Is there any quality difference in cheap vs expensive fragrances

I am starting to use cologne. A friend bought me a 0.5oz bottle of curve a year ago and I bought a bottle of fresh blue musk two weeks ago. The Curve cost $16 for 0.5oz and the fresh blue must was $6.86 for 8.4oz, making one 40x more expensive than the other ounce for ounce. However they both smell nice. So why bother buying the expensive stuff (assuming Curve even begins to count as expensive as far as fragrances go). is there any real quality difference between cheap, medium priced and expensive fragrances? I can’t tell any, its not like cheap aftershave smells like feces and the expensive stuff smells like roses. I can’t tell a difference in how pleasent the smells of cheap vs expensive perfumes, colognes and aftershaves are. What are your views on the subject, any real difference?

I have an answer- it’s a long one but I don’t have time to post it tonight. I will share my thoughts tomorrow.

I’d be interested to know too. I’m also curious about those “Designer Imposters” fragrances, which you sometimes see at cologne/perfume stores, and sometimes even in the dollar store. They claim to smell just like a name brand fragrance, which is mentioned on the package. I always wondered about the legality of these–is it because you cannot patent (or trademark) a fragrance?

I personally like Drakkar Noir cologne a lot, but I refuse to spend money on it. It’s ridiculously expensive (as most colognes are), so occasionally I get a bottle as a gift and use it then. But if I can get a nearly-identical product that smells THE SAME for a buck, and it won’t give me some nasty skin rash, I think I may switch to the cheap stuff and never look back.

Well, I think the most important thing to remember is, if you like the way it smells, then it doesn’t matter what it costs.

Having said that, I wear Chanel #5 almost exclusively. I have yet to find a designer imposter that claimed to be just like it for less, that actually came close to smelling like it. However, the imposter Tommy that I smelled came really close. I think some fragrances must be easier to duplicate than others.

Admittedly Chanel #5 is one of the most expensive ($250/oz) perfumes. Once Suburban Plankton bought me an ounce of the perfume for an anniversary. I could definitely tell the different between the perfume and the cologne spray, but didn’t really think it was worth the price difference. It smelled the same, just more concentrated and w/o the alcohol. So I use the perfume for special occasions and the spray for every day.

I think some people can tell the difference between inexpensive and high-priced perfumes the way some people can tell the difference between inexpensive and expensive wines. Others can’t. The only thing that matters is if you like it.

I don’t think they can. Your first point is perfectly valid however. Companies that market perfumes and colognes put a HUGE markup on them. It really depends on what their marketing tactics are. Some companies like Polo want want target mainstream consumers and make their money by selling a large volume of it. Other companies want their brand to have a mystique and target elite consumers with a price to match. There is no real difference in quality (on average) between a medium priced cologne and a super-expensive one. The latter is marketed as a status symbol and often given as an expensive gift. Chanel#5 is the most widely known expensive pefume and they chose that as their marketing tactic and it has worked well for over 80 years because the air of exclusivity has never faded.

What is most important is what smells good to you. Uniqueness is an important consideration for many people. It is not fun to walk down the street and have every third person smell like you. If you by perfume or cologne from the fragrance counter of a department store there will be many, many people with that same scent. However, there are over 20,000 perfumes and colognes marketed today so you should be able to find one that fits your price range, matches your personality, and is fairly rare. To view just how many perfumes are available, there
are several huge perfume merchants online. This article gives tips on how to buy perfume online. Most of the companies break down perfumes by type (eg. woodsy, citrisy, or flowery) and send you small samples of the ones that sound interested in if you know how to request them

I can’t add much but to say as someone who has allergies to perfumes, the cheaper they are the more intense my reactions are.

When I was younger I bought some imposter Tommy Girl fragrance at around $10 AUD a bottle. When I first tried it the scent was fairly similar, but it also smelled very alcoholic and it wore off very quickly.

On the other hand I can’t tell much of a difference in quality between a mid-priced EDT like Green Tea by Elizabeth Arden, or a slightly more expensive EDT like Ralph by Ralph Lauren. Sometimes EDTs will advertise that they use expensive ingredients (I think Angel might have) but I’m not sure how much of that is true and how much of that is hype.

I think the main difference is the method of production. Expensive perfumes aremade from naturally-occuring ingredients…expensive stuff like musk, civet, ambergris, lavender, etc. The cheap stuff is made with synthetics, which are derived from petroleum by=products.
Same molecules, differnet source. Oh, and expensive perfume houses use humans (with sensitive noses) to blend the ingredients…cheap mfgs. use gas chromatographs to determine the composition, and make thousnads of gallon-batches at a time.
It is the difference between a Rolls-Royce and a Chevrolet.

In William Poundstone’s first Big Secrets book, he details the cost of ingredients, per ounce, of a typical perfume. Result: about $5.15, most of it for rose oil. Presumably, the rest of the cost goes into making it right, and convincing people to buy it.

(wakes up) Chanel No. 5? Wait a minute. My mother gave me a bottle of that, for Christmas, once. I didn’t know it was so expensive…

Here is the short answer: Yes, there is a difference but it may not matter.

Now for the long answer:

First let’s get the costs of marketing and distribution out of the way. The fact is that many of the fragrances at the department store fragrance counter come from large clothing designer houses and these firms spends loads of cash on advertising. CK, Ralph Lauren, YSL, Chanel, etc. all advertise their fragrances in magazines and on TV. This adds a large amount to the cost of the fragrance. These fragrances are also widely distributed and that costs money too. Only an industry insider can tell us exactly how the costs break down but it is safe to say that when you plunk down $60 for a bottle of Calvin Klein Truth you are paying more for the advertising and bottle than you are for the juice.

That is not to say however that the juice you are paying for is the same quality as the juice you find in an imposter fragrance or an $8 bottle of cologne off of a dime store shelf. An expensive fragrance does not guarantee a high quality fragrance, but a high quality fragrance is almost always more expensive. Ingredients can vary in quality and usually higher quality ingredients, especially natural ingredients, cost more- sometimes a lot more. Designer fragrances houses tend to use higher quality synthetic ingredients and a smattering of natural ingredients. Artisanal fragrance houses tend to use more natural ingredients and if synthetics are used at all they tend to be of very high quality.

The most important question is can your nose tell. Absolutely it can. Before justifying this claim let me first explain how fragrances are built.

All fragrances have a structure, sometimes called a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid you have the top notes. These notes (think lemon, mint, watermelon) are highly volatile, meaning they are easily released and short lived, dissipating in 10-15 minutes. They give you your first impression of a fragrance. Next come the middle or “heart” notes. These (think juniper, pepper, geranium) form the bulk of what you experience in a fragrance. They last much longer than the top notes and take several minutes before they make their appearance. Lastly you have the base notes. These (think sandlewood, amber, patchouli) tend to be heavy, giving the fragrance a foundation to support the middle and top notes. They last the longest and also help the middle and top notes last longer. They are also the most expensive part of the fragrance and at the end of the day are usually all that is remaining of a fragrance’s character.

A well built fragrance utilizes this structure to evolve throughout the day. In some ways the perfumer is creating more than one fragrance because he must take into account how the oils evaporate throughout the day and build the structure such that a fragrance continues to amaze throughout the dry down. Not only does this take a good amount of talent, it takes high quality ingredients. That usually means a more expensive fragrance.

Cheap fragrances- hell, even most expensive designer fragrances- tend to be one trick ponies. They don’t evolve much; their character usually gets a bit harsh through the dry down and by the end of they day they don’t smell very good. Such fragrances are designed to sell you with a flurry of exciting top notes (the cheap ones), but those notes go away quickly and you are usually left with an uninteresting mess made up of cheap synthetic middle and base notes.

Some designer houses are particularly good at this kind of fragrance. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Claiborne, Hilfiger (to name the worst offenders) create fragrances that fly off the shelves because they smell great in those first 15 minutes. To my mind (and this is not an opinion shared amongst all fragrance collectors) there is a relatively small difference between these and the 10 dollar bottle of Preferred Stock you can buy at the drug store. They are higher quality but still not very well made. Designer imposters (with a couple exceptions) are very cheaply made. They smell right for 5 minutes but after that watch out (there are such things as “imposter” fragrances that are better than the real thing but that’s for another post).

Designer houses like Chanel, Bvlgari, Givenchy and YSL have a much better reputation for using higher quality ingredients; spend some time with their fragrances and the difference shows. They are much better at evoking a mood rather than merely smelling good. They evolve throughout the day and surprise you with new notes and more complex arrangements of scents. Fragrances houses like Guerlain have this same quality.

For my money, artisanal fragrances are where you really see the difference. First, these tend to be made with natural ingredients. Natural is not always better but it is nearly always more interesting! They are also almost always more expensive, as there is a lot of labor involved in properly extracting the perfume oils, can be more finicky to work with and are becoming increasingly rare. Second, artisanal houses don’t spend much on advertising or packaging (most artisanal perfumers use the same bottle for all their fragrances), so the money goes into meticulous production processes and the highest quality ingredients. The difference really shows on the skin. These fragrances tend to have great depth, complexity and beauty.

Price can also reflect the strength of the fragrance. The Eau de Cologne version of a fragrance is a lot cheaper than an Eau de Parfum. The former contains only 2-3% perfume oil while the latter can be as higher (or higher) than 30%. This can make a huge difference in a fragrance’s ability to last on the skin. Also, the higher the concentrate the richer the fragrance tends to be.

It should be said that detecting some of these difference takes more than a brief sniff at the cap any fragrance. You at least need to wear the fragrance on the skin and time is also a factor. Like the exploration of any sensory delight, an educated nose (like an educated palate) makes the differences in quality really stand out. Fragrances are rather like wine, coffee, chocolate, etc. Price does not guarantee quality but the correlation is pretty strong and with a little education you can really tell the difference; but just like with wine, coffee or chocolate, just because it is expensive and/or high quality does not mean you will like it. I do think however, that if fragrance is something one enjoys then you owe it to yourself to at least explore the more expensive fragrances and experience what is possible.

(to give a personal example. I currently own about 60 fragrances. Of those my most expensive fragrance- Aftleir Cacao- sells for $480 and ounce. It is comprised of jasmine (a very very expensive ingredient), bloodorange and Scharffen-Berger chocolate. It is made entirely of completely natural ingredients and it is glorious. Glorious but difficult to wear because it is so rich and quirky)

jfortun: Are there books about this? Do you know some titles?

The offerings are only so-so. Here I some I can recommend:

Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel
The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr
Perfume by National Geographic

There are a few online resources as well if you are interested.

I second the need to actually put the fragrance on the skin. A few weeks ago I was in a perfume shop in the mall, and the salesperson sprayed a bit of a perfume on a little card for me to smell. I didn’t like it much at first, but rubbed a bit on my wrist just for fun. As I went about my business that afternoon, the perfume seemed to smell better and better. I wish I could remember what it was called. My personal favorite perfume is American Original, which sells for about US$20 an ounce. Made by Stetson. Two of my best friends wear it too, because they liked it so much on me. It smells different on each of them, of course, but still good. I’ve also been looking for a gardenia fragrance that isn’t suffocating, but no luck so far.

I noticed that yesterday before i made my post jfortun. When i used the cheap fragrance its major fragrance seemed to fade in 30 minutes with a mild odor for a few hours later but the one that cost 40x more seemed to stay strong for hours.

My goal however isn’t a suffocating odor detectable from 20 feet away I just a mild, barely noticeable fragrance that stays with me most of the day. So either will work for me.

I’ve sampled lots of fragrances from exclusive boutiques to discount stores and found favorites in each. My favorites are Ghost Myst by Coty, Manifesto by Isabella Rosselini, and Celine Dion’s signature fragrance (which to me smells just like Tresor by Lancome). Oh, I also like Aliage by Estee Lauder, but I can’t seem to locate that one in local stores.

:slight_smile: jfortun, thank you for all your information on perfume. I have really enjoyed it in this thread and a previous one.

In my (limited) experience some of the less expensive perfumes or colognes may smell ok at first but end up smelling too “chemically” or something. Almsot get stronger (and different) as you wear them. Whereas the tried and true (and generally more expensive) scents hang in there with you without change. It is kind of the difference between " oh, here comes smartini wearing perfume" and “smartini really smells nice.”

I think I like the latter response better :slight_smile:

That’s a good way of putting it. A good fragrance worn properly doesn’t stand out at a fragrance. Obviously people will know it is a fragrance, but their first reaction should not be “(s)he’s wearing something”, it should be to elevate or set a mood and make an impression.