Reviews of old perfumes are biased by the ageing factor
When in 2014 Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone started to re-create part of the vintage Guerlain catalogue, they chose to invite a group of perfume bloggers to Maison Guerlain to explore facts and secrets in the world of Guerlain. It marks the first time ever that a perfume house reveals what freshly blended vintage perfumes smell like. Until then, our only knowledge about vintage fragrances came from reviews of old juice whose character had changed drastically in the ageing process. At the meeting, we went through an interesting experiment comparing the re-created original version of Shalimar with first the modern version that is sold today, and then a bottle of old juice. The top notes of the latter were obviously damaged by age, while the base appeared surprisingly well-preserved, and met us like a soft cocoon of vanilla, balsam and musk.
Wasser and Sacone point out that people's perception of vintage perfumes is often biased by the ageing factor, and that the freshly blended vintage version actually smells closer to modern Shalimar than to the very old juice. With age, any oriental composition will necessarily soften and become more ambery. This teaches us that it isn't fair to judge the scent of a bottle of perfume we just bought by comparing it with one that we've kept at the back of a closet for many years.
The nature and nurture of graceful ageing
Perfumes produced decades ago are held in high regard by perfume connoisseurs. It's typical of collectors to be enamoured with old things in general, but when it comes to perfumes, there's a specific argument: vintage blends aren't compromised by IFRA health guidelines. And, significantly, perfume is often compared to wine, sometimes actually improving with age. (In fact, the correct usage of the word vintage is when identifying the year when a wine was made. In the context of perfumes, "vintage" is meant to denote a time when restrictions on raw materials did not exist, or were far less radical than they are today, basically any time up until, say, the early 1990s.)
However, acquiring unspoiled vintage perfumes is quite hit and miss. You never know what you get until you've smelled it, as the ageing process depends on a variety of factors, like storage conditions (heat, light and oxygen), and the perfume's ingredients. In other words, how a perfume ages depends on both its "genes" and how well you treat it. Assuming that you're already treating your perfumes kindly, let's take a short look at the genes.
Citrusy, herbaceous and floral materials deteriorate fairly quickly, while balsamic ingredients often get rounded and rich with age. Therefore, oriental compositions in particular seem to age well, which might explain the universal praise of vintage perfumes. An old bottle of Shalimar will likely smell divine, and Guerlain's own Sylvaine Delacourte recommends aged L'Heure Bleue. To complicate matters even more, citrus, herbal and floral materials don't age the same way. Citrus notes tend to simply fade and flatten with age, whereas herbs and flowers turn sharply sour and bitter.
Moreover, raw materials used in the form of essential oils, known for their fresh and sparkling quality, turn bad more easily than full-bodied absolutes and tinctures. This is also why a Parfum ages much better than an EdT: the low EdT concentration means that the sensual base notes are not strong enough to conceal the damage to what else is in the composition, and, to make things worse, the higher volume of water will even accelerate the breakdown of the scent molecules.
Shalimar, for example, contains a large amount of citrus, herbal and floral ingredients, and these do go off after some years. But as the balsamic base notes get richer and more rounded with age, they outweigh the acrid smell of the other notes and the lack of citrus vitality. An old bottle of Shalimar may have lost some of its sparkle, but its sweet sensuality persists. It's only during the first fifteen minutes that we sense something is wrong; the rest smells so smoky and velvety that we don't pay attention to what's missing. Some perfume collectors are even so habituated to the scent of aged Shalimar that they will perceive a new bottle as smelling "too clean".
The ageing process of Mitsouko is quite a different, almost the reverse, story. Mitsouko's body and soul is made up of bergamot, and therefore old bottles often smell strangely flat and lifeless, without the deep, invigorating and petroleum-like odour of fresh bergamot. The first fifteen minutes can smell promising, but as the bergamot has weakened, it soon dissipates, leaving a big void in the scent. Mitsouko doesn't have Shalimar's level of sensual notes to compensate, so all we may smell then is dusty moss and soured herbs and flowers. Of course the harm of ageing is a continuum: from deterioration of only the most transitory top notes, to spoiled all the way through.
Overall, purely fresh, floral, chypre or fougère compositions are especially sensitive to ageing. Vintage Guerlain examples in this category are the Eaux de Cologne, Mitsouko, Chant d'Arômes, Vetiver, Habit Rouge, Chamade, Parure, Jardins de Bagatelle, Derby, and Coriolan. By contrast, perfumes that emphasizes the balsamic components, like Jicky and Shalimar, usually age very well.
Pictured here (1) is a half-empty bottle of Shalimar EdT (front) together with Shalimar Parfum (back) from approximately the same year of production. While the EdT has an acrid streak of vinegar, the Parfum is wonderfully velvety and dulcet. Picture 2 shows a bottle of Mitsouko EdP from 2013 (left), containing Thierry Wasser's award-winning reformulation, and a bottle approximately fifteen years older (right). While the bergamot, peach, rose and jasmine in the former smell crisp and luminous, in the latter the first fifteen minutes feel somewhat sour and unpleasant. But the remaining part of the old juice is dark and spicy in a way that justifies the comparison to aged wine. While we wait for Thierry Wasser's new Mitsouko to age, we'll continue to debate what is the ideal scent of Mitsouko.
Venerable vintage or sour scent?
Acquiring unspoiled vintage perfumes is not an easy task, as the ageing process depends on a variety of conditions. Factors that impair a fragrance while ageing include: low presence of balsamic materials, absolutes and tinctures, high presence of citrus, herbal and floral essential oils, and the scent molecules' contact with light, heat, oxygen and water. This explains, amongst other things, why (1) oriental compositions age better than purely fresh, floral, chypre or fougère compositions, (2) a Parfum concentration ages better than EdC, EdT and EdP, and (3) a full bottle ages better than a partly used bottle.
Pictured here is a full bottle of Shalimar EdP from the late 1980s (EdP was termed Parfum de Toilette back then), together with an almost empty bottle of the same scent from the mid-1990s. Despite the latter being the younger of the two, it has an unpleasant sour note to it, due to the many years with much oxygen inside the bottle. By contrast, the older, full bottle still smells wonderful.
Conclusion: if you want your perfumes to keep smelling good, either don't use them, or use them quickly.
Reading the batch code
In January 2002, Guerlain introduced a new batch code system which made it easy to determine when the bottle was produced if you know how to read the code. Up until then, the batch codes were indecipherable unless you had access to an in-house database. The new four-digit batch code starts with a number that indicates the production year after 2000. The code's second digit is a letter that is linked to the production month in that year — from "A" for January to "M" for December. The letter "I" was excluded to avoid confusion with the number "1". Hence, the code 2J01 meant "produced in September 2002". In 2008, the A-M table was replaced by the next line of letters in the alphabet, from "N" for January to "Z" for December. The letter "O" is excluded to avoid confusion with the number "0". Now, 2W01 means "produced in September 2012". See list of batch codes from 1977 to the present day
Copyright date is not production date
Perfume aficionados who are on the lookout for vintage Guerlains will try their best to determine the approximate age of a bottle by any available signs, be it the bottle or box design, the batch code, or the copyright date. Until Guerlain changed the box design into the current one in 2008, all boxes bore a copyright date (see illustration). However, an important fact about this date is that it referred to the year of copyright for the box design, not the perfume inside the box. Since Guerlain's box designs generally stay unchanged for many years, or even decades, the copyright date can only be applied to infer that the perfume was produced no earlier than the given copyright date.
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