Monday 30 April 2018

Perfume's Passage of Time

It’s like the quest for the Holy Grail. Perfume collectors are constantly searching for a lost fragrance, a “vintage” formulation, or even a different edition of an original bottle. While the latter doesn’t pose too much of an issue, the first two can be problematic to say the very least. Everything gets older, including me, and it’s this ageing process that can have profound effects upon your “vintage” scent. What you end up buying may smell wonderfully resinous, with vanilla laden qualities, and have a depth of richness that is missing in current fragrances, but are you smelling what the perfumer really intended?

One of the first things that people learn about the construction of a scent is the fragrance pyramid. An ingredient pyramid will also give you an idea of the volatility of the materials that have been used, which translates loosely as the order in which they evaporate off the skin. This is different to the olfactory pyramid, which is the order that you perceive the ingredients. The passage of time can alter these fragrances immensely and this is why “vintage” perfumes that you buy on eBay, or even through respected sellers, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

In a similar way to wine, fragrance develops and matures over time as the ingredients found within it actually age. This is where the first of the problems arise. When a fragrance is released it is generally “as the perfumer intended”, everything is in balance. However, the maturing process that happens when a bottled scent is stored for decades throws this careful balance out and the ingredients essentially alter. A particular variety of vetiver for example may be chosen because of the character it imparts to the fragrance, but the prolonged storage may alter this quality and so the scent takes on an unintended aspect.

The biggest issue though with storing perfumes is when we look at the wonderfully volatile citrus ingredients that are found right at the top of the fragrance pyramid. These short lived materials can often disappear over time and so a huge section of the perfume is then noticeably absent. This contributes to the scent feeling richer and heavier, because the piercing hesperidic shot that originally appeared first is missing, and it’s also one of the reasons why it can take on a smoky quality, because of the ingredient degrading. If you think about Shalimar by Guerlain then you will understand the problem.

Shalimar is 30% bergamot, which means that when a stored “vintage” bottle is finally enjoyed you can often find that this unbelievably exciting citrus opening is considerably muted. Many fans had always considered the “vintage” to be a truer interpretation of the scent but Thierry Wasser and Frédéric Sacone blew this idea out of the water with their historic recreations. When they reconstructed Shalimar from the original recipe it actually showed that the current formulation was closer to the original formula than a true “vintage” bottle. Yes, it lacked the depth of the “vintage” but that was simply because it was a quality that was never intended in the first place.

So, the next time that you’re tempted by a “vintage” fragrance just remember that the passage of time alters perfume in the same way that it also alters us.


  1. Thank you for this. I was trained as a biochemist, and my nose can often catch elements in scents that are off. I do enjoy them, but I also understand that this is NOT how Grammy would have smelled at all!

    1. Hello Edie, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Best, Stephan

  2. I love vintage clothes but have never desired to find vintage fragrance for this reason. Perfumers are not reformulating willy-nilly out of the fun of it, with the sole intent to ruin your favourites. It isn't in a brand's best interest to change the formula of a classic beyond recognition. The fears around reformulation and the pedestal that vintage is put on are two sides of a coin of misunderstanding I think. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of the industry, but there's so much that is not understood.

    Vintage is not always better, much the same as natural is not always safe.

    1. Hello KittyMeow, thank you for reading and for commenting. Best, Stephan