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Quality, price, experience

Right now, for various reasons of the plot, I’m testing two scents: By Kilian’s Prelude to Love ($225 for 1.7 oz at and Heidi Klum’s Shine ($25.21 for 1.7 oz at

One of the things I like about most perfumistas is that they are not really snobbish about perfume – if you love something that costs $25 instead of $225, hurray! That’s money saved. (Which is, presumably, more money to spend on OTHER perfume). The more serious the perfumista, I find, the more serious this attitude. As a group, we tend to be as interested in smelling scents we find in drugstores as we are in trendy boutiques – if not more so, since many of the scents sold in trendy boutiques are actually exactly the same as those sold in drugstores, but at a less salubrious price.

These are two scents good to compare because they do demonstrate why it’s also worth going the other way – don’t avoid smelling things that you think are necessarily overpriced unless you’re sure they are.

It’s OK if you start out thinking By Kilian scents are overpriced. The brand sort of milks that idea, from its all-black website to the name itself (“By Kilian”, Kilian being the sort of fellow who goes around with one name, like Cher). There are plenty of more expensive perfumes in the world, but it’s fair to wonder whether this stuff, in its black monolith bottles, is worth $225 for 50 ml.

When you first spray on Prelude to Love, you might think not. It opens with a burst of juicy orange, followed by a soapy smell that is reminiscent of nothing but sinks and which almost guarantees you that what you are about to smell is going to be an orange blossom like many other orange blossoms – rather evocative, in fact, of the orange blossom in Orange Blossom from Gorilla Perfumes at Lush, which, at $40 for 30 ml, is significantly cheaper.

As the perfume develops, however, what I notice is a pepper creeping in, in the oddest way – close to my skin I still smell soapy orange blossom, but farther away I smell pepper, a pepper with a verrrrry slightly floral touch to the background that makes it attention getting, not in a screaming way, but in a way that hovers at the edge of one’s attention, a feature I love in a perfume. I love getting a waft of something that smells lovely and thinking “Oh, that’s me.” Pepper is something that’s in every perfume of 2009-10 (at least “baie rose”, which is pink pepper, nothing to do with roses) but it’s often just an edge to something else and doesn’t really come through. The pepper in Prelude to Love is overt, not as strong as the delightful peppery Iunu from Molton Brown’s new line, but definitive and nothing but pepper even as it’s blending in to the orange blossom until the two merge and become something entirely different.

Reviews mention an iris note in Prelude to Love. I often can’t stand the metallic iris and that may be the thing in the background of Prelude that makes me not like it almost right away. But eventually this too softens and blends with the rest of the ingredients to make a scent that is complex but fairly light, a lovely composition, interesting, elegant, unisex, day or night, and actually fairly long lasting on my paper-dry skin.

Now compare that to Heidi Klum’s Shine. This has been getting a number of positive reviews on the web, and in the category of “You can buy it for under $20 at the drug store in a gift set for Christmas” scents, it’s a nice one. It goes on as a standard modern loud fruity floral, the kind of scent people call “fresh and clean” for reasons that would totally escape me except that all of the ingredients can be smelled in any housecleaning supplies aisle or Bed Bath & Beyond. What sets it apart from the average fruity floral is that the notes are slightly different from the usual in this formula: mimosa instead of heliotrope or orange blossom, and pear instead of apple or cherry. And it dries down to a lovely vanilla honey scent. While it is far from what I would consider a true “floriental” as it is described in its own press releases, it probably passes for one in 2011: the sort of scent that isn’t a pure laundry scent, that has some sophisticated rich elements to it (vanilla, honey) that bring more Shalimar to mind than Be Delicious.

I would say there’s two places where you can “see the money”, as a movie reviewer would say. One is in the lasting power and the sillage. Whatever the ingredients of Prelude to Love are, they simply last longer and travel farther. I have the world’s driest skin and even more than an hour later I can still smell some of the intriguing peppery orange blossom on my skin, and I can catch a remnant of it now and then and it smells great. After the same amount of time the far stronger blast of the fruity floral ingredients of the Shine are almost gone. If I stick my nose right down on my skin I can smell a faint remnant of the honey and vanilla but it’s pretty much gone. The perfume was much stronger at the start – if I’d have applied it with anyone around, they couldn’t have missed it – but didn’t last as long, and the parts that developed the most prettily – the honey notes, for instance – were very close to my skin, so close that I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed them except that, again, I was busy snorting my own skin.

The other place you can “see the money” is in something very subjective: the quality of the smells composing the perfume itself. Shine is a nice perfume, and I can certainly see wearing it. But for someone who’s smelled a lot of perfume, if you’re paying attention, there’s nothing you can smell in the opening fruity blast – or in the drydown, for that matter – that you haven’t smelled in a hand soap, a laundry detergent, or a cleaning product somewhere in the United States, much less in some other perfume. Those scents are in those products all around us because we like them, and they say pretty and clean to us. But I’ve smelled them a million billion times; they are not rare and they don’t say anything to me but “pretty and clean”. Whatever the composite ingredients are of Prelude to Love, they are presumably a lot more expensive. They are more complex, richer, rarer. This simply isn’t the stuff that goes into hand soap for $1.27 a bottle. This is what perfumistas go for: something you can’t smell everywhere else you go.

Neither of these perfumes is one I would necessarily want to wear regularly. I’m a weird duck, I know, since I own a little of both, and you might reasonably ask yourself “What’s wrong with you?” What’s wrong with me is that I’m an obsessive collector. But for you, when you’re buying for yourself and investing your hard earned dollars, you might reasonably wonder if a particular scent is “worth” the price. My first question is always whether or not you love, unreasonably love the scent. As you’re investigating and falling in love, don’t spend too much time asking yourself if something’s “overpriced” unless you really can’t smell the money.

Image is “Pearly” by Auntie P, used under Creative Commons license; some rights reserved.

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