What Not to Buy: Perfume Samples

Seattle is a smallish city; comparable to San Francisco in population. We have lots of perfume shops but New York puts us to shame when it comes to variety of product in those shops. And many stores in Seattle are stingy with perfume samples; they won’t even sell me a sample when I ask or beg. Years back, most perfume companies abruptly stopped sending me samples of their wares. Was it because I sometimes gave negative reviews — so it was risky to put a new perfume in nose-shot of me? Was it because I ignored samples that didn’t interest me instead of promoting them?

I didn’t worry about it; I had always re-gifted not only full bottle/full-size products I received from perfume companies, but samples, too. I did this happily! Well, there was the time Amouage sent me a beautiful little bottle of Gold Man. After I pried the bottle from my clenched fist, I gave Gold to a friend at work who said she liked it. I still laugh when I remember the day I took a drive in her truck and smelled Gold; she excitedly admitted she sprayed the mats in her car with Gold! (“That stuff’s great…even hides hound-dog smell! Lasts for weeks!”)

Thus, sample stream dry, I got into the bad habit (for me, harder to overcome than nightly cocktails) of paying for fragrance samples. This week I tallied up my perfume sample purchases for 2020 (a below-average year for buying them). When I added single samples, decants, boxed sample sets (some over $50) I was alarmed/ashamed by what I had spent: $400 (put another way: 75 perfume samples).

Dedicated perfumistas (most of you here? do tell!) would laugh at that figure: “Kevin, it’s only $7.70 a week! HA! The price of a latte and madeleine!”  True, but hold on….

First, how did I justify this year’s sample purchases?

1. I’m working from home due to the pandemic — and saving: So. Much. Money. No monthly parking fees; filling my car’s gas tank once a month, not weekly; no large restaurant/bar tabs; no recitals, theatre; no need to buy new clothes; no travel (Sicily, don’t go anywhere!)

2. The world is falling apart climate-wise, health-wise and politically: I deserve a pick-me-up (or ten or twenty or…75). 

Thus…I perused online perfume shops, Etsy and eBay and kept my credit card hot.

What prompted this current reckoning? Last week, my fir$t 2021 di$covery $et purcha$e (or Expériences Olfactives, ugh!) arrived from Paris and not one of the 8 perfumes in the box was better than bland. ALL were scrubbers; they smelled “deficient,” cheap. One scent I was excited to smell, described as reminiscent of “drinking a shot of icy absinth under the magnetic movements of the Northern lights” would have been better described as “My Virginia grandma’s favorite mosquito repellent, applied with gusto on a hot August evening.” 

These eight perfumes: had great names and backstories, were composed by skilled perfumers (including Bertrand Duchaufour), were housed in tasteful packaging. The company webpage was beautifully designed. As I analyzed my dumb purchase, I realized none of that mattered to me. What gets this veteran of perfume worship to buy (someone who should know better) are lists of fragrance notes. We should never believe lists of fragrance notes! But as limette, orange bigarade, bergamot, black tea, cypress, artemisia, iris butter, papyrus, mastic, mimosa, chili, clove, vetiver, myrrh and the like are extolled…I swoon. I should’ve realized I swoon because I’m a gardener and cook as well as a perfume fanatic, and I love the real-life aromas of those flowers, fruits, leaves, spices, roots, trees! THOSE aromas are what I’m imagining when I make a decision to buy fragrance samples…what I get 85 percent of the time is a nondescript, budget-conscious, chemical stew.

For me, 2020 was the year of artless, shameless and synthetic-loaded perfumes offered at sky-high prices. Never have I smelled so many $250, $350, $450 perfumes that reminded me of $10 scented candles. Of the 75 perfume samples I bought, I reviewed (in a positive way) seven. One full-bottle purchase resulted from a sample sniff. Sixty-eight samples I bought were blah, been-there-smelled-that stuff that I only needed to dab on once. I wasted $359! 

Resolution 2021? I won’t buy any more perfume samples! Time to invest that money in something more worthwhile: plants, a donation to animal rescue, a vintage bottle of something I love…or food, liquor! 

Please share your own Sample Stories…positive or negative! 

Note: all images by the author.

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