I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the price of fragrances. Specifically, the question of astronomical pricing in the super-luxury niche market, and people’s reactions to it. It is something that comes up whenever I review fragrances from certain brands or luxury collections, most recently the newest Serge Lutens Section d’Or parfums. For me, it’s not as cut-and-dry an issue as it seems to be for others. The “tl;dr” summation for those who want the bottom-line is that, for all my eye-rolling, $600, $800, $1000-and-up price tags don’t really offend me, I refuse to instantly, automatically condemn fragrances bearing them, and I think it’s important both to keep an open mind and to judge things on the particulars. The rest of this post will explain my thoughts and personal reasons why.
First, let me say bluntly that I am not wealthy, and I doubt that blithely buying a $600 or $1000 bottle of perfume without a second thought lies in my foreseeable future. Maybe if something really swept me off my feet and I felt as thought my life were somehow incomplete without that one magical bottle, then maybe I would save up to buy it — but I have yet to meet such a fragrance. There have been a handful of highly priced ones for which I have briefly yearned, but I have a cheapskate side that rears its head from time to time and no $800 perfume has overcome it. (Nor has it overcome the little voice in my head which mercilessly mocks the mere thought of spending so much on a bottle of perfume.)
Second, I want to state equally clearly that I don’t think the price of any of these luxury fragrances is justified on a cost-analysis basis regarding their ingredients. Of course there are some rare exceptions for things like tolas of the purest, highest-grade, rare agarwood/oud oil, but that is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about niche and, typically, Western blended perfumes from brands like Roja Dove, JAR, Clive Christian, SHL 777, Xerjoff, Serge Lutens Section d’Or, and the like. In my opinion, those fragrances do not contain the sort of materials that are worth their weight in gold, metaphorically speaking. Some of the ingredients may be very costly indeed, but $600 for 30 ml or $800 for 50 ml? No.
Third, I want to emphasize that I do not think price guarantees either quality or that the fragrance will smell good. There are a lot of perfumes that smell appalling at all levels, regardless of the amount on the sticker. Back in 2013, when $600, $800, or $1000+ perfumes were less common than they are now, Patricia de Nicolai gave an interview to Fragrantica where she said:
I have to say that some brands really exaggerate with their prices. I don’t want to denounce anyone, but offering a very expensive perfume with a lovely packaging does not always mean that this perfume will be nice.
I absolutely agree. Expensive perfumes can be absolute stinkers, too. Having said that, I do think that a higher price carries a greater possibility that more expensive ingredients were used and that the fragrance will have a less synthetic, good quality bouquet, whereas as $29 or $59 fragrance from a big company or a celebrity is pretty much guaranteed to be almost entirely synthetic simply because of the way such companies break down their overall production costs. And, for me personally, heavily synthetic compositions are not “good” perfumes.
There are a lot of things that go into a perfume’s price. At its most simplistic level, it can generally be broken down into: raw materials, packaging, and marketing. (Administrative overhead and manufacturing/factory costs are undoubtedly expenses for every company, but I’m filing them under fixed “cost of doing business” for the company to function or exist as a whole, not a unique cost for a specific fragrance.) So, let’s look at the three main factors in turn.
Raw materials typically tend to take up the smallest share of the pie. I’ve had a few different perfumers tell me that privately, while others (like Andy Tauer) have talked publicly about that point. It makes sense. Not only are these fragrances typically semi-synthetic, but they’re hardly 30 ml of only the most expensive oils. None of the Western fragrances that I’ve encountered bottle pure ambergris, iris absolute, tuberose absolute, top-grade agarwood, and the like. Those materials may be used in small quantities but they’re not only supplemented by synthetics, they’re also bought en masse. When I interviewed Liz Moores of Papillon, she talked about how some suppliers had a 5,000 kilo “MOQ,” Minimum Quantity Order, for certain raw materials. That sounds like a lot, but it also means a far lower price per ounce or milliliter than you or I would pay to buy a tiny bottle of the same ingredient.
Packaging takes up a far larger percentage of a perfume’s final price than the raw materials. Bottles, lids, boxes, engraving, printing, and even the atomiser spray tube can add up enormously even for the simplest looking scent. Once you start to go ornate, like Clive Christian’s special Baccarat limited-editions, Xerjoff’s marble or quartz, or MDCI’s Limoges sculptures, the packaging percentage shoots up even higher.
Marketing is the third and often the largest component. It is particularly high for mainstream or designer brands, some of whom spend huge amounts on flashy ad campaigns. For example, think of Dior (or, rather, its LVMH overlord) paying for Johnny Depp to hawk the new Sauvage, and let’s not even start on Chanel’s $42 million Nicole Kidman commercial or the $7 million that Brad Pitt received for 30 seconds of rambling nonsense. (See, Adweek for more details if you’re interested.) The bottom-line is that the expense of those ads is passed along to you in the perfume price, and is facilitated by the use of cheap synthetics to keep production costs as low as possible.
Niche brands incur a lot for marketing as well. Andy Tauer gave an interview with The Perfume Shrine on the issue of splitting or decants (he’s vehemently against them), and he talked candidly about what goes into a perfume’s overall price. He even said that a perfume’s “inherent value” is basically “close to nothing”:
marketing is incredibly important when it comes to perfumes. Think about it. Nobody really NEEDS perfume. It is pure luxury. And at the end of the day, you want to convince consumers to pay a lot of money for something they can’t see, for something that vanishes in front of their nose. Quite a challenge really. You mentioned “a perfume’s inherent value”: Basically it is close to nothing, for most fragrances. Be it 50 $ or 500$. In the end you pay for the margin of the retailer (50% of a fragrance’s retail price), maybe the margin for the distributor (25-30%), the margin of the producer (10-20%), you pay for the publicity around a scent (free samples, ads, ..), the packaging and at the very, very end you pay for the scent (usually less than 1-2% of the fragrance’s retail price. The more expensive a fragrance, the smaller the percentage of what goes into the scent). [Emphasis in the original and by him.]
However, I think the super-luxury, ultra-exclusive fragrances that are the real focus of this piece are a rare exception to the rule because they aren’t so dramatically impacted by things like distribution costs or a retailer’s margin. They certainly don’t incur the same degree of advertising in many cases, and never anything akin to a $42 million Nicole Kidman mini-movie. When was the last time that you heard a peep out of JAR regarding any of its perfumes?
Judging by my experience at JAR Paris, the crazy pricing for certain limited-edition bottles from companies like Clive Christian, and the pricing scheme in general for brands like Roja Dove, the real “third component” of the ultra-luxury sector is the intertwined trio of exclusivity, aspiration, and fantasy. They are technically different things, but they overlap to such an extent that they are the greatest element of luxury pricing, in my opinion. They are also central to an intentionally exclusionary world.
“Exclusivity” manifests itself in different ways. In terms of marketing, it can sometimes be evident in terms of a lack of marketing. One example is JAR, but it is not the only one. One of my readers recently expressed her puzzlement at Serge Luten‘s approach to the Section d’Or parfums in a comment to my Sidi Bel-Abbes review. Not only are the new fragrances unavailable on any of the Lutens websites five months after their June releases in Paris, but she was surprised that the company hadn’t even mentioned them on their Facebook page. In point of fact, they have. Once. But, as I told her, I think the lack of extensive discussion and even the admittedly bizarre failure to make any of the perfumes available online at this time is part of a wider point: intentional exclusivity. Shiseido is the one responsible for the Lutens pricing, in my opinion, not Oncle Serge, and I think Shiseido is attempting to add to the aura of exclusivity surrounding the line, to create fragrances with cache, whispered about by people “in the know.” It doesn’t matter if the average person is unaware of them, or unable to buy them easily online with a click of the button as they sit comfortably at home in their slippers. These are fragrances who are either for people in the private luxury loop, or who can drop into the hushed, sacred confines of the Palais Royale and drop $600 or €570 in the blink of an eye without a second thought. Most of all, though, they are not fragrances for you and me.
And that is one of my main points in this post: these fragrances are intentionally and expressly intended for a different socio-economic or class sector, so our feelings about price don’t matter. Democratic considerations are not the goal. We are not the goal.
Where I’m going to get into trouble and need a flak-jacket is the fact that I’m perfectly fine with that — so long as certain requisite conditions are met. This is what I’ve termed my “Roja Dove Rule.” In a nutshell, so long as a fragrance is high-quality, luxuriously opulent, and complex, then the price will be a purely personal, subjective valuation. What is “not worth it” to one person may well be “worth it” to another. As long as those three criteria are met, then its valuation is subjective, in my opinion, even if a fragrance is “over-priced” in terms of its technical, per ingredient, line-by-line cost breakdown.
Again, to be as clear as possible, none of this applies if a fragrance is a simplistic, linear composition comprised primarily of synthetics or inexpensive materials. That wouldn’t trigger my “Roja Dove Rule” to begin with because none of the three requisite criteria has been met. (I’m also not talking about fragrances whose cost is exorbitant due to special-edition bottles blinged out with 24-carat gold, crystals, or diamonds.) What I’m talking about are fragrances like Roja Dove‘s Diaghilev, SHL 777‘s O Hira, or even something like the less highly priced Richwood from Xerjoff.
Fragrances like these are intentionally priced to exclude the average person, and that doesn’t make me angry at all. I have no problem with it, and why should I? How are they any different from a really expensive bottle of Japanese/Scotch whisky, or a dinner at a three-Michelin-star restaurant? Both are analogous to luxury perfume in that they involve the use of an expensive, theoretically high-quality consumable commodity that is thereafter gone forever. Plus, expensive alcohol, food, and fragrance all encompass a certain hedonism, fantasy, emotionalism, escape, exclusivity, and elitism. If I could afford it, would I pay $1000+ for a bottle of whisky? I doubt it. But if I could afford it, I would absolutely spend that amount and more for a dinner at one of the temples of haute gastronomy, just as someone else might unhesitatingly buy a bottle of Diaghilev or one of Roja Dove’s £950 Parfums de La Nuit. So, who am I to deem something to be “over-priced” or “ridiculous”?
Sometimes, but not always, judging seems to drive the perfume-pricing discussion, and that makes me uncomfortable. As a fragrance reviewer, I struggle in particular with the sense, rightly or wrongly, that I’m expected to automatically condemn any perfume whose price is above a certain point, or to be outraged about the price even if I think the perfume is a good one. It may well be an erroneous perception on my part, but it is a definite perception nonetheless and one derived from comments to certain reviews.
I do not see price as a binary absolute, and I refuse to automatically, immediately, and categorically judge something as “over-priced” simply on the basis of a tag or sticker. I also don’t see the point in being offended by luxury pricing in general. So long as my three requisite criteria are there, the rest is subjective and up to other people. What business is it of mine? Yes, I’m human, yes, I roll my eyes at the prices of many of these fragrances like everyone else, and, yes, on occasion, the exclusionary aspects frustrate me intellectually and philosophically, especially when something is truly exceptional. Yet, at the same time, quite paradoxically, it really doesn’t matter to me at all deep down. The simple reason why is because I can’t shake the constant question, “Am I not imposing my financial considerations or situation onto someone else?” In my mental thought process (and speaking solely about myself without implying anything in any way about anyone else), projecting values that are derived from my own personal circumstances feels narcissistic.
In a few instances, I think some of the emotions stem from perceptions of a larger social inequality. I’ve noticed the disbelief, anger, or outrage is sometimes accompanied by assumptions about the clientele, namely, that the people who buy these exorbitantly priced items are either: “the 1%” (for example, Russian oligarchs); the vulgar nouveau riche who are motivated solely by the social aspirations/price and who lack any “real” taste in actually “good” perfume; or both. That’s a lot of social commentary….
And, yet, I see the threads of it running underneath the price discussion, usually indirectly but sometimes explicitly. Yes, I’m sure a lot of Russian oligarchs and Saudi oil money drive Roja Dove’s sales. But I don’t think that is always the case by any means. I know a school teacher who saved up to buy the $1000 Diaghilev because he loved it so passionately, he just had to have it. There are many others, too, who are hardly part of “the 1%” and who have worked very hard to buy their Roja Dove, Xerjoff, SHL 777, Clive Christian, or $600 Serge Lutens L’Incendiaire.
Plus, it’s a sliding scale. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are that you, too, have bought fragrances that someone outside the niche perfume world would consider to be “ridiculously priced,” even if you didn’t. By our very skewed standards, $125 is now seen as “reasonable,” practically “cheap,” while Tom Ford pricing is almost the basic standard. Yet, both of those figures would seem like an outrageous sum to people whose limit is $50, at most. Just read any Fragrantica page for one of Tom Ford’s Sephora-level fragrances like Black Orchid or Noir Extreme, and you will see numerous comments about how it’s “too expensive.” In short, YOU AND I are the elite to someone else.
The gap between the haves and have-nots may have widened to a chasm these days, and I think it justifiably warrants a lot of outrage about the things that truly matter in life, but we’re talking about a consumable commodity that is a luxury to begin with — at all price points. And, in the case of the super-luxury market, its entire premise is fantasy, subjective feeling, and indulgence, much like a dinner at Noma or a really expensive bottle of whisky. (That’s all separate from issue of cult legends with insane followings, like Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, the frenzy for which has resulted not only in its own black-market but a heist as well.)
In my eyes, very understandable egalitarian and democratic values are behind the anger, frustration, or outrage in the pricing debate. In an ideal world, truly beautiful, good fragrances would be widely accessible to all. Some might argue that was once the case, comparatively speaking, but I think that is viewing the world through nostalgia-tinted glasses. When L’Heure Bleue and Mitsouko came out, they were the Roja Doves of their time to the common man. Years later, Joy was famed for being one of the most expensive fragrances in the world, followed by Amouage’s Gold in the 1980s. There have always been fragrances limited to the elite and wealthy, albeit not quite so many of them. But the rise in number doesn’t change the underlying point: there have always been and always will be luxury items that are not for you and me. And, again, “you and me” is a constantly shifting paradigm itself because what is “affordable” and “reasonable” to readers of niche blogs like this one is “insanely over-priced” for someone else.
When it comes to our versions of Versailles prices, I accept the reality of it with a shrug. To me, many of these fragrances are no different than a Ferrari or Bugatti. I can’t afford them, but I’m glad they exist and am happy to admire them from afar. Judging by the many episodes of Top Gear that I’ve watched, not all gorgeous luxury cars are equal or always worth their price either, but that is a quality assessment taken on an individual case-by-case basis. It should be the same for their perfume counterparts. Blanket, automatic condemnation of an entire genre as “ridiculous” simply because of sticker shock or frustration can sometimes, in a few instances (but not always), manifest an anti-elitism that I think is just as judgmental and laden with subjective assumptions as elitist dismissal of the “bourgeois” or poor. The world is not a binary place, not everything is black or white, and sweeping absolutism rarely helps, in my opinion. The details and specifics matter. Plus, how do you know that, one day, you won’t stumble across that one magical perfume that feels truly earth-shattering and “worth it” (even if you have to save up for it) if you categorically and instantly dismiss the whole genre? Aren’t you better served by keeping an open mind, and at least trying something that appeals to you on every other level? If you really love and want something, it may take you a long time to get it, but people usually find a way.
And that’s all I’m really saying at the end of the day: keep an open mind, and don’t let price — solely by itself — dictate your perceptions. That is why I won’t automatically condemn that new $600 Serge Lutens fragrance or the latest Roja Dove $1000+ bottle as “outrageous” or “over-priced” merely because of a sticker. I’ll simply shrug, hope it’s not a stinker, and judge it on its parts. If it’s great, then I’ll completely understand why someone might love it so much that they had to have it, even at that price. It may not be me, but that’s okay, too.