Going Vintage – Review: Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait de Parfum

By Tara

Up until this year I had successfully managed to avoid vintage perfumes. I resisted trying old formulations because I knew I would fall madly in love, thus condemning myself to a stressful search for an elusive bottle which – if found – I’d have to pay a high price for, with no guarantee that it hadn’t turned.

Vol de Nuit was created in 1933 by Jacques Guerlain and includes notes of Hesperidic (citrus) notes, galbanum, narcissus, green notes, woods, oakmoss, iris, vanilla and spices.

I have tested Vol de Nuit in its current pure parfum formulation a number of times and liked it, but not enough to buy a bottle or even get round to acquiring a decant or sample. However, my view of this 1933 classic changed when The Candy Perfume Boy very generously sent me a sample of his vintage Vol de Nuit extrait de parfum, saying I had to try it.

I spilt half of the sample vial’s contents onto the back of my hand and was utterly transported. I knew I had to have it – just like that – and as soon as possible. Luckily, within a fortnight, a sealed vintage (possibly 1960s) 30ml bottle of the parfum, came up for auction. In the end I got it for a far bit less than I anticipated, but what condition would it be in?

When it arrived I opened the zebra print box and sat the stunning propeller bottle on the kitchen table. (Incidentally, that smoked glass Art Deco bottle has to be my absolute favourite bottle design). Nervously, I cut the threads around the neck and tentatively rubbed the glass stopper against my wrist. At first sniff I must admit I was a little disappointed that the citrus top notes had clearly evaporated over time, but happy that the wonderfully acrid galbanum remained. Even after several decades, this bottle of Vol de Nuit still seemed to pulse with plant life; tree sap, green shoots, budding daffodils, woods and undergrowth.

Resinous and mossy but also balsamic and slightly powdery with a touch of vanilla, Vol de Nuit seems to reside at the intersection of chypré and oriental. Possessing a slight edge and a hint of darkness, it has shown me the wonder of real oakmoss. Half forest floor, half seashore, this much lamented natural material is nothing short of addictive. The other great thing is the presence of Guerlinade, that mysterious signature accord you find in some of the classic Guerlains.

Sadly, the current parfum doesn’t make me swoon in the same way. Vol de Nuit has always been a svelte composition but the current formulation is just a little too stark to move me. The vintage version is so much fuller, deeper, greener and mossier. It is altogether so much more.

Just the other day, when I applied my vintage Vol de Nuit and slung on my Patti Smith-style leather jacket, something just clicked. I felt strong and self-possessed, just like that rock ‘n’ roll poet at her 1970s peak. It occurred to me that Patti Smith and Vol de Nuit make a good match. Both are empowering, androgynous and truly compelling.

photo © by Lynn Goldsmith

“Brimming with audacity, it is the perfume of the woman who goes for broke”
– from the Vol de Nuit page of the Guerlain website

Do you have a vintage perfume tale to tell?

Come back tomorrow for a review of the Eau de Toilette by Olfactoria.
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39 Responses to Going Vintage – Review: Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait de Parfum

  1. Ines says:

    Not as fascinating as yours. 🙂
    I was lucky to try vintage Chanel 19 and then it clicked for me – until then I kept smelling the current version and wondering what was I missing that. 🙂 And then I knew.

    Btw, this sounds incredibly smelling.

    • Tara says:

      Hi Ines!

      Yes, I was genuinely blown away by how incredible it is, especially compared to the current version.

      I wonder if it’s the galbanum in your vintage Chanel 19 that helps to make all the difference. I didn’t think I even liked it until vintage VdN, where I just ADORE it.

  2. Lovely review Tara! I love the Patti Smith image and It seems that this one got to you 😀

    I am so glad that you fell for the vintage Vol de Nuit and I completely agree that the current formulation is nowhere near as rich and amazing.

    I have very little experience with vintage, the Vol de Nuit (from which your sample came) was a impulse purchase that paid off rather well. I do have some vintage Shalimar Parfum de Toilette which is very lovely indeed.

    • Tara says:

      Oh wow, it was an impulse purchase? Your impulses are good!

      I’m very glad to hear you liked the review because it was thanks to you.

  3. flittersniffer says:

    I have no experience with vintage – not of such iconic scents, certainly. I have a few old bottles of designer scents I randomly acquired, but this VdN parfum is a true find, and your review of it quite beautiful. Having sniffed the stuff at the first Perfume Lovers event, I can see just what you mean about this being on the cusp between chypre and oriental. I have a bit of the regular EDT and like it too. And someone did once say I looked like Patti Smith – I was wearing fancy dress at the time and it was very dark, admittedly. She looks great in this shot! I never looked cool, not even in the 70s. In fact especially not in the 70s…. : – )

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Vanessa! I remember Nick has some in his collection which you tried at the event. I’m glad you like the edt, I’m very much looking forward to B’s review of it tomorrow.

      Oh to be as cool as Patti! That will never happen to me (even in fancy dress), being the complete nerd that I am.

      • flittersniffer says:

        Well, it was very dark as I say. : – ) Plus I was wearing an emply pizza box strapped to my back and the frame of a drawer around my waist, hula hoop style, so it is a mystery that the party goer in question described me as resembling anyone other than an alien!

  4. Olfactoria says:

    You know that I recently found my own precious bottle (unfortunately not the propeller bottle, but budgetwise that is a blessing actually), and I’m smitten.
    Your review is so true, I love the depth of the vintage version that the current one just can’t compete with.

    • taratamarisk says:

      I’m so happy that you now have some too and you’re absolutely right about the depth. We are a pair of smitten kittens 🙂

  5. anitathepianist says:

    Hi, I am so pleased that you like my favorite fragrance, “Vol de Nuit”. Although I’ve worn it for years, I haven’t found the real perfume. I think that you call it “extrait”. I have a new bottle of edp and it isn’t nearly the same as previous bottles. Do you know why this has happened? And where in the world can I buy the real thing? It would have to be some internet site since I live in the South Carolina wilderness. Every time I buy something new, I can’t help thinking, “It’s nice, but it not Vol de Nuit”.

    • Tara says:

      I can totally understand why Vol de Nuit has been your favourite fragrance for many years. There is so much to it. I can only assume that the new version doesn’t smell the same because they’ve significantly changed the formula. It doesn’t contain real oaksmoss and many other ingredients will have been changed owing to the over zealous (to put it mildly) IFRA regulations banning a huge number of materials used in perfumes for many years over fear of people having an adverse reaction.

      I think you’d be lucky to find the old formulation in a shop. I found my vintage bottle on ebay but I guess you could be lucky if you search thrift stores and the like. I really hope you find some!

  6. Suzanne says:

    Oh Tara, your review is so beautiful! I only know Vol de Nuit in the edt version and while it’s lovely, it doesn’t blow me away. But you make the vintage sound quite incredible, and I’m sure it is.

    By the way, I LOVE thinking about you wearing a Patti Smith-style leather jacket! Because you are so ladylike and elegant in the photos I’ve seen of you over at Vanessa’s blog, it’s like seeing a secret side of you (sort of like when you introduced me to Pulp, which totally surprised me, as I had you pegged as a classical music kind of gal).

    Can’t think of any vintage stories at the moment, but I do get to enjoy sampling a good many of them thanks to Meg at Parfumieren, who has a gift for finding them at thrift shops for unbelieveable prices.

    • Tara says:

      Ha! I like to mix it up Suzanne, what can I say? 🙂 No, I’m afraid I’m a classical music ignoramus.

      I’m very pleased you enjoyed the review, I’m sure you’d love vintage VdN.

      Meg sure has the gift for those rare and wonderful finds!

  7. Civava says:

    The new didn’t convince me either and I woud die (a little) for a bottle like this. Lucky you! And a nice review.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Civava. Hope I don’t come across as gloating, I was just so thrilled with it! I guess I was lucky it came up at the right time. I won it for about £40 less than the current extrait is on sale for now, so it’s not completely out of reach if it comes up for auction. Hope you get your hands on some.

  8. Natalie says:

    I don’t have such a wonderful vintage experience as yours with Vol de Nuit, but I have to echo what you say about it being a tough perfume (even in the only modern formulations I know). I was surprised by this when I wore it a few weeks ago, because I hadn’t seen it before. Now I find myself reaching for it on days I know I need to be more assertive.

    Your review is great, Tara, and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for vintage parfum!

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Natalie!

      Totally agree about VdN being a great perfume for helping you feel assertive. It definitely has an edge to it but the vintage is a lot more lush. Hope you spot a vintage bottle!

  9. lady jane grey says:

    I was reading so many reviews, opinions, comments about VdN – they are often contradictory, but this parfum sounds very complex and very niche

    • Tara says:

      Absolutely right, lady jane grey, the old formulation has a lot more depth and complexity. Never thought about it being very niche but you make a good point. It’s far from your average mainstream scent and must have been way ahead of its time in the 30s.

  10. annemariec says:

    I have a bottle of vintage-ish Habanita on the way, to compare with my decant of the current iteration, which I do like but I’m still inerested in the vintage. I’m only doing this because Habanita tends to fly under everyone’s radar and this unopened 25 ml bottle was not expensive.

    I used to buy quite a lot of vintage stuff – minis mostly – but the expense and frustration put me off somewhat. That – and the fact that some of the retro stuff coming out of the niche houses is now filling an oakmoss shaped hole in my life!

    Congrats on your Vol de Nuit!

    • Tara says:

      Thank-you, annemarie!

      Hope you are very happy with your bottle of vintage-ish Habanita. Vanessa was pleasantly surprised by it at the recent Perfume Lovers meet-up. I would love to try the parfum one day, as the edt never quite works for me, unfortunately.

      I think “expense and frustration” sums up the downside of vintage perfume perfectly!

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  12. deeHowe says:

    Thank you for the lovely review Tara, and congratulations on your new bottle! How especially thrilling that you’ve acquired the coveted propeller bottle… Probably the best bottle Guerlain has done!

    I haven’t smelled the current Parfum, but the current EDT didn’t do much for me— or, at least, it didn’t inspire a purchase. Matt and I are happy possessors of a small pre-reform bottle of Parfum, and we parse it out Very Carefully. 😉

    • tara says:

      Thanks, dee! I just adore that propellor and know I’m lucky to have it. I’m now on the look out for some pre-form edt to wear with the vintage parfum to add the top notes and more sillage.

      I’m very glad you and Mr. Howe have some of the pre-form parfum. It’s very special indeed.

  13. Undina says:

    I own just a couple of vintage Diors (partial bottles, bought rather as a nostalgie gesture than for the content – so it was a nice surprise when perfumes inside happened to be wearable). Other than that I was trying to avoid even testing anything that isn’t available with a guaranteed result today.
    VdN has a special meaning for me. After I read Natalie’s (Another Perfume Blog) review I liked the idea of it (mostly because of Saint-Exupéry coneection). I tried it on multiple occasions and I’m almost positive that EdT doesn’t work for me at all. As to the modern parfum version, if I can survive the initial 30 minutes (I think it smells very unpleasant on me during that period), I love VdN for the remaining time of its life on my skin (hours). Now, after reading your review and other commenters’ responses I started thinking if I should try finding a vintage version of it.

    I can totally see you in that jacket wearing VdN!

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Undina!

      I’m really glad you mentioned that unpleasant first 30 minutes. I recently sprayed the VdN parfum tester in Selfridges and for about the same amount of time I thought it smelt absolutely awful. I couldn’t understand this because it’s supposed to be a citrus opening and I like citrus but this was terrible. I concluded that the light and heat in the store had turned the tester but now I’m not so sure. Maybe the opening is just that bad.

      I’m pleased VdN has a special meaning for you. I also like that you have those Diors for nostalgic reasons but that they are wearable too. I’m still wary of the risks of vintage but this purchase has really opened my eyes.

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