Monday, January 23, 2012

What Makes a Perfume a Classic?

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.
*innovation/echoing the zeitgeist

*timeless beauty

*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, 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).

Since perfume as a sold commodity has market considerations beyond the merely artistic, a perfume cannot survive the passage of time without enough people buying it in the first place. It needs a continued sustenance on the real market, and often a best-selling status as well, to establish itself as a true classic. Several of the classics we refer to as such nowadays, such as 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


  1. PBlaha19:21

    Dear E,

    wonderful review again and a very interesting matter indeed! Time and again i am puzzled how some vintage or classic fragrances could smell timeless, as if they havent aged at all, standing against all changes in fashion and taste.
    IMO Diorissimo is one of them (vintage that is) and im sure that every young girl or boy would agree that it doesnt smell dated at all (its the Roudnitzka wizardry i guess).
    I agree on Joy, it may not have been innovative, but executed perfectly, although i prefer 1000. To me 1000 is just so immensely pretty and elegant, it feels like class in a bottle.
    Some of these classics just make me smile smelling them because they evoke something i cannot describe right away. Femme is one of them, although i cannot picture a young woman wearing it, it gives me the feeling of being hugged by a curvacious motherly woman, warm and embracing.
    On the other hand, i somehow never appreciated some undisputed classics like Shalimar, thought its just too dated. Now that a young colleague of mine is wearing it every day, the sillage of Shalimar is greeting me every morning, it grew on me and i startet to like it very much! So, thats maybe a feature of a real classic too..........

  2. What food for thought!

    I pondered for a while and I perceive a classis thusly:
    a) it's been around for a time
    b) it's beautiful
    c) it is sort of generally acceptable

    That's the Opium, No. 5 and may well be Guerlain's AA Herba Fresca.

    I have an ambivalent attitude to classics. They're too well known and sometimes it feels weird to smell Opium on five people during one day. Which is why I own around 10 bottles of Opium - they make them in interesting bottles and there's a magpie in my genes - but I don't wear it too often.

    I find Iris Gris pretty much unwearable. There's something in it that irritates me, it's not a wearable fragrance for me although it's indeed beautiful. I'd compare it to a painting I love to see from time to time but I wouldn't be able to live with it on my wall.

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  4. I do not smell Opium on 5 people anymore. I feel like it's my own little secret. People have asked me what it was. It did used to be like that but........


  5. I don't smell Opium on 5 people anymore. It used to be that way......but no more.....I now feel like it's my little secret! I do wear the vintage Opium or the Fleur de Shanghai.

  6. Gloria,

    you're right, it's not everywhere any more. It's a curse and a blessing rolled in one. I love wearing it against the grain as well, as you well know!! (and yes, FdS is my fav flanker of it as well, though most of its flankers are very good).

  7. Anna Crates17:02

    A classic and timeless perfume is when you discover that your 19 year old daughter bought Chanel No. 5. My mom used to wear Chanel No. 5 when I was just a kid and that was 40 years ago. A classic scent has no expiration date.

  8. Anna,

    I like your definition and i thank you for sharing your story. Welcome to Perfume Shrine!


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