I am about to repent, to some extent.
For quite awhile now, I’ve been trying to get my hands on some vintage Habit Rouge. I’d heard about its grandeur, of course; this is legendary stuff. According to Perfume Shrine's "Index to Scents Celebrities Wear," this is Keith Richard’s favorite, and I’m a sucker for anyone who appears to have survived the Apocalypse. I liked the sample I’d gotten of the modern version. So, when I finally found the Holy Grail (a very generous swapper who sent me 5 mls of the stuff) I was ecstatic. And then....
Like all perfume from old bottles, one has to watch out for those off notes. You’ll often get that nail-polish-remover-on-a-sweat-sock opening, but then the fragrance -- if you’re lucky -- relaxes and blooms. This one has the old-perfume smell, but it does bloom (much more quickly on skin than paper). Body heat brings out the fabled HR sweet dustiness, and, when I sniff A-B wrist to wrist, one with old and one with modern, it’s clear to me that the vintage is playing in a lower register.
I know this isn’t scientific. Who knows how the source bottle was stored? There is a citrus in that lower register, but it isn’t the fabled HR orange; it’s more bergamot, with a sour edge. And a hint of aromatic resin.
Meanwhile, the new stuff on my other wrist is shrieking “Smell meeeee!” And its voice is at least an octave higher than that of the vintage. On paper, the orange (incidentally, orange isn’t even listed in the notes) is absolutely dominant at this point, while on skin that citrus is a little lactonic, like a Creamsicle -- vanilla, already? But it’s still developing.
Later: the vintage has reached midrange-to-drydown. And, because this is my second skin test, I know that this is going to be as good as it will get. And it’s good, the dust is there, slightly powdery, the sweet resin benzoin, labdanum, oakmoss I think, and it’s definitely masculine. It would make the best after-shave in all the world.
I also know it will last about twenty more minutes, and then vanish completely.
The modern HR is taking its time. It’s much more a unisex fragrance than the old. It’s not sweet, exactly, but its voice is higher. The “punch” is more lactonic than animalic, and the resins smell like they came from somewhere else (probably a test tube). But it still whispers of classic-perfume synthesis, and I know it will last, and last and last. I can spray it on a T-shirt and it will be there eight, nine hours later.
This means a lot to me.
Every now and then, I go on a vintage binge. I’ll sift through hundreds of bottles on fleabay. I’ll hunt down minis in antique stores and flea markets. A couple of months ago, in one memorable week, I bought five bottles of vintage. One bottle was definitely “off.” I tried to deny it but finally had to admit it. I left a slightly questioning comment as feedback, and got a tirade from the seller, “just a mom trying to make ends meet!!!” I decided that the price I had paid wasn’t worth the hassle of challenging such hysterics. Auctions are a gamble, we all know it, move on.
So my face has a little bit of egg on it today. I know what the longevity is about, in the modern fragrance. It’s some kind of synthetic molecule, or many of them, that apparently weren’t there in the old. I like the vanilla-dust sweetness, too, and it just smells good, damn it. And, if I decide to buy some, I won’t have to hunt down half-full bottles, deal with Sellers (ever wonder about these people?) and face the general uncertainty of buying used perfume.
So, my endless tirades regarding reformulation aside, here is the only conclusion I can come up with: it’s possible to reformulate and do it reasonably well. Not likely, but possible.
“Habit Rouge” was released in 1965. The perfumer was Jean-Paul Guerlain, who also created Nahema, Chamade and Parure. The “notes” include bergamot, rose, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, moss, benzoin, labdanum and patchouli.
Photo by Bsauter, used under license from Dreamstime.com