Perfume and Price, or the Yatagan Conundrum
I’ve been thinking about the wonderful yet inexpensive perfumes out there. There are many well considered, beautifully made perfumes that you can buy for a song. Cheap or pricy, though, the best perfumes must stand up to the same criteria. Is it coherent and balanced? Does it hold up over time? Does it captivate you, that is, would you wear it as your only perfume? Crucial: does it smell good? Is it ‘you’? Does it remain engaging throughout the entire day? Will it last that long? Would you want it to? Does it work for you in all the compartments of your life: At work? Cooking? Socializing? Cruising? In a class? On the subway?
Let’s look at perfume criticism. And let’s not start with the accepted classics, the greats, the grandes dames. Let’s also skip the niche all-stars, and side-step the premise that more money equals better perfume. Let’s start with the commonly-available, inexpensive yet extraordinary perfumes. Rochas Tocade, Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel, Caron Troisième Homme, Balmain Ivoire, Gres Cabaret, Estee Lauder Azurée, Clinique Aromatics Elixir or Estee Lauder Private Collection. I’ll use Caron’s Yatagan here as a proxy for all of the above. At the time of writing (3/2013) a 4.2 oz bottle of the edt costs 29.49 an Amazon.com with free shipping.
I hesitate to use the word “great” in perfumery. I think of greatness as an aspiration or a standard of the Old School. I hope that new schools in perfumery and criticism might promote quality, creativity and analysis, but not hold out judgment and arbitrary thresholds as principal goals. Greatness connotes a false objectivity, or at least a socially agreed upon judgment, when it is in fact fundamentally subjective. Greatness tends to be cited when we’re looking for the dividing line: high/low, good/bad, worthy/crass. Let’s find words that assess and characterize, words that can speak both to objectivity and shared subjectivity and foster a less removed esthetic of criticism.
Dissociating cost and excellence is an important step in taking a discerning look at perfume. Divorcing notions of status and aspiration from the sale and use of perfume is a tricky prospect since perfume and fashion are historically and currently bound together. Still, while perfume and fashion are bound in the marketplace, perfume doesn’t necessarily have to be viewed and debated in the same light as fashion and design.
Clearly fashion and perfumery are historically and currently enmeshed. Still, while perfume and fashion are bound in the marketplace, perfume doesn’t necessarily have to be viewed and debated in the same light as fashion and design. Looking to other art forms, music is probably the most commonly used analogy. How often is a perfume described as orchestral, loud, harmonious, shrill or dissonant? We could just as easily consider perfume as performance, borrowing the language of dance and theater. Additionally, the recent recognition of the perfumer as auteur allows us to look at a perfumer’s body of work over time just as we might that of a visual artist. Add to these perspectives the scientific advances in chemical analysis and synthesis and perfumery looks ripe for a new if not radical form of critical thought.
OK, so Caron Yatagan. (1976, Perfumer Vincent Marcello.) It smells instantly, recognizably botanical---moss, wood, herbs. All bitter, all dry. But Yatagan’s trick, its value is the scale of its components, its abstraction. To read peoples’ reviews, Yatagan is the black box of perfume. To some it is a spicy woody, to others, a definitive leather, to others still, purely herbal. And I’d be negligent if I didn’t note that nearly every other review mentions underwear. I usually fall in pretty easily with the drawers and jockstraps crowd, but in this case, I’m entirely in Caron’s marketing department’s camp: “Flowerless Oriental Chypre”. So perfectly, hollowly evocative. It is instantly familiar to the ear, like flourless chocolate cake, but is also an easily decoded intimation. Flowerless = not pretty (read: the troubled masculinity of 1976, its year of origin). Oriental = a long history of describing ‘exotic’ sensibilities using tedious stereotypes of the inscrutable East. Chypre = green, bitter, mossy and, importantly, sophisticated. I imagine Caron might have been scared of Yatagan’s distinctiveness and attempted to use classic fragrance language to come up with a catch-phrase to comfort and flatter its potential buyers.
Caron may have been encompassingly vague in their marketing language, dimly offensive in their oriental allusion, but fortunately direct and brave in their fragrance. Yatagan has that striking balance of starkness and richness found in the best and most distinctive of perfumes.
So given its quality, why is Yatagan so inexpensive? Some factors I can loosely understand: economies of scale over time, brand recognition obviating the need for specific product marketing, possibly lower composition/production costs, clear profit margins assuming the initial investments in the 1970s have been returned. But rhetorically, why does Yatagan cost so much less than the weekly iteration of men’s designer crap fragrance? And why does Yatagan cost literally one-tenth the price of some directly comparably, high quality fragrances like those from Serge Lutens and Amouage?