Chandler Burr’s new book “The Perfect Scent” has sparked discussion about the cheapening of ingredients in perfumes. I’m saddened by this topic but share the concern.
From my perspective as a small perfumer, ingredient prices are challenging because I buy the very best, but I must buy in much smaller quantities than the big houses and therefore I pay much higher prices. It seems to be a myth that all synthetics are cheap, and that’s just not the case. Not long ago I paid just under $1000 for a kilo of Ambroxan, and many of my other synthetics cost over $700 per kilo. Some specialty musks are well over $1,000 per kilo. I buy these items because they smell so good and you can really tell the difference.
The easiest way for very small perfumers to afford these items is to share with other perfumers. I buy expensive kilos and then decant portions of them and sell at cost to others, and they do the same for me. We all get a wider variety of beautiful ingredients than we could afford on our own while we are in this small phase of our businesses.
As for natural ingredients, many cost even more than synthetics. Rose and jasmine absolute are on the order of $100-$200 just for one ounce. The saving grace with naturals is that they are available in small quantities so you don’t have to divide them up. The cost is higher when you buy small though because you’re paying retail for your ingredients that way.
The same issues apply to bottles and pumps; to buy wholesale you need to purchase a minimum of 10,000 bottles. Small perfumers end up paying retail or near retail bottle prices in order to get smaller quantities. That drives prices up and profits down for our products.
One other point is that some inexpensive materials are quite nice. Natural citrus and cedar oils are not expensive but are very useful, and the same can be said for some synthetics, such as Hedione. Also, ingredient quality and artistic style are two different issues, of course. You may like the ingredients used but not like how they are combined.
From the consumer standpoint, you can try sampling natural raw materials from places like Eden Botanicals. They sell small samples of their naturals at very reasonable prices. You can also sample many different fragrance houses and decide for yourself which ones seem to use the kinds of materials you enjoy. Most lines will have some winners and some losers for each person, but the line may well have an overall quality level you can perceive.
Sometimes fragrances made with poorer ingredients may smell fine at the start but begin to smell off after you’ve had them on for an hour or two. Conversely, sometimes a scent with very high quality naturals may smell a little weird the first few minutes as the naturals settle down, but then it all comes together into something beautiful (perfumers try to use topnotes to create as beautiful an opening as possible, of course, but I’ve read comments about some all-natural brands tending to have rough starts and I can understand how people might react that way to them). I’ve read that newcomers to fragrance often judge a scent in the first 60 seconds, just by the top notes. I’m betting they are not always happy when they get their new purchases home.
Mass market fragrances are often made under extreme cost restrictions and very little natural material ends up in them. The niche market really does offer more opportunity to enjoy finer ingredients, but it takes some hunting and sampling to discover the treasures and decide what works best for you. We’re lucky to have the internet these days to connect all of us and make the researching easier and more fun!
I think the industry will listen to feedback from perfume fans about the desire to keep ingredient quality high. Many small houses do their best to use the finest ingredients and still keep prices from being out of reach. The average consumer at the fragrance counter may not learn about these niche offerings, but as the internet fragrance community expands more people will find the online sites that stock the niche world. Not all niche scents are of equal quality, but sample programs help you find your favorites. And some wonderful finds can still be made in the traditional lines too; there are beautiful classics to be found and a few select great new releases (though prices can be quite high for luxe editions).