What is a “cheap” scent ?

There was a thread on Basenotes.net not long ago with the title, “How often do you wear the ‘cheap’ fragrances in your wardrobe?”


As usual, the responses demonstrated the range of perceptions that exist just among members who post on this particular site. One person said he considered anything less than $100 a bottle to be “cheap,” for example. I’m on the other end of that spectrum. To me, $30 or more per bottle is rather expensive! I’ve been able to assemble a collection that many might view as somewhat impressive by “bargain hunting” and swapping. In any case, this thread prompted me to consider the ways people conceptualize “cheap” in this context. For example, cheap can refer to perceptions of “quality,” not just the price, and prices can be low for a very long but then begin to rise when the stock dries up, for some scents. For others, the supply is basically inexhaustible, leading some to call these scents “drug store dreck,” even if some aren’t that “bad” (I may have used this phrase too!).

So, I’ll just mention some of the ways a scent might be perceived as “cheap,” beginning with “drug store dreck.” These are almost always available at major stores, and are priced low, perhaps under $20 a bottle most of the time. This seems to be the largest “B&M” outlet for celebrity scents as well. The first obvious question seems to be about vintage, for example, do we classify vintage British Steriling with what’s being sold in the major retailer stores today? I’d rather wear vintage British Sterling than most of the scents released over the last few years, as best I can tell. How many people who have just come into this hobby in the last few years and only purchased “quality” scents could even imagine there being a difference? I only noticed the difference a couple years ago, and I’m always on the hunt for great bargains, especially if I enjoy the smell (otherwise, if I blind buy and don’t like it, I try to swap it).

If we put aside the niche/exclusive crowd, there is still the question of what one might call a quality scent. Of course, a quality scent might be inexpensive, but that’s easy to acknowledge, even if some among the niche crowd can’t imagine the possibility and won’t allow themselves to sample some of these. Phoenix by Keith Urban is a good example of such a scent, and it’s been selling or low prices since I took up this hobby, in late 2007. Some have suggested that if a niche person were given a vial of a scent like Phoenix and told it was the latest release by a niche company that the person holds in high regard, the person’s perception would be different. A recent study seems to support this:

When consumers taste cheap wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain function, causing them to experience the cheap wine in the same physical way as the expensive wine? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.


On the other hand, it may be that some of us have the reverse, that is, people tend to have very high expectations for a scent that costs five or more times more than other scents that we really enjoy.  However, if the scent was mid-level designer, we might think it’s worth wearing once in a long while and go to ebay to see if it’s been heavily discounted, as is often the case at some point. Also, some of us seem to have a “good enough” attitude, whereas others can’t bear the thought of wearing a scent that isn’t quite as good as one that is very expensive. For me, a scent like Jovan’s Intense Oud is “good enough” as a kind of standard “oud scent” in my large rotation, whereas for others there seems to be a need to sample a huge number of oud scents in order to find “the best.”  Recently, though, I was able to obtain Ferrari’s Essence Oud at a very good price, so I blind ought it and am very glad I did, though while I think it’s worth at least $50 per 100 ml in theory, I just don’t wear any once scent often enough to perceive it as worthwhile (it would have to possess some other value, such as Patou Pour Homme does, for me to spend that much or more).

And this brings me to what I’ve found to be the most important factor, which is sensitivity. There have been times when my sensitivity was very high and I couldn’t wear that many of the scents I owned, whereas now my sensitivity has been low, except perhaps for one or a small number of aroma chemicals. Because of this, I can wear scents with some strong aroma chemicals and enjoy these, an example being Spark for Men. When my sensitivity was high, I might have called this one “cheap” and needlessly harsh. I would have said that if it had been done with “high quality ingredients,” it probably would have been a good if not excellent composition. So, it seems that at this point I can appreciate compositions that many would regard as “cheap,” though for those with certain aroma chemicals (such as Axis Oud), I can only speculate that I would enjoy them if an aroma chemical or two was not present (or present in much small quantities).

Yes, there are a few “snobs” out there, and they will irritate more than a few people, but the thing is that snobs tend to hinder themselves more than accomplishing anything else (and in this context cost themselves a lot of money!). To me, variety is very important, and I sometimes wonder how people can ask about a good “office scent.” I can’t imagine sitting at a desk for eight hours and smelling the same thing, day after day. Instead, I want to experience a different composition each day. The only possible obstacles for me are my sensitivities, but with a large number of bottles from which to choose, that hasn’t been an issue yet, other than for a period of a few months when I had a very high general sensitivity and I hadn’t acquired more than about fifty bottles. I hope I haven’t disappointed anyone with the title for this post – some may have been expecting a list of highly synthetic scents with discordant compositions, but the reality is that perceptions vary too much and there are too many possibilities. For example, quite a few people, including me, have spoken about “cheap wood notes” (cedar in particular), but probably a lot more people never perceive this!

1 Comment

Filed under The basics.

One response to “What is a “cheap” scent ?

  1. nirvanabear

    Great post. With the help of some online fragrance community friends I’ve been sampling more expensive scents that I probably would never consider sampling if I had to buy the samples. It really opened my eyes! Out of 50 upper end perfumes (over a dollar per ml) I only ‘had to have’ three maybe four of them. Musc Ravageur, Interlude Man, Eau Noire and Amber Precieux . The majority of them were disappointing and a few were downright stinkers!

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