Lately, I’ve been testing dupe oils against the original fragrances to see how they measure up. It’s for the attar book I’m writing – I realized that dupe oils fall into the broad category of concentrated perfume oils and that people are intensely interested in them. I went into the exercise reluctantly, fully expecting to hate the dupe oils on principle for lazily copying someone else’s hard work. And I do.
But I’ll admit: I learned some interesting things. Chiefly, that (a) dupes succeed best when they’re copying a fragrance with a simple structure, like Jo Malone perfumes and some of the Tom Fords, (b) that some dupes are so scarily close to the original that it becomes very difficult to justify shelling out for the original, no matter how much that makes me grit my teeth, and finally, (c) one can be perfectly happy with a dupe – ecstatic even – until you wear it side by side with the original.
That last bit’s crucial because it speaks directly to our expectation of fragrance in general. As you might expect, the only fair way to evaluate a dupe oil is to wear it side by side with the original, but surprisingly, many people shy away from this, preferring instead to cleave to a memory of the original or an expectation of how it smells – despite never having smelled the original. It’s as if people are willing the dupe oil to be great, because of the greater accessibility or better price, and thus avoid all contact with evidence that might prove them wrong.
I completely understand this urge. Because I have a similarly quasi-defensive, quasi-embarrassed relationship with Caron’s Tabac Blond, which I own in the current extrait form. For years, whenever anyone says, oh, current Tabac Blond is nothing like vintage Tabac Blond, I’d feel vaguely angry on behalf of my little bottle. Jeez, so what, I’d fume. It’s still pretty great and I love wearing it. After all, not many of us have access to vintage Tabac Blond extrait.
To my nose, the current parfum wears like a very spicy, powdery clove-inflected amber – admittedly not a leather – and I was fine with that. I enjoyed, in particular, the way it starts out all bitter and pinched, a little Victorian snuff box of carnation-flavored powder, but later smooths out into a sultry amber that lasts all day, wrapping me in a cloud of spice. Sexy, sharp, and deep, it’s the perfect antidote to modern niche with their scratchy woody ambers.
The vintage Tabac Blond, dear God, is a different perfume. Not just a better perfume, mind, but a completely different perfume. There, I admit it. When a kind friend offered to send me a sample of his vintage parfum, I accepted in an almost belligerent manner, fully prepared, nay, determined to remain unimpressed. But, as with dupe oils, a side-by-side wearing with the original reveals the shortcomings of the dupe (in this case, modern Tabac Blond) just as surely as waking up beside last night’s George Clooney to find he’s more George Costanza in the harsh morning light.
The vintage Tabac Blond features a stark leather note that’s more peau d’espagne than cuir de russie, specifically that rubbery, fuel-like scent of tarpaulins strewn across a cold garage floor. It has much more in common with Knize Ten and Cuir Cannage than with either current Tabac Blond or Chanel Cuir de Russie. Texture-wise, it is buttery, tending towards oily, while the current Tabac Blond is all hot, dry powder. The vintage is clearly, unequivocally leather, in its toughest, oiliest, gumboot guise; the current is a clove amber, with no leather in sight at all.
Crucially, there is also the not-so-small matter of quality control: in the vintage, the carnation is woven seamlessly into the liquid leather, while in the current parfum, the carnation note stands proud of the powder and the amber – harsh, bitter, and with those poky little elbows that make it feel so pinched in the first hour or so. The spice note is not well integrated.
Surprisingly, although both parfums last the day, the vintage parfum starts to fade out first, and by hour 10, it is gone, while the current version continues to deepen. Towards the base, the vintage and the current parfums converge on a sweet, sultry amber accord, made slightly dusty with pepper and carnation. But removing one’s nose from the vintage and then returning it offers a good control setting: the Knize Ten-like leather/rubber note prevails, all the way to the end.
Do I still love the current Tabac Blond? Well, that right there is the only important question, isn’t it? Yes, I still love the current parfum. Partly because I have no patience for vintage hunting and I’m more of a “love the one you’re with” kind of gal anyway – I don’t like the idea of perfume as a non-renewable resource. But partly because I think, that when push comes to shove, the decision between settling for the current Tabac Blond and deciding to pursue the rare and expensive vintage Tabac Blond rests on how you answer the question: are you an amber person or a leather person at heart? Thankfully, I must be an amber person, because although this testing has left me in no doubt as to the superiority of the vintage version, I feel no great need to go chasing it down.