The Style_ist: Sweet scents of the past

Q: Decades ago, I loved the perfumes my grandmother wore. I never knew their names – but even if I did, I couldn’t still find them, could I? Are old perfumes still around, or do they all get discontinued?

Well, if Grandma was into a very popular fragrance that was mostly made of synthetic ingredients, you’re probably OK. But even if she wore something as successful and age-old as Chanel No. 5 (born in 1921), you may not be able to get the scent as she wore it.

That’s because an astonishing number of things can happen to fragrances. In a nutshell: Some continue and some are laid to rest. And there’s a third ticklish option: reformulation.

Why would a company reformulate? The biggest reason, for successful fragrances, is that a key ingredient has been banned or restricted.

Oak moss, for instance. Derived from a lichen that grows on oak trees, this is what has always given Chanel No. 5 and Miss Dior (since 1947) their distinctive woodiness. But based on testing commissioned in the European Union, it can cause contact dermatitis (an allergic rash) in 1 to 3 percent of the population. So the EU Commission has announced plans to ban it (along with tree moss) beginning this year, and perfumers are seeking replacements – therefore, reformulations. (One perfumer compared such forced reformulations to “changing the colors of the Mona Lisa,” Reuters reported last year.)

The International Fragrance Association also imposes bans and restrictions, often trying to beat regulators to the punch.

Why else to reformulate? An original ingredient may grow scarce, or a cheaper substitute may appear. A company may have been bought by another, or may decide to “freshen” a fragrance to make it more appealing to a modern audience.

And even if nothing changes, natural ingredients shift – one crop of roses doesn’t smell exactly like another.

To add to the confusion, packaging can change, but not always in a way timed with reformulation. So you might get a reformulated scent, still in the original packaging.

And lest you think you can buy enough Chanel No. 5 now to last the rest of your life, and simply hoard it (presumably in the same closet with all those incandescent light bulbs): Nope. At least according to the above-mentioned International Fragrance Association, which has given the typical shelf life of perfume and fragrances as about three years.

That said, plenty of people insist their vintage bottles still smell perfect -- or that, yes, the top notes are gone, or sure, the scent shows age in other ways, but they like it better that way

My mother recently gave me a clutch of tiny, empty perfume bottles that were my grandmother’s. I’d never known what she wore; my mother remembers her as “frugal – but she would spend money on perfume!” I’ve found a few of them on eBay; most are no longer made, or their reformulations are bitterly criticized. So far, all have fallen short of the rapturous reviews of originals I’ve seen online.

But here’s a wonderful thing: She consistently chose chypres (a group of scents named with the French for “cyprus”) and fragrances with markedly woody base notes (from Plaisir by Raphael to Ecusson by Jean D’Albret to My Sin from Lanvin) – which also happen to be my favorites. The one that isn’t? Coeur Joie by Nina Ricci. It’s described on one popular fragrance websites (, whose descriptions are particularly suitable for anyone with a romantic frame of mind, or a love of prose that’s provocative or purple, or both) as L’Air du Temps “with a whiskey chaser.”

Ah. That gets me closer to her.