There has been much talk in the newspapers about a new fragrance stocked by the 99p store chain which costs precisely that. No harm in that. Good for them. As Noel Coward wrote in Private Lives – “Strange how potent cheap music is” – the same can be true of scent, and variety is very much the spice of perfume life and adventure. I think we’ve all bought something inexpensive and fun on the spur of the moment in the airport duty-free, buoyed up by the high spirits and hysteria of being let off the leash for a break. And the cheap treasures you buy at your destination is another story. When I first discovered Tunisia over ten years ago I spent happy hours every evening in the Jasmine Supermarket smelling their enormous range of perfumed oils which retailed at the equivalent of £1.50 a bottle, each little flacon crowned with a tasteful butter yellow plastic lotus. Natural jasmine, lilac, musk, amber, tuberose, osmanthus, lemon flower absolute, waterlily – by the end of the week I had collected more or less the entire set. In the dry July heat wave with nothing to do all day but swim, sleep, paint and gaze at that glorious sapphire sea framed in the ruins of ancient Carthage they smelled absolutely divine; my senses reeled. I thought I had stocked my perfume wardrobe for a lifetime, solved the perfume problem forever. But of course, once back at work in London in a damp grey muggy July, Cinderella’s glittering carriage reverted to a very mouldy pumpkin indeed and unsuitable even for bath oils, the entire lot had to be flushed away, all passion spent.
Nevertheless, although the gilt was well and truly stripped from the gingerbread in short order, those little bottles had served their purpose: a olfactory adventure whose sweetness and sheer amusement enhanced the holiday and broadened the mind. We should not take perfume too seriously: it is meant to be a delight, an adornment of life. Nowadays, rather like food and eating, it is too often presented as something portentous, solemn and dutiful. Also, miracles can and do happen. Last summer I went for an al fresco lunch in a Teddington garden which was filled with the most heavenly scent of roses; yet no roses could I see, merely hollyhocks and sunflowers. Turned out, of course, that my host had dabbed on a few drops of a rose oil picked up in an Indian bazaar, and without breaking the bank at that. Did it smell so divine because I was meeting it for the first time, without the holiday connotations? Or was it a superior blend? Immaterial really: just because a scent is cheap does not mean it will smell inferior or not make an effective statement.
Take another analogy: the movies. Bette Davis in All About Eve, sitting in a snowbound car and skilfully lighting yet another cigarette in lumpy knitted white gloves. “I detest cheap sentiment”, she rasps as she snaps off “Liebestraum” on the radio. The sort of scene that is often disparaged by the careless as cinematic camp: but what is camp if not a knowing manipulation and skilful if flamboyant overplaying of the emotions of the emotions? a staginess that pulls it off; a flagrant demonstration of the emotions that thrills rather than embarrasses; “The Lie That Tells The Truth” as an artful book on the subject calls it. A quickly assembled, economically produced perfume can have exactly the same effect: Ma Griffe and Je Reviens, although reduced to less-than-a-tenner chemist’s shelves still awaken memories and dream dreams; the present formulation of Dana’s Tabu comes in at even less but still hypnotises with its smoky sweet sexy louche allure.
I can think of at least two classics that have gone the other way, and found that their appeal increased as they were priced up: famously, Mrs Lauder’s Youth Dew (in which I smelled Dietrich soaked when I kissed her hand in 1972) began life as a bath oil and thanks to its massive success was rapidly upgraded to a perfume proper. It was always said that Guerlain discontinued their fabulous bath oils of Shalimar, Mitsouko and Co. because they worked so well as perfumes; and, as they were cheaper, tended to undercut the fragrance sales. It was not for nothing that Joy owed so much of its reputation to the inspired tag line “The Most Expensive Perfume In the World” – a selling slogan still quoted as fact today (quite erroneously) and remembered by people who have never even smelled the fragrance. In perfume as in most other things there can be a snobbery attached to the price you pay: “I must have excellent taste,” as people tend to say as they are obliged to fork out top-dollar.
For me the only intrinsic fault of a cheap perfume is that it tends to pall rather quickly on account of the fact that you can bottom it all too easily: it is generally a short-term experience, like watching tv soaps rather than reading an engrossing novel. The ingredients may lack integrity or depth; the product is usually assembled by a few pre-prepared accords rather than a painstaking hand-picked selection of notes. For this is what you SHOULD be paying for in an expensive perfume: artistic expertise from an inspired nose and the best possible quality ingredients. And this does not necessarily imply natural oils – rather indeed the reverse. The skilled perfumer demands quality, not quantity. He works with the very best materials whether they be sourced in Swiss lab or an Indonesian rain forest. He refuses to compromise, following his heart and his instinct as much as his head. He challenges you to follow and interpret his vision. His packaging will usually be chic and appealing but not wantonly expensive: like the eating of oysters, you pay for what is inside.