A Guide To Vintage Parfum d’Hermès — Part I: An Enduring Love

Photo: the fantastic fashion photographer, Kristian Schuller. (Direct link to his full website is embedded within.)

A shape-shifting chameleon, a night rider traversing through a verdant chypre valley to lay claim to a rubied rose atop a pile of oriental treasure, and an unabashedly 1980s-style “take no prisoners” floriental-chypre hybrid, Parfum d’Hermes is many things but always, in my opinion, an under-appreciated classic masterpiece in its earliest formulations.

Age is key. Depending on the year of the bottle you try, it might exude such a naturalistic, heady, and complex 3D rose that it feels as though bucketfuls of beefy Ta’if flowers had been drenched with rich Nombre Noir-style damascones — a rose so grandiose, riveting, and naturalistic that it brings a rose hater like myself to my knees with awe. Then again, with another bottle, it might simply be a green-red damascena rose wafting a crisp, cool hauteur. In both versions, though, it gradually turns gothic and dusky, withered with frankincense and myrrh before being sheathed in a masculine gauntlet of smoke and leathered resins. Well, that is unless you have a bottle from the end of the 1990s, in which case things go in yet another direction still….

Vintage Parfum d’Hermes eau de toilettes, 1980s through 1990s. Photo: my own.

Depending on the age of the bottle, its aldehydic opening might be a soft, well-rounded take on vintage Chamade‘s spring bouquet of hyacinths; it might quietly echo vintage Bandit‘s much greener, bitter, hissing territory through its reams of biting, oily, green-black galbanum atop cold iris and hyacinth sap; or it might call to mind a richer take on Chanel‘s classical, cold floral-aldehydic, powdered irisy-rose accord. Depending on bottle, the “everything but the kitchen sink” floriental heart bouquet may echo strains of vintage Chloé, vintage Ysatis, vintage 24 Faubourg EDP, Jubilation 25, or Roja Dove Haute Luxe. The drydown will similarly depend, alternatively wafting either: a cozy, lightly powdered, sweet goldenness from amber resins infused with ylang custard, vanilla, Mysore-like sandalwood, and spicy patchouli; or a deeply resinous oriental darkness laced with a sweet-sour floralcy.

Again, things go in a rather different direction, if it is an end-1990s bottle. As you’ll see next time, in Part II, the late 1990s Parfum d’Hermes is a sweeter, more vanillic, more iris-y, and more floral bouquet, all painted in pastel hues, then dusted with sweetened powder. It’s really pretty, like some sort of mash-up of vintage Chamade with 1990s Egoiste EDT‘s rose-iris-sandalwood-vanilla parts (and perhaps a dash of Samsara) but, to me, it differs quite a bit from the original Parfum d’Hermes. Unlike the latter, it’s not complex, bold, sophisticated, striking, and enormously dramatic. It is safer, simpler, airier, thinner, more youthful, and significantly less chypre-ish. On the other hand, the delightful, delicious floral-sandalwood-benzoin-vanilla cream sandwich in its later stages is very appealing and helps to make this a comparatively easier, more approachable, and more versatile scent. As a whole, this version, unlike the earlier or original Parfum d’Hermes, is not completely unisex; it is feminine.

Regardless of version, though, Parfum d’Hermes is not for everyone. In its original form, I think it might be a polarizing “Love It/Hate It” scent, even for hardcore vintage chypre lovers, due to its challenging opening. In its late 1990s persona, it might underwhelm everyone but those who are hardcore vintage Guerlain (and Chamade) fans. But, for me, Parfum d’Hermes is, in all its forms, an enduring love which has survived both the test of time and a number of hurdles along the way.

Today, in Part I, I’ll explain to you why. I will also cover one 1980s version of Parfum d’Hermes, a version which I find utterly ravishing and whose rose blows my socks off to the moon and back, but a version which, nonetheless, deviates from the original and is atypical even of the majority of vintage bottles that you will find out there because it is the result of the fragrance losing its top notes, condensing, and reducing over the last 32-something-years. In Part II, I’ll cover the more typical scent profile of vintage 1980s bottles (which remain surprisingly close to what Parfum d’Hermes smelled like when it was first bottled and released) as well as its end-1990s variation. If things get too long, I’ll save the technical bottle, box, packaging, buying, and pricing discussion for a Part III in order to keep each section more manageable, otherwise you’ll find that in Part II as well.

A PERSONAL STORY:

Parfum d’Hermes is a fragrance which is deeply personal to me, so much so that I hope you’ll forgive a rare discussion of my life and a personal detour into my past. Given what longtime readers know of my perfume tastes, such as my well-established dislike of both aldehydes and rose-dominated fragrances, the past might help to explain why or how I could possibly love a fragrance which deviates so much from my usual norms, as well as why it’s taken me so long to cover it.

Long before I was old enough to pull off vintage Opium, long before 24 Faubourg, there was Parfum d’Hermes which was not only my signature scent but also my armor against the turbulence of teenage life, and of my life in particular. It is a fragrance which became so inextricably tied up with a certain period of time and the events therein that a mere whiff of it instantly acts as a Proustian madeleine, flooding me with memories.

Vintage photo of the Eiffel Tower via Pinterest.

Unfortunately, they aren’t always the best of memories. Just before I turned fifteen, my parents moved back to Paris for the third time. That part was wonderful, and so was discovering Parfum d’Hermes at much the same time, but there were personal, teenage, school, and sibling issues which made life difficult, even painful at times. I made Parfum d’Hermes my mental armour; its chic hauteur, its opening “I don’t give a damn” snarl, and its grandeur gave me a fortitude, courage, elegance, and handsomeness that my pimply teenage self rarely felt inside. (Joan Crawford’s famous line to the board of Coca-Cola in “Mommy Dearest” comes to mind as a good way of describing the vibe that Parfum d’Hermes gave off or, at least, what it felt like in my mind: “Don’t f**k with me fellas, this ain’t my first rodeo.”) So, even though I owned a number of other fragrances, I wore Parfum d’Hermes almost every day for two years straight, often spraying with such abandon that one of my friends used to joke that she knew where I was by the Hermes wafting down the hallway.

Parfum d’Hermes wafted, in fact, through every positive and negative moment of my life. When I tried a cigarette and vomited in the taxi, I sprayed Parfum d’Hermes to cover up the aroma; when a family member became terribly ill and my home life went haywire as a result, the fragrance comforted me; when my classmates and I had midnight motorcycle races around the Eiffel Tour, drinking parties on the Champs de Mars, or escapades at “Baby Bottle” (don’t ask), Parfum d’Hermes was always a part of it.

The typical teenage dilemmas and angst were given a new wrinkle when I was sixteen. Over the course of many months, lasting something like ten in total, Paris was gripped by a slew of terrorist threats and bombings. In those days, terrorism wasn’t the common fear that it is now, post 9/11. Back then, it was both shocking and completely, utterly unnerving to see scores of police with assault rifles and police vans spread out all over the Champs-Élysées, which was merely a few blocks and streets away from our flat. It was, as you might expect, stressful and anxiety-inducing to live for months on end with the constant, very real fear of being blown up. In September of that year, there were five terrorist attacks over the span of a mere ten days. Just one of them killed five people and injured fifty; mangled bodies were strewn all over the street in front at a department store on the Left Bank, and the images left a mark. In total, more than 180 people were injured in those ten days. But it wasn’t just those ten days; this felt as though it went on forever.

And it impacted my own life in very direct ways. My school was hit with a serious bomb threat right before I was about to sit down to take the first part of the International Bac (IB) History High exam, which led to the entire school being evacuated on tour buses as SWAT teams scoured the hallways and grounds and helicopters buzzed overhead. One university interview was postponed when the chap’s office received a bomb threat. The interview for my first-choice school took place at café and was interrupted roughly ten minutes in when a bomb exploded four or five doors down. I used to joke that the only reason I got in was because the interviewer felt guilty for hitting the floor, crawling out on his hands and knees, and leaving me alone to stumble into a street filled with dust, smoke, the smell of cordite, shattered glass, and chunks of building concrete.

Parfum d’Hermes was my olfactory comfort blanket and mental armour against all this, too, but, inevitably, the fragrance became tainted by negative associations, entangled in the events of those two years in a way that I still can’t successful unravel. When I left for university at the end of the year, it wasn’t amongst the fragrances I packed; I wanted a clean slate and a new olfactory beginning. In the years which followed, I continued to avoid what had once been a great passion. I still had a bottle, packed away and carried with me from city to city, but it was too difficult to smell, too much of an instant, visceral “madeleine.” I just couldn’t go near it.

Last year, I finally did. It was a time when my love of scent had been corroded to near nothingness by the acid of too many mediocre to hideous new releases, by blogging issues, by my growing cynicism about trends in both niche perfumery and the industry as a whole, and by years of the accumulated weight of all these factors taking their toll. By December, I’d had enough and walked away from all of it, both blogging and any kind of scent, period.

It was vintage perfumery which eventually changed the tide. I returned to my roots and to the fragrances which had given me joy, discovering one or two new ones along the way. There were five fragrances in particular which rekindled my passion for scent: one was 24 Faubourg, another was Parfum d’Hermes. (I’ll cover the other three eventually.) Parfum d’Hermes still remains a Proustian madeleine for me but, somehow, I ended up falling in love with it all over again. Perhaps it’s because the memories are now bitter-sweet instead of just jagged, or perhaps it’s because the 1980s version is such a knock-out, a fragrance which seems more like a masterpiece than ever when I compare it to the over-priced, modern dreck put out by so many brands today. I suppose you can say Parfum d’Hermes took me in its arms or, to quote the punning text of its original 1984 ad, “in its ribbons.”

1984 or 1985 Parfum d’Hermes ad with text that reads “It will take you in its ribbons.” Source: hprints.com

PARFUM D’HERMES’ HISTORY & ORIGINAL NOTES:

Original vintage Parfum d’Hermes, splash and atomizer EDT. Photo: my own.

Parfum d’Hermes was created by Akiko Kamei and Raymond Chaillan, although Ms. Kamei typically receives solo credit. The fragrance was launched in 1984 and was most commonly sold as an eau de toilette, which is the concentration that I’ll focus on today. There was also an extrait. I never bothered with it because it was too expensive for its size, and I prefer to spray with abandon when I wear fragrance for myself. (The parfum was typically 7.5 ml in size, though slightly larger 15 bottles could be found and even, sometimes, a 30 ml one.) To my knowledge, there was never an eau de parfum concentration.

Parfum d’Hermes was in production from 1984 until roughly 1999 or 2000 when it was discontinued. In 2000, Hermes issued a re-interpretation with a new formula in a new bottle design and with a new name: Rouge Hermes or, alternatively, as I call it, Rouge d’Hermes. At some point, they re-re-packaged that one in an entirely different bottle: a long, vertical one which lacked any donut-hole center at all.

Then, at some point, under the Jean-Claude Ellena regime, and I think within the last 7 years, Hermes muddied the waters even further by launching an eau de toilette under the old “Parfum d’Hermes” name. It is the second re-imagining and re-interpretation of the scent, not counting reformulations, and the third version overall. This one obviously complies with the latest IFRA/EU restrictions, but I think it must also have been created by Jean-Claude Ellena himself, suiting his particular tastes and aesthetic, because the Parfumo list of credits for Akiko Kamei suggests she played no role in its creation. This latest mutancy seems to be all on Ellena.

It’s as though Hermes had no idea what to do with the fragrance after 1999 and couldn’t make up its mind. From what I saw, Rouge received no significant attention, marketing, or interest under the Ellena regime, and the eventual “Parfum d’Hermes” mutant none whatsoever. It seems to be the company’s problematic red-headed stepchild, but my pity has never extended to the point of actually trying it. I can’t abide it when one of my favourites is changed, so I didn’t bother even with the 2000 Rouge or its successors. I adamantly, vehemently refuse to try whatever is currently masquerading under poor Parfum d’Hermes’ old name, an ignominious thief skulking in the IFRA/EU/Ellena night. Not.Going.Near.It. Ever. (If only fragrances could sue for identity theft.)

Just as with 24 Faubourg, it’s not easy to find Parfum d’Hermes’ original 1984 note list. Parfumo provides the following:

Top: Aldehydes, Bergamot, Galbanum, Hyacinth
Heart: Iris, Jasmine, Rose, Ylang-ylang
Base: Amber, Spices, Myrrh, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Vetiver, Frankincense, Cedar.

Source: 10wallpaper.com

I don’t think that’s complete, or the 1984 list. Everyone who knows the original version well would tell you that it includes reams and reams of oakmoss. In addition, I think there is also: a lot of patchouli (a classical component of the chypre base accord); probably styrax and a bit of orange blossom; and possibly a drop of civet. (Perhaps even a drop of some castoreum as well, because the base is quite leathery and musky at one point in Parfum d’Hermes’ middle-late development, and it’s not solely due to the myrrh.) Lastly, I think that the broad umbrella “amber” phrasing breaks down to labdanum, benzoin, probably some tonka, and possibly some ambergris as well.

Frankincense and myrrh. Source: nosetime.com & ximene.net

So, in my opinion, the complete note list for the original 1980s version looks more like this:

Top: Aldehydes, Bergamot, Galbanum, Hyacinth;
Heart: Iris, Jasmine, Rose, Ylang-Ylang, Orange Blossom;
Base: Oakmoss, Patchouli, Myrrh, Labdanum, Spices, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Cedar, Frankincense, Benzoin, Vanilla, probably Civet and Styrax, and possibly Castoreum, Tonka and Ambergris as well.

My current stash of Parfum d’Hermes EDTs dates to 1985, 1986, 1989, 1994, and 1998. There are scent differences between the bottles depending not only on the decade of the bottle but also two other factors: first, whether the fragrance has lost some of its top notes, thereby impacting its opening; and, second, if it’s condensed over the years in a way which changes the nature of its individual notes, renders the scent more heavily oriental, and also results in a heavier and stronger bouquet.

You might be surprised to hear that two of my bottles issued a single year apart smell and develop quite differently due to this evaporation/reduction issue. I’ll share all the versions so that you know what you might expect, depending on the age of the bottle in question, starting today with one of 1980s versions.

THE 1980s EAU DE TOILETTE — THE ATYPICAL, SUPER-CONCENTRATED, COGNAC OR BROWN VERSION:

When Parfum d’Hermes was launched in 1984, its liquid was a pale yellow colour. With the passage of time, that colour has typically turned a little darker, occasionally taking on a light amber hue, but, even so, the vast majority of the juice that one finds on eBay remains some shade of yellow.

There are, however, notable exceptions: EDT bottles whose liquid evinces a strikingly dark colour, either cognac and mahogany brown. These are bottles whose juice, I believe, has concentrated and reduced down, losing either some or much of its top notes. The evaporation has not only accentuated the base notes and altered the overall scent development, but also tripled the power, body, and weight of the bouquet.

1985 vintage Parfum d’Hermes EDT, 100 ml size. Photo: my own.

I have one of those, a 1985 bottle whose cognac  liquid deviates greatly in colour, scent, nuances, development, richness, and heft from that of an EDT which was issued a mere one year later, in 1986. I love the 1985 version, passionately, particularly as it performs like a monster extrait and its rose is astounding, even to this rose hater, but I would be the first to tell you that it’s not the true, intended, or typical scent of vintage Parfum d’Hermes. Nor is its scent what you are likely to experience or encounter if you buy a bottle with the more common, typical yellow-coloured liquid. Nevertheless, bottles with the cognac or brown liquid are out there, and they pop up less infrequently than you might imagine. At this very moment, eBay shows one large 6.5 oz brown one and a fractionally paler but still dark ambered 13.5 oz monster bottle. (I would buy the latter in a heart beat if it weren’t so expensive.) In short, I think it’s worth covering this version, no matter how much it may stray from the norm.

My 1985 EDT is a splash bottle, so I decanted 30 ml into an atomizer for testing and applied 2 sprays. With that amount, Parfum d’Hermes opens as the epitome of Spring with a floral bouquet which evokes vintage Chamade. There are dewy green and purple hyacinths, their aroma represented from head to toe from their heady, liquidy, sweet floralcy to their bitter green sap, their leaves, and the damp soil in which they grow. Brisk, chilled, lemony bergamot is lightly splattered over their petals, while oakmoss is strewn at their feet, smelling plush, rounded, and lightly mineralized but never cold like the off-putting sort in some 1970s chypres or green fragrances. Interspersed in-between is a small amount of galbanum which is surprisingly mellow and smooth as opposed to being oily, bracingly bitter, ferociously green-black, and brutal like the sort which makes me recoil from Bandit. I think the amber in the base indirectly plays a role in keeping things rounded but the more significant factor is that the fragrance has lost some of its top notes because the galbanum is quite minor here as compared to what it should be. It’s one reason why this 1985 bottle lacks some of its original bite. Evaporation also explain the comparatively softer, milder aroma of the aldehydic cloud which hangs over the hyacinths. It smells clean, even a little soapy, and has a sharp edge to it, but its hiss never arises to the snarl of the typical Parfum d’Hermes when it was first bottled. Don’t get me wrong, these aldehydes are neither gentle nor minimal but, relative to what they should be, they tend to add a fresh, aerated feel more than anything else, as though one lay in a field of hyacinths, oakmoss, earth, and galbanum on the top of a mountain on a cool, misty spring morning .

Photo: my own.

A slew of other notes lurk in the wings. Jasmine provides a quiet sweetness, while rose and what seems like a drop of orange blossom imparts a delicate hint of fruitiness. In the base, there are subtle whispers of spicy patchouli, soft woods, and warm resins. They accentuate not only the fragrance’s chypre character but also the impression of flowers whose essence has been captured from head to earthier toe.

Fashion photographer Bruno Dayan. Source: brunodayan.com (Direct website link embedded within.)

Parfum d’Hermes changes quickly. Roughly 20 minutes in, the jasmine explodes, engulfing the hyacinths in rich, sticky, purple-coloured floral syrup and in waves of indolic, musky sensuality. The indoles sweep through the aldehydes, taming their hiss and their edge just a wee bit. The jasmine is so muscular, strong, and rich that it’s almost as though the flower were unfurling its petals and stretching them across the landscape like a Marvel comics force field to engulf everything in its path. It smells so languid, hot, ripe, and fleshy that it conjures up images of courtesans lying naked on rumpled sheets, their satiny white bodies gleaming like marble off-laid with shadows of dark muskiness. The sheets are purple from the jasmine’s syrupy and the hyacinths’ crushed petals, but they also take on a burgundy hue 35-40 minutes in when the roses surge onto center stage to become the third star of the show.

Source: hqwallbase.pw

And what roses they are, too. Regular readers know roses are my second least-favourite flower in perfumery, but I actually them in nature and what we have here is not just the perfect rose but one which, for me, may actually be an improvement on anything in a garden. The flower here smells, simultaneously: clean, fresh, lemony, honeyed, quietly soapy, fruity, jammy, sweet, sour, tart, green, red, spicy, mossy, earthy, sappy, sharp, mellow, and beefy. The rich raspberry rose petal jam has its gooeyness kept in check by the bergamot’s sourness as well as the green notes. Equally important are the aldehydes because their cleanness, bite, and aerated lift help to maintain the rose’s naturalism, despite its increasing beefiness and thickness.

Shiseido/Serge Lutens’ Nombre Noir via Fragrantica.

The result is, for me, the most perfect rose imaginable, one whose layers, complexity, naturalism, heft, and richness outshines anything in such lauded rose fragrances as Tom Ford‘s Noir de Noir, Malle‘s Portrait of a Lady, Neela Vermeire‘s Mohur extrait, or Amouage‘s discontinued Homage attar. I think that there are two interconnected reasons why. The wide array of accompanying notes accentuates the flower’s innate characteristics, elevating them, while the concentration of the scent over the last 32-years turns them, both individually and collectively, into a rose on steroids, a rose that is transmogrified from a basic damascena into something which resembles a Ta’if laden with ultra-rich damascones à la Nombre Noir.

Photo: Bruchinha on Flickr. (Direct website link embedded within.)

The rose grows and grows with every passing minute, blooming, deepening, until it becomes the central focus of the scent 45 to 50 minutes in, wafting such an intoxicating bouquet that I kept thinking, “if all rose fragrances smelled like this, I wouldn’t run screaming and shuddering for the hills.” It’s jammy sweet, but it’s also intensely sour, to the point of being quite acidic at times. It’s green and raw, but also red and as beefy as prime steak dripping blood. Its lemony bergamot is sharp, cool, and brisk, but countered by the jasmine’s warm, ripe muskiness. It’s a rose in bloom in the greenest of gardens, but it’s also a woodland rose with small prickly brown cedar thorns which drip venomous hyacinth and galbanum sap onto a bed of earth, soil, patchouli, and oakmoss. It’s a fresh rose enveloped in the bright light of day from aerated, fizzing aldehydes, but, as time passes, dark clouds begin to loom on the horizon as the base notes stir and slowly seep out of the ground at its feet.

Photo from “Il Racconto dei Racconti” by Greta De Lazzaris. Source: NYTimes.com

The darkness arrives in piecemeal fashion. Roughly 75 minutes in, the oakmoss and patchouli start to rise, sending out tentacles which turn the rose spicier, mossier, and more verdant, evoking images of a rubied rose glowing in the midst of a fairy-tale forest. About 1.75 hours in, the myrrh and dark, balsamic, sticky labdanum resins awaken in the base. At the end of that hour, they send out ripples of dark warmth, like vines and roots growing out of the forest floor.

Photo: the brilliant Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine.

At the start of the 3rd hour, Parfum d’Hermes changes direction, ceasing to focus primarily on the rose or the pure chypre genre. The jasmine stages a comeback, wrapping its arm sensuously around the rose, licking its neck as it pulls it into a long embrace. The two flowers writhe lustily together, their bodies cushioned by a lush green quilt stitched together from oakmoss, spicy patchouli, crushed hyacinth petals, bitter green sap, galbanum, smoky myrrh, and sticky black balsamic resins.

The landscape around them is also gradually changing, turning more oriental as well as noticeably darker, spicier, smokier, richer, and heavier. Roughly 2.5 to 2.75 hours in, the patchouli doubles in strength while labdanum amber stains the oakmoss and flowers, and curlicues of Opium-like incense dance in the background. The hyacinth and galbanum have faded away, but dry cedar and spicy, Mysore-like sandalwood now sprout out of the ground. The base itself is starting to feel not just earthier but resinous in a way that is surprisingly leathery.

Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine.

By the end of the 3rd hour and the start of the 4th, Parfum d’Hermes is a truly impressive kaleidoscope of chypre greenness sheathed in oriental darkness and sensuality. Each note plays off the others, swirling around a beating floral heart and harmonizing in flawless, seamless fashion: syrupy and molasses-rich floral jam are offset by a sharp acidity; puffs of clean aldehydes are countered by thick clouds of myrrh incense and a lighter touch of dusty frankincense; musky indoles are paralleled by musky, smoky, leathery styrax resin; vetiver plays off not only against plush oakmoss and earthy patchouli but also against woody cedar and smoky sandalwood.

Parfum d’Hermes and its balance of notes continue to shift towards the darker and more masculine side as it develops. Roughly 4.75 hours in, the oakmoss green accord retreats to the background, while a light drop of orange blossom appears on the sidelines, adding a sliver of fruitiness and sweetness which works well with the rose’s acidic side. The greatest and most significant change, however, is a powerful increase in the smoky myrrh incense, the leathery resins, the patchouli, spices, and toffee’d musky labdanum.

The net effect is to turn the acidic, jammy, sweet-sour, syrupy rose-jasmine dyad into something withered, leathery, musky, and gothic, as though the cover of night had fallen over the flowers, their lush, sensuous abandon now veiled in Arabic incense, their valley of emerald moss now replaced by a man’s leather-resin-amber gauntlet. The withered, incense-infused rose briefly reminds me of Guerlain‘s Encens Mythique and Rose Nacrée du Desert, as though the best parts of each had been fused together with waves of vintage-level oakmoss.

Jubilation 25 in its original bottle. Photo: Basenotes.

However, it is only a passing thought because it’s actually an Amouage fragrance which keeps popping up in my head: original Jubilation 25 in its middle/late stages. One reason may be because the two fragrances have a number of notes in common: lemon/citrus, rose, ylang ylang, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, vetiver, patchouli, spices, and musk. Another reason is because it feels as though there was a touch of civet, or something like it, deep in Parfum d’Hermes’ base. Something down there is muskier, sourer, and more animalic than any usual indole, resin, bergamot combination. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind, but it’s a trick which makes me think of Jubilation nevertheless. The main reason, however, is because both fragrances speak the same language, fusing a purely classical, Western, and very Haute Parfumerie style with an oriental veneer; both marry feminine sensuality with more unisex darkness; and both do it with immense grandeur and heaviness.

Let me be abundantly clear, the two fragrances are not identical. There are no cumin-laden skank or body odors here. Let me also be clear that the original, typical Parfum d’Hermes has never once evoked even a passing thought of Jubilation 25. (The two Guerlain rose-incense fragrances, yes, repeatedly, but not Jubilation 25.) If there are stylistic, olfactory, and aesthetic similarities here, it is largely due to the way the 1985 bottle has changed through 30+ years of evaporation and concentration to become more oriental, muskier, slightly more animalic, and dramatically more divaesque.

“Fire and Ice” by Pamela Van Laanen. Source: AbsoluteArts.com (direct website link embedded within.)

This super-charged version of Parfum d’Hermes continues to twist and turn. It is a scent which lasts almost 24 hours on me, so I’ll hope you’ll forgive the length of this and the fact that we still have a small way to go. Roughly 7.5 hours in, the fourth stage kicks in and Parfum d’Hermes changes yet again. The rose retreats to the background, while custardy ylang, vanilla, and benzoin arrive on the scene for the first time. They dart around a newly reconfigured core which is now comprised of syrupy jasmine, spicy patchouli, red sandalwood, smoky myrrh, toffee’d labdanum, and a sliver of vetiver. Gradually, slowly, hour by hour, the notes fuse together, the ylang spreads its custardy richness over the other notes, and the scent turns both creamy and thickly velvety in texture. Wisps of orris appear in the 9th hour to lend a lightly powdered fluffiness and floral butteriness of a different kind to the scent. There seems to be some sweet tonka powder as well.

Illustration by Zoltan Haiman, adapted from Farris et al, 2014, via the NY Times.

By the end of the 11th hour, Parfum d’Hermes has turned into a soft, gentle, lightly powdered, sweet, spicy and fluffy golden blur of amber and florals. It’s difficult to pick out the specifics but, if I focus, I can just about make out the shape of ylang ylang, patchouli, and labdanum laced with powdery tonka sweetness, a quietly smoky vanilla, and something woody. The latter hints at sandalwood, but it’s not clear. By the 13th hour, Parfum d’Hermes seems to be fully set on its drydown course, wafting an utterly addictive, snuggly, cozy cloud of spicy patchouli, vanilla, and caramel-scented benzoin amber, with just a bit of floral cream layered within and the gentlest dusting of sweet powder on top.

Source: Pinterest.

The fragrance has one more stage in store, however, when it pivots and returns to the dark side late in the 15th hour. The ylang, vanilla, tonka, and benzoin fade away. To my surprise, the jammy-tart rose makes a comeback, though it is so abstract and amorphous that it reminds me of wine-coloured velvet more than anything else, particularly after it fused with the dark labdanum and spicy patchouli. This is Parfum d’Hermes’ true drydown and it can basically be summed up as a dark haze of spicy, resinous, sweet-sour, floral velvet. The fragrance remains that way for hours until it finally dies away.

The 1985 bottle has good projection, enormous sillage, and monster longevity on my skin. With 2 sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opens with 3 inches of projection and about 5-6 inches of sillage, but both those numbers double when its rich oils settle and bloom on the skin. Within 40 minutes, Parfum d’Hermes is projecting about 5-6 inches, and the scent trail wafts about a 10-12 inches, sometimes even a little more. Let me remind you that this is technically a mere eau de toilette, the second lightest and softest concentration of scent! The body and feel of the fragrance are quite paradoxical: it feels airy, heavy, dense, and weightless, all at the same time. It’s incredibly strong in scent and reach, thick in the feel of its individual key notes, and yet, it is almost light in weight as well. It takes quite a while for Parfum d’Hermes to turn soft. At the start of the 4th hour, the projection is about 2 to 2.5 inches, and the sillage has shrunk to about 6-7. About 6.5 hours in, the sillage drops to 3-4 inches, but the scent itself is still extremely strong and forceful up close. It takes almost 11.5 hours in total for this version of Parfum d’Hermes to turn into a skin scent on me, and it lasts 23 to 24 hours overall.

This is not typical of the fragrance. Parfum d’Hermes has always lasted a long time on me, but the usual time-frame for 2 sprays of the 1980s EDT is about 15-16 hours and between 10 to 12 hours for the 1990s EDT, not 24 hours. So, one more time, I have to stress that the cognac or brown-coloured, reduced, super-concentrated juice is not the norm in either performance or scent. It is magnificent, utterly magnificent, in my opinion, but it is clearly a standard deviation from the yellow-coloured 1980s scent, never mind the pale, revised, end-1990s one.

Next time, in Part II, I’ll cover both those versions and their significant differences.

16 thoughts on “A Guide To Vintage Parfum d’Hermès — Part I: An Enduring Love

  1. What a wonderful post, Kafka, and thank you especially for opening up about your personal associations with the scent, because, in the end, forget the perfume – it’s your story that we’ll all remember. Experiencing the perfume through your eyes is a real double-edged sword, though, because it sounds luscious and sadly my sample must be the recent iteration. It seems fussy, somehow, leaning quite heavy on the oily hyacinth and green pollen notes, with a pale, powdery rose and myrrh emerging at the end….tant pis pour moi 🙁 My sample seems like a mash-up of Chamade (perhaps the vintage EDT or PDT) with a rose-myrrh fragrance like Parfum Sacre. I must say, you had terrific taste when you were a teen / young adult….I had a similar “forged-in-fire” bond with a perfume, but it was Burberry Woman……which I then wore for 5 years straight. Please resist the urge to shout “Shame! Shame!” at me 🙂

    • I shan’t shout “Shame! Shame!” I promise. It’s a line best suited to Game of Thrones. 😉 To be honest, I can’t remember what Burberry Woman smells like. At all. I know I must have tried it when I visited a Burberry’s store eons ago and tried all their fragrances, but it left zero imprint.

      The thing that came to mind when reading your comment was not the particular fragrance which was your “forged-in-fire” scent but whether you’ve ever gone back to it? I know many of us have something like these two fragrances, but I wonder how often time can overcome the negative associations and make one recall some of the happier ones? Negative associations are so, so difficult to set aside that I bet it doesn’t happen often.

  2. Amazing. Incredible. I am enjoying this so much and am looking forward to the next two parts.

    Your words whisked me back to the time I wore this and I recognised the notes you describe so eloquently, although I could never have worked those out then. This bottle may have become concentrated and more wonderful, but it was beautiful even when young and when I first fell for it.

    When I saw what the subject was today, I dug out my bottle of Rouge Hermes (the tall red one) and sprayed all over before I settled down to read. It’s silly of me, but I had never associated Parfum d’Hermes with Chamade before, but my goodness there is a closeness there, and I was hit by the hyacinths and aldehydes. For all that Rouge is only a ghost of Parfum, it has just enough DNA of the original to remind me of it, and to make me so sad that Pd’H is no longer made.

    • I thought of you so much while writing this, Jillie, since you’re the only person I know who loved Parfum d’Hermes as much as I did. I’ll never understand why this was such an under-appreciated, under-the-radar chypre when so many others released at that time, including some from much less prominent houses (Paloma, Ungaro, etc.), have remained talked about or beloved. But this one? It’s as though it never happened. I find it so odd.

  3. Again a beautiful review, I love your vintage series, thank you. I was in Paris when I was seventeen, during the later ’90s terrorist threats, it made such an impression on me. And I was just visiting, it must have been very intimidating to live in such a threatening environment.

    Having never smelled Parfum d’Hermes I foolishly looked it up and stumbled across a bottle from 1968 (by batch code). My finger is hovering….

    I’m not really that much into florals, but the base sounds like my ideal perfume. And I do love a rose, the only part I’m a little worried about is the sour bit you describe. Mohur can go a little sour on me and that’s the only part I’m not really fond of.

    • Margot, perhaps the issue first and foremost is how you feel about aldehydes? Second, how you feel about vintage Chamade? Only then should one get to the issue of the rose’s sourness. If you can’t abide even a small, tiny dose of sharp aldehydes or if you hated Chamade, then I don’t think we need to answer the question of the rose because this will be too risky a fragrance for a blind-buy, especially if the bottle isn’t cheap.

      • Thank you Kafka, you’re right of course, first things first. I’m fine with aldehydes, even at Chanel levels, so that’s no problem. Your second question is one I can’t answer though. Chamade seems to have flown under my radar. I didn’t like Samsara and Nahema (too soapy), so went back to the older Guerlain days.
        I know I should get a sample first 🙂

        • If you’re fine with aldehydes at Chanel levels, I think maybe you’re safe here. The rose isn’t soapy like the kind in Nahema and, trust me, I avoid soapy roses wherever possible. I don’t know about the sour issue, though, given what you said about Mohur. I think the sourness stems from a heaping dose of bergamot, perhaps more bergamot than in any vintage composition I’ve tried other than Shalimar, but it’s definitely intertwined with the rose on my skin. I don’t know how you will take, perceive, or experience the sourness or bergamot, so that’s the tricky part, in my opinion.

          There are quite a few 5 ml mini bottles on eBay, so perhaps if you see one for a relatively inexpensive price it would work as a large sample?

    • Thank you, my friend. I hope your Thanksgiving was lovely, spent amongst those you love, and filled with good food. Did you cook, Eddie, or spend time with friends/family who cooked?

  4. Kafkaesque, as ever your reviews are moving, evocative and informative. I’ve really never known anyone else to love Parfum d’Hermes besides myself and my well-to-do perfumista employer who introduced me to it while schooling me on perfumes I’d never have gotten near elsewise in the early to mid 80s. It was incredibly timely to see this review the other day as I am just at the point where I am becoming anxious about running out and had set up an eBay search a week or ten days ago to restock. I love to know that there are a few of us in the world. I do have a complaint of sorts though inasmuch as each and every bottle of Parfum d’Hermes that I was watching over the last couple of weeks disappeared before DH got paid yesterday and I suspect that is a result of your writing! A good thing though – I have a special fondness I’ve never totally understood for PdH and like the idea that other people might discover it. I’m looking forward very much to reading Part II. Happy Thanksgiving =)

    • Awww, the FOURTH person I’ve encountered who loves Parfum d’Hermes! We’re such a teeny-tiny group. Only one commentator on the blog and one on FB has been a PdH lover. Even if I include the handful of people who have left comments on other reviews or on the fragrance sites, *WHY* are there so few of us?! I’ll never understand it. Like you, I have a special place in my heart for PdH, but the way it has been forgotten or overlooked when so many other vintage fragrances still maintain a vociferous, devoted, and passionate following makes me feel extra protective towards it.

      My apologies if my reviews dry up the supply or raise demand for a short time. I hope you manage to stock up your dwindling supply without spending too much. :\

      Gosh, it’s so good to meet another PdH fan! So good and so rare!

  5. Pingback: A Guide To Vintage Parfum d'Hermès - Part II: EDTs, Parfum & Dating Bottles - Kafkaesque

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