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The sweet smell of vintage perfume

What gives a fragrance staying power?

Created date

April 22nd, 2014
Chanel No. 5
Chanel No. 5

Americans spend an estimated $5.2 billion a year on fragrances, and with all that money in play, it’s no wonder that everyone from Britney Spears to Justin Bieber has their own line of perfume. Like pop stars, many fragrances simply fade away over time, but there are quite a few perfumes that have unique staying power. Chanel No.5, Jicky, and Miss Dior are but a few classic perfumes that have stood the test of time. 

What makes a fragrance a classic? “A combination of being well-constructed, having superior ingredients, perhaps good marketing, and good word-of-mouth,” says Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume (Lyons Press) “Great scents get discontinued all the time, though, so it’s hard to say if there’s a guaranteed formula.”

As with any style-related industry, fragrances follow trends. For the year 2014, expect to smell a lot of berries and rose scents, according to fragrance forecasters at Seven Scent, Ltd. Herman says, “I think lots of mainstream perfumes are the result of market research, and my conjecture is that most people describe perfumes they know as the scents they want, and they want what the market gives it’s just circular. There are still perfumers making bold decisions based on their own creative desires, but that’s an exception.”

A rose is a rose...or is it?

While many fragrances have been around for decades, they don’t necessarily smell the same as when they were first introduced. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA), a perfume industry trade group, has banned some ingredients and is considering banning others. Many people are allergic to common perfume ingredients such as oakmoss. Other ingredients have been banned because they are derived from animals. 

“There are perfumers who are doing amazing things today, but their palettes are getting shrunken by IFRA’s over-regulation and bans,” says Herman who also writes a blog about vintage perfume. “This, in part, is why some Tribune readers may not recognize their classic fragrances: they’ve almost all been reformulated into oblivion.”

“Some perfumers are saying they’ll no longer be able to create the perfumes they want to,” says Herman. Ingredients that may not be available much longer include eugenol, in clove/carnation scents like Bellodgia, and poivre and oakmoss found in chypre perfumes such as Chanel No. 19. 

“Costus, an African ginger root oil that’s divine, has been outright banned,” she says, “along with birch tar that was in Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche. Animal notes (civet, castoreum, musk, ambergris) are largely banned and too expensive to use anyway. I’m glad animal notes aren’t used anymore, except in synthetic form. I’m very unhappy about the rest.”

Looking for a signature scent?

If you’re in the market for a new fragrance, Herman says your first step should be to narrow down a style such as sheer and light or bold and heavy. From there, identify certain notes like tuberose or vanilla or a category like citrus, floral, oriental, or woody. 

“And then smell and try on a few perfumes that fit into those. The Internet is a fount of knowledge (,, etc.),” says Herman. “Or, remember a fragrance you like, look up the notes, and then do a search for a perfume with similar notes. Whatever the method, you should definitely try a fragrance on your skin and let it settle for a few hours before you make a decision. Some perfumes aren’t so great in the drydown, or at the end when the heaviest notes settle. You want to like it from beginning to end. And definitely don’t choose based on how a perfume smells on a paper strip.”

Are some scents more age-appropriate than others? “I think the so-called oriental category of perfumes with heavy doses of amber, vanilla, incense, oud, spices, and other resins tend to make more sense on a mature, sophisticated person,” says Herman. “Same with chypres, tobaccos, and leathers. Citrus and light floral scents, along with light fruity scents, can work on anyone, younger and older.” 

However, like anything style-related, there are no definitive rules. “I wore very age-inappropriate scents when I was a teen,” says Herman. “So I think the rule should always be: Wear what you like! I wore men’s cologne as a teen, and Diva by Emmanuel Ungaro! That’s why scent is subversive. I got away with that in a way I might not have if I had worn a man’s suit or an evening gown to the grocery store!”

For more information, visit Barbara Herman’s blog at