Perfume has been cherished as seen as a luxury for centuries. Ancient Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians were among the first to distill flowers, oils and plants to scent themselves and their surroundings. The fact that ancient civilizations kept records of how their perfumes were made (the Egyptians, for example, documented perfume recipes in hieroglyphic and pictorial forms) suggests that subtle distinctions were made between different concoctions, and that some ingredients were prized more than others.
The cultivation of flowers for their perfume essence became an industry in its own right during the fourteenth century. By the eighteenth-century, the industry greatly expanded in the south of France, particularly in Grasse which is the modern day fragrance capital of the world. Before the start of the twentieth-century, many perfumes were single florals, which means that one flower dominates the composition. Some of the most popular single florals were the rose, the violet, and lavender.
Just before the turn of the century, when modern perfumery began, artisans introduced a wider variety of types, such as the floral bouquet (a combination of flowers), the floral-Oriental (flowers, woods, mosses, spices, aromatic oils), and the chypre (French for Cyprus; refers to fragrances with a uniform accord of bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss. They further developed the art of perfumery by expanding their selection of essential oils and other raw ingredients that better set ingredients, accentuated scents and made them last longer.
Modern perfumers then created artificial syntheses of scent compounds, such as vanilla, that achieved smells not attainable through mixing natural ingredients alone. Today, most perfumes have a synthetic element. Fragrances with high concentrations of artificial ingredients are usually less expensive and less coveted. They do not rank high or at all on connoisseurs and wealthy buyers lists of aromatic favorites. Alternatively, high end perfumes, the most expensive, renowned, and sought after, have greater concentrations of natural ingredients.
Although recipes for perfumes are kept secret, the finest fragrance ingredients are world renowned. The most expensive ingredients today are sandalwood, flower absolutes, orris, oud, Grasse jasmine, and ambergris. These are the main ingredients that make up the most expensive as well as the most luxurious perfumes in the world. Here is a breakdown of what these ingredients contribute to their respective perfumes.
8 Sandalwood: $2,500 per kilogram
Sandalwood oil has a soft, warm, woody scent that somewhat resembles cedar. It imparts a long-lasting base to perfumes of the Oriental, chypre, fougère, and woody families, and in small amounts it is useful to use as a fixative. Sandalwood oil is expensive because Santalum trees have diminished in number, and many of them must be a minimum of fifteen years old to be harvested for their oil. There are more than nineteen species of Santalum trees, S. album (the rarest of the sandalwood family) being the source of the ‘truest’ sandalwood oil. Clive Christian’s No. 1 for Women, $865 (1.6oz), a product of the (once royal) Crown Perfumery of England, is one of the world’s most expensive fragrances that uses sandalwood at its base. The elitist perfume house of Amouage also uses sandalwood in abundance.
7 Floral Absolutes: hundreds to several thousands of dollars an ounce
Flower absolutes are similar to essential oils. They are highly concentrated, intensely fragrant, oily substances extracted from flower-bearing plants. As such, they carry the flower’s fragrant essence and last longer (on the shelf and on the skin) than essential oils. Absolutes are found in a variety of elite fragrances, usually as part of a mélange of florals where one or few flowers predominate. Examples of this kind are present in the collections of French perfumier Annick Goutal and British perfumier Jo Malone. Annick Goutal’s Neroli, where the titular flower dominates, is priced at $128 (3.4 oz).
6 Orris: $26,000 per Kilogram
Orris, prized since ancient times, is the dried form of the iris plant’s bulbs. Since its heady smell is similar to violet, it is sometimes used to make synthetic violet fragrances. One reason it is so expensive is that before being use, it must be dried for two years in order for its fragrance to mature. An example of a high end perfume containing dominant notes of quality Orris is Pierre Bourdon’s Iris Poudre, $275 (100ml).
5 Oud: $27,367 per Kilogram
Agarwood, the most expensive wood in the world, is the resinous heartwood of trees belonging to the Aquilaria family, which are found throughout Asia. It has a sweet, rich, nutty-woody scent, with a balsamic undertone. Oud is the Arabic term for the incense that is derived from agarwood. For centuries oud wood has been used in Eastern beauty rituals, either alone or in combination with other warm, smoky aromatics. Amouage’s Interlude contains oud in nearly pure form. Not coincidentally, it is $342 for a 100ml bottle.
4 Grasse Jasmine: $41,000 per Kilogram
Jasmine is the most widely used flower in perfume, both in natural and synthetic forms. It is commonly grown in Italy, India, Egypt and Morocco, but the best quality and most expensive jasmine comes from Grasse, France, where millions of jasmine flowers are grown and harvested every year. The French houses of Dior and Chanel have been two of Grasse’s main clients since the previous century. It may come as a surprise, then, that Chanel No.5, $325 (30ml parfum), is the only widely sold perfume containing Grasse jasmine, which has a sweet, slightly heady scent.
3 Ambergris: $47,902 per Kilogram
Ambergris, a fatty secretion found in sperm whales, is the most expensive ingredient for perfume. Its cost has recently risen due to the whale population’s decline and the threat of whale extinction. The oxidized substance shown in the picture above exudes a warm, spicy, leathery aroma once distilled, and is valuable as a fixative for fragrance compositions. Creed’s Love in White, $445 (8.4oz), a favorite of First Ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, contains ambergris at its base.
2 Other, Less Expensive, Ingredients
There are many more ingredients that are less expensive than the previous ones, but are equally popular in the world of elite fragrances: amber, ylang ylang, patchouli, vetiver, bergamot, vanilla, attar of rose, and different types of musk, to name a few. Fine substances, especially in higher concentrations, are what set high end perfumes apart from lower end fragrances. The nose instinctually recognizes natural scents and in the best perfumes, natural ingredients are perfectly balanced. Even if one note is predominant, no other molecule is extraneous. Like a symphony, the composition is multi-layered and unified, appreciable as a whole as well as for its individual parts. For example, Jo Malone’s Earl Grey and Cucumber Cologne, $110 (100ml), opens with bergamot. This crisp, citrus top note blends into the perfume’s heart, cucumber, whose airy, watery smell is one sign of its authenticity. Cool and crisp harmonize perfectly. The perfume’s creamy base of beeswax, musk and vanilla accentuates the cucumber. However, the base’s warmth also complements bergamot’s spiciness.
1 The Essence Behind Elite Perfumes
Each elite fragrance is built on such a complex, unique counterpoise. Their complexity comes through at first sniff and lasts on the skin until washed off. Another aspect of high end fragrance is their headiness, which comes from the high concentration of their floral elements.
Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant, $225 (100ml), is a good example. This is one of the very, very few fragrances with an authentic lilac smell. The dominant note is white lilac, but orange flower and cucumber bring out the flower’s spring freshness, its spiciness and powdery coolness. The wholesome scent of wheat is one of the perfume’s mild, balancing base notes.
Paris’ L’Artisan Perfumeur is another high end house that produces softly nuanced, heady florals, and warm, spicy aromatics. Nuit de Tuberose, $165 (100ml), is one of their latest creations. It is a luminous fragrance that mingles creamy, pungent tuberose, sweet orange flower, and rose with warm spices: cardamom, clove, pink pepper, black pepper. Green mango adds a new level of sweetness, while ylang ylang, musks, vanilla and sandalwood bring new depths of warmth and creamy smoothness to the composition.
High end perfumes are usually found at high end department stores or specialized perfume shops. Just a simple sniff of these luxurious fragrances and you'll be falling into daydreams of a fantasy world. Finding the fragrance that best suits you is very importable because scent is a way that people judge others by whether they realize it or not. Next time you select a luxury perfume, keep in mind all the ingredients behind it and remember that you are certainly getting your money's worth.