Do you judge a perfume by its bottle? Are you sure about that?

We may claim to be uninfluenced by a beautiful face or elaborate packaging, but, as far as I know, that’s a big lie. Whether we like it or not, our judgments are, more or less, necessarily influenced by “external factors” such as color, shape, apparent age, and on and on. This, it seems, is simply part of how meaningful perception functions. Because the tendency both to judge a book by its cover and to flatly deny that one is doing this occurs so often in perfume circles, this is an especially productive context for exploring this inevitable, and sometimes insidious, phenomenon.

Consider, for example, the luxury perfume house, Kilian. Ah, Kilian. Both paeans of adoration and cries of outrage have greeted its sometimes baroque packaging. In full presentation, one of its bottles will arrive in a lockbox coffin — yes, with a key — nested in velvet like a bespoke totem bequeathed by a long lost ancestor. And its price will be correspondingly dear — some bottles upwards of $800 US — further adding to the aura of exclusivity.

Though some pragmatist, minimalist, or more fiscally conservative Kilian fans eschew the packaging as fussy and unnecessary (opting instead, perhaps, for the cheaper travel sprayers), for others, the exclusivity fantasy inspired by the elaborate packaging is a critical part of the aesthetic experience. And so the following consumer reviews are typical: “I cannot tell you how excited I was when this bad boy arrived. Everything about it screams class, and there’s just no doubt that this is high quality juice.” Another: “I don’t usually keep my perfume boxes, but I have a special corner in my collection for the ones from Kilian. Don’t cheat yourself by ordering the cheaper refill versions.”

Black Phantom by Kilian

All in all, Kilian fans seem to fall into several categories: those who uncritically embrace the packaging, believing it’s indicative of the perfume quality; those who adore the packaging but are aware it’s a bit of a gimmick; and the many who vociferously deny that the packaging influences them in any way. Some of us, of course, may avoid the brand largely because of its packaging frippery. I have to include myself in this last category, though I’m not happy about it. In fact, I dislike thinking of myself as unduly influenced, either positively or negatively, by “luxe” packaging, because it interferes with my self-image as an independent thinker.

When I take a moment to reflect, though, I see that, of course, “mere externals” impact deeper judgments in complex ways that are almost certainly impossible to decipher, let alone entirely avoid. And our own capacity to make “objective judgments” of this sort is probably not something about which exhaustive self-knowledge is even possible. Whether we like it or not, or can rationally defend it or not, all those years of Hollywood movies, pop music and public school shape our deepest ideas about what is beautiful, worthy, or even normal. It rings utterly false, then, for me to pretend that I am influenced by “mere external factors” when the whole point of implicit biases is that I am very likely unaware that I am judging according to them.


As with more socially important judgements, then, especially those about other people, a healthy goal when it comes to perfume experience may simply be to stop denying that we’re impacted by packaging. We may be gluttons for luxury who devour every nacre inlay and velvet pouch, or minimalist hipsters put off by consumerist packaging clutter. In either case, though, the “externals” matter and shape our choices and responses well below the level of full consciousness.

Maybe the best we can do is to become a little more aware of, and honest about, the sheer fact that social forces, sometimes in the form of ubiquitous stereotypes, necessarily impact our judgments. In short, we are all better off when we stop pretending to be superhuman paragons of objectivity whose purity of engagement — be it with human beings or perfume bottles — is above reproach. No matter how smart and socially sensitive we imagine ourselves to be, wine labels, perfume bottles, posh accents, and skin color give shape and meaning to the aesthetic, political, and moral paths we walk.

I’m curious: Is there a perfume line that you feel especially attracted to largely because of its packaging? How likely do you think you are you to be swept up in a brand’s “luxury aura” or, conversely, to feel negatively toward it because of its elaborate packaging? How do you think the unconscious judgments we make about perfume and those we make about other people are similar and different? Comment below if you’re so inclined.

2 thoughts on “Do you judge a perfume by its bottle? Are you sure about that?

  1. Killian is a dilemma for me. I find some of the packaging stunning, I bought Forbidden Games partly because of the white snake clutch (plus I was at an event where he was present ). And I find the latest clutch box based on Klimt design to be gorgeous. But I can’t justify the cost of the clutch with a fragrance I find to be just OK.

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  2. I admire you for being self-reflective enough about this to recognize how the packaging influences your decision. I have definitely had the experience of not realizing until much, much later the ways that the “bells and whistles” influenced me. And, still, I think this is complicated….am definitely not suggesting that we shouldn’t be influenced by packaging, especially since I’m pretty sure that isn’t possible! And, yes, that whole Klimt tie-in was genius.
    Thanks so much for your comment, NancySG

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