Viewer Mail: What Makes a Fragrance Smell "Cheap"?






Hi Katie,

I was just wondering: what exactly makes a fragrance smell "cheap"?

I just purchased a little bottle of Lady Stetson (Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's advice has seldom led me astray), and...in spite of my excitement over embracing something that is dismissed by "snobs", I have to admit that I do think it smells cheap. But...why? Maybe I'll change my mind later, but right now I'm thinking Walgreen's Clearance.

Thanks,
Nora Bradshaw


Nora, I just reread Tania Sanchez's praise of Lady Stetson in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, and no wonder you were curious about it -- she makes it sound unmissable! Sanchez compares Lady Stetson favorably to Chanel No. 22 (in fact she prefers it to the Chanel), calling LS:
“a well-balanced structure with just enough amber, just enough floral, just enough peach, just enough soapy citrus to pull up a smile each time it comes to your attention.”

I've not yet tried Lady Stetson, but I shall bear both Ladies Sanchez and Bradshaw's findings in mind when I do. In answer to your general question, though, there are a few different reasons why a perfume might smell cheap.

Sometimes the juice is technically sound, but suffers from smelling common or from its association with a tawdry sector of society. (You know, like teenagers. Or hookers. Or teenage hookers.)


Other times, it's the juice itself that's at fault. The budget is meager for the perfume, and the raw ingredients are cut-rate, or there aren't enough them, and the resulting scent is skeletal.

And more frequently than we'd prefer, a scent is unlucky enough to smell cheap every which way that's possible.

That's what I figure, anyway. But I thought I'd ask sensory psychologist Avery Gilbert to check my work. (Read his fine book, What the Nose Knows, and his edutaining blog First Nerve to awaken you to wide world of smells in perfume and beyond.) Here's what Avery had to say:

"You pinned it pretty well with low-budget materials and a skeletal formula. I can flesh it out a bit from here: low-budget materials also means that the chief notes are overly familiar and used in a cliched way, i.e., don't stray much from stereotypic Cool Water type or whatever.

Which gets us into formulation: cheap scents quickly "fall apart" as perfumers say. The accords unravel and you're left with a couple of notes sticking out like sore thumbs. There is little gradation in the transition from top to heart to drydown; after the top note blows off, you're typically left with a lingering, linear monotone. And when there are multiple notes in an accord, they don't blend well; they're a random handful of flowers rather than a pleasingly composed bouquet.

Another technical aspect of the problem is a lack of fixative materials, which while not thematic in themselves, hold the whole together and keep it developing on the skin. Also: cheap means a lack of high quality naturals which bring a lot of complex nuances into the mix."

So now you've got it straight from the Smell Doctor. All that remains is for me to track down a sniff of Lady Stetson. Nora, I understand you've got a bottle to unload...?

Image: Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

50 comments:

  1. I also think your nose knows when something is cheap almost instinctively. That's some great imagery of the use of "skeletal" as if the meat and flesh and body of a fragrance, the aspects that make it beautiful to smell, aren't there at all. And what you're left with is the carcass, and remains of something that had potential, but sadly, never came to be.

    Also, teenage hookers + that photo = lol

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  2. Nothin' sadder than a perfume carcass...

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  3. All that carcass needs is some meat, I suggest Bacon Cologne By Fargginay. That oughta add some meat to it ;)

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  4. I thought you were joking about Bacon Cologne, but unfortunately, it turns out you're not. I smell like bacon right now, and all I had to do was cook some for my lunch.

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  5. Budget perfume making right there. I think you're on to something.

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  6. But only if we broaden the definition of "perfume" to include "tasty snack."

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  7. For me, "cheap" is always about structure. The parallels to wine are unmistakable. A wine or scent that isn't balanced will always smell rushed, cheap, and harsh.

    The best wines and perfumes have a three-dimensionality to them; they make you conscious of distance and space, of an unseen path your senses now get to travel upon.

    Bad wine and cheap scents just throw up a note or two if you're lucky right at the start and leave you temporarily stunned. And by the time you've regained yourself, you notice the cliff's edge is like a foot behind you.....

    My rule of thumb is always a feeling of being led somewhere unknown and interesting. The best fragrances and wines pull this off effortlessly.

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    Replies
    1. Get over yourself, Stefush. You sound like a schizophrenic at a perfume counter.

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  8. Great points, well made, and fine thumb rule, Stefush. And yet there will always be those who desire their Boone's Farm strawberry wine and Donna Karan Cashmere Mist, and crave nothing more.

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  9. Katie - I once made someone dance like a monkey at my station at Macy's for introducing him to Acqua di Gioia instead of Acqua di Gio.

    This particular someone was wearing a wife beater, a backwards baseball cap and pencil-thin facial hair.

    I can't believe anyone really just wants one thing, and nothing more. That one thing is a happy stand-in for a future moment when their minds are ready to accept the full weight of being completely blown.

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  10. Stefush - happy monkey dance or angry "you bastard!" monkey dance?

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  11. Oh very happy Katie. He literally was dancing and singing, something about "yo yo yo check it out I'm wearing a chick perfume and it smells good yo!" Total nirvana.

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  12. Ahh yes, the 22 review. It's a common trope on Basenotes to claim that if [insert oft-maligned, el cheapo drugstore musk or similar] were released by a niche firm and sold for $150 a bottle, people would be tripping all over themselves to buy it and would gush effusively about its brilliance. It's a nice thought, but complete hooey. If Serge Lutens released the current formula of Tabu tomorrow, he'd be laughed out of the industry. Stetson and his Lady smell pleasant enough, but also unavoidably synthetic, simple, and (yes) cheap. Let's not kid ourselves in the name of equal opportunity fragrance enthusiasm.

    [Steps down from his high horse to spray on some $20-per-150ml Grey Flannel.]

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  13. Stefush, sounds like you two had a real Anne Sullivan/Helen Kelen "w-a-t-e-r" moment.


    Darryl - agreed that the trope is *mostly* hooey, but only last night I marveled again at the beauty contained within my $10 bottle of Perfumer's Workshop Tea Rose. No cheapness in that smell, mister! As with your Grey Flannel and other classics that have held onto their olfactory integrity, there is still some gold in them thar drugstore hills.

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  14. Child prostitute for shits n giggles? Ha. Haha.

    Stay classy, Katie.

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  15. Point taken, Lia. (Click on Lia's profile for information on Children of the Night, a rescue organization for child prostitutes.)

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  16. Darryl--I agree. In general, you get what you pay for, although there are occasional exceptions, such as Grey Flannel which smells great to me--I love the initial plant-like bitter green smell (violet leaf?) and then it just softens into a nice, powdery musk. Also, Tea Rose, as Katie mentioned, which I snagged for $10.

    Since I'm being gauche enough to talk about price, awhile back it was mentioned that T.J. Maxx/Marshall's/whatever never had any good perfumes in stock, but I would have to disagree. I've found Shalimar, Joy, MaDame and several others. You're not going to find Portrait of a Lady, but you will find some things worth having. The trick seems to be to go a few weeks before and after Christmas. I even found a bottle of Dzing! but didn't pick it up because I read Turin's review of it and decided, "Well, I don't really want to smell like vanilla paper, that sounds boring."

    I kick myself.

    Anyway, finding a cheap perfume that's great is thrilling to me, like discovering an under-appreciated band.

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  17. Stefush--I'm so happy that you brought joy to monkey-man's life. Not angry dancing.

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  18. Nora, I'm the one who only ever finds job lots of Curve at T.J. Maxx, and maybe a couple of J-Los and Britneys. I'll try your pre/post Xmas advice. Never the Armani Prive Bois Encens others brag of finding. (And by the way, I understand that there's a question mark over Bois Encens' continued existence...)

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  19. Unfortunately, I seem to have run into more than a few expensive niche fragrances that 1) fall apart or 2) dry down to musky blandness or 3) smell like cheap synthetic ingredients. It seems that the scent of cheapness can be rather costly.

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  20. melisand61, what you describe is the biggest kick in the pants. And then there's a third category of cheapness, a sort of meta-cheap where the perfume references low-budget, but does so wittily and beautifully, with technique and taste. I'm thinking of S-ex, with its vinyl car upholstery, or Malle's Lipstick Rose and Chloe's Love, Chloe with their cosmetic bent.

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  21. Oh man, there's cheap perfumes, and then there are perfumes that can be had for cheap. I am an inveterate chaser of the bottom row at any CVS Pharmacy for the tried-and-true. Your Canoe, Aspens, and Halston Z-14.

    Which I am wearing today as a fact, blended with Serge Luten's Ambre Sultan and I smell like every woman in the world should want to pounce on me like Goddess Lion and rend me into starshine and smoke.

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  22. Oh, yeah, and Katie--another big "kick in the pants," as melisa said was the fact that I could remember this fantastic-sounding perfume that you had reviewed. You described it as caramel-popcorn plus leather plus clean sweat and you made it sound SO FANTASTIC but I couldn't remember the name of the perfume.

    Only to find out that it was Dzing! which I had passed by because it sounded boring like vanilla-scented paper. Gah.

    Cue the kicking of pants ad infinitum....

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  23. Nora, s'funny how a few carefully-chosen words can make or break the sale. "Vanilla paper" is probably floating around inside Dzing!, but not as vividly as the other stuff is - to me, anyway. Diptyque Eau Duelle and Le Labo Vanille 44 are more vanilla papery, I think.

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  24. "Rend you into starshine and smoke", Stefush? Could you still contribute your mystifying yet witty commentary while incorporated as a shimmering mist? You need fingers to type, you know.

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  25. Rending people into starshine and smoke sounds like a completely awesome experience. Keep up the good work, Stefush. And keep smelling good.

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  26. You know how cheap cookies from the grocery store are made with margarine instead of butter, and they try to make up the difference with extra sugar? I think "cheap" in perfume is a similar effect, where they're hammering you over the head with a one-note wonder type of smell, whether it's a burnt-sugar note, fake vanilla or a loud musk, hoping you won't notice other flaws. Except that is the flaw.

    I happen to think that Pink Sugar would be popular among perfumistas if it were released by a niche label. And I agree with you about Tea Rose, which I found for basically nothing at Marshall's (in my neck of the woods, Marshall's trumps TJ Maxx for perfume selection).

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  27. Yes! Margarine perfumes! Crisco perfumes! I'll take a Plugr√° perfume any day.

    Serge Lutens Un Bois de Vanille is Pink Sugar with a little Plugr√°.

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  28. "Could you still contribute your mystifying yet witty commentary while incorporated as a shimmering mist? You need fingers to type, you know."

    Some do, Katie, some do....

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  29. I <3 Lady Stetson. Like many fragrances, vintage matters. That is all you need to know because I am keeping them all for myself. :p

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  30. Cheap for me is a scent that falls apart very quickly and has a dull drydown. Poor drydowns are so disappointing! Cheap in perhaps a slightly different sense is a fragrance that evaporates too soon. I've been testing Parfum d'Empire's Eau de Gloire today and I could barely smell a thing after 10 minutes. What is that about?! I know that longevity is not necessarily everything or a sign of high quality, but there's also such a thing as a "skin life" that is too short to the point of being ridiculous.

    Something that often surprises me is that if a perfume comes from a niche company it can be tooth ache inducingly sweet and stil get lots of points in some reviews. If a similarly sweet fragrance comes from a mainstream or drug store company or is a celebrity scent, then it's often met with "oooh, too sweet for me!" That annoys me no end, although it shouldn't. Niche sweet is fine, called something else or ignored altogether. Mainstream sweet is in poor taste, or even cheap.

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  31. Marie--could you give me an example of "niche sweet" versus mainstream sweet?

    Elisa--ah, excellent analogy.

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  32. Anonymous, are you saying that even the Lady Stetson-level of perfumes have been reformulated? There's no hiding from the reformulater squad, even at Rexall, it would appear.


    Marie, I agree that there is a sweet snobbery among perfume fans, and I admit I have to work through my own issues with the sugary stuff. But I do think that many niche sweets past muster with the snobs because they're often less cliched than the Mariah Carey/Britney Spears stuff, so people can enjoy them less judgmentally.

    On the other hand, I find Pink Sugar as edgy and industrial-strange as a Comme des Garcons number!


    Nora, I can jump in and offer Indult Manakara, Keiko Mecheri Loukhoum, Nez a Nez Bouche Baie and Lutens Un Bois Vanille as niche sweet contenders.

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  33. I was going to say, when I first tried UBV I felt like I'd been hit by the vanilla truck. It's really intensely sweet. The smoky notes save it from BBW territory, though. And I've always found Tocade too sweet, but that's not really niche even if it gets perfumista love.

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  34. I stopped by Sephora today and got samples of Boyfriend and Aniston. I know you like Boyfriend, and I kinda liked it at first too, but hours later it smells cheap. Aniston smells cheap immediately. I actually felt ill. Then, to make myself feel better, I sprayed on Panache. While I never see people falling over themselves over this one, it sure doesn't smell cheap. Don't know why. Just know it's so.

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  35. Kym, like many modern mainstream perfumes, Boyfriend is designed for the quick sale and not for the long haul, with all the fun happening in the first hour or so. I was kindly disposed towards it for trying to have a bit of personality, but I'll grant you that it does run out of steam as it goes on. Not like the old school mainstream perfume I've been loving recently - Clinique Aromatics Elixir - which only gets better in the drydown!

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  36. Hi Katie: Need your help, please. My niece turned 18 and is off to college in Sept. She wears Live by JLo. I was hoping to bump it up for her. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

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  37. Katie, agree on Aromatics Elixir - hadn't worn it for years but found it again recently and was impressed by it all over again. It wears so well! And has that female-male ambiguity that I personally like a lot. Makes it more interesting.

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  38. Katie, also agree that there's sweet and then there's sweet. Don't care for the sweet that characterizes e.g. Mariah Carey's fragrances. It is lacking in vital nuances that make sweet just one of several olfactory impressions in a fragrance. And that could be a vital distinction between what is perceived as cheap sweet vs. good sweet.

    And then there's the good old human factor with inbuilt paradoxes - I can take a lot of sweet from a floral fragrance, but I want my orientals distinctly less sweet - which often means that they have to be low on the cinnamon.

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  39. Nora, good question, will get back to you when I get a chance to look through my sample collection. Not good with names - age related phenomenon - arggggh.

    A more general example would be that I personally perceive many orientals as overwhelmingly sweet, but they seem to go down well with many niche fans or fumies in general who don't like sweet in florals. With me it's the oppposite.

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  40. Katie - funny you mention Aromatic Elixer, I got a sample of that, too. I haven't visited this one since high school. It's still a top-notch, quality perfume. Inexpensive, and yet not cheap :)

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  41. Anonymous--have you considered grabbing some samples for your niece from The Perfumed Court? If she likes the J Lo fragrance, I would assume she enjoys fresh fragrances in general, but there again, scent can be such a tricky, personal thing. There are fragrances that I feel are impossible not to like (Ormonde Man--thinking about it actually makes me sigh) but at her age she may not be "ready," for something like that.

    Maybe you should give her a copy of "Perfumes: The Guide?"

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  42. Also, Marie--yeah, I find the sweetness in orientals a little off-putting at times, too. I don't want something aggressively comforting.

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  43. Hi Nora: Thank you for the advice. I will have fun ordering her samples from the Perfumed Court and the idea of the book is great as well. I wanted to give her a special scent, but I'm struggling because scent is so personal.

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  44. Norah, I love that expression: "Aggressively comforting"! That's exactly how I feel about it, too. Orientals scare me a bit and that's kind of counterproductive when I just want a happy brain, a calm happy brain :-D

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  45. Yes, the Lady has been reformulated and debased like so many of the drugstore & mass market classics -- Enjoli, Emeraude, Charlie, Oleg Cassini, Tabu. In my opinion, the Lady was one of the last good ones out of that era & lot.

    Pity.

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  46. "Debased" is the perfect word, Anonymous.

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  47. If a similarly sweet fragrance comes from a mainstream or drug store company or is a celebrity scent, then it's often met with "oooh, too sweet for me!" That annoys me no end, although it shouldn't.

    The Best Perfumes For Women As Said By Men

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