Suzanne's Perfume Journal

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August 17, 2010:

Vintage Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps:
Perfect Retreat from the Air of These Times

A few months ago, Carol from WAFT was selling decants from some of the vintage perfumes she acquired from the Webber estate, so I purchased some of her vintage L’Air du Temps in the eau de toilette concentration. I had never smelled this famous, classic fragrance—or at least I thought I hadn’t, until the moment it arrived and I sprayed some on my skin and was instantly greeted by the familiar, warm carnation scent that I had smelled time and again during my growing-up years, even into college. It was like turning a corner and suddenly bumping into a group of women I once admired, some of whom are no longer living: the stylish mother of an old boyfriend, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Rimbach, from third-grade, and at least one or two of my mother’s friends from back in the day when many rollicking and gossipy hands of Bridge were dealt at our house.

Suffice it to say, this fragrance had me at hello—its nostalgic connection to these women I loved being its greatest appeal—even as I recognized that it’s not the kind of vintage fragrance that leaves one in a swoon. L’Air du Temps does not fall into that category of perfumes which beguile with their stunning beauty or smoldering sensuality. But it does fall into that category of perfumes which confer a sense of understated polish—a quietly-sophisticated somethin’-somethin’ one might call “finish”—upon the wearer. In recent days, when the titillation of headier perfumes proved too much of a distraction to my tired mind, L’Air du Temps’ low-key approach to olfactory beauty felt restful and serene. Its warm-yet-airy purr of carnation on my skin first made me feel like I was wearing an invisibility cloak spun from the world’s finest cashmere. As I began to recover from my fatigue, its stealthy je ne sais quoi character suddenly felt subversively sexy—as if I was the sixteen-year-old heroine of a 1930s romance novel, being courted on the sly by some delicious boy my parents didn’t approve of.

The list of fragrance notes for L’Air du Temps varies, depending on what site you locate them, but the following list is the most comprehensive one I found:

Top: bergamot, peach, rosewood, neroli
Middle: gardenia, carnation, jasmine, May rose, ylang-ylang, orchid, lily, clove, orris
Base: ambergris, musk, vetiver, benzoin, cedarwood, moss, sandalwood, spices.

This is one of those seamlessly-blended florals in which it’s difficult to parse the individual notes. Carnation, orris and sandalwood are the ones most easily detectable to me. In a nutshell, L’Air du Temps is the gentle fizz of spice and soft florals grafted onto a wood base that is as light as the balsa wood wings of a toy airplane. Launched by the French fashion house of Nina Ricci in 1948, L’Air du Temps’ name roughly translates to "the spirit of the times" and the fragrance was aimed at evoking the lightness that began filtering into the world again once the curtain of World War II had been lifted. The vintage eau de toilette really does capture that sense of a buoyant glide into happier times—doing so in a calm way, without any olfactory hoopla.

I suppose it’s this mixture of happiness and restraint that I sense in L’Air du Temps that makes me feel like I am privately buzzing with a secret—and maybe why the scent smells nostalgically old-fashioned, too. For better or worse, a secret is a quaint concept these days. So much information is flung, flaunted or exposed on the Internet and the rest of the media, it seems like everyone’s laundry, clean or dirty, has been hung out to dry at the same time. I contribute to that world, I get caught up in and participate in it fully—and then I have days when the absurdity of it overwhelms me. On those days when I want to escape “the air of the times” in my own time, it’s a lovely thing to spray on some vintage L’Air du Temps and experience its sublime hush.

Photo credit: image of L'Air du Temps bottles, top of page, is from the official Nina Ricci website.