Imperial Majesty, which costs $215,000 a bottle, is the most expensive perfume in the world. Would it smell as sweet at any other price?
Actually, yes. Imperial Majesty is a limited edition of a Clive Christian signature scent. Sold simply as No. 1, the fragrance is priced at $2,150 an ounce. But the reason Imperial Majesty costs so much is that Christian, a British designer-turned-perfumer, poured 16.9 ounces of No. 1 into a Baccarat crystal bottle, stuck a five-carat diamond into the 18-carat gold collar and unveiled it at Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City this past holiday season.
Of the five bottles released for sale (the others were kept for Christian's archives), three have sold.
That's actually not as crazy as it sounds. There is a glut of new fragrances being dumped on the market from not only perfume makers and fashion houses, but also celebrities and movie stars--many of which scents have a shelf life as long or short as the celeb who introduced them. From Paris to Britney, there were over 500 fragrance launches in 2005 alone. Feeling overwhelmed, people are not buying more perfumes, but they are willing to spend more on ones they like. According to The NPD Group, a Long Island-based market research company, the U.S. fragrance industry grossed $2.8 billion in sales in 2004, the last year for which annual numbers exist, up only 1% over the prior year.
"If you look at the fragrance market, the category has been fairly static in terms of growth. It hasn't grown enormously over the last few years," says Paul Austin of Quest International, a fragrance house that has collaborated with such iconic brands as Hermès, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior and Karl Lagerfeld.
"A lot of women now go to a perfume shop and say, 'What's your newest perfume--the one that you haven't shown anyone? I want it no matter what it costs,'" says Virginie Morel, a spokeswoman for the International Fragrance Association, which has offices in Brussels, Belgium and Geneva, Switzerland. "Fragrances from the big houses have been tested a lot to please the most amount of people, and women don't want to look like their next door neighbor. Do you?"
"If you get a niche perfume, you won't smell like anyone else," she adds. "There's a demand for unique things, and it's a fact that people are more willing to pay."
Elisabeth Noel Jones, a fragrance, cosmetics and hosiery buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, agrees that customers are increasingly knowledgeable--and demanding--when it comes to perfume. "I'm moving away from things that are available at Barneys, Bendel, Bloomingdale's, Lord and Taylor, Saks and Macy's," says Jones. "Our customer is in the know, and she doesn't want something that can be recognized walking down the street."
In the perfume industry, Christian isn't the only vendor smelling a profit. Last June, the Guerlain boutique on Champs Elysée in Paris launched a service called Le Parfum Sur Mesure, a personal consultation which takes between six months and a year and allows a customer to create her own perfume with the help of the store's fragrance director. After that, no one else can buy it, but Guerlain will keep some in stock in case she ever runs out. The cost? €30,000, or about $36,000.
Even outside the rarified department stores and boutiques of New York, Paris and London, the fragrance industry is a powerful force. The European fine fragrance sales forecast for 2004 was €4.1 billion, or $4.9 billion, says Kate Greene of Givaudan, which has developed fragrances for Ralph Lauren (nyse: RL - news - people ), Elizabeth Arden, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein.
But Austin estimates that the high-end perfume market only constitutes about 1% of overall sales and warns that, "There isn't always a direct relationship between the price of a fragrance and the beauty of its impression." Of course, sometimes, there is. It takes 200 very rare ingredients to make one drop of "No. 1," including the ylang-ylang flower from Madagascar, Tahitian vanilla, ancient Indian sandalwood, and Florentine orris (ground iris root), which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a pound.
Just in time for Fashion Week in New York City, Forbes.com has compiled a list of the Most Expensive Perfumes. To find out which perfumes were the priciest, we worked closely with Bergdorf Goodman, whose cosmetics inventory is legendary, and other upscale international department stores, fragrance houses and boutiques. Most of the perfumes on our list are "parfums," which means they are pure and concentrated, making for a higher production cost. In addition, many of the perfumes listed come in ornate or limited-edition bottles that contributed to the price, whether they're made of Italian Murano glass, like Bulgari's Pour Femme, or have a diamond on the neck, like No. 1.
We listed the perfumes in order of most expensive per bottle, not on a per-ounce basis. We did indicate how many ounces come in each bottle, so you can do your own price-per-ounce calculations. Finally, we did not include custom-order or by commission perfumes, like Guerlain's Le Parfum Sur Mesure, or Henry Dunay's Sabi, which at $30,000 an ounce would certainly have made the list otherwise.
All perfumes listed are available for sale at Bergdorf Goodman, except for Baccarat's Les Larmes Sacrées de Thebes, which is available at Harrods.
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