“Dreck and turned,” so let me be your garbage disposal !

Over at the FromPyrgos blog (http://frompyrgos.blogspot.com) there is an interview with an “industry insider” that I suggest reading. It is entitled, “Jeffrey Dame Chats With From Pyrgos.” Here, I want to focus on one passage from that interview (the words are those of Mr. Dame):

There is really no way to know what percentage of vintage scents have mixed and matched old boxes and labels with various newer scent updates. Just know that packaging carries on for years. I will say that scent is a living thing, and the character of the smell changes over time. A scent made within the past year will be brighter in top notes, a scent 2-3 years old is mellower, as everything melds together. A scent 4-5 years old starts to lose character, and can often be turning bad. Anything over 5 years old is highly suspect for quality, and anything 8 years old is dreck and turned. Buying any fragrance on Ebay over 10 years old tells you nothing, as you either end up with fragrance which is completely unwearable, or even if it is wearable, bears no relation to the original scent when it was first made. Fragrance goes bad…

The first part is a point I’ve made, even though I had no idea if it were true. Of course, I still can’t be sure, but it just seemed obvious to me that there must be “old stock” fragrance (meaning the liquid itself) as well as times when there were excess boxes or bottles, so at least once in a while there would be “mixing and matching” occurring. This is why you can never be sure what you are getting. However, I doubt if I have just been very lucky in my vintage purchases, and I think it’s very unlikely that one would obtain a terrible reformulation in original packaging. Mr. Dame, in fact, points out in this interview that reformulations are done with a “Five Percent Change” rule, meaning that after several reformulations the scent might seem quite different (sort of like the olfactory version of the game “telephone,” where someone whispers a line into a person’s ear and then that person tells another person; after several people are told the line the last person is asked to repeat it out loud and it’s usually quite different from what the first person was told).

I don’t agree with this, mainly due to the obvious changes in ingredients. You can’t tell me that a strong sandalwood note was diminished ever so slightly in reformulations and over time to the point where there is no detectable sandalwood, regardless of whether a synthetic substitute was used or not. That does not pass the “basic common sense” test. In fact, if one thinks about Samsara’s reformulation, one finds a change in the quality of the sandalwood, but not the strength of the note; that is what one would expect from Guerlain (at least until recently). Instead, I think there are some companies that have no allegiance to the originals (Coty, EA Fragrances, etc.) and have recently decided to go in a very different direction, creating muddled/fuzzy “nothing” scents that have a minor quality which bears a little resemblance to the original (with some ingredients I consider crucial to the scent removed, such as the oakmoss in Halston’s 1-12).

In the case of Cool Water (“men’s”) for example, the sharp notes are reigned in considerably (rosemary, neroli), the tobacco is either not there or nearly impossible to detect, and even the sweetness is cut back (which I consider an improvement), in the new Coty version. Cheap, unnatural-smelling musks are added or increased substantially, on the other hand, along with some murky fruitish notes. But, as the title of this post implies, I am here for you, willing to consider taking all the vintage “dreck” off of your hands, and certainly don’t expect you to pay me to take away this “garbage,” unlike your local trash company. Coincidentally, I recently purchased quite a few vintage scents on ebay, including a 50 ml splash bottle of Antaeus with only 25% remaining in it. The smell is just wonderful, better than I remember it a few years ago, when the castoreum was too much for me (probably due to a “chemical sensitivity” type of issue).

How Mr. Dame came to his conclusions is something he did not explain. Has he purchased any vintage scents on ebay? If so, what were they and exactly what does he feel is “off” about them? Fortunately for me, I have some older relatives who have given me quite a few scents that are decades old, stored away in closets and in back dresser drawers. There is nothing wrong with any of these few dozen scents! Of course, tops note may be diminished, and if you are a “top notes person” (which I suspect Luca Turin, Chandler Burr, and many of these “industry insider” types are), then perhaps that few minutes mean everything to you and you will be sad. However, “dreck” implies that the entire scent is not worthy of a second thought, and that is contrary to what one can read in the many reviews on Basenotes.net and Fragrantica.com, for example, along with what Luca Turin has said about some very old scents he has come across in his olfactory adventures.

In a sense, I’m glad Mr. Dame made this statement, because it reaffirms my sense that we are the real “experts” here and not someone like this. We sample and study specific kinds of scents over the course of hours each day. We “follow our noses” and don’t have conflicts of interest or preconceptions (in fact, at first I thought claims about bad reformulations were unfounded, but I kept an open mind, realizing that there was a great deal I didn’t know or couldn’t perceive at that point). Moreover, I’ll be clear here and state explicitly that my experience tells me that this person is “out of touch with reality,” perhaps because he hasn’t sampled many (if any) very old scents. Certainly, it’s possible that some scents changed a bit over time, even beyond the top notes, but if so, they seem to become better with age! The author of FromPyrgos himself has made this claim, at least about some Creed scents. In any case, I hope there are more interviews like this one (on FromPyrgos or anywhere else), because I think we will see more of the same.

Interestingly, Mr. Ross did not ask Mr. Dame a question I thought screamed out to be posed, which is what current technology (“gas chromatography”) can tell us about the “integrity” of scents more than a decade old. Does Mr. Ross think that if we use this technology we will see huge differences in the same two scents if one is ten years older than the other (assuming the formula remained the same)? I can’t imagine that being the case, other than in some top notes (with perhaps one or two exceptions out of thousands). Didn’t Mr. Ross make this point in a blog post about Old Spice not that long ago (and in that case there were different formulas!)? Here is the concluding paragraph to his 4/23/13 post entitled, “The Reformulation Of Old Spice Gets Analyzed:”

You can say what you want about Proctor & Gamble’s formula, but given the data, it’s hard to accuse them of ruining the formula. It’s clear that the only thing that suffered (and arguably at that) is the top, while the mid is almost the same, and the drydown actually yields more than its progenitor’s did. Let’s hear it for gas chromatography!

In this case, Mr. Ross acknowledged that the formula was not the same but that the scents were both excellent, meaning that the vintage one(s) was not “dreck” nor no longer recognizably Old Spice. I’d like to know exactly how Mr. Dame thinks an old scent gets “ruined.” For example, some scents have amber-dominant drydowns. What, exactly, does he think happens to that amber? And why does that amber smell the same or better than so many recent amber-dominant scents (the ones Turin calls “crap ambers,” for example)? It may be that some sharpness dissipates, which allows richness to increase, in many vintage scents, but I’ve had some mini splash bottles since the early 1980s (Aramis is one), and they still smell great, with no loss of anything, though of course at the time I knew next to nothing about perfumery. And what terrible things cam happen to an entirely synthetic scent after ten years (let’s assume it was “stored properly”)? Mr. Dame is asserting, at least implicitly, that he knows what a “turned” scent smells like, though he doesn’t supply an explanation or criteria for judging this phenomenon. Does he truly think a scent more than ten years old must smell either horrible or totally different from a recent batch following the same formula – if so, it tells a lot about the “expertise” that exists (or lack thereof) in this industry, IMO.

As I pointed out in my last post (about the 1998 Smalto scent), in some cases you just have to sample it for yourself, perhaps on multiple occasions (using different application techniques), before you understand it and are able to decide whether you want more than a sample vial. Unfortunately for me, the aficionado/connoisseur/perfumista crowd knows how great vintage scents are, and how rarely one encounters “dreck” in our “hunts.” In fact, I can’t think of one instance of this, though I’ve had more than a few very disappointing experiences spraying on a scent and realizing that there was an awful reformulation done. I can only hope Mr. Dame has a large stock of very old bottles he’s willing to sell me for “pennies on the dollar,” since he apparently views them as worthless. Fear not, as I shall refrain from holding my breath waiting for that to occur !

UPDATE: In the comment section to the FromPyrgos blog post mentioned above, Mr. Ross makes the following comments: “I have a bottle of Grey Flannel that can be no less than 25 years old. It still smells great. But does it smell the way Andre Fromentin and Jacqueline Cochran wanted it to smell when it was formulated and distributed into the market? Probably not… It’s like walking into a movie late and missing the first twenty minutes.”

I would say it is like walking into a movie theater right when the movie begins, missing the advertisements and/or trailers. However, the most important point here (to me) is that I couldn’t care less what anyone intended, as that is only relevant if you think of these concoctions as “fine art,” which Mr. Ross has argued against! Even with fine art, many people don’t realize that what some “masterpieces” look like today is not what they looked like originally (examples range as wide as ancient Greek sculpture and oil paintings by da Vinci!). Instead, for me it’s only about the olfactory pleasure I can derive from a bottle that I own (and it must last several hours). A recent example is a first formulation bottle of O de Lancome I acquired. I have the newest formulation as well, and find it too sharp and unbalanced (I generally dislike citrus-dominant scents), but the original is really wonderful stuff, as good as any niche that tries to do something similar (it’s probably better, in fact). If anyone wants to swap their first formulation O de Lancome for my new one, don’t hesitate to ask !

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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