Base notes, top dollar: what makes perfume expensive

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Kathleen Lee-Joe

Scent memory and personal taste play a role in favourite perfumes.

Scent memory and personal taste play a role in favourite perfumes. Photo:

There are no absolutes when it comes to judging a perfume, says fragrance blogger Liam Sardea. 

"Cheap scents, to me, equate to market pleasers," says Sardea. Generally, they tend to be sweeter, but this is mainly because they're made to appeal to a younger audience with less sophisticated olfactory senses.

Quality, expensive scents tend to be more layered and complex, divided into top, middle and base notes. Top notes such as citrus are apparent immediately, but tend to evaporate the quickest, usually in less than 30 minutes.

Middle notes, or heart notes such as lavender and vanilla, develop after an hour or two, while base notes (labdanum, musk, sandalwood) are where the most expensive ingredients will appear. They form the foundations of a fragrance and are less volatile. The base notes are what remain on the skin at the end of the day.

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Cheap designer-imposter perfumes replicate the top notes – and sometimes the middle notes – but the base notes are usually missing. That's why, when testing the quality of the perfume, it's important to wait a couple of hours. A good perfume will remain detectable two, four, even six hours later.

There's also a misconception that high-quality perfumes only contain natural ingredients, whereas less expensive perfumes contain synthetics. As Howard Jervis from Bud Parfum says, "Neither naturals nor synthetics are 'better' than the other. Why restrict your palette from certain colours?"

As Jervis points out, even the legendary Chanel No. 5 attributes its potency to aldehydes, a chemical compound developed in a French laboratory in 1903. Guerlain's Shalimar has coumarin, the synthetic note of tonka beans, while Dior's Eau Sauvage has methyl dihydrojasmonate, CK One's secret is dihydromercenol and Angel by Theirry Mugler contains the molecule ethyl maltol.

Synthetic ingredients certainly aren't cheaper than their natural counterparts. The molecules made to replicate illusionary notes of amber or leather, for example, can be very expensive. Synthetics, says Sardea, are highly desirable compounds for fragrance developers, as they may be engineered to suspend top notes for longer. "With synthetics, you get greater control of the molecules and less possible irritants are going in the structure of the work," he says.

And don't think your expensive eau de parfum is guaranteed to keep better. Both cheap and fancy formulas will expire if you don't store them properly. UV light, heat and oxygen causes fragrance to lose its potency, so best treat yours like a fine wine by storing it in a dark, cool place, with limited movement from its surroundings. Remember, perfume is essentially alcohol. As long as the bottle is airtight, it'll keep and even age beautifully.

It's the branding strategy for the most part, not the ingredients, that steer the price tag. 

The trend has been to niche, small-batch, aspirational brands such as Le Labo, Byredo, Penhaligon's, Serge Lutens, Heeley and Frederic Malle. They're attempting to capture experiences and create scents that are quirky, bypassing the usual descriptors of "oriental", "woody", "floral" and "fresh".

New York perfumer Le Labo's signature Santal 33 smells like a worn-in buttery leather couch ... with a hint of tobacco. Stockholm-based Byredo created Pulp as an olfactory representation of neon lights.  And, whereas leading brands are known to snap up a Baz Luhrmann to direct their advertising campaigns, niche brands rely on word of mouth.

How we value fragrances tends to include intangible factors such as scent memory and personal taste. Certain scents are like a blast to the heart in that the smell can transport you back to a place, an age, or an experience.

As Sardea says, "Quality, to me, comes down to their power to create and tell me something narrative, or at least project me somewhere – realistic or abstract."