In the minds of our forefathers, perfume was both powerful medicine and irresistible magic: a concept that is not yet totally discredited. Certainly it is still often thought today that the rarer and costlier the ingredients of a perfume, the more spellbinding will be the scent. We have all smelled perfumes that seem to contain every exotic oil on the planet: and not necessarily to the advantage of the final result. Quality yes, but not quantity, is the way forward.
Arcane and exotic materials traditionally possess great restorative, psychotropic and supernatural powers simply by virtue of their rarity: bezoar stones and a blue moon; an obsidian mirror or a baby’s caul. A mermaid’s tail or a feather from an angel’s wing.
Occasionally these commodities are so few and far between that one may doubt that they actually exist at all: does anyone out there have a unicorn horn or a fairy’s shoe?
The mind of the perfume-lover may now jump to such outré materials as oud and ambergris. These are two substances which people talk and dispute about endlessly but which they have probably never seen and possibly never smelled: at least, not the genuine article. Oud and ambergris are prodigiously expensive on accounts of their rarity. Both occur really as freaks of nature, one unlikely circumstance piled on another. These two precious natural oils also have a similar perversity to them: there is an initial repellent aspect to both oud and ambergris.
Oud is derived from the seldom found infected wood of certain rare Aquilaria trees; ambergris is a form of digestive waste matter (we still do not know exactly what) of the increasingly scarce sperm whale. Exposed for many years to salt water and sun, this gradually transforms into ambergris as it drifts the seven seas.
What is so fascinating is, that when used discerningly in small proportions these oils have vastly transformative effects on a perfume, making it both extremely tenacious and giving off fragrances like a foretaste of heaven. There is undoubtedly something extremely magical in the way that for thousands of years man has been attracted by something apparently decomposed - but discovered that within is a fragrant treasure: rich symbolism indeed!
Other reasons for expense?
Natural organic oils such as rose and iris are costly because of their respective cultivation and manufacturing processes. Much time and patience is called for. The rose bush has first to grow to maturity. Then, its flowering season is very short - three weeks - and the blossoms can only be picked in the early part of the day when their odour is strongest. Countless pairs of skilled and patient hands are then required for the gathering; for the separation of thousands of petals and their sorting and drying.
Over the centuries the scale of values of materials has tilted, usually in accordance with their availability and costs of transportation. Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake returning home to greet Queen Elizabeth 1st after circumventing the globe. He offered his Sovereign a pouch of emeralds, each the size of man’s finger. And these Elizabeth accepted but she was far more interested in the cargo of pepper from the Indies, the price of spices being far above rubies.
For hundreds of years cowslips grew in springtime drifts all over England: they were gathered in profusion to make wine, toiletries and perfume. Now all are perished, or nearly so... and where are the saffron meadows and the vast lavender fields of Mitcham? Gone with the wind, along with the sandalwood forests of Mysore. But here’s the difference: lavender is easily replaced. It grows profusely and quickly; a great sandalwood tree may live a hundred years to fragrant maturity. But once felled to distill its scent - the tree is gone forever.
Manpower, time and often land too, all used to be inexpensive: life moved at a much slower pace. Nowadays no one wants to wait and there’s always the fear that there’s not going to be quite enough to go round. So iris root (orris) is often ranked as the most precious perfume ingredient of all. It is still prepared as it was in the days of the Medicis. It takes perhaps half a dozen years to grow the white Florentine iris on increasingly small patches of land. Then the iris must be harvested and the roots - the rhizomes - collected, sorted, selected, cut, dried. All these rituals are performed by hand before the rhizomes are eventually distilled to make the rich pungent iris butter which is - literally - worth its weight in gold.
So much for ingredients drawn from nature. The standard, range and quality of chemicals too has changed radically. The industrial revolution brought synthetically produced perfume within the reach of the masses and for many people this gave ersatz ingredients a bad name. Chemicals were volatile; sometimes containing dangerous irritants or poisons - whereas today, the chemicals used in quality fragrances are both exquisitely refined, and exceedingly costly. The laity are often amazed to learn that the most modern and ingenious synthetics beat organic natural oils hollow when it comes to price.
Lastly - and nowadays perhaps most importantly of all - don’t forget that a professional perfumer at the top of his game can command a vast fee.
So: is your fragrance worth it? If you buy wisely, yes - worth every penny. Each time you apply scent think of its component oils drawn together from countless sources and terrains across the world, knitted together as artfully and seamlessly as a spider’s web. A fragile yet irresistible spell, embodying a creator’s private dream - and that of your own! Who can put a price on that? Like any beautiful work of art, perfume is worth exactly what you are happy to pay....and then something more.