Perfumista Tip: How to Buy Vintage Perfume

Nina Ricci Bigarade perfume

For me, vintage perfume is both a dream and a nightmare. On one hand, smelling a scent that isn’t made any more feels gloriously forbidden, like tricking time. The old packaging can be gorgeous, too. On the other hand, vintage fragrances can be hard to find, expensive if you do find them, and heartbreaking when they run out. No one said love was easy.

Fortunately, if you know where to look, vintage perfume is out there and for a decent — sometimes ridiculously low — price. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about finding vintage perfume. If you have any tips to share, please comment!

What to look for: The best bet for a bottle of perfume that hasn’t turned is a sealed box of perfume. You’d be surprised at how many sealed boxes of vintage perfume you’ll find when you start to look for them. (My theory is that they were gifts to people who wore another brand.) One warning, though: I’ve bought two sealed boxes of perfume in purse-sized atomizers and found that the perfume had entirely evaporated. “Natural spray” is a clue that the perfume is in an atomizer. I’ve had better luck with splash bottles.

Also, be careful that you aren’t accidentally buying a “factice” (a display bottle, full of colored water). This is easy to do, especially on ebay where you aren’t able to smell the perfume or know for sure that it came from a sealed box.

If you’re able, open the bottle and dab some of the perfume on your skin. If it doesn’t smell perfect right away, wait for a few minutes. Sometimes the top notes of a perfume are damaged, but after a short while the fragrance will emerge. I’ve never had a salesperson balk at my trying the perfume. Usually they’re intrigued since so many people only care about the perfume’s bottle.

Something else to keep in mind is that many vintage Eaux de Cologne are at least as strong as new Eaux de Toilette or even some Eaux de Parfum, so don’t pass them up just because they’re cologne strength.

Now, here’s where to look:

Estate sales: People seem to overlook perfume at estate sales. While the crowds are fighting over a dinette set in the other room, scope out the bedroom and bathroom for perfume. Estate sale companies seem to put a high value on Avon bottles, but other perfume can go for a song. Estate sales are especially fertile ground if you aren’t targeting one particular brand.

If, like me, you work on weekends and can’t get to estate sales, find proxies. I have two friends who go to estate sales regularly, and they have instructions to buy any perfume that isn’t Avon and that they haven’t seen at the drug store. Only about one in five bottles I’ve received this way has been a stinker, and I’ve lucked out with some real winners, including a large bottle of unopened vintage Guerlain Mitsouko Eau de Cologne for $2.50.

Antiques malls: Almost every antiques mall has a booth with a shelf with a few perfume bottles, and sometimes the bottles still have perfume in them. I’ve scored a full 1970s bottle of Jean Patou Joy Eau de Toilette, a bottle of Lanvin My Sin, and half an ounce of Guerlain L’Heure Bleue Parfum, among others, this way. None of them cost over $20.

Ebay: Ebay is probably the most popular way to buy vintage perfume, and to be honest I haven’t had much experience with it. For one thing, prices can be high on ebay, and you aren’t able to test the perfume to make sure it’s still good before you buy it. I also like the thrill of sifting through garage and estate sales and not knowing what I’ll find. On the other hand, the variety of perfume on ebay is astounding, and if you have your heart set on finding a particular scent, ebay may be the best way to go.

If you do look for vintage perfume on ebay, make sure that you’re not getting a deal that’s too good to be true. I’ve heard stories of unscrupulous sellers filling vintage bottles with new or diluted fragrance.

Swapping: Swapping is how I was first introduced to vintage perfume. It was through swapping that I first smelled vintage Christian Dior Miss Dior, Robert Piguet Baghari, and Balmain Jolie Madame and Vent Vert. MakeupAlley is a terrific swapping forum, especially if a sample of a vintage fragrance is enough for you. Plus, if you end up with too many bottles of vintage Worth Je Reviens from estate sale shopping, you can swap online for that bottle of Rochas Femme that you crave.

Other: Thrift stores, such as Goodwill and Salvation Army, can be sources of vintage perfume, too. My hometown has a Goodwill “boutique” downtown with a nice selection of perfume.

A search of Craigslist turns up perfume, too, although a lot of it is perfume that you can find at Marshall’s for a better price. I do know one woman, though, who bought a box of vintage perfume on Craigslist that included bottles of Millot Crèpe de Chine, Givenchy L’Interdit, Hermes Calèche, and more for $50.

My final tip is goofy, but I swear it works. On a day you know you’ll be searching for vintage perfume, take a deep breath and say, “Vintage perfume, reveal yourself.” Then forget about it and have a great time looking.

Note: image via Parfum de Pub.

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39 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I love your last tip, Angela! Sometimes, by just putting your positive energy into it, that magical bottle of perfume will materialize.

    Hugs!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow…some of these are things I wouldn't have considered.

    I am on the hunt for a bottle of Obsession for Men, circa 1986-1990. (Has it really been that long? I guess that almost qualifies it as “vintage.”) I swear it has been reformulated since, and the current product pales in comparison…

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am laughing about the last tip, too. That's how I get a lot of things done–by visualizing them. By the way, I was wondering if you had opinions about Frances Denney Romantic Rose.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I don't know why, but it's true. I think it focuses the mind so that as you're marveling at crystal cocktail glasses or whatever, part of you is always on the alert for perfume.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I bet you can find it! Maybe even at a yard sale or a rummage sale. Do they have Elks Club rummage sales in your city?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I don't know that perfume. Do you like it?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I actually don't know it either… I saw a bottle for sale on eBay and was curious what it smelled like. :)

  8. Anonymous says:

    Good luck getting the scoop on it

    1

  9. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful article! I'll try your magical trick for sure.

    By the way: is it true that vintage perfumes are generally in better condition than an EdP/EdT of the same age? Or is that an urban legend?

  10. Anonymous says:

    You named the ways that I obtain just about all the things I love – vintage jewelry and scarves for years, and lately, perfume. To your excellent list of places to hunt I would add: church bazaars and rummage sales; plain old regular garage sales and estate auctions. For the last, look for what I call “old lady” auctions; widows that are recently deceased/going into a nursing home. Yes, I live in a small midwestern town and this is what we do with people's stuff in these situations, but if you live in a bigger town, check out auction listings in smaller communities within decent driving distance and make a day of it. Go to the auction that looks most promising and scout out antique shops along the way. Stuff can be found, literally, ANYWHERE. I've only had one ebay experience w/vintage perfume which was very positive, and I think the reason why was because the seller had a random selection of items for sale, and the perfume was just thrown in, so they didn't know what they had (an unopened 3ml bottle of Shalimar parfum in it's original velvet box, sealed with wax and smelling divine, for $11, sorry but I can't resist bragging.) The thrill of the hunt can become as addictive as the perfume itself!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I'd guess that what matters above all is how the fragrance was kept–whether it was away from heat, light, and air. Beyond that, I'm not sure if having more alcohol in the formula keeps it better longer or not. Any chemists out there who'd like to comment?

  12. Anonymous says:

    These are all great ideas, thanks! Yard sales and rummage sales sound very promising (and very fun–I love that kind of stuff). Your Shalimar score is killer! What do you think of the parfum versus the EdP?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this, Angela! It's so nice to think I might actually find some of the wonderful things I've read about.
    I did go to a big antiques sale awhile ago where I picked up some Femme EDC for $1.00. It was amazingly well preserved, and as you note, quite powerful considering the formulation. The seller told me I was one day late — that a woman had come along and bought twelve of his bottles.
    The kicker — they were priced so low because “I have so much of this stuff I don't know what to do with it. Most of the time I just use it to scent the cat box.”
    !

  14. Anonymous says:

    OK — just got back from checking out our local Craigslist and don't know whether to thank you or not — a whole new place to lust over things and decide whether or not I can afford them!

  15. Anonymous says:

    What a story! A bottle of vintage Femme for a buck, though, man that's great.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Any good perfume? A friend forwarded me a craigslist ad last night from a man who was looking to trade an engagement ring for a compound bow.

  17. Anonymous says:

    The parfum does live up to the way it's been hyped, imho. It's deep and rich, dark purple velvet in feel if that makes sense. Less brightness to the lemon in the opening and more opoponax in the drydown. Plus, a drop or two is plenty. But I own both the edp and edt and love them, too, what can I say – Shalimar really works for me!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the info on the Shalimar parfum. I have the EdP and like it, but I always suspected that the parfum would take it to another level.

  19. Anonymous says:

    A definitive guide, which I will now be recommending to everybody, thank you!

  20. Anonymous says:

    You're welcome!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Yup. A set of vintage minis still in the box from France, whence they came in 1972.

    But do I “need” them?

    I do enjoy the shopping though. Maybe I could be your buyer!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Hey, do any of us really “need” perfume? I figure that as long as I don't have an expensive habit like skiing or jetting to Biarritz, I should be able to buy a little perfume now and then.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Nice article *grins*
    It makes me think of all those gawd awful vintage Avon bottles that she has stashed away downstairs in the bathroom closet. The one that makes me chuckle the most is the one that looks like a dog and has jewel eyes. I decided to sniff one of them one day and oooohhh mmmaaaannnnn did it smell BAD! (I think that she had let the majority of perfumes go bad.) But whenever I visit is somewhat fun to sneak downstairs and look at them =0]

  24. Anonymous says:

    Your last tip is precious :-))

    (I swear it works for finding parking space, so I am not beyond believing it does for vintage perfume as well)

  25. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, my mother used to have a collection of Avon aftershave bottles shaped liked cars. It never even entered my mind to open one and smell it! I do have a pretty little green parrot bottle that I bought at a thrift shop, though, full of Moonwind perfume. It's important to keep reminders of my trashy background near.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I swear it works, too. An important part of the tip is to forget about it once you've made the proclamation. I don't know how, but it works.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Now that's got to have a story behind it….

  28. Anonymous says:

    The minis? I bet they do. I've seen sets of minis of scents from companies I've never heard of. I almost think they were in business just to manufacture sets of minis for tourists.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Oh but some perfume I do need!

    No, really!
    :-)

  30. Anonymous says:

    I meant the engagement ring/compound bow swap. Although I am sure the minis have a story as well.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Yep, there's definitely got to be a story on that one.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Angela!
    How lovely of you to include that graphic of my beloved 'Bigarade'! Great tips, btw. I just moved to the back of beyond (way WAY out in Corn Country) and last year I was stunned to find two bottles of Jo Malone Honeysuckle/Jasmine for $5. It had been given as a gift to the seller, who wore something else…nobody else knew what it was…I was over the moon because that scent is my favourite spring scent! $5! Aiyy!

  33. Anonymous says:

    Pure kismet! What a find!

  34. Anonymous says:

    Wow, I gotta try ALL of these – except eBay, I am leery of it. What fun to find something fora few dollars and you are the only person who knows its true worth!

  35. Anonymous says:

    It really is exciting to stumble on a bottle of something you've always wanted to try.

  36. Anonymous says:

    A late comment on this article (which I thoroughly enjoyed, BTW). You're so right about buying perfume in sealed boxes, especially if you're unfamiliar with that scent. I almost bought a vintage bottle of Mitsouko (which I had never sniffed before), but when I asked for a sample sniff it turned out to be a nice, weak smelling floral. Not what I was expecting, so I didn't purchase. Later I sampled Mitsouko at Saks…I don't know what was in that vintage bottle, but it sure wasn't Mitsouko. Someone had recycled the lovely bottle and used it for a different scent. Always good to try before you buy!

  37. Anonymous says:

    Such a good point! I've been to estate sales, too, and seen perfume bottles that were filled with colored water. They were probably filled with colored water not because anyone was trying to rip anyone else off, but because the original owner thought they were pretty that way. Still, if you don't know that Joy isn't supposed to be orange, you'd be in for a surprise!

  38. girlystuff says:

    I love vintage perfume………..I have found vintage perfume at estate sales, garage sales, thrift stores, and church sales. To me, there is is not one outlet that is better than another as you never know when or where you might find a lovely vintage fragrance. Yes, I agree that buying vintage perfume on Ebay can be very expensive; not because I have purchased it there but because I sell the vintage perfume I purchase and then decide I don’t like it. Before selling, I do smell all the perfume I sell to make sure it is not colored water and have never had a complaint. The only reason I sell it on Ebay is because I dont know of another option for selling. Does anyone have any suggestions for selling vintage perfume? I am always listing something new and many of the frangrances are either discontinued or the bottle is so beautiful and highly collectible. I think buying perfume on Ebay is like buying anything else on Ebay…you must ask the seller the following questions. This way, if the perfume is not what it should be you can return it to the seller. 1. Ask if the perfume smells good. 2. Ask how they aquired the perfume if not stated in the item description. 3. Ask if they know the age of the perfume 4. Ask the seller about their return policy.
    One note about perfume purchased through any outlet…..other than a department store……you are never going to truly know that you are getting what you think you are buying unless it is a perfume you have used in the past or it is sealed.

    • Angela says:

      Thanks for the tips, and I’m glad you have such great luck finding vintage perfume! If you ever stumble on a bottle Lanvin Scandal you want to unload, let me know…

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