What are the perfume classics and why are they classics? Do they have something in common that has made them "the classics"? What exactly makes something a classic? Like in other areas of art, there is a finite number of options.
*endurance/longevity, so that it becomes a reference point
An objet d’art should express its times (or pre-empty the future) with such tremendous force and conviction that it should be on the vanguard of an entirely new direction. This is usually done through technical and artistic innovation. For instance Coty’s Chypre [with its streamlined formula and the archetypal harmony of bergamot (a citrus) ~cistus labdanum (a sweet resin) ~oakmoss (a bitter, earthy lichen)], as well as Chanel No.5 (with its abstract impression and huge dose of synthetic aldehydes, unusual at the times) and Dior’s Eau Sauvage (a citrusy-mossy cologne for men with a floral heart of hedione, i.e.green translucent jasmine note) have paved the way for hundreds of upstarts, thus swaying the direction of perfume-making for decades. To bring a musical analogy: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Something could also be harmonious in an eternally beautiful way, pleasant to an 18th century patrician and a 21st century city-slicker alike, like a bust of Aphrodite. Like a concerto for violin by J.S Bach endures because it creates an inner sense of harmony with the universe, while a tune by Milli Vanilli is ultimately forgettable. Some fragrances possess a timeless appeal, removed from vagaries of trends. Joy by Jean Patou, predominantly built on the nectarous qualities of very expensive raw materials, the best rose and jasmine essences, is not particularly innovative, but beautiful all the same. The Jean Marie Farina Eau de Cologne formula is also such an example of timeless appeal. Simultaneously the Eau de Cologne is the mother-mould of all light, citrusy and herbal “eaux” to follow. Humans tending to find olfactory pleasurable what is familiar to them, the second criterion meets the first (innovation that gets imitated and therefore becomes familiar) and is interwoven with the third (market endurance).
Guerlain’s Shalimar, Chanel No.5, Lanvin Arpège, Miss Dior, Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, Lauder Youth Dew, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, YSL Opium, have been huge best-selling fragrances in their times and continue to circulate in one form or another to this day.
It doesn’t matter if Iris Gris by Jacques Fath or Nombre Noir by Shiseido might be more beautiful than L’Air du Temps (roughly contemporary with the Fath fragrance); precious few people have ever smelled the former two to establish them as a yardstick.
One thing we need to differentiate is between classic and dated: “Dated” is a fragrance that has ceased to be in dialogue with the needs and aspirations of the times. The violet and rose waters of the Victorian times now seem obsolete, simplistic and without touch with the zeitgeist. Some of the fragrances of the 1930s, like some in the Jean Patou Ma Collection perfumes series, are decidedly old-fashioned, with a retro halo. Sometimes a sense of nostalgia, or, more poignantly, the desire to nostalgize about that which we have not personally known, overwhelms the perfume lover who then explores these retro fragrances with gusto. It’s human nature: we always think the past held greater passion and glamour than it actually had.
What about YOU: What do you appreciate in a classic perfumes and what makes a perfume classic to you?
photo of Greta Garbo via planetsipul.blogspot , photo Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition