The Lure of Vintage Mini Perfumes

Selection from “Les Meilleurs Parfums de France,” The Best Perfumes of France. Apparently collections like this, of 5, 7, or 10 mini perfumes, were often sold on European air flights from the 1950’s through the 1980s. This one seems to be from the early 1970s, and is in super shape — except for Molyneux Vivre, which leaked itself empty. Sadface. Photo by me.

Aren’t these things cute? They’re adorable, aren’t they?

I first came to collecting vintage minis when I realized that many of the fragrances I wanted to try were discontinued, long-gone, and even unavailable in tiny amounts at the decant services. It’s the pull of trying something not otherwise available that I’ve never smelled — old, yet new to me. The possibility of smelling the party-in-Rio that is Balenciaga Rumba? Yes, please! The chance to try Jean Patou‘s lovely, tender Ma Collection version of Vacances? YES PLEASE. The opportunity to smell YSL Paris in its neon-pink, nuclear-strength, no-longer-made parfum? DOUBLE YES PLEASE!

Samsara mini parfum.

I’d go to eBay and search “vintage perfume mini”¹, and delight in what popped up: Here’s a tiny bottle of Ralph Lauren Safari parfum in lovely cut-glass; here’s a promotional mini bottle of No. 19 eau de cologne with spare, elegant Chanel lines. Here a micro-mini of Guerlain Samsara parfum; there a small bottle of Hermes Amazone. (Also, everywhere, figural Avon perfumes.) Etsy is another buying source, although I think that prices, particularly for vintage, are noticeably higher at Etsy. Or I’d play around in the sandbox at Miniature Perfume Shoppe and find that sometimes it was cheaper to buy a mini bottle than a sample at the decanters’, especially when I figured in the shipping.

I’m not saying anything that you haven’t heard before, but buying vintage is always a gamble. Not all of those minis contained wearable perfume, but more of them did than didn’t. In fact, there were only a handful I remember as being too age-damaged to wear at all: a tiny Emeraude parfum, one of Fath de Fath (1953 version, not 1993), a micro-mini of Carven Ma Griffe and one of Paco Rabanne Calandre. The rest? After a few moments of nail-polish remover or spoiled aldehydes, they smelled like perfume – probably not how they should’ve smelled when brand new, but recognizably like fragrance.

The classic Chanel parfum bottle — and look, it’s even retained its barbichage (the cord around the neck). So pretty. EXCEPT… that’s not perfume. This bottle is actually filled with colored water.

Mind you, not all of them were things I wanted to wear. For example, Lucien LeLong Indiscret turned out to be a heavy balsamic oriental, a genre I typically hate (and I passed it on to a friend who likes that kind of thing). Scherrer was, as a perfume friend of mine whose tastes I often share recommended, a green floral chypre, but far more “chypre” and less “floral” than I tend to like. The original Armani — for me, surprisingly, meh. Of the several versions of Shalimar I’ve tried over the years, the smoky chiaroscuro of that 1980s parfum de toilette mini came closest to being a version of Shalimar I might actually like, but I eventually decided it wasn’t for me. The adorable black-and-red bottle of Jean Patou Joy parfum was utter Ho Panties on my skin, though the friend I sent it to thought it was marvelous.

But sometimes there would be a sparkling gem in those small bottles. One tiny 1.5ml micro-mini bottle of Balmain Jolie Madame extrait, evaporated or used down to half, turned out to be difficult to hold. I spilled one fat amber drop on my favorite white shirt, and out billowed this nearly-perfect marriage of flowers and leather: a good purse, stuffed to the brim with fresh flowers, leaves and moss. It was so beautiful tears came to my eyes.

Not to mention that trying all those vintage fragrances gave me an appreciation and understanding of earlier styles that I couldn’t have gotten by wandering around the fragrance counter at Belk. Or, for that matter, even by exploring those niche and independent perfumers who specialize in producing retro-style perfumes.

BUT. (There’s always a but.)

I have too many. I have pretty much explored the vintage fragrances I want to explore. I’m keeping the ones I love: Jolie Madame, Karl Lagerfeld Chloe, original Victoria by Victoria’s Secret, Vacances, Dolce Vita parfum. Maybe that Paris parfum. Maybe the Samsara, I haven’t decided yet. Everything else? Outtahere. I’m paring down, and I’m hopeful that I can give others a chance to smell the past.

I have already listed a few things for sale on eBay. I will be posting the things I think might be of special interest to perfumistas here on the blog by Friday of this week.

Whatever does not sell here within ten days of posting, I’ll be selling on eBay, where there is a trove of mini treasures for your investigation well beyond my small collection! Also check out Miniature Perfume Shoppe, which has some really cool stuff (especially if you’re into the bottles) and good inventory right now.

¹ Try “Collectibles: commercial perfume miniatures” as well as “Health & beauty: Fragrances.”

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