Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sore Subject

I was working, doing consumer counseling, the day in autumn, 2008 that Lehman Brothers fell apart. The phones lit up with calls from elderly people begging us to reassure them that their retirement savings would be safe. I went home that day, fixed myself a nice big cocktail, and wrote "Fiddling While Rome Burns" for this blog.

The post was really about my own feelings of guilt, writing and obsessing about a luxury item while it felt like the sky was falling. We don’t talk about money much here. It’s taboo, in a way. We all know perfume is a luxury item, and if you can’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. But I’m not much of a spender, myself, especially since I’ve amassed a pretty sizable collection, mostly though bottle splits, fleabay, discounters and the like, and an even larger collection of decants and samples, through purchases and swaps. I laugh now when I think about my sticker shock -- just over 2  years ago -- at the sight of a $150 price tag for a bottle of EDP; that seems quaint now, since Barney’s New York is charging $300 (plus ever-obscene New York taxes, and shipping) -- for 100 mls of  Frederic Malle’s “Portrait of a Lady.”
Here’s the thing though. “Portrait” sounds like something I’d love, and I plan to sample it. So a little while ago, I went to my favorite samples/decants site to order some. And saw that their price for a 1 ml sample is (are you ready?) $8.99
You know, I don’t really think I can spend that on 1 ml  -- of anything. I have the $8.99, (plus shipping) but it just doesn’t seem right.
So I did a little price-checking around here and there. “Portrait” can be had in 50 mls, though not at Barney’s, apparently. Les Senteurs, in London, has it. At the equivalent of today’s Euro/dollar exchange rate, the cost would be $181.70, plus  overseas shipping, no doubt; my guess would be pretty close to $200 total. LuckyScent doesn’t carry Malle.  They do carry “by Killian” though, whose newish “Love & Tears Surrender” will set you back around $225 if you buy it from them and $228 from by Killian’s online site, for 50 mls, plus shipping. Samples on fleabay? None, except for a few of the more popular Malle scents like “Carnal Flower,” which is selling at $19.99 for 2 mls. Courtesy of “Fell Off a Truck, Inc.,” I suspect.
The quandry here, for a perfume collector, is this: it’s increasingly silly for me to buy a full bottle of anything. No matter how much I love it, I have quite a few bottles of things I also love, and I doubt if I’ll ever use up all the decants and samples. If you like perfume, some, and like to wear a “signature” scent, then a $300 bottle might just make sense; at $3/ml, sprayed generously every single day, it’s going to last you nearly a year; with normal use patterns, probably closer to two. The Love & Tears by Kilian --  the one that costs $225-8 plus tax &; shipping -- is an outlay of 75% of the cost of 100 mls of the “Portrait,” for half as much fragrance. OK, so I’m splitting hairs; the point is, do you love it? Say you can’t live without it? Have the means to buy it? Do -- just don’t go into debt over it. Me, I’ll get a decant (probably not this one though!) or wait for a bottle split or manage to procure a bit of it in all the ways I’ve learned...or I’ll just live without it. Sacrilege! I know. Go ahead. Revoke my perfumista card. 
It may be that, if in fact we are all writing for each other (“preaching to the choir” as they say down he-ah) the high-end perfume companies know we aren’t the ones out there buying those $300 bottles (or $720 ones, in the case of Clive Christian).  We might buy one and -- the horror! -- split it, though.  I read somewhere recently that the fragrance market pie will ultimately be divided into a huge slice of cheap, synthetic “designer” and celebuscents for the hoi polloi, a smaller one of outrageously expensive niche fragrances for the tasteful wealthy, and a tiny slice for anyone in between -- a fitting metaphor for the state of things in general, imho. (I hope that the artisanal lines will be able to step in there, but the expense of the raw ingredients makes their product pretty pricey, too.) I see it happening now, when a fine-fragrance line blithely doubles their prices in two years. The price of a piece of cake loaf of bread has gone up, but not that much!
For this reason, I find myself more interested in and writing more about vintage perfume. It can still be found reasonably, although it’s a lot of work. But that's ok. This is still a labor of love. As in any long-term relationship, though, I’m seeing more flaws that I did at first.
How about you?

Pile of money photo by Olfacta. Use it if you like.


Ines said...

It's really a difficult subject for me as I haven't amassed that many bottles (but decants and samples seem to amass by themselves). :)
It feels like I can buy less and less for the same amount of money and there are bottles out there I would love having but now I'm spacing them more and more apart as I just don't have that much money to be able to buy them. And it's not like I buy them often.

Suzanne said...

I think it's important to look at this from a broader perspective, Pat, and consider what it takes for a company like Frederic Malle, for instance, to operate a boutique in the great cities of the world like New York (where they have one now)and Paris. When I consider the enormous costs of designing and furnishing such a boutique, maintaining and staffing it, and then the costs to produce the product itself (hiring the world's best perfumers, alloting them ample time to create and access to high quality materials), I feel that the price of their perfumes is quite justified. Yes, the economy is bad, but these companies are hardly to blame for that, and I'm sure they feel the strain of these times reflected in the rising cost of their operational expenses.

If my own personal circumstances changed and I couldn't afford to step into one of these boutiques and consider purchasing a perfume, I would still want these places to exist; the world would seem a lot less enchanting to me if I walked through a city like New York or Paris or London and there was no great luxury boutique like Frederic Malle or Caron or Guerlain or Ormonde Jayne. (Though most of the time, I am purchasing their products online, as I rarely go to New York, but you get my point...)

This doesn't mean that I don't also equally enjoy walking into a drugstore and picking up a bottle of Jean Nate or a box of Chantilly dusting powder. I'm appreciative of all of the options that exist, from low end to high end, and in between.

The state of the economy...that's a more complex subject, but I don't think we should pin our feelings of resentment or guilt about it on the companies that provide us with these high-end perfumes and other luxury goods.

Olfacta said...

Hi Ines -- My guess is that quite a few of us are buying fewer bottles.

Olfacta said...

Hi Suzanne --

I guess you could say that, in a way, Malle is being brave by not pricing Portrait at $299.99. Somebody had to surpass that price point and of course they don't want to price like a used car dealership, as they are a luxury brand. But naturally, doing that is going to attract some attention. I don't begrudge the world its luxury boutiques. I didn't intend to pin "my resentment" on them; I personally don't feel resentment, since I don't need to buy full bottles anyway, or guilt. It all saddens me though, and I have to say that my sadness is very much on that broader level; let 'em eat cake.

Marina said...

I haven't felt the desire to own a full bottle of anything in such a long time that I have even more or less stopped thinking about prices, you know? Also, as years of this perfume thing go by, one becomes kind of immune to sticker shock. :)
Anyway, as much as I love a perfume these days, I am not buying, whether it costs 49.99 or 299.99, because I know it will never get enough wear, and I also know that "tout passe" so to say. There are very few scents that I'll love and wear forever.

Olfacta said...

Hi Marina -- I have bought a few full bottles in the last year or so, but because they're about to be or just have been discontinued, or are vintage, or are pre-reformulation classics or such an incredible auction bargain that I can't pass it up (those are fewer, though). But I haven't bought a full bottle at retail price in a couple of years. Odd behavior for a perfume blogger I guess -- or maybe not.

Anonymous said...

I am facing the same problem. I've been collecting vintage and samples for SO long that paying full retail for anything gives me hives. Plus the fact that I have such a huge collection of fragrances that a bottle has to be really special or really cheap in order for me to bring it home. I know that when I leave this earthly existence, I'm going to leave behind a lot of perfumes... unless I request to get buried with them. Heck, I have samples I haven't even fully tried. It's scary to think about the numbers!

Nina Zolotow said...

Thanks for telling it like it is! I agree that for us normal people decants (especially from splits), swapping, and vintage are the ways to go. I've had especially good luck with vintage. With a little patience (passing up not such good deals), I've stumbled on some amazing finds, including extraits of vintage Cabochard and Bellodgia that are truly gorgeous. And swapping has also turned out to be fantastic, as one bottle of something unloved gradually turns into a selection of interesting decants. It's a bit more work to create a collection this way, but I also think it's probably more fun (not to mention more sane)!

Marina said...

Nah, I think it's logical progression, not an odd behavior :) Angela on NST had a good post about this: http://www.nstperfume.com/2007/10/19/becoming-a-perfumista/

Olfacta said...

Hi Meliscents -- Well, Andy Warhol was buried with a bottle of "Beautiful" -- I suppose I'll leave my collection to somebody!

Olfacta said...

Hi Nina -- I agree; swaps and splits are so much more fun that dealing with perfume-counter SA's. It's a joy for me to talk or correspond about perfume with the initiated.

Olfacta said...

Hi Nina Z -- I will go back and re-read that. It's been awhile, thanks for the reminder!

queen_cupcake said...

What a relief to read in print that others are feeling the same way as I am. Like Ines, there are lots of newer perfumes I would love to try, but cannot afford. I have bought very few full bottles, but have lots of decants and samples. I can really relate to what Nina Z said, having recently discovered the joy of swapping. I got into this obsessive little hobby through vintage perfumes and so far, still find myself preferring the vintage. Maybe I'll have to check out the Outlaw Perfumers one day ;-).I don't resent anyone who wants to sell their $300 perfume from a high-rent boutique in NYC. I don't have the budget for that but lots of other folks do. I just keep my eyes open for vintage bargains and hope for the best.

Brian said...


My perfume has taken over a small butler's pantry. My problem is I have an insatiable curiosity and want something approaching a scent lab at my disposal. I don't read all the books in my library all the time, or even more than once, but I'm surprised how often I return to them, for reference or recharge.

Still, I'm getting to a point where the joy just isn't in stacking and un-stacking these boxes and bottles, and increasingly I have the sense on some level that I am just practicing a glorified form of hoarding. I've started to give bottles away on the blog: mainly because I can't possibly use all these things in my lifetime, and don't want my life to become a weird kind of...um...trap.

Fragrance makes me happy. But a big part of that happiness is sharing it with others, and I find that giving some of it away counteracts some of that feeling of ceaseless consumption. And it generates a conversation, which I'm learning is really a big part of the interest for me. I want to talk to other people about it. And the busier I am stacking and un-stacking, storing and un-storing, the more inward it becomes, the more navel gazing and the less communal. Stockpiling can feel sort of lousy in almost any real world context. Of course, perfume isn't about the real world, but I enjoy that fantasy in the real world. Ideally, I take it out into the real world. I might not feel the same way if I were stockpiling drugstore perfumes alone.

Olfacta said...

Hi Queen Cupcake -- Thanks for the comment and candor. Lucky for us that there are the decant/sample sellers and online retailers with sampling programs. I do try to sample the fragrances people talk about on the blogs, but not many make me want to buy a full bottle. Maybe that's just me. And I like the vintage perfumes because most of them come with an interesting history.

Olfacta said...

Hi Brian -- Sometimes I think "hoarding" too, as my collection clearly will outgrow the cabinet I bought for it last year, probably in about 6 months or so. Many of my bottles are vintage or partials or both (and a partial still takes up the space of a full bottle). As I once set a monthly perfume-buying budget (which I regularly surpass) I suppose I'll have to say "when the cabinet gets full, some of it goes." I'll try to be as generous as I know you are.

Kathryn said...

What a thoughtful and interesting post!

There are definitely elements of wretched excess in perfume collecting, both in the bottles we accumulate on our shelves and in the ridiculous, bordering on arrogant, prices purveyors to the luxury market feel entitled to charge.

The counterbalance to that is smelling some wonderful thing we haven't smelled before and being able to share that joy via swapping or conversation with others who are similarly enthralled.

It's both challenging and rewarding to find the middle path, not just with perfume. My godmother (who wore beautiful perfumes) set a good example Her laughing words for declining another helping of often quite delicious food were "No, thank you, dear. I've had a pleasant sufficiency." She was right. Enough is much better than too much.

Suzanne said...

Pat, my use of the word "resentment" was too strong, and I do apologize: I sincerely hope I didn't offend you. Maybe the word I should have used instead was "dismay" -- or dispappointment. Anyway, thank you for bringing up the topic and allowing me to put my two cents in (for what it's worth, which might not be much in today's economy or any other.) :-)

Olfacta said...

Hi Kathryn -- Yes, a "pleasant sufficiency!" I do have that -- and a determination not to pay stupid money, for anything. I mean, I love the by Kilian I mentioned, so I got a good sized decant of it, certainly a pleasant sufficiency, for me anyway.

I don't think I've seen you here before. Welcome!

Olfacta said...

Hi Suzanne -- No offense taken. I think I'm either too old, or have been around the block too many times, or both, to actively resent much of anything. I also know that the cost of good perfume is bound to go up, with all the new restrictions on materials, which will make sourcing the better ones more difficult. It's a complicated issue and I'm glad to see so many intelligent comments here.

Perfumaniac said...

The last time I spent a lot of money for a full bottle (a lot for me, anyway), I had a full time job, was still pretty careless with money, and had just begun getting into vintage perfume.

The perfume was Serge Lutens' Chergui, and I had Barneys in Boston ship it to the Barneys in SF. It was $140. Those were the days...

I've so scaled down since then, and since I've become absorbed in vintage, it's just not something I would do again. I'm constantly in love with some new (old) thing, so it's best that I use that commitment-phobia 5 - 20 dollars at a time.

I get so much joy from perfume, though, that I don't think I'll ever truly feel guilty about how much I've spent on it! Especially if I spend 5 - 20 dollars at a time! (Easy to ignore how those start to add up.)

Olfacta said...

Hi Perfumanic -- I feel the same way. I guess my last FB purchase at retail was ELPC's Tuberose Gardenia, at around $80. Since then it's been partials, decants, private sales, fleabay, etc. And they do add up, but more slowly. I'm also really careful about avoiding refos (reformulations) and will search for an older bottle if I hear rumblings of reformulation -- why pay full retail for dreck? It's become a sort of sport to me: maximum perfume for minimum money.

Victoria said...

I usually buy decants or more often even just samples, so the issue of spending too much money per bottle somehow does not come up as much these days. Plus, I realized recently when a bottle of Bulgari The Vert turned that it does not make sense at all to buy full bottles when I do not wear anything enough to make a noticeable dent.

That being said, I have been more and more aware of prices, because I see a big disconnect between the quality of fragrances and their retail prices. That bothers me far more.

Rappleyea said...

Excellent and thoughtful post! I too prefer vintage (mainly the Guerlains), and while my collection is probably much smaller than most of my fellow perfumistas, it is indeed a "pleasant sufficiency" (love that! thank you Kathryn).

Are you a member of the Google Scent Splits group, Pat? I'm sure PoaL will be split there, and the rules are that scents must be split off at their retail price and no more.

Olfacta said...

Hi Victoria --

It bothers me, too. A kind MUA-er found me and has offered to send me the remainder of her sample of PoaL, so I'll get to smell it after all. With the exception of Dan Te Bras, I've loved all the Malle scents so am anxious to smell this one. But, yeah, I'm dismayed at what I perceive to be a first step -- which someone was going to take -- towards much higher prices for quality fragrances. Thanks, fragrance police, for opening this particular floodgate!

Olfacta said...

Hi R -- Good to hear from you! I actually don't know if I've ever been to that group. There's the Wiki I know of, and I used to buy on PoL quite a lot before that forum got overhauled. I will check it out next time I just have to have something new. Like many here, I'm turning more toward vintage now; we'll see.

Blanketgrrl said...

Great post. I'll be visiting often.

Anonymous said...

Since the subject is what we're willing to spend on perfume... at this moment there are 15 people on Ebay fighting it out for a sealed 15ml Magie Noire parfum (yes, 15ml) and the bid is up to $425. The world of vintage perfume has officially gotten REALLY scary!!
Come on people! You're basically getting a mini bottle for a fortune. Plus, can you imagine how many bottle of perfume you could get with that kind of money that are equally as beautiful? I'm at a loss!!!!

Anonymous said...


I was up at LuckyScent for an afternoon of sniffing and sampling one day this past summer.

A rep for a few certain lines came in and he was engaging, hilarious and flamboyant among other things. And, he a had a mad,mad crush on the founder of Byredo Parfums.

We got to talking about the unpleasant smelling side of the perfume business and he told me straight up that it costs Byredo $15.00 to manufacture ONE bottle of perfume, which is then sold for $195.00 for the 3.4 fl. oz size. He told me that Byredo does not advertise and they are only in a few select boutiques which carry other lines and that they (Byredo) do not have to operate, so they do not have a lot of overhead. So, Byredo is making hand over fist of money.

I mention this because it put into perspective for me the craziness of niche perfume lines which are grossly overpriced with not so great materials. Thankfully, Byredo does nothing for me and smells terrible on me.

I know it's business and the name of the game is to make money. But......

$15.00 to make one bottle of perfume - including the bottle and then off to consumers for $195.00 retail price. It's ridiculous.

I have a new appreciation for the vintage perfumes which had the quality and depth that "most" of these new modern perfumes lack. I know there are some really good modern perfumes in recent years but....

There are so many poor quality perfumes that debut every year, that I call them "The Made in China" family of perfumes. It's just a mentality that screams quantity not quality.

I want quality over quantity and it's getting harder and harder to find a "good" quality perfume. Needless to say, my buying perfumes has slowed down quite a bit. Actually, it's been quite a relief.


Olfacta said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Olfacta said...

Hi Blanket Girl -- Thanks! This has become an interesting dialogue. Glad you stopped by!

Olfacta said...

Hi Meliscents -- I agree. That's just nuts. I've never bid on MN because it does tend to cause those kinds of bidding wars. But $425? For that price the bottle had better have a genie in it.

One of these days I need to do a "How not to lose your shirt on fleabay" post.

Olfacta said...

Hi Dawn -- "Made in China" is a good analogy for the completely synthetic cheap-o Frankenfumes that are being made for the "designer" and mass market now. I'm not too familiar with Byredo -- I may have a sample around here, I'll look -- but isn't such a surprise, although it is a sad one. Usually it's the marketing costs that reduce the production budget to ridiculous levels. So...even more interesting, in this case. No stand-alone stores, no ads -- maybe they're paying big shelving allowances or something. Thanks for bringing this story to our dialogue!

Suzanne said...

Actually, Byredo does have a stand-alone store (at least one that I know of) -- a small but beautiful boutique in Stockholm. I'm not trying to justify the cost of their fragrances, though (I really only like Byredo Green) -- but wanted to make that correction to the dialogue, which has been interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

@Suzanne -

Thanks for the update / correction. The rep that I was speaking with is just the US rep. So, possibly he was just speaking about no Byredo boutiques here.

For everyone - I am not just singling Byredo out. It just happened that that was the line that came up in conversation that day. I thought it was very interesting since I am not in the business of perfume. I am a consumer.

I think what struck me that day was that I tend to equate price with quality and I was so shocked when he told me how cheap it was to make a bottle of perfume. That made me think that maybe the ingredients are not of good quality and I felt kind of foolish spending the obscene amount of money that I have spent on niche perfumes.

That brings me to less expensive lines with great quality such a Sonoma Scent Studio for example. Her perfumes are really good and so inexpensive. I appreciate her work and her love of the art of perfume. If Laurie were to charge to $125.00 a bottle all along, I would have paid it because I really like the perfume.

My collection has swelled to 160+ bottles within 5 yrs. and with prices ranging from $5.00 up to $350.00 a bottle. I have worn them all but I have not worn most of them for over a year now. I have 60 that are getting ready to go to Ebay. That money from those sales is going towards a trip next year and not towards buying perfume.

My purchasing has slowed down but not due to the economy. But mostly due to myself. As I said earlier, quality over quantity. Plus, I'm kind of burnt-out on the whole perfume thing. I don't get excited anymore when I read of new perfumes. I don't plan my shopping around sniffing perfumes like I used to do. Even vacations had to have a place where I could sniff and buy perfumes. But I have no regrets. The sense of smell is a magical thing.


Olfacta said...

Hi Dawn -- Thanks for your candid reply (and to Suzanne for the info on the Byredo store). You bring up something that is very interesting to me -- the arc of perfume fangirl (or fanboy)-hood.

I have noticed that people tend to comment on blogs and forums for a couple of years or so and then fall away, unless they're a blogger or reviewer or have some other reason for interest besides just liking perfume. This is akin to Freud's concept of romantic love/infatuation -- it lasts about two years. And this particular two years haven't been good ones for the mainstream perfume industry, in any way -- most specifically the self-imposed "regulations" that will eventually, imho, rob fragrance of most of the qualities that we loved about it, to be replaced with silly advertising and crappy juice.

(You know, I should make this a post. Maybe I will.) Anyway, I think your position on the arc is pretty typical, especially now. It's more and more difficult to get excited about the new releases. You may want to explore some more of the artisanal perfumes one of these days, but for now, selling off those impulse buys to take a vacation makes sense. Most of the vintage and discontinued perfume I bought on fleabay a couple of years ago has just about doubled in price -- better than the stock market!

MyPerfumeLife said...

Really interesting to read your post and other people's comments too. I heartily agree with most of what has been said.

I love perfume, but I don't have untold riches to spend on something that is ultimately frivolous. And really lovely perfumes are few and far between.

I enjoy getting hold of different perfumes through swaps of full bottles and decants. But I'm currently suffering from smell fatigue I think. I'm hoping that Freudian two year rule isn't going to apply to me!

ScentScelf said...

And now, a comment from somebody who, at least superficially, falls in that arc you mention...who commented for a couple of years, then fell away.

I would not deny the Freudian interpretation. Pretty accurate, in many ways. But there's also the repetition of dialogue, kind of like when the next crop of students discovers The New Wave/supply side economics/Zen/Fauvism. The intensity of discovery also comes with some common lines of investigation and musing--intelligent, thoughtful, but well trod for those who come in and drink not only deeply but with awareness.

I fear that may be summarized in another way, the stereotype of the {pick one} benign elder statesman/cranky grey haired know-it-all. Or, at least, a middle aged person who is starting to see why grey hairs smiled indulgently upon them in their youth.

So, to bring it back to the original posit -- whyfore/whatfore the diminished acquisition phase? -- I'd say, yes, part of a thoughtful perfumista's progress. The Angela/NST article cited summarizes a fair number of my own thoughts on this. But I think that any time a hungry curiosity wants to go deep in exploration, and the topic requires expenditure, expenditure will happen. The young artist setting themself up with art supplies, and the endless supply of jokes/knowing references to being poor of bread but rich with a certain shade of blue paint. One needn't think ill of the person who chooses to apply means toward this exploration, whether or not it is easy for them to do so. Intellectual curiosity is just that.

Olfactory/sensory curiosity is, to my way of thinking, another "intelligence" seeking input. Whether you think of it Howard Gardner multiple intelligences-wise, or other.

At a certain point, you will have built your base, and can become more discerning with where you direct your energies in the future. Maybe a new infatuation will enter the picture.

But really, I think the "infatuations" are part of a bigger picture, and that is self. Which is where the "how much money am I willing to spend?" question comes in...because it is now time to reintegrate the satellite passion with the larger self.

Which means for me, the soul searching regarding expenditure is important. And valid. And, personally speaking at least, has led to curtailing.

But it has also led to reaffirming certain expenditures, literally. Literally perfume. Because I am a person who believes that beauty and knowledge have value, and that in a culture which translates value to dollars, I am going to feel fine about parting with some of my dollars to support/acknowledge the creation of beauty and the application of knowledge.

What, me blather on much? Moving on to bourbon (your next post). Of which I have a couple varieties, natch. And have enjoyed researching history-wise as much as taste-wise, double-natch. :)

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting to read, although I didn't read all the comments.

I just bought the 50ml of PoaL at Barney's for $200.00. And it was a gift! But it's so gorgeous, I think it's a scent one must own. I like your math--each ml costs so and so, so use it.

My signatures I like to own in full, large bottles. I'm not too keen on samples, I simply smell until I love it and then I go full-hog. Of course this can be difficult for things you can't find to smell but I don't allow them to become too big a temptation--if I can't find it, I won't buy it.