One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Cautionary Fable

Once upon a time I was doing a swap with someone who sent me a sample of Nuits de Noho, a Bond No. 9 scent, along with a bunch of other samples. At the time I got it, between 2003 (when it was launched) and May 2006 (when I wrote about it in passing), I had probably never even heard of Bond No. 9, though I certainly have now. I wore it a couple of times and put it in a dish in a medicine cabinet in which I keep my current rotation of scents.

Today I was fishing through that same dish and noticed a large vial of dark-gold liquid that I didn't recall having been in there before, and the quicker among you will already have divined that it 1) was Nuits de Noho and 2) it had gone south. And here is the proof:

The vial on the left is a new sample which I received from Bond No. 9 a while back: it had never even been removed from its twilight-blue foil wrapper before being photographed. On the right is the ill-fated sample which I had used a couple of times and then stored away in a dark place.

Colour change is usually an early indication that a scent has begun to turn. There are three main reasons that perfumes can spoil: light, oxidation, and bacterial contamination. Light has a lot of energy, especially sunlight, and while leaving your bottles on the dresser looks beautiful, it also exposes your fragile scents to endless streams of photons, which are only too happy to smash into and rip apart whatever aromatic molecules they encounter. Oxygen may be necessary for aerobic life, but it has an unfortunate effect on all kinds of matter: look at what happens to wet iron or light-exposed newspaper or cut fruit. The same is true of fragrances: exposure to oxygen can, well, oxidize them. As for bacterial load, the alcohol in most scents is enough to kill them off, for a while, but repeated exposure--tipping a perfume bottle against your wrist again and again--is going to introduce not only bacteria (some of which make a meal out of yummy essential oils) but the skin cells that bacteria also feed on, and eventually you have an organic soup that probably isn't going to smell the way it ought.

The decomposition of the Nuits de Noho was a surprise because I didn't think I had a problem with any of these destructors. The cabinet isn't perfectly light-tight, but it keeps out most light, and it's in a room that doesn't receive much direct light either. The vial had been opened at most three times a few years ago, so you'd think the exposure to oxygen and bacteria would have been kept to a minimum. But something happened, and it turned.

Not all scents that have begun to turn are destroyed. The top notes, composed of light, volatile, fragile molecules, are almost always the first to go, but the rest of the scent may be unaffected. Many vintage scents have a damaged or ruined top (often with a hint of acetone), but remain beautiful underneath that; some are reportedly even better, having aged as wine does.

I have fragrances that I've owned for years and they're just as fresh and alive as the first day I applied them. I've had scents that have turned--and really turned, becoming mucky and foul-smelling--within a year or two of purchase. I have a couple that are just beginning to go: the colour is slightly, but noticeably, darker than it was, or the top notes seem a little off (my Knowing parfum is starting to go a bit weird in the top, although the rest of it is still glorious). There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it. Even spray bottles, which limit the problems of oxygen and bacteria, can go: even aluminum spray bottles, which shut out all light, sometimes do. (I had a miniature of Gap Grass, gorgeous and much-missed, that turned filthy and unspeakable, an oily brownish sludge, despite being firmly sealed in a little aluminum canister.)

What might we learn from this? That your favourite could be snatched from you at any time. Enjoy it while you can. Don't save it for best. Love it. Use it while you can, deal with its departure, mourn if you must, and don't look back.

Or, of course, you could take the tack that I do, which is to own so damned much fragrance that you couldn't possibly use it up in a normal lifetime, which means that even if something does make an untimely departure, you'll have so many others to occupy you that you won't have time to mourn its passing.


  • I'm in the "use it now" camp. Seriously, what are we waiting for?

    By Anonymous Aparatchick, at 9:04 PM  

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