Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (1933, Extrait 2015)

Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong
Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong

There’s a Chinese idiom “Like a cow munching a peony bush”, sarcastically describing someone who is unable to see or appreciate art and beauty. Unfortunately, I think I am that cow when it comes to Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (Night Flight).

Vol de Nuit extrait was one of the few perfumes that I knew I had to get for my perfume collection just because of the bottle. A simple flat square bottle that perfectly captures the essence of the graphic design of one of my favorite art movements – Art Deco, with rays of a sunburst emitting from the center of the bottle (in this case, it’s supposed to represent the propeller of an aeroplane), paired with a shiny gold title plate featuring the iconic fat and chunky san-serif style font.

The scent, now I must say, does not speak to me like how it speaks to high-profile reviewer Luca Turin and many others. Luca wrote he used Vol de Nuit to “recalibrate” his olfactory apparatus to obtain a full-scale quality reading and used Creed’s Love in White to get a reliable zero. Who wouldn’t be tempted to smell a scent that could kick the balls of some Creed scents so high up in the sky?

Vol de Nuit extrait (not the EDT/EDP) to me is essentially a dark balsamic oriental scent. It smells like a lot vintage Lanvin perfumes that I own but with less character. (An image of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall comes to mind.) It also smells very much like a Chinese incense joss stick, borderline smoky and it’s not easy to tell what’s exactly in it. I think that’s why it’s marvelous to some people – it’s ambiguous, mysterious, with ingredients perfectly blended like the interlocking jigsaw pieces of a Escher illustration, so balanced that I don’t know what the heck I am smelling. It smells rich and very importantly, classically vintage. That’s actually the most exciting thing to learn about Vol de Nuit – I have read that in recent years Guerlain have been trying their best to replicate their classic perfumes and they claim that the new batches are very faithful to the original. (So much so that people complain that they don’t smell like the reformulated versions that they own.) If my brand-new Vol de Nuit extrait has every notes in tact and smells like the vintage perfumes from the 30s to 50s that I have been collecting, that means they haven’t deteriorated too badly! Vol de Nuit perhaps is the granddaddy of balsamic oriental perfumes like the top node of a perfume evolution tree.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 4 – Rumeur

Lanvin Rumeur, Parfum, 20ml © Victor Wong
Lanvin Rumeur, Parfum, 20ml © Victor Wong

Lanvin’s little Rumeur had a rocky life. Created by André Fraysse and intended primarily for furs, Lanvin launched Rumeur in 1934, let it run and make money for them for 37 years, and “killed” it in 1971 after a short boardroom meeting. Eight years later, in 1979, news broke out that Rumeur lives and has escaped from a locked basement and started a new life with long lost friends Arpège and My Sin. Together they faced the world that was about to turn “80s” with a new and modest, sleek, glossy black packaging. However, Rumeur didn’t perform as well as Lanvin thought it would, and in 1982, merely three years since its relaunch, the executives of Lanvin took Rumeur to the foggy Woods of Abandonment for a short walk and it was never found again.

(The above drama was imagined by me after reading a few Edward Gorey books.)

The true spirit of Rumeur did not live on, but its name did – in 2006, Lanvin launched a completely new perfume and named it Rumeur again. It sold well and Rumeur 2 Rose was launched in 2007.

I have two versions of vintage Rumeur. The first version is part of a coffret set (1940s), but most of it has evaporated away, and it smelled horribly incomplete. The second version is the one that I think is quite rare, a brand new bottle from the early 1980s.

The opening of Rumeur doesn’t smell very complicated to me – fresh and fruity because of the aldehydes, light bergamot and creamy peach and jasmine. But the Spice Girls, no, Spice Grandmas trio never let the scent go too far and light-headed without them – nutmeg, cardamom and cloves bully the top notes and beat them to submissive and take the front seats. Because of that, the whole composition smells mildly metallic throughout the scent development. At this point, it reminds me of oriental perfumes such as Fendi Asja, YSL Opium and even little bit of Rochas Femme. Finely blended civet/leather/oakmoss/sandalwood is there since the beginning, but it is more noticeable after scent calms down. All in all, Rumeur is a beautiful scent, but not distinct enough to stand out to survive into the 21st century.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 3 – Prétexte

Lanvin Pretexte Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Pretexte Extrait © Victor Wong

If you are not an avid collector of vintage Lanvin perfume extraits that come in rectangle bottles, here is my unofficial guide: Extraits with silver labels and all black stoppers are the oldest (~1940s, fig.1), then comes gold labels and twist caps with gold collars (~1950s-1960s, fig. 2), and occasionally blue labels and black plastic screw caps (~1960s, for small sizes, fig. 3) and finally black labels, gold lettering and twist caps with gold collars (1970s-80s, fig. 4). Assuming the formula and the quality of the materials used have never changed, I suggest getting the ones with black labels (only apply to Arpège, My Sin and Remuer) because they smell freshest.

Lanvin Prétexte

Created by Andre Fraysse, Lanvin Prétexte debut in 1937, had a good running of 25 years, and was discontinued in 1963. I have two versions of Prétexte extraits, one that comes in a 1oz bottle with a silver label (1940s) and little samples with gold labels that indicates they are from the 1960s. The 1oz bottle is much more valuable and hard to get, but the little samples smell much better.

Pretext is a stunning, resinous, powdery, floral chypre with a strong animalic, soft leathery base. The opening has an unmistakable aldehyde note, immediately follows by two distinct scent accords of equal strength: 1) creamy soft white florals (narcissus, iris) and sandalwood and sweet tonka, and 2) a rich chypre base (patchouli, oak moss) with leather, civet, woodnotes. As the scent develops, interestingly part 1) wins and becomes a soft sandalwood floral perfume. I’d dare to say overall Prétexte smells richer and creamier than Arpège, but it doesn’t have the signature abstract floral uniqueness that Arpège possesses.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 2 – Scandal

Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong

Famous vintage perfumes are very much like Greek temples – most of them are spectacular and iconic, but all in ruins in various degrees of damage. They can be rebuilt with modern construction materials, but you know they will not be the same. The famous Parthenon in Athens is breathtaking, but you have to realize you are just looking at the columns of all there left behind. If you look at the artist’s rendition of the original temple with its giant gothic roof and rooms intact, it might blow your mind just to imagine how magnificent it was before the building collapsed. Vintage perfumes, all have never stopped slow self-destructing, often are only left with middle and base notes; top notes such as citrus and aldehyde are gone, or even worse, spoiled. Even if you are handed the original formula listing all the ingredients, I doubt one can imagine with precision what that freshly made perfume smells like because smells are not visuals.

If you are reading this, 20 years or even 50 years from the day it is published, and are considering spending a lot of money on a vintage perfume from 1920s, not to collect, but to smell, to re-experience the golden days of perfumery, I suggest you don’t. Enjoy your contemporary perfumes, ok? (I obviously don’t listen to my own advice.)

For me, analyzing a vintage perfume is both fun, humbling, and even humiliating. First of all, there are quite a few vintage perfumes not yet recorded on Fragrantica.com, the encyclopedia of perfumes and their respective notes breakdown. Without the “cheat sheet”, I really have to rely on my nose to guess what are in the perfume. I know from past experience, I can only correctly guess 5%-10% of the notes of a perfume. Luckily, there are reviews from other sources, by comparing my experience with theirs, I can tell if my perfume has turned bad or not, and also gain some insight.

Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong

So, here I go, I will start with Lanvin Scandal (1931), a leather chypre, the one that never received any reformulation/reissue. It was designed by Andre Fraysse, and discontinued in 1971. I have two versions of Scandal, one is a mini extrait, 1/2 evaporated, around 80 years old, and a travel size vaporizer EDT, also very old, but younger than the extrait.

Based on the notes breakdown I got from Fragrantica, the top notes such as bergamot, lemon, neroli, mandarin in my extrait are all missing. The “new” opening, and the extrait itself is now all about leather. Old, resinous, incensed, spicy, leather. It reminds me of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, but with richer, sharper, more aged leather, and a smoky, mildly sweet (vanilla) and mildly white floral middle notes (probably iris, ylang and some rose). As it dries down, the leather never goes away, but it becomes smoother.

The EDT version on the other hand, smells a bit different. The opening, just the first few seconds, really, is absolutely horrendous — band-aid, plasticky and chemical. (maybe due to its old age.) That unpleasantness goes away very quickly and suddenly it behaves like the parfum/extrait version, only smelling lighter and more animalic, probably of civet. The leather in this case, smells like a new leather jacket instead of smoked old leather sofa found in a temple that burns incense 24/7.

A quick summary, Scandal to me is an incense leather perfume.
(to be continued…)

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century (Part 1)

Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set - My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong
Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set – My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong

I’ll tell you one of the strange reasons why I started collecting vintage Lanvin perfumes about a year ago – there were only six to collect, which I thought was an easy thing to do and not too costly. (Later I found out it’s not always the case.) Mind you, it is not a “completist set”, for Lanvin had released over 30 perfumes between 1923 and 1987 (and a hiatus of 13 years before they released Oxygene in 2000), sadly, most of them got discontinued and forgotten, and only a few were big hits and had sold well enough that you can still find them on eBay. The six scents are Mon Peche (or My Sin, 1925), Arpège (1927), Scandal (1931), Rumeur (1934), Prétexte (1937) and Crescendo (1965).

I began collecting Lanvin perfumes after smelling the modern reformulated Arpège at a shop and bought it without hesitation. It was so marvellous. Not for long, I started collecting vintage Arpège, and the snowball got bigger, as always. (And my vintage Arpège collection is a totally different monster.) Out of the six scents, vintage Arpege is the easiest to collect for Lanvin had sold thousands of truckloads of them. My Sin is the second easiest, probably because of the name, and the scent, for it was suggestive that a lot of women bought it to become an imaginary sinner in the mid 20th century. Vintage Rumeur and Prétexte are rare now, and you will be very lucky to find a full bottle of Scandal or Crescendo extrait for under $150, if it ever shows up on eBay.

I am not the only fan of my so-called “Fantastic Six”, Edmond Roudnitska, one of the greatest French master perfumers, had called Arpege, Scandal, Rumeur and Prétexte “the most spectacular tetralogy in the history of perfumery”.* Having one hit perfume is already difficult, but having four, and each intentionally or unintentionally smelling like it complements each other to complete a perfumery four-piece medallion is ultra difficult and awesome.

Recently I have acquired a vintage “cofferet set” of mini Lanvin extraits, and what’s so special about this set is that all the bottles are unopened (although only 1/4 is left due to 80 years of lonesome meditative evaporation), and they are from the same manufacturing period. I think I can finally tell how different each scent is, for a lot of vintage perfumes tend to smell very similar for the top notes are all gone or ruined, and only left with very commonly used base note ingredients.

* Susan Irvine ed. 2002. The Perfume Guide. Prospero Books
(to be continued…)

Caron’s Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille (1934)

Caron Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille © Victor Wong
Caron Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille © Victor Wong

I know there are a lot of fans of Caron vintage perfumes for women, and they always lament the watered-down or disfigured modern reformulations. I have read enough negative comments to avoid, blindly, all reformulations for women from Caron (updated Caron’s perfumes for men don’t seem to have suffered much at all), and also partly due to the relatively reasonable prices of the vintage versions you can still find on eBay.

One particularly Caron fragrance that caught my attention was “Fleurs de Rocaille” (1934). Note the plural, “Fleurs”. People always say, don’t buy “Fleur de Rocaille”, buy “FleurS de Rocaille”, just like the movies “Alien” and “Aliens” are two different things. Well, “Fleurs de Rocaille” had me at the packaging. I absolutely adore the colourful, almost folksy bouquet illustration on the box and perfume stopper. I wish I can find a poster of that illustration and hang it on my wall.

Only one aspect of the scent of Fleurs de Rocaille is surprising to me, which is its “dirtiness”, otherwise, it smells perfectly of the similar vintage perfumes from that era, such as Arpege. According to Fragrantica, Fluers de Rocaille has a lot of flower notes, such as jasmine, rose, lilac, ylang, but I guess it’s the carnation/violet/musks combo that makes it super spicy and funky. May be aging has something to do with it too.

Imagine, you are sitting by the sea, the golden shimmering reflections of the waves illuminating your face. Slightly startled by a beautiful, fragrant bouquet of flowers brought to you quietly from behind, you involuntarily have a big smile on your face; you turn around to find out who the thoughtful one is, and it’s a smelly baboon showing his love to you.

[After wearing a few more times: The dirtiness is a bit exaggerated, but it’s still a rich, dark, ambery and heavy floral perfume.]

Lubin’s Nuit de Longchamp (1932, reformulated in 1980)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

My partner Tim occasionally hosts BBQ gathering for his friends. Among them there is a small group of women who are buddies within their own circle. Tim will tell the “big sister” about the upcoming BBQ, and she will tell the rest to come along. There’s one who never shows up and Tim wonders why. “She said she wasn’t invited. It’s improper to go to someone’s house without an invitation. It’s improper,” says the “big sister”. “Everything must be proper, according to her.”

I finally had a chance to meet her at a dinner and she was indeed very “proper”. Tall and slender, beautiful and well- mannered, with perfect dinning etiquette. I had been told that she never ever wore jeans and she played piano at the Sunday church, and her mom fantasized about being in the upper class and taught her everything needed to be a lady.

The second time I saw her was at her wedding. She was at her 40s; although I barely knew her, I could tell she couldn’t wait for her duke from Downton Abbey to rescue her anymore. She was marrying a professor, excellent for her, but compared to her, he was almost vulgar. Stupid jokes, high-fiving his lab buddies for finally getting a trophy wife, yahoo yahoo, I felt a little embarrassed for her.

And so, I would like to play a little game of “Scent-me-please” on her. I choose Lubin’s Nuit de Longchamp – a vintage floral full of grace and elegance with a demure projection; it doesn’t wow anyone the first time you smell it, but only if you want to know it better then you will detect its complexity. An aldehydic floral with a touch of chypre, a little bit of nutmeg and cardamom to get the conversation started. I wish her the best.