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.