In one of his inimitable Duftnote Luca Turin observes that perfume is luxury in its most affordable form.
It is a pure luxury compared even to expensive clothes or shoes as these generally last at least a season. Compared to jewellery or antiques it is a wasteful luxury; those hold value and, if necessary, can be sold again. Perfume can only be worn – used up – or hoarded in its original packaging. Decades later it may have collectable status and a price to match, or not. It is on a par with caviar or truffle, except those cannot be kept fresh indefinitely. Perfumes too are liable to change quite drastically over the long term, even unopened. it is a fact worth contemplating: beautiful scent is the quintessence of luxury, if luxury means costly, ephemeral indulgence. And compared to so many other luxurious things, it's price is actually quite accessible.
But when we pay for beauty and the pleasure of owning something precious, how much of the price reflects the value of the ingredients?
Perfume's modern history is really the story of synthetic aromachemicals – chemicals developed and produced in a lab, possibly using by-products of some other industrial process. Many people assume that most of what makes perfume attractive are natural substances of various kinds - plant extracts, animal secretions, mysterious things like ambergris whose origin nobody is sure of, though it's thought to come from whales (you can't catch a whale and then extract the ambergris, however – the world's entire (genuine) supply is washed up on beaches in various parts of the world).
In fact the universe of natural perfume ingredients (known in the business as 'materials') is in part one of rare and costly substances, far exceeding hard drugs in their value per gram. To take ambergris again: because the supply is so uncertain it commands prices that sound not just improbable but actually crazy. When Yemeni fisherman hauled in 127 kg of it earlier this year it sold for £1M. That means 2.2 kilos of ambergris is worth 1 kilogram of pure gold. So you won't get (or need, it must be said) a lot in your perfume, even if it does contain real ambergris or something derived from it.
But that's OK because natural perfume ingredients (and this is even truer of most synthetic ones) are normally powerful in very small amounts. Anyone who has played around with 'essential oils' like grapefruit or lavender, knows that a few drops can scent a room for hours. This is a general rule.
Modern chemistry has learned to isolate and synthesise a vast range of naturally occurring aromas as complex compounds - or to derive these compounds from complex substances, in some cases from the by-products of extracting petrol from crude oil. Because these can be produced to a chemical purity natural materials don't normally permit they may also have a very pronounced character, requiring care to integrate successfully alongside others. This is one key aspect of the art of perfumery.
Some synthetic aromachemicals are the result of years of research and they can cost as much or more than costly natural ingredients, especially when under patent and effectively copyright to just one manufacturer. It makes sense to constantly develop novel synthetic aromachemicals because, with rare exceptions, anything that can be made in a lab is bound to go down in price over time as long as demand for it increases. It is far harder to increase global production of natural oils, especially when quality is critical (as it always is in making fine fragances) - details of soil, climate, altitude, irrigation, length of flowering etc can produce wide variations in style and quality, even in colour.
But there is no doubt that natural materials, principally essential oils, are intrinsically beautiful. They have complexity, variety, character, individuality even - a bugbear for makers of fragrances in huge quantities.
A further challenge of working with naturals is that organic materials (if desired) can cost double or more than the non-organic equivalent. Growers and suppliers have to invest time and effort to certify organic standards and yields may be lower because powerful agrochemicals are excluded in their growing and processing. The degree of finesse involved in developing perfumes of real interest and quality using only natural oils is equivalent to cooking at a Michelin-starred level - processes may be quite virtuosic but the raw ingredients are also critical. And the goal ultimately, as with the finest cuisine, is to make outstandingly delightful experiences for consumers that are also entirely aligned with the ideal in nutrition.
And just as the extraordinary skill, care and imagination of the world's finest chefs, allied to ingredients sourced and selected by them in a constant search for quality and excellence, yields gastronomy on a level that has to be tasted to be believed - the same is true of natural perfumes when they are the product of care, love and skill. Some of the 'bells and whistles' that synthetics can offer will not be present, inevitably, but if sheer quality and value of ingredients matters to you then the greatest luxury in perfume is true fine fragrance with no compromise over the quality and generous use of fine natural materials. For a further guarantee of impeccable purity, the organic standard of course exludes even trace levels of industrial pesicides and herbicides.
In other words, if you like or love an all-natural and organic perfume, you can also feel happy that you are enjoying not just exquisite quality but extraordinary value - much of the price reflects the high cost of the ingredients. Yet compared to perfumes largely composed of synthetic materials you will find all-natural and organic ones, such as Prosody London's, are really not much more expensive. For a relatively trivial price difference you can enjoy something intrinsically far more costly to make, containing far more precious and rare materials and made to a very great extent by hand. These are hallmarks of luxury that mass-market synthetic perfumes, however prestigious (and costly) cannot really match. There is no greater luxury than excellent natural materials, in perfumery as in fine clothes or footwear.