Perhaps the question to ask is ‘Why is it that synthetic, not just natural perfumes are expensive? Should price point be the way you adjudicate a perfume anyway? These are questions that have no simple answer as we’re talking about perfumery as art, not solely the cost of its core raw materials, plus labour, plus mark-ups in the distribution chain, plus a decent income or profit for the perfumer or perfumery house.
There’s an analogy I like to make when discussing why fine fragrance and in particular natural perfumes are expensive. It’s a anecdotal story you might have come across before; the tale of Picasso’s dove of peace.
The event, we’re told, took place in a Parisian cafe’ when an admirer asked Picasso if he could do a quick sketch on a table napkin. Picasso obliged, drawing the eponymous dove in a flick of the wrist. Before he passed back the napkin, he asked the admirer for a tidy sum of money, much to their shock. When asked how he could want so much for so quick a sketch, Picasso replied: “It took me 40 years”.
Natural perfumes are expensive because they are to the artisan botanical perfumer what Picasso’s dove was to him. Expensive as they embody considerable creativity, expertise and experience that is hidden from view. A phial of alcohol with some natural ingredients is all they are. But, that would be to ignore their creation, the genius and expertise of the perfumer, the muse and moment that saw them born as an idea and then perfected over what can be a considerable passage of time to the liquid art form called perfumery.
In this discussion of perfumery pricing, I am purposely leaving aside most of the banal aspects such as packaging and branding, distribution expenditure and all the PR, digital and traditional marketing and related costs such as celebrity endorsement. Any consumer realises these go into ramping up a perfume’s price. I am leaving them aside as natural perfumes tend to be created on a more limited, artisinal scale. They don’t have the full shebang of these costs, at least not to start out with. However, they do end up usually at luxe-end prices for different reasons.
6 Reasons Why Natural Perfumes Are Expensive
Collusion on Perfume’s Price
Both perfumer and consumer/wearer are in collusion on the price point of perfumes, whether natural or synthetic. The anecdotal tale above serves to show that the price of perfume is a negotiated space open to interpretation and only arrived at when both creator and consumer both agree.
The value we place on any luxury, for that’s what perfume is, stems from deep within our past and our relationship with money and from the very personal worth we attach to it. We’ve all friends who adore perfumes and will view them as necessities; others who love them but feel they can’t buy perfume for themselves preferring to wait for them to be gifted; and others still who are quite happy with a cheap almost weekly throw-away buy from a Target or Lidl store. I love the perfumery market’s diversity and believe there’s a place for what are mostly high-end and higher priced botanicals as well as cheaper brands and the continual stream of flankers.
Does $250 for a 30ml natural perfume EDP entice or dissuade you from buying? A natural perfume is expensive if you are not its target consumer. If you don’t believe the art of the perfumer, the chosen ingredients, the outcome of those combined notes, and the packaging and branding paraphernalia all add up to being ‘worth it’, then perhaps that particular scent is not for you. Pricing is therefore totally subjective. High-end prices are sustained because there are people willing to pay for the goods.
Perfume as Desire
Perfume is sprayed on and evaporates. It is not a lasting possession. That might be enough to confirm to you that perfumes are an expensive folly of a purchase. But, that would be to forget perfume as pleasure. If a perfume becomes an object of desire and holds out the promise of pleasure that might be requited, then its high price tag may merely be a temporary hindrance not a criticism of the perfume itself.
We all have our varying price points in the pursuit of pleasure. Someone else’s pleasure with a justifiable price point might be a Michelin-starred meal. Mine, and may be yours too, is a luxury, feel-good botanical perfume. We pay for pursuit of pleasure and when we do, that pleasure may be price insensitive. Whether natural or synthetic, perfume as an object of secret pleasure may be expensive to ensure that the pleasure it promises is exclusive; available to only a few.
Perfumery Materials are Expensive
Perfume is one of the least transparent of products when it comes to divining price as even the ingredients are hidden behind an all-encompassing word ‘parfums’ or ‘fragrance’ in the brief list cosmetic regulations require. The perfumer or perfume house wishes to ensure their formulas remain secret and, at least for now, they are allowed to declare ‘parfums’ rather than the individual ingredients that are legally required on skincare product labels.
So, how do you know whether a natural perfume is expensive because it contains pure botanical ingredients? If the argument is that natural perfumes are so expensive because of the high cost of their pure botanical raw materials, you will need to know if you are getting what you’re paying extra for.
Synethetics can be expensive too. Some are created as ‘captives’ which are aroma-chemicals designed for specific perfume houses and brands and which are kept secret and not released for purchase. Captives are the prized differentiators in the world of synthetics.
Naturals tend to be pricey on account of their rarity, the vagaries of climate and harvest, their geographical origins, labour-intensive and often traditional methods of extraction and so on. We all know the one about how many roses go into creating a few ml of Bulgarian Damask Rose oil. Some, like jasmine and Osmanthus absolutes must be extracted by the centuries-old method of enfleurage and are therefore extremely expensive.
Natural perfumery materials are expensive because they are finite. Chemical aromas can be manufactured ad nauseam and will always be the same. However, naturals come and go and can never be relied on. The perfumer working with all-naturals has not only the challenge of their uniqueness, complexity and variance from, say, one genus of botanical and harvest to another, but may also face scarcity. It is often the case that my chosen supplier simply has no vanilla or sandalwood, for the reasons just listed, or, because a material has been added to the CITES list with the result that its trade is prohibited.
Natural perfumes are expensive because their creators need to work as if each batch were a limited edition. They must assess each new batch of a raw material as if they’d never met it before. This takes time, patience and a certain bespoke artisinal approach, all of which end up reflected in the final price of the perfume.
To what extent does the nose behind a perfume count in the cost? The personality and professionalism of the nose, the perfume’s creator, is a relatively new concept in modern perfumery although it was a key feature several centuries ago. Marie Antoinette’s perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon is documented in A Scented Palace: A Secret History of Marie-Antoinette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau. He started from humble beginnings but found fame ending up engaged as royal perfumer for some 13 years.
Modern perfumery from the late 19th century to around the mid-20th, was dominated by large chemical fragrance firms who produced the aromas for major luxury as well as household brands. The fragrance chemists and in-house perfumers for companies like Givaudin and IFF were unknown outside their circles. Hermes was one of the first haute couture brands to engage an in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena. He became among the first ‘nez’ known in his own right and later worked on high profile collaborations with others, including perfume impresario Frederic Malle.
Now, this has been taken further by Kilian Hennessy grandson of the founder of LMVH group. The By Kilian perfumery house engages known ‘nez’ such as Calice Becker and Alberto Morillas. Anyone vaguely interested in perfume today has come across named perfumers behind brands and perfumery houses, and even now the in-house perfumers of large fragrance firms are stepping into the limelight. We’ve come full circle.
The short answer is then that a name with gravitas will pack more dollars on a perfume. So, what does that mean for the more indie and artisan perfumers who tend, like myself, to be those creating botanical, natural perfumes?
As we enter the market, our perfumes are judged by you, the consumer and wearer, by the same criteria as you evaluate a perfume from a ‘nez’ or a famed, long-established brand. I think these days, there is a level playing field and indications are that more fragrance buyers are looking to the further reaches of the industry to find uniqueness and something different as the FT’s article on Eco-perfumes mainstreaming goes to show.
Old perfumery house Creed is commanding £675 for 250ml of Royal Exclusives White Flowers, EDP. Whether you put a value on the natural perfume, whether by established names or from indie, niche perfumers, is entirely your call.
Perfume as Packaging & Branding
We’re wise enough these days to know that we pay for eye candy – perfection in packaging has a premium. A high-priced perfume in cheap packaging rarely appeals, although the converse sometimes does as those ‘smells just like’ review sites attest.
As an indie perfumer, I do spend quite a lot of time worrying about the perfect packaging. It takes a lot of time trying to find sustainable options at minimum order quantities and with the right panache for my brand. Sustainability and issues of air miles, recycling and carbon footprints loom large. Will the gold leaf emboss make it unrecylable? How much value and cost does it add? Hidden from the consumer, yet of huge importance in defining the final price, are such issues.
Whether you wish to pay for perfectly packaged depends on how you feel buying perfume for yourself or to gift. I admit to picking up unpackaged scents from bargain bins, and to splashing out on buying a rare botanical fragrance from an artisan perfumer. Both styles of approach to packaging have a place in my life. Luxury and/or combined with sustainable packaging rarely comes cheap. It all depends on where your expectations and consumer ethos lie.
Economics of Scale
Talk of packaging leads on to the final issue; one of economies of scale. The artisan botanical perfumer can’t buy nor store efficient quantities of raw perfumery materials. Even if they wish to make a given perfume for several years to come, and would like to stock up on a particular vanilla absolute or rose oil to ensure continuity of supply and consistency of batches, they won’t make and sell the volumes to shift the stock before it expires.
Our lack of an economy of scale does mean our natural perfumes are expensive, yet what you gain is the beauty of a unique perfume. Its uniqueness is inherent in its creation.
And Finally, Are Natural Perfumes Expensive?
I’d go as far as to say beware a natural perfume that has a low price tag. Do your homework: ask the brand or perfumer about their craft, ethos, and sourcing of ingredients. They won’t tell you trade secrets but the honesty of their reply should assuage doubts about the naturalness of their products.
In terms of value to you, natural perfumes’ expense can’t be quantified. Price is subjective and a personal viewpoint.
For that reason I can’t answer with certainty our original question about why natural perfumes are expensive. Not least because we natural perfumers would of course all love to be Picassos!
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash