As discount store shelves sag with unwanted boxes of Brittney Spears Fantasy Rainbow Unicorn or Nautica Voyage Blue Macho Intense, the price of perfumes from the likes of Memo Paris, Tom Ford and Clive Cristian creeps ever northward. With the bottom of the cheapie range dropping ever lower, there has been a sort of olfactory populist lurch. Luxury and niche houses must differentiate their creations as special, then, as personal treasures in stark contrast to that bargain basement pile of Adidas Man Sport Summer Extreme.
While there surely are some general differences in quality that distinguish some luxe brands from the discounted heaps and drugstore cheapies, only rarely could such distinctions account for the breathtaking gap in prices, say, $6.99 (US) for a bottle of Jovan White Musk and $870 for a special edition bottle by Kilian. No, it is evident that perfume pricing strategies themselves often become the primary means of producing an air of exclusivity. With smaller, independent, artisan perfume houses, of course, the story is likely quite different, with exclusivity often being a more natural result of scarce resources or limitations of scale. In either case, though, it’s worth noting that the difficulty of getting one’s hands on the juice is a critical part of what makes it feel valuable.
Whether we like this about ourselves or not, in Western societies at least, we tend to value the attainment of what we believe to be uncommon. It is as if in successfully hunting down the elusive object of desire — be it a white tiger or a vanishingly rare bottle of vintage Mitsouko — its specialness confers talismanic powers on our own identity. It may heighten our social status or even offer a temporary sense of existential control. The mania for collecting precious, rare items promises to help us rise above the anonymous, ever crumbling, disordered world of mere things. One becomes master, if not of one’s whole existence, at least a small set of curated, dear objects.
This sense of mission or quest is one that’s embraced by some perfume collectors for whom scoring that rare bottle can take on an almost religious significance. And hard work can sweeten the victory, as an Olympic’s athlete’s trials and failures help make her gold medal poignant. In a capitalist consumer culture in which success is often measured according to one’s ability and willingness to buy things, our hunger for the heroic, individual act, too, can take on consumerist forms. It’s a phenomenon I’ve been considering for decades, since the staff at the dealership where bought my first new car congratulated me profusely on my purchase. They taught me that the arena of big ticket shopping is a kind of consumerist Olympics.
I surely do not mean to suggest that the consumerist romance of exclusivity is the only motive for seeking out unique products and supporting the artisans who create them. To the contrary, our power to encourage and sustain a thriving realm of creative heterogeneity requires us to support oddball creatives who forego crowd testing to realize their own vision of what is interesting or beautiful. And, not incidentally, we will usually have to pay more for the lovingly blended small batch fragrance than the dusty box of Rihanna Romance Flower Gold. When price itself is leveraged to create exclusivity, though, we have simply returned to junior high school where the price of admission to the elite clique was Lacoste alligators and Guess jeans.
I don’t condemn the perfume-loving community for how we sometimes encourage and play into consumerist myths, though. When I find myself longing for an Armani Privé or hear about someone’s efforts to save up for an exorbitant bottle of Clive Christian, I am reminded that the world of perfume can be an awfully good mirror. It’s a rich venue for exploring our capacity to appreciate and enjoy beauty, of course, but it can also put us in touch with our susceptibility to delusion, chronic dissatisfaction, and capitalist farce.