still charging the customer a good price, has become the norm.  A niche perfumer does not usually contend with these issues, and can afford to sell well-made, high-class perfumes at much lower cost.  

Crabtree & Evelyn
Classic Lavender

Yet another reason I became involved in perfumery was because of reformulations or discontinuing of perfumes I liked. Many people often notice that some of the perfumes they used to love have dramatically changed over time, and this is due in great part to regulations.  I loved a really great Classic Lavender fougére, sold by Crabtree and Evelyn.  It was unique among Lavender fragrances and much beloved by the company’s loyal customers. However, after a few reformulations, the company eventually replaced it entirely with a Lavender I no longer liked.  But I do not entirely blame the company.  The Classic Lavender they used to produce contained high amounts of Coumarin, Oakmoss, Musk Xylol, Bergamot and a few other materials now heavily regulated or downright banned.  It dealt a death blow to that wonderful Lavender.  So now, I make it myself.  All of the materials are readily available, and since IFRA regulations do not apply to me, I use them in the amounts I need to recreate this long lost treasure for my personal use.

Modern perfumes follow a trend I dislike, and vintage perfumes are out of fashion. Yet one more reason I got into perfumery. I needed to find a middle-of-the-road approach that worked for me.   Modern perfumes feel flat to me these days. I remember a perfume that forced me to believe the hype, from a well-known UK perfume house.  It hailed mystery, sumptuousness, Turkish Roses and Saffron.  Words like ‘Opulent,’ ‘Dazzling’ and ‘Mysterious’ were used in its marketing.  I had to sample it. I just had to!  At first it seemed nice, but nothing that knocked me over.  Within twenty minutes, all I could smell was musk and a little bit of spice. That was it.  The opulence, dazzle and mystery were gone.  Actually, let me rephrase that…they were never there to begin with.  So, I set out to recreate it for myself.  My first attempts came close, but I was not happy. I let the project sit while I worked on other things, but always kept the idea of making this.  After a few years, I tried again and this time I succeeded, and what I have now is truly magnificent, long lasting and full bodied.  I feel that this is what the original should have been like — or at least something similar.  Of course, I used some costly materials to achieve this, and real Anatolian Rose absolute. And I achieved a balance between the strength and full body of a vintage perfume mixed with modern sensibilities.  

Lily of the Valley

Finding the balance between vintage and modern is something I constantly work at. I was recently smelling a Lily of the Valley based perfume that I created a year or two ago.  I am extremely happy with it and feel it is among one of my best creations.  But it was not easy to get there.  I find a good Lily of the Valley based perfume, at least to me, to be a very difficult perfume to create. This style of perfume can easily fall into the vintage territory, and many of the modern versions lack finesse and body.  Also, Lily of the Valley recreations often end up smelling musty and flat. Even professional Lily of the Valley based perfumes I sampled were unimpressive.  There are also copious formulas available for Lily of the Valley bases to build a perfume around, but I was never fully sold on most of these. Several of my own base creations later, I was still not getting what I wanted to build a perfume around. After five years of failed attempts at creating a Lily of the Valley perfume, I finally put it on a shelf to come back to it later.  Then, one day I rolled up my sleeves and decided to try once more, using all the new knowledge I’d gathered since my last attempt.  I came up with a truly beautiful Lily of the Valley base and went from there.  And it worked!  The final fragrance smells not too vintage, not too modern. As Goldilocks would say, “Just right!”

This is where Vintage versus Modern truly comes in.  As I wrote about above, as niche perfumers we can create perfumes containing materials that regulations heavily curtail or flat out ban.  I will not get into the subject of regulation or even IFRA, because that can become controversial.  As I said before in other posts, I believe some regulation to be beneficial to the planet, flora and fauna, as well as health, but often we see overregulation which has absolutely little to do with any of the above.  Some materials are banned because of their effect on the environment when discarded. Being a niche perfumer, I can be conscious and responsible for my usage of these materials, while still continue using them.

Meanwhile, most of today’s perfumes share the same common elements. Materials such as Iso-E-Super, Hedione, Cetalox, Dihydromyrcenol, Ambroxan, pepper, oud, and others are staples of modern perfumery and not generally found in vintage perfumes.  Many materials replace raw materials. Dihydromyrcenol can stand for Lavender, Geraniol and Phenylethyl Alcohol can stand for Rose. When you begin working with these materials, you quickly identify scents you have smelled countless times before.  The well-known perfume Fahrenheit has some (or a lot) of these in it, particularly Iso E Super.  In the 1990’s, you could not set foot outside your house without getting whiffs of these materials hitting you from everywhere. It was like, “We discovered Iso-E-Super, let’s use it in everything!”  The divide between Vintage and Modern was never more pronounced.

Alternatively, when discussing Vintage Perfumery as opposed to modern, one cannot do so without mentioning the early Musks: Musk Ketone, Musk Xylol and Musk Ambrette.  Do you want your perfume to smell vintage? Add Musk Ketone and vintage away!  In frequenting antique markets, one often comes across half full old bottles of perfume.  Upon smelling these perfumes, the smell of vintage comes right through the first whiff. What makes this scent vintage is, in great part, the musks used at the time.  One could say that in ‘the old days’ many perfumes also shared much in common. 

When referring to ‘vintage’ perfumes, the phrase “Smells like an old lady” is often uttered.  This is a phrase, by the way, which I intensely dislike.  If one analyzes the phrase, one quickly realizes it is not the age or gender of the person wearing those perfumes, but the era in which they were worn.  Once something goes out of style, it is immediately labeled ‘old fashioned.’ And yet, some of the most gorgeous and delicious perfumes were created back then.  In comparison, many of today’s perfumes smell but like a mere shadow of their predecessors. Today, perfumery moves way too fast, and before you truly get to find your signature perfume, it is discontinued. Permanence is out. While I am not a huge fan of Musk Ketone, mainly because it can quickly date a perfume, there is indeed a place for it still in niche perfumery and if used well and discreetly, it can do wonders to a formula.

Perfumery counter on the set of Mr. Selfridge (ITV studios)

One of the fascinating things from learning about vintage perfumes is their historical context. A few years ago I was watching the TV series ‘Mr. Selfridge.’ It is a British period drama television series about Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London department store, Selfridge & Co. The timeline is set from 1908 to 1928. In perfumery terms, this is as vintage as you get. One thing that is often striking about such period shows and films is the attention to detail in the production design. Mr. Selfridge is excellent in this and never more apparent than in the scenes showing the store’s perfume counters. In the image above, one can see an array of bottles, mostly from Guerlain. But many others have featured in the show, such as the UK perfumer Penhaligon’s. As I was quite familiar with the scent of these vintage perfumes, I immediately could smell them in my mind, which added an extra layer of realism for me in watching the show. I can, however, also tell when the liquid inside the bottle is way too clear and bright for a specific vintage perfume… If you look at the vintage versions of perfumes like L’Heure Bleue, Shalimar and Mitsouko versus their modern counterparts, you find a startling different in color. Heavy reformulation is partly to blame, while also the modern availability of materials with their colors lessened or removed. Modern chemistry has afforded the perfume industry with the unique gift of being able to isolate particular molecules from a raw material and change it to suit their olfactory needs. As Jean-Claude Ellena describes in one of his books, he was able to have a manufacturer remove a specific note from the Lavender he was seeking, to make it more appealing to his needs.

My early work in learning perfumery was in working with vintage formulas.  Many of them came from the book by Louis Appell (see my Useful Links page), but I also had access to some other vintage formulas which really informed me on how perfumers of yesteryear used to create their perfumes.  It was not only fascinating, but also taught me how perfumery was created back then as opposed to now.  With the advance in technology, new ways of scent extraction and new chemicals have been developed.  Hedione, for example, and Iso E Super, were newcomers that revolutionized the perfumery industry, and it is easy to see why.  And for a while, the transition worked well together.  Then something happened: overregulation and changes in taste. 

What vintage perfume would this person be wearing?

One must keep in mind that early perfumery also served a purpose.  Some early perfumes were created to cover up the smell of strong animal fur worn at the time. This made those perfumes excessively heavy in comparison with perfumes available today.  Also, back then, men in general were not prone to wearing heavy perfumery, if at all.  Perfumery was originally geared more towards women.  In time, however, men started wearing perfumes as ‘Eau de Cologne’ or ‘Eau de Toilette.’ But still selectively, and often perfumes which were either very citrusy or spicy and woody. The barbershop scent was in.

Those days are long gone, and such heavy scents are not really necessary or liked today, although depending what part of the world you live in, the taste for specific scents vary greatly from light to heavy, from citrus to fruity to musky.  But one should not scoff at the tastes people had during the vintage period of perfumery. I am sure back then the mere idea of a perfume based on food would have caused uproarious laughter while today, Gourmand perfumes are all the rage.

Some perfumes, however, did successfully survive the passing of time and trends, even if they did suffer from reformulation. Beloved fragrances like Chanel № 5 have undergone reformulations due to changes in taste and regulations.  I had access to early formulas of Chanel № 5 , L’Heure Bleue, Shalimar and Mitsouko.  Putting those together and comparing them to their newer versions was an eye opener.  Yes, they were clearly the same perfume, but the difference was astounding.  Some main materials remain (for now), like the amber-leathery Labdanum, a connection between the originals and the modern ones.  But the earlier versions of these perfumes are deep, strong, full bodied and express something the new versions do not really have.  The new versions are almost like a Xerox copy that has been Xeroxed twenty times over – the original long faded.  Put them side by side and the vintage perfumes are deep and ‘opulent.’  The new ones tend to be much less full bodied.

Diorissimo by Dior

That said, modern perfumery has a style of its own, especially if you create it yourself.  The Lily of the Valley perfume I spoke of earlier, which I created, was done keeping modern sensibilities in mind, making sure it would not deviate into vintage, something that can be easy to fall into.  But I wanted something that would not be so modern as to lack character, which I often find in current perfumes.  I managed a Lily of the Valley that defeats the otherwise musty smell I get from most Lily of the Valley bases and perfumes, and the top notes down to the base notes blend beautifully through the silage and dry-down. I also wanted to avoid the shrill top notes often found in Lily of the Valley perfumes.  The closest perfume available that I consider does Lily of the Valley well is the original Diorissimo, by Dior.  That was my starting point, but I wanted something completely my own.  And it worked.  Granted, it is a complex perfume containing over 45 materials and some bases I created, so it is far from simple.  I call it ‘Spring Lily.’  In my basic description, my top notes are Aldehydes, Citrus and Green Notes. My middle notes are Lily of the Valley, Cyclamen, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang. My base notes are Benzoin, Amber, Vanilla, Tonka Bean, Precious Woods, Civet and White Musk. Needless to say, I used real materials like Jasmine, Ylang and Sandalwood in it.  I also use Lyral and Lilial, which new perfumes can no longer use, and materials such as Iralia which is a higher quality Ionone. I also used Musk Ambrette, no longer contained in perfumes but which is not overly vintage as to lead the perfume in that direction.  And the end result was a through-and-through Lily of the Valley base perfume that is delightful and lasting.

I was able to balance Vintage with Modern because I have worked with both and therefore have become quite familiar as to what makes a perfume vintage and what makes it modern.  This is my reason for this post, to encourage people to research and learn all kinds of perfumes and expand their knowledge and palette.  More often than not you will fail, which is in itself part of the learning process, but once in a while you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams and those are the moments that make it all worth it.  Perfumery is never simple, and there are many roads and tricks to take, some as individual as you are. The more exposure you have to all kinds of perfumes, the more you can decide what defines you.  As a musician, I had a style all my own.  Most musicians have this, unless they are trying to imitate someone else’s work.  The thing is, one does not set out to create a signature sound, it just happens.  And it only happens as a result of who you are as a person.  And who you are as a person is made up of culture, family and experiences.  When you create, you bring all of that into your creation, and it becomes uniquely you.  As a perfumer, what you bring into your creations is also based on many of these same factors, including your own sense of smell and how you perceive the world through it.  To expand this, I encourage you to explore all of perfumery has to often, the new and the old, the modern and the vintage.


References

[1]. Perfume, The Alchemy of Scent, Jean-Claude Ellena, pg. 24.

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