Cheap and Cheerful

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Depending on where you buy perfume you may or may not have noticed the mind boggling jump in prices. If you buy a bottle of your old standby from Nordstrom or Neimans every year or so, you probably haven’t noticed much difference. However, if you dip your toe in the waters of niche perfumers (e.g. anything that has relatively small distribution and doesn’t have a designer or celebrity name on the label) you’ve seen prices go from spendy to very high to obscene.

While mainstream perfumes may not have increased as dramatically in price, their formulas have compensated by becoming appallingly cheap. According to Chandler Burr, the big labels now typically spend roughly 70% less on the actual perfume than they did in the 90s. If you’ve smelled Dior’s Sauvage, you know what I mean. I personally don’t know how in ten years that house went from Dior Homme (2005), which is chock full of the good stuff, to something that smells like someone misplaced half the formula.

Certainly, we need Amouage and Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens, all of whom require that you pay through the nose (pun definitely intended). But they do usually deliver the goods, albeit, at around $300 a bottle. Still, if great perfume is to be relevent for the average person it can’t cost your monthly food budget. Duh. Duhsville.

There are some reasons to hope. A few major perfume houses still use good raw materials to make a reasonably-priced product. Estee Lauder is one. You can buy a masterpiece from Calice Becker (Beyond Paradise) or Sofia Grojsman (White Linen) for less than $50. In the niche market Gorilla Perfumes does proper fragrance for a song. And Patricia de Nicolaï‘s Parfums de Nicolaï has turned out affordable bottles of the highest quality juice since the 80s.

Despite what all the legends and lore would have us believe, a high price tag and a good wallop of “natural oils” (which could very well mean precisely nothing) doesn’t mean that the stuff in the bottle is good or even expensive to make. The house of Creed is an excellent example, with their criminally inaccurate claims of using only the best naturally-derived ingredients. All companies lie, even Chanel and Frederic Malle. Unfortunately, the only way to keep from getting swindled is a critical nose and plenty of homework.

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I recently looked at my perfume collection and found it to overwhelmingly contain bottles from niche companies. I’m not some sort of niche snob. The trouble is I can’t think of a truly great mainstream masculine since Dior Homme, and while there have been great feminines, none has felt like the right fit. Admittedly, niche offers its own headaches, with obscenely high prices and a strong whiff of pretension. However, they do still put decent money into the formula, and can be relied upon to take some real risks.

Buying older formulas is tricky. I recently smelled a vintage bottle of Habit Rouge Eau de Cologne, which must have dated from the 80s or earlier. While the new formula is probably the best it can be, given regulations, cost, etc., that old juice blows it straight away. The opening is properly delicate and believably citrusy, and the whole effect is smooth and near edible, with that refined resinous core. There’s also a elegant off-the-cuffy-ness to the old stuff which cannot be found in, say, the current Eau de Parfum formula. At the end of the day I had to admit that it wasn’t a case of old vs. new (the new formula is still streets ahead of almost everything else on the market), I just wasn’t a Habit Rouge guy.

I ran into similar problems test driving a few more masculine classics. Kouros, though stonkingly good, smelled a little dated to me. Eau de Guerlain felt too dandyish for me to pull off. Pour Monsieur just made me hanker for a vintage bottle of Nicolaï’s New York, which is far more welcoming and friendly. I had given up the search when I accidentally happened upon a charming little perfume shop in San Francisco called Tigerlily. Their stock was good and the sales associate was uncharacteristically warm and game for a conversation about perfume. The jewel of the shop is a wall of vintage bottles, including Chanel, Guerlain, and–probably my favorite–Shiseido’s Femininité du Bois, in that funky, asymmetrical bottle. Hidden in the corner was something unexpected, a small selection of bottles from Caron’s illustrious range.

These days Caron is generally overlooked. Not just because their distribution is relatively small, but because apparently (I cannot claim first hand experience) some fairly horrific reformulations have rendered one of the greatest legacies in perfume completely unrecognizable. I had heard that the masculines still contain some of the old magic, and while I cannot comment on the old version, I can unequivocally attest that Yatagan is alive and well.

Yatagan kicks the door open with a cacophony of aromatic, coniferous resins. Soon a properly wicked and beguiling artemisia melody takes over and leads you into a smoky, animalic drydown with plenty of oakmoss. Notably, though it was composed around the same time as Kouros, it feels wholly contemporary. Yatagan is in fact the great granddaddy of currently popular incense and animalic perfumes, paving the way for Muscs Koublaï Khan, Bois de Encens, and so many others.

I cannot tell you how glad I am that this stuff is still around in its present form. Of course it smells fantastic, and like Muscs Koublaï Khan, it is quite polite until you get into close range. Yatagan is also beautifully smooth in the transitions and holds up well into the drydown. I can imagine it might seem underpowered compared to the vintage stuff. But these days, the present state of Yatagan is a welcome surprise and relief. It is still among the very best I have smelled in any catagory, and those looking for dry aromatic woods need look no further.