The question of quality is a complex one, especially with something as intangible as perfume. All of us have our own definitions of quality, and as such, I see this post as a place to share my reflections and hear your thoughts as well. As I mentioned in the previous post, I do not want to conflate the price of raw materials with quality. I do not believe that beer is inferior to wine, and in the same vein, I do not think that Tommy Girl is inferior to Shalimar. I simply do not want to pay the price of a great vintage for a bottle of Budweiser. Perfume is a luxury, and given the current economic climate, I want to make sure my pleasures are never guilty and that my dollar is spent wisely. When looking for a perfume that offers good value for my money, my personal take is as follows:
Some perfumers say that despite reformulation, the classics still offer the best value for money. In other words, these fragrances were created in the days when the perfume houses were willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a formula, in contrast to what is happening today. Even if Chanel tried to cut corners on No 19 or Estee Lauder on Private Collection, there is a limit to how much the formula can be whittled down. I find this to be a thought provoking argument, but I rarely do this kind of rational calculation at the perfume counter. To test this idea, I smelled Guerlain Jardin de Bagatelle (1983) against several new tuberose fragrances. I discovered that it certainly gave any new white floral perfume a run for its money, and tested alongside Idylle (2009), Jardin de Bagatelle felt particularly rich and opulent.
Classical status does not automatically propel a perfume onto my list of favorites, but it makes me take notice. As I explained in 10 Things I Love About Classical Perfumes, there are numerous reasons why I revisit classics, not least of which is to remind myself how quality was defined in the past.
On Department Stores and Drugstores
Just because the big brands are pressed by their profit margins, does it mean that their fragrances are poor? Far from it! I would never give up Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, Christian Dior J’Adore or Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess. If a price tag no longer works as a quality determinant, it is easier to approach things with an open mind. I love the sultry richness of Yves Rocher Rose Absolu, the comforting feeling of Bath & Body Works Cotton Blossom and the retro glamor of Avon Imari. Although Elizabeth Arden Red Door is perhaps too dramatic for my tastes, I enjoy how voluptuously it blooms on skin.
On Small Brands
At one point, it was easy to turn to niche fragrances to find a distinctive and unusual perfume. I still remember the revelation of discovering Annick Goutal with its collection of personal etudes and Serge Lutens with its Arabian Night vignettes. Today, the niche market has exploded dramatically and there is such a wide range of quality that the “niche” label means nothing in particular. The variety makes my quests more interesting though. These days I enjoy indie offerings, from Aftelier to Vero Profumo. I hunt for discontinued or difficult to find favorites from small houses like Chopard (Madness, Casmir!) or quirky European brands like Krizia and Lalique. Before the advent of online stores it was impossible to find them in the States, but today with a mere click of a mouse I can compare prices and even order samples before buying the full bottle.
On Stories and Character
A high-quality fragrance should have a distinctive character. Whatever the fragrance costs and whoever made it is less relevant. I mainly care that the perfume says something to me. I want it to seduce me, to move me, to remind me of a special moment or to weave a fantasy for me. This is a very subjective criterion, but it is the most essential one for me. The most luxurious aspect of a perfume is its ability to create a story, and if it does that for me, I know that I am about to fall deeply in love. Those tend to be my 5 star perfumes.
From a technical standpoint, a good quality perfume is one that has decent tenacity and beautiful diffusion. I love fragrances that are delicate and refined, but nothing is more frustrating than a fragrance that vanishes after a few hours. The exception to this is a cologne style fragrance which is designed to refresh and uplift.
For me, the best way to experience a new fragrance is to forget about labels and smell with an open mind. Quality may be subjective, but there is nothing vague about the emotional effect of a truly great perfume. What about you? What is your personal definition of a high-quality perfume?
Image: Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848-1926), A Siren Song (A Song of Joy and Sorrow).