What sets apart those high-end fragrances that retail for hundreds of dollars at the department store from those lower-end, highly-affordable scents at the hypermarket?
When you pay up for a niche fragrance, is that mostly because of the brand (and the retailer’s markup), or is there more to it than meets the eye?
To get to the answer, you and I are about to dive deep into the world of perfumes, taking a close look what effects the price tag tends to have on the juice, bottle, packaging, and overall experience you get from wearing a scent.
And we’re going to do that by scrutinizing the following four criteria:
The key differences between cheaper and more expensive fragrances can usually be found in the concentration, the notes, the complexity of the scent, and the packaging.
Cheaper fragrances tend to be more diluted, have cleaner scents with sweeter notes that appeal to young buyers, and are packaged in economical boxes meant to be thrown away after opening.
Expensive fragrances are more concentrated, have complex scents that come from costly, hard to source ingredients appealing to more mature buyers, and are packaged in chic boxes meant to be kept, even after unboxing.
That juice in your bottle isn’t just perfume.
Perfume bottles contain fragrant oil called “perfume essence” that’s diluted in denatured alcohol, water, and a number of other ingredients that bind the scent together, prolong its shelf life, or give it viscosity and color.
The greater the content of perfume essence in the bottle, the more intense and saturated the fragrance (and, though that largely depends on the formula and the ingredients, the longer-lasting).
Just like a good bottle of wine, which as 14% alcohol, costs less than a bottle of bourbon, which has 40% alcohol, higher-end perfumes are usually sold in higher concentrations than lower-end ones.
Here’s the standard naming for perfume concentration that all perfume houses follow, and how it affects the retail price of a scent:
|Eau Fraîche||1-3%||1-2 hours||Lowest|
|Eau de Cologne (EDC)||3-5%||2-3 hours||Low|
|Eau de Toilette (EDT)||5-15%||3-6 hours||Medium|
|Eau de Parfum (EDP)||15-20%||6-9 hours||High|
|Pure perfume||More than 20%||12-24 hours||Highest|
Unsurprisingly, store-brand and household-brand fragrances tend to be Eau Fraîche (also called fragrance mist or body mist) and, in rarer cases, Eau de Cologne (EDT) or Eau de Toilette (EDT).
Designer fragrances, meaning the Guccis, Versaces, Tom Fords, and Tommy Hilfigers on the shelves are usually Eau de Cologne (EDC), Eau de Toilette (EDT), and Eau de Parfum (EDP).
Niche fragrances, or fragrances made by houses that specialize in perfume and perfume only, are mostly Eau de Parfum (EDP) or Pure Perfume.
(Treat all of the above as a rule of thumb, but do remember that it isn’t set in stone—and there are exceptions.)
Give a few lower-priced perfumes at the department store a whiff, and it won’t take you long to find a commonality between most of them: they tend to smell tooth-achingly sweet.
That’s not just because the ingredients that make a scent sweet are typically (but not always) cheaper than those of other notes. It’s also because lower-priced perfumes are aimed at teens, who don’t have as much money to spend on fragrances as adults do.
Preferences are also at play. Your typical teen, whose nose isn’t as developed as that of a fraghead and whose taste is less refined, doesn’t have the same level of appreciation for a complex, sophisticated scent as they do for a simple, sweet, gourmand perfume (especially when we’re talking about feminine scents).
Two great examples of this include Aquolina’s Pink Sugar and Bare Vanilla by Victoria’s Secret. Both of them are fantastic fragrances with characters as sweet and as naive, in the best sense of the word, as their wearers.
That being said, there’s an exception to every rule.
Not all lower-priced perfumes and sweet, just like not all sweet perfumes are lower-priced. As a matter of fact, some of the world’s best fragrances are haute-label gourmands concocted by niche houses and sold by select retailers.
Take Kilian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy, a gourmand favorite among the members of our editorial team. A niche fragrance by house Kilian that’s famous for being Rihanna’s signature scent—which she kept secret for a long, long time—the 1.69 fl oz (50 ml) bottle costs $249 at the house’s store.
Or Xerjoff’s Italica, a scent that, from the very first spritz, takes you on a journey to the almond-filled air of a century-old, family-owned bakery in a small, lively town somewhere along Italy’s dramatic Amalfi Coast. Part of Xerjoff’s Casamorati 1888 collection, a 3.4 fl oz (100 ml) bottle sells for $350 at most perfume retailers.
Neither of these two scents can be described as “simple,” nor do they fit the budgets of your average teen.
Which leads us to the next important difference…
The Complexity of the Scent
We can’t compare cheap and expensive perfume without mentioning that the latter almost always smells more complex than the former (and is longer-lasting for the same reasons).
Every perfume is characterized by its notes, the descriptors of smells, such as peach, jasmine, and pink pepper, that you can easily recognize in isolation. Each of these notes falls into one of three categories:
- Top notes (also known as “head notes”);
- Middle notes (often called “heart notes”);
- Base notes.
Notes come from fragrant molecules. Some are extracted naturally, from plants or animal secretions. Others, which the perfume community sometimes refers to as “synthetic,” are artificially made in labs.
Top notes have the simplest formulas, middle notes have slightly longer formulas, and base notes have long, complicated formulas you’re going to have difficulty remembering unless you write them down.
This translates to two things that you can sense first-hand: complexity and longevity.
Top notes, mostly citrusy or herbal, come from the most volatile ingredients in a perfume, which is also why they’ll only last from 5 to 15 minutes. Middle notes, usually floral, fruity, or spicy, will last for 20 to 60 minutes. Base notes, normally woody, gourmand, or animalistic, will last for 6 hours, sometimes much, much longer.
Lower-priced perfumes have simpler formulas are fewer ingredients that create plain, callow, unassuming scents.
Higher-priced perfumes have complex formulas and sophisticated blends of ingredients that unfold a rich, vivid, diverse, mysterious sensation of smell that you can’t really put your finger on all at once.
It’s hard to explain, but you can tell cheaper from expensive perfumes apart intuitively, just like you can tell an indie guitar song on Spotify apart from a Beethoven sonata played by the New York Philharmonic without knowing how to compose music or play a single instrument.
That complexity also makes most high-end fragrances last longer. The reason behind that is rather simple: as biophysicist and writer Luca Turin explains in his 2006 book “The Secret of Scent,” complex molecules don’t fade away as quickly because they tend to be more stable, even when exposed to the elements.
Still, that doesn’t imply that every perfume with a high price tag will last an entire day on your skin.
We’ve tested cheap perfumes and found them to be ridiculously long-lasting. Conversely, we’ve been highly frustrated that gorgeous, opulent scents like Van Cleef & Arpels’ California Rêverie peter off in as little as a couple of hours.
Other than the perfume house a perfume came from and the complexity of its scent, its box and bottle can be two of the biggest tells for its price point.
Cheap perfumes tend to come in thin, flimsy, twisty and bendy boxes. Some have plastic bottles, whereas others come in lightweight bottles of thin, transparent glass. All are equipped with plastic caps that fall off easily and with cookie-cutter atomizers that may or may not spray the juice consistently.
99.9% of the time, unboxing an expensive perfume, especially if it comes from a niche instead of a designer house, is an experience.
The boxes, made from thick cardboard with engraved letters and decorated with textiles, are not meant to be thrown out. Oh no, they’re meant for you to keep so that you can store (or collect) your fragrances inside them.
The bottles, translucent-to-opaque and heavy-to-the-hand, are fitted with exceptional atomizers that luxuriously spray the juice on your skin. The caps, bulky and made of metal, close tightly and stay firmly in place, sometimes with the help of magnets.
Some bottles are shaped like shoes, others like diamonds, third ones are sculpted like handsome male or slender female bodies. Yes, that doesn’t make them the most practical thing on earth when you travel (that’s a whole other story), but they sure as hell are gorgeous to look at.
The boxing and packaging of expensive perfume is a work of art: one that you get to appreciate increasingly as you get more and more into perfumery.
Are Costlier Perfumes Better?
As much as our readers love it when we give non-answers, I’m going to say that depends.
My short answer is that you should never buy a fragrance just because it’s cheap or just because it’s expensive.
Of the fragrances I gave as examples in this article, I can tell you that I’ve turned as many heads when wearing the $20/3.4 fl oz Pink Sugar as I have the $249/1.69 fl oz Love, Don’t Be Shy.
And I equally love each. One has a clean, candy-cane scent that brings out the young, innocent Simona in me. The other has a delightfully sweet yet playfully mature nature to it that suits a different kind of mood.
With time, you’re going to come across lower-priced perfumes that smell fabulous on you, and be disappointed by higher-priced scents that simply failed to live up to the hype.
To find out what you truly like, my two cents for you—and this is advice that all members of the Sterlish editorial team strongly support—is to buy travel-sized bottles or sign up for a perfume subscription service to find out which perfumes at full-bottle-worthy based on your own, unique taste.