Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How many of you have been wearing less than a dollar worth of fragrance?

As promised, Perfume Shrine is bringing you commentary on some of the juicy parts of the latest book by New York Times perfume critic and journalist Chandler Burr. Whatever one might think about the book (and there are certain points that one could criticize him for, more on which to follow)one cannot deny that on the whole it is revealing about how the perfume industry really works and some of the machinations in place. This sort of thing although suspected and talked about in the circles we frequent, hasn't made headlines in highly visible media and therefore the contribution to the public's education is valueable.

One of the most shocking revelations of the book has been the persistent divulging of the cheapening of the jus occuring throughout fine perfumery. This refers to the price point of ingredients, raw materials going into a formula as requested by the company handing out the brief. The "price per kilo" of perfume compound or concentrée is industry-speak for how much a certain composition should cost and what is the roof over which they are not willing to go beyond.
This compound is the mix of all the raw materials going into the fabrication of scented products which then gets diluted to form the different concentrations that get launched as eau de toilette, eau de parfum, or even extrait de parfum.
We have been commenting upon the lowering of that roof point for some time now, but the following excerpt from Burr is shocking in its revealing glory:

"Everyone in the industry was discussing the collapse in the quality of the materials the houses were willing to use, which was another way of saying the colapse in the price of perfume formulae. It was an open secret. It depended on whom you talked to, but generally the figure one heard was a 50 percent fall. "We really started dropping our prices with Opium", one veteran told me. "The concentree actually wasn't expensive". Opium was 1978."

~Chandler Burr, The Perfect Scent, Holt 2008, p.59-60

This sheds new light and puts things into perspective, doesn't it? Because if Opium is generally regarded as one of the last remaining "classics" (in its way) and it was of course created as far back as 1978, then it goes without saying that much more recent examples have lowered that price per kilo at a staggering pace, resulting in formulae that cost as little as 38euros per kilo, whereas one could afford to reach 230euros per kilo in the past. This is exactly the kind of syllogism that obliterates half the palette from perfumers who cannot therefore use some of the most exquisite essences (many of which are natural floral absolutes, a category hard to replicate in synthesized terms successfully) and as a result leaving them with restricted choice resulting in many of the fragrances smelling comparatively similar.
Even luxury or niche ones! Yes, don't act so surprised.
The following statement corroborates it:
"Sometimes today the mass marketers had prices of kilo de concentree more expensive than those of the luxury brands". [...]"I've been told, one American industry told me, "that the average price per kilo for fine fragrances is now around 85 dollars. I doubt that's true. I'd say in some cases it's 35 dollars. In some it's 15 dollars"

~Chandler Burr, The Perfect Scent, Holt 2008, p.60

Now, do the math: 15 dollars per kilo of compound ~which generally gets a 10% dilution for Eau de toilette. This is 1.5 dollar per 100gr of eau de toilette. Considering that the typical buyer goes for the smaller 50ml/1.7oz bottle purchase (I am approximating volume with weight for our purposes here), at least the first time around, then you're left with many fine fragrances containing less than a dollar worth of ingredients' quality! Even extrait has a 20-40% dilution so we are still talking a very low ratio pricewise to what is asked for in the final product.
Now you realise why companies are set to capitalize on the appeal of newness and sell the first bottle of any new fragrance, not interested in the repeat purchase.
The rest of what you pay is anything but the jus.

I call this repulsive, don't you? Discuss.


  1. Anonymous05:33

    Very eye-opening! I really enjoy your investigative reporting; thank you for writing this even if it is very irritating. It makes me want to wear Andy Tauer and other small, independent perfumers exclusively since they cost what larger lines cost, but I trust the quality of the jus' ingredients is higher.

  2. Dear Jeanny,

    you're very welcome. When I saw the figure I got quite angry: I knew it was low, but that low??

    Smaller indpendent perfumers have been my choice in many cases as well.

  3. Anonymous08:55

    We're paying for an image. For a dream.
    Often... it seems.

    When superior quality meets a fascinating trance it is a 'good' perfume (i.e. a perfume worth its price).

  4. Dear N,

    exactly! Charles Revson had it down pat it seems (albeit for another sector of beauty product).

    Perfume is escapism, which is what accounts for the emphasis on the exterior appearence and presentation, as well as the marketing that focuses on the evocation rather than fact.

    I wonder if producers realise how this "dream" is turning into a cauchemar (=nightmare), like someone prominent in the book mentions...

  5. Anonymous14:16

    How depressing, yet how true it rings. So many new releases these days smell cheap and simplistic compared to even the low-cost scents of thirty years or so ago.

    Even the 'classics' have been so reduced that they're rarely the gems you remember.

    I begin to see why I'm so attracted to modern niche houses - they're still prepared to put passion AND good materiel into their juices. There's nothing quite like the journey a truly well-thought-out scent takes you on, is there? And few of the modern wide-market scents take you on more than a hop-skip-and-jump, and deposit you in a sour wasteland of generic base. How sad.

    A new generation of scent appreciators needs to be educated!

  6. Nina,

    thanks for your comment. I agree that many scents smell therefore cheap, both new and classics.
    However I am not sure that every niche line is produing quality product either: it largely varies and we have seeb exempla of both ends of the spectrum ;-)

  7. I am not at all surprised by the cheapening of ingredients for mass market scents. The bulk of the budget goes towards packaging, licensing and marketing. If consumers are sold on the concept, the juice is of secondary importance.

    I am dismayed to read that not all niche lines are using quality ingredients. After all, they don't have to spend on licensing and marketing, so almost all their costs can be spent on ingredients. They let the juice speak for itself, and hence, it is important for their product to smell as though it was crafted with care.

  8. Anonymous21:05

    It makes me gag. Hand me a bucket somebody! We all know there's a mark-up for any product, but that much? What I'm wondering, how can we distinguish if the juice we're buying is half-way worth it?
    And what, if anything, can we do about it? (Goes away to gag).

  9. It is as you say Iris: they should take care not to raise their prices disproportionate to what they're offering. The consumer is not to be fooled...

  10. Sabina,

    I think the only thing one can do is get a solid education in the matter (as in everything, really) so one can judge for oneself.
    Getting acquainted with the raw materials of perfumery and getting to test good quality ingredients is the first step of that education, in my opinion. Then one is left to one's sensibilities, of course and one's culture and taste.

  11. Thanks for making the point that some of the niche houses are as guilty of this racket as the mainstream companies. There are some extraordinary niche perfumers out there, but I am often astonished at the way people will pay top dollar for swill just because it's "exclusive."

    This just confirms my own resolution to trust my nose, and let my money follow my pleasure--no matter whether the destination is Anya's Garden, Caron, or the corner drugstore. I try very hard never to pay more than a perfume is worth to me. If the manufacturer makes a ridiculous profit, well, that's okay. Nobody held a gun to my head and made me buy. That said, I do think the practice of reformulating classic perfumes with inferior ingredients and relying on the perfume's reputation to retain sales is a form of fraud, and really despicable.

  12. Dear M,

    you're welcome. It needed to be said because I see some preposterous claims sometimes to what smells to me like a bunch of low-grade materials...

    And very well said, as usual: it is important how much something is worth to us and how we decide armed with knowledge and intuition.
    On the reformulation sans informing the public, you know my stance ;-)

  13. The most disturbing thing in my opinion is the fact that high end and niche actors sell not-so-high-quality products for ridiculously high prices.

  14. Exactly!!
    Thanks for commenting Elysium. "Ridiculously high" are the words I have been searching for...

  15. Anonymous09:57

    I had heard (I cannot remember why) that a perfume's cost only makes up 3% of its cost - 3%!!! - on average.

  16. That's indeed preposterous, Indie Tea and thanks for mentioning it
    (welcome, btw! hope you drop by often)

  17. Thanks for the link in a newer post, as I had missed this. This explains a little why so many fragrances smell identical. I think of it as 'Sephorascent' because they always remind me of that peppery, bubble gum, fruity soaps and generic cosmetics smell I get when I pass a Sephora store. I wonder if the price per kilo is the same for very small perfumers like Ava Luxe and Sonoma Scent Studio. I find that both lines have fragrances that wear long and strong (Mousse de Chine by Ava Luxe or Sonoma's Lieu de Reves and Tabac Aurea) like many of my vintage fragrances (the new Shalimar parfum is only a pale imitation of my 1962 Shalimar parfum). I can understand paying for the various people involved and the test runs etc, but the amount of profit being made on a product touted as much more precious than it is seems criminal and yes, fraudulent.

  18. It makes me want to go buy a $3 bottle of Florida Water and add essential oils to it myself. I may spend $100 on bottles of myrrh, frankincense, and sandalwood oils -- but at least I can trust that all that money would actually go into *making* the resulting extrait, rather than marketing it!


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