I have been thinking this week about a summary of the year in perfume, and have been struck once again by how many of my favorites from 2005 are from the niche houses. Back in June, I posted a brief article on niche snobbery, and while I have tried to expand my sampling to include more mainstream and designer fragrances, I have to say that it isn't easy.
If you want to get a sample of the latest niche perfume, it isn't so very hard to do. Almost all of the online niche boutiques offer sample sets. You will have to pay, mind you, but paying a few dollars for a sample is not a big deal to me; in the end it is far cheaper than buying an expensive bottle unsniffed. For some lines, of course, it is not quite so simple. If you want to snag a sample of the latest Serge Lutens exclusive, you will have to buy on ebay or swap on one of the fragrance boards. But then, interest in the latest Serge Lutens exclusive is so high that you will probably not have much trouble.
Samples of mainstream fragrances are paradoxically much harder to obtain. A few of the online discount perfume stores offer samples for sale, but the selection is dismal in comparison to the niche boutiques, who will generally make up a sample of anything they have in stock. When Ralph Lauren released Pure Turquoise earlier this year, I went off to the mall to get a sample, only to be told by four department stores that they didn't have a single one. No surprise there: sales associates generally hoard samples like candy, and award them like prizes to paying customers only. Not one of the stores would allow me to make my own sample (yes, I carry empty glass vials). Another paradox: high end department stores are usually willing to allow a customer to make a sample, the lower end stores usually say no.
I did check ebay, where I found that I could get easily a sample of Pure Turquoise, but once the shipping costs were included, it would run me about $5. At that point, I lost interest. So in the end, despite the millions that Ralph Lauren probably spent to promote Pure Turquoise, I never got to try it except briefly on a paper test strip.
I will end my little rant with a rave for Nordstrom, the only department store that will still cheerfully provide you with a sample of any fragrance they sell. If they don't have a carded sample, they will make a sample from the tester. At some stores, they even put a bowl of empty vials right on the counter so you can make your own samples. If I am going to pay full price for a fragrance, which is admittedly rare, I try to do it at Nordstrom.