Jeweled bracelets wink seductively from glass cabinets. Beaded flapper dresses whisper, “Slip me on. You’ll look like Zelda.” But I’m headed deeper into the fantasy warrens of this Old Towne Orange antique shop, already tingling with anticipation, sure that today’s when I’ll find a crystal-stopped bottle of Chanel Bois des Iles, or Christian Dior’s long-gone Diorama, or even, perhaps, Guerlain’s Jicky in the Baccarat bottle, half-obscured by Irish lace tucked away on the shelves.
As an L.A. crime novelist, I often speak at women’s clubs, libraries and fundraising events in Orange County. While connecting with readers offers a welcome break from writing, these forays have an added allure: I get to scavenge the county’s rich antique shops for vintage perfume.
Let me explain. My mother was Russian and French, and she always had a shelf of bottles from Dior, Guerlain and Chanel that I’d play with during long, stultifying summers in the San Fernando Valley. I recall sitting on the floor, drenching myself in Chanel No. 5 and Rive Gauche. Once I even slathered on a very grown-up, musky, animalic potion called Femme by Rochas, unaware that the words “bath oil” meant you needed only one drop in a full tub of water. Still, I must have been the most fabulous-smelling little girl in North Hollywood.
For my mother, and later for me, the idea of a signature scent was silly, because why would you limit yourself to one when there were so many beauties out there? So I bought Love’s Baby Soft and Coty Wild Musk and Charlie at the drugstore and raided her shelves for Shalimar and Cristalle. After I went to college, I always had a half-dozen bottles on the dresser, including men’s colognes like Grey Flannel, which I bought sheepishly at the department store counter, muttering about a present for my boyfriend while actually splashing it on myself because I loved the crisp green violet-leaf notes.
But it wasn’t until I wandered into a thrift store and sniffed a tall crystal bottle of Donna Karan Chaos that I fell down the rabbit hole of perfume obsession. I spritzed a bit, then walked around, hunting for ’50s designer dresses (another passion), trailing a wake of church incense, lavender, oud, cardamom, sandalwood, clove and saffron.
Back home, I kept catching wafts of myself and resolved to look up this bewitching perfume. Several clicks of the mouse brought me to eBay, where I saw that Chaos was discontinued, sought after and fetching hundreds of dollars at auction. Running back to the thrift store, I snatched it up, fully intending to sell it and buy my kids some expensive Lego kits they’d clamored for.
But being busy, I put it off. Each morning, I’d spritz on Chaos and mull what it was about this perfume that got women worked up enough to pay $350 a bottle. The fifth day, I got it. Suddenly, I loved the sandalwood, spices and oud. It wasn’t too much; it was perfect. I began to research individual perfume notes, which led me to online sites like MakeupAlley, Basenotes and Perfume Posse. I Googled my mom’s old favorites and hankered to smell them again.
But many perfumes Maman and I had adored together had been discontinued or reformulated so that they no longer smelled the same due to restrictions on allergens and the difficulty of obtaining animal-based ingredients like ambergris and natural musks, two mainstays of classic French perfumery.
And that’s what led me to the Orange County antique malls. Of course, eBay would provide more immediate gratification, but I found I enjoyed the thrill of discovering vintage treasures tucked away behind glass shelves. At The Old Barn in San Juan Capistrano, The Brick Basement in Fullerton and the sprawling antique malls in downtown Orange, I could find old bottles of Chanel No. 19 and Madame Rochas and even Opium that smelled just as I remembered. I also found treasures beyond imagining, like a gold foil label, art deco, frosted glass bottle of Chypre de Coty. How my hands trembled as I removed the stopper and sniffed a perfectly preserved bottle of one of the cornerstones of perfumery, created by Francois Coty in 1917.
It wasn’t the $8 price tag that caught my breath but the opportunity to smell a genie in a bottle that had long been extinct from this world. It was the intoxication of smelling history, of dabbing it on my wrists.
And since I’m a writer, my thoughts strayed to how this bottle made its way from Paris to sunny suburban Orange. Did a World War I serviceman carry it back to his beloved, who put it on a high shelf “for a special occasion” that never came? Was it a memento of a honeymoon trip before a young couple settled into their modernist Eichler house in the 1960s? Holding the curved glass bottle, I willed it to give up its secrets, but only spicy oakmoss, labdanum, musk and bergamot emerged, wafting up to the ceiling before dissipating into the air.
Sometimes, the perfumes at antique shops have gone off, leaving only a rancid or astringent smell like rubbing alcohol. But more often they are fine. I recall the transcendence of sniffing an almost empty bottle of Caron’s famous Nuit de Noël extrait in an antique shop on my way to a dinner for the Literary Guild of Orange County. Created by Ernest Daltroff in 1922 for his mistress Felicie Wanpouille to bottle the essence of the holiday she most adored, Nuit de Noël combines green pine needles, church incense, beeswax candles, roasting goose, chestnuts, cut flowers, marzipan and yeasty sweets. The bottle itself, a black onyx flask ringed with silver and art deco lettering, is a work of art too. I didn’t want to pay $85 for the almost empty bottle, but I dabbed on a few drops.
Hopping back into my car, I barely noticed the crawling, Friday traffic, too busy huffing my wrist and being transported to a French provincial Christmas feast after midnight Mass.
So now when I receive a speaking invitation, no matter how farflung from my home, I research antique and thrift shops, and over coffee and dessert, I’ll ask the ladies for tips and confess my secret obsession. And likely as not, my table companions’ eyes will get misty and faraway as they reminisce about their favorite perfumes, which the stores no longer carry or which no longer smell the same. That’s when I tell them about the serendipity of the antique shops, where they might find their old favorite next to a display of vintage jewelry or hats, if they’re patient and willing to wait.