|Ceci n'est pas un parfum|
I have seen a number of complaints by perfumistas in various forums about the price of perfume. The question whether perfume costs too much was opened up as a general topic of discussion by the recent case in which a French court fined a number of perfume houses for having engaged in price-fixing practices, which was said to result in artificially elevated prices for consumers. On its face, this judgment may seem to make sense in the capitalist worldview which now holds sway. There is supposed to be free and open competition, right?
As a matter of fact, the question is considerably more complicated in the case of perfume than in cases involving generic products such as milk. Why? Because a perfume house has an intrinsic monopoly on the perfumes it creates, with a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of those creations. This makes e-bay hawking, gray-market decanting, and the various and sundry practices of other unlicensed retailers potentially dangerous to perfume houses themselves in a way that competition between various dairies is not. You have no doubt seen this phrase written on many a perfume box:
Cet article ne peut être vendu que par les dépositaires agréés
[nom de la maison]
[nom de la maison]
Not found on bottles and cartons of milk... Milk has its own special labels and designations and requirements, but not because Bessy the cow is supposed to be producing a completely different liquid from Betty the cow. No, milk is milk, though of course there are different percentages of fat in different grades of milk. Those grades depend not upon the precise identity of the cow from which the milk came, nor the dairy where she happens to live, but only upon how the milk is processed.
Perfume, in contrast, means nothing detached from the name. Everything turns on the provenance of perfume: Is this really Chanel no. 5? means Was this produced by Chanel?
In asserting that perfume is not like milk, and represents an exceptional marketplace case, I do not mean to suggest that I side categorically with the perfume houses on every issue. I have railed Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery before (and no doubt I will again!), and targets of my critique can be found in every camp, including the houses, for example, when they produce cheap imitations of classic perfumes and fob them off under the same name, claiming that all of this came about out of a necessity to comply with IFRA restrictions through reformulation. In reality, it seems quite clear that many reformulations have been undertaken for crassly economic reasons, and this was going on long before the IFRA arrived on the scene to stick its officious nose into perfumers' ateliers.
My various critiques overlap and intersect in sometimes unexpected ways, and it may not always be clear whose side I'm on, so perhaps I should clarify my position once and for all: I am on the side of good perfume. If houses produce good perfume, then I'm on their side. If they focus exclusively on business at the expense of art, then they may become the object of my critique. If they produce bad perfume, then the price becomes irrelevant, because I won't buy it. In any case, whether they produce bad perfume or good perfume, it is my considered opinion that the price of the perfumes which they produce is the prerogative of houses themselves to decide, given that they are the unique source of their own products.
Notwithstanding the considerable interest of the peculiar features of the quasi-monopolistic perfume house marketplace, which will be the theme of another salon post where I consider more closely the French court case, I would like to focus on a different sort of question today. Let me begin by bluntly asserting that I find complaints about the price of perfume quite puzzling, especially when decried with such stridency that the speaker appears to presume that there is some sort of natural right to perfume. Take a close look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you will see that the right to perfume is conspicuously absent from the document. And well it should be, it seems to me.
Yes, although it will make me even more unpopular than I already am, I come here today with a contrarian perspective on the perfume-price question. Stated starkly: I completely disagree that perfume costs too much, and I strongly suspect that those who complain about the price of perfume have simply not thought through how it compares with other products and services for which they regularly pay quite a bit more.
Prices are fair or “outrageous” only in relative terms. It is utterly irrelevant that my great-grandparents used to be able to mail letters for a penny or buy a hamburger for a dime or a gallon of gas for a quarter. In considering the perfume-price question, my own perspective can be understood, at the first and most obvious level, by simply “doing the math,” so to speak. But the relevant comparison is not between what perfume costs today and what it cost fifty years ago.
No, to assess the “fairness” of the price of perfume today, one needs only to compare the cost of a “perfume experience” to the cost of nearly any other form of diversion or product consumed, and you will discover that, in fact, perfume is one of the best bargains around—even at high-end niche prices, and even at full MSRP. If you care about perfume, then, it seems to me, you should be willing to pay for it. If you cannot afford everything (as most of us cannot), then you must make choices and determine where your priorities lie in deciding how to dispense with your modest “entertainment” wallet share.
That's a fairly simple take on the price of perfume which involves comparing it to the price of a concert or a ball game or a case of wine or a night out on the town, all of which can easily cost more than a large bottle of perfume, which may last an entire year—or even longer! All of this seems so obvious to me and so utterly undeniable that I find it truly perplexing that so many people should have issues with the price of perfume.
No one forces anyone to go to concerts or to dine in fine restaurants, and no one needs perfume to survive. These are choices we make, and if we value perfume more than an afternoon at a sporting event or a night out on the town, then we should be willing to pay for the privilege of being able to wear it, should we not?
Now, some may deny that perfume is like a night out on the town or attendance at a sporting event, for it is a product which we possess, although it is true that it is consumed and therefore will eventually be used up, just as a pair of shoes must eventually be thrown away. Let us, therefore, concede for the sake of argument this point—setting to one side the “events in a bottle” which are the perfumes of the house of Serge Lutens—and compare the cost of the luxury item which perfume is (whether event or thing and, in some cases, both...) to the cost of virtually any other luxury item.
Compare, for example, the cost of a bottle of Hermès Hermessence eau de toilette to the cost of the same bottle housed in a dyed pebble-leather sheath. As of today, a 100ml bottle of the perfume purchased from the house's website costs 175 euros (= $235). When housed in a dyed pebbled leather sheath, it costs 415 euros (= $558). This means that the cost of the sheath is 240 euros (= $323). That is the price of the added aesthetic value presumably imparted by the covering. In other words, the perfume itself, what is contained within the bottle, is cheap, relatively speaking, compared to, well, anything else in the Hermès luxury line!
Some will no doubt protest: no tiny piece of cured and tanned cow hide should cost so much! But it does, and if you wish to be able to fondle it in your clammy little hands, then that is the price which you must be willing to pay. Can you live without it? Of course you can. Just as you can live without perfume. Perfume is not milk—or flour or rice or any other staple of life—and if you want it, you should be prepared to pay the price asked by those who create it for you. C'est simple, comme 'Bonjour'.
|Having removed the cap from this bottle of Hermès Amazone, HRH Emperor Oliver |
affirms the fondle-worthy, paw-palpable beauty of the pebbled leather case.
Now I am not one to tell people who or what they ought to be, nor what they ought to do or own. I do hereby aver that Aristotle was right to assert that, in effect, “You are what you eat [do],” but whatever that is or will be, it is up to each person to decide for him- or herself. Although I have expressed it in a facetious little phrase, Aristotle's theory is compelling, albeit rather simple: if you want to be a virtuous person, then you should act virtuously. So, for example, you may not initially be courageous, but if in the face of danger you force yourself to act as a courageous person would, then eventually you will be a courageous person, habituated as you are to acting courageously.
Aristotle's theory works in the opposite direction, as well, to explain how initially innocent people may end up vicious, petty, and mean. I leave the construction of such an example as an exercise for the reader. Just choose any cad you know, imagine what he was like when he was born, and what he must have done to become who he is today.
To return to the ostensible topic at hand, all that I am really saying, to invoke the wisdom of another sage from ancient Greece, is: Know thyself. Yes, my fragrant friends, by examining your priorities as reflected in your very own spending habits, you can learn a great deal about yourself, above all, what really matters to you and, therefore, who you are. There are infinitely many examples which we might consider in order to illustrate the basic point, but I offer here a specific example from my personal experience. (What else could I do?)
If you are a city dweller who possesses an automobile, though public transportation is easily accessible and taxis stand ready to serve at your beck and call, then you have decided that your car is more important to you than are all of the things which you could do or buy using the money you would retain, were you to renounce your car.
I have often marveled at the number of privately owned cars in cities such as Paris, New York, London, Buenos Aires, Berlin, and Boston, where I currently reside. I honestly wonder whether people really enjoy driving in such congested urban settings, which are a far cry from the land-locked states of middle America, where one can drive for hundreds of miles in serenity and solitude without encountering a single soul—whether afflicted with road rage or not.
It seems abundantly clear to me that cars in a big city are an encumbrance, no more and no less. Why? Above all, because your mind must constantly be in scheming mode, ever vigilant, in order simply to protect the mass of metal which is your vehicle. Are you parked on the right side of the street? Did you put enough money in the meter?? Will your beloved automobile be tagged and towed??? If you go out of town, will you return to find it booted, gutted—or simply gone????
Does it make a lot of sense (or any!) to drive to a destination where there is no parking available—whether free or not!—hence necessitating that you leave your car two miles away and walk that entire distance, despite the fact that you supposedly number among the urbanly mobile? Should rational people be driving cars to their health clubs, where they then proceed to spend an hour walking briskly on a treadmill?
The answers to these and many other questions have persuaded me to believe that in fact having a car in a city, far from being a luxury, is a hindrance to happiness and an impediment to peace of the highest order, verging even on irrationality. Now, I realize that there are special circumstances (children would be one), which may make it somewhat less irrational for some city dwellers to persist in their ownership of a car. But sticking with the example at hand, the case of sherapop: If someone gave me a brand new car, I would give it away. Or, perhaps, more likely, I would trade it in for perfume...
The money which I do not spend on procuring, maintaining, and protecting a car which I do not even need, and the mental space freed up by having one less stupid thing to worry about, together lead to the irresistible conclusion that, for me, life without a car is a form of freedom, not a deficiency. No, I am not car-less, I am car-free.
In saying this I am not claiming to be morally superior or anything of the sort. Yes, it is indeed true that it has become fashionable of late to reduce one's carbon footprint, as they say. In my case, it is a mere coincidence that doing what makes me happy happens also fortuitously to benefit the environment and diminish the need for rapacious wars abroad.
You may of course vehemently disagree with my stance on urban car ownership. You may love the feeling of power and freedom which you derive from knowing that you can get up at 3am and drive alone to another state—or country! You may not therefore believe that having a car in a city is ridiculous, even if it is true that you spend more money on your car than on all of your other pleasures rolled together, including perfume. To city-dwelling car owners who persist in complaining about the price of perfume, I can only reply: what is the price of your auto insurance premium?
Tell me what you spend your money (and time...) on, and I will tell you what you value. The same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to virtually any other possession which is not necessary to your existence. There are necessities, and there are necessities, of course, and they will obviously vary from case to case, just as a car becomes a necessity to someone living in a rural part of a land-locked state. But each and every one of us chooses to own some things but not others, and the things which are of high enough priority to us, we find a way to acquire, while the others we forgo. In conclusion, to reiterate: