Is there such thing as a “Holy Grail” in fragrance? Probably not, although that doesn’t stop obsessed collectors with deep pockets from trying. The mode of operation surrounding the search for the greatest fragrance of all time has lead to a little phenomenon that many in the online fragrance community, including myself, call the “unicorn”. If you’re familiar with the term “chasing the unicorn”, it is a metaphor, sometimes used to describe the pursuit of something that’s, for all intents and purposes, unobtainable – as unicorns don’t exist.
When a fragrance becomes discontinued for whatever reason and suddenly someone with a following (like a YouTuber) sounds the alarm on it, there is a small chance that a “tulip mania” will start on surviving inventory, a historical term for a wild speculative price bubble. This is caused by people within the community having a fear of missing out, especially if the taste of the influencer doing the shouting is widely trusted, causing people to blind buy multiple bottles in some cases. This in turn tips off perfume resellers to jack up prices on sites like eBay, or scalpers to actively buy every available bottle low to sell high down the road when supply dries up.
This “tulip mania” has the effect of overwriting whatever reputation the scent actually had prior to discontinuation (e.g. how good it actually smelled) with a new one that gets taller and taller on down the line as people with cognitive dissonance over their over-priced blind buys convince themselves of the scent’s greatness. This sort of leads to a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts because if these folks have friends (or followers if they’re influencers), those people will feel the peer pressure of being left out and want to be validated, so they’ll acquire the scent too and echo the praise. Suddenly, a “unicorn” is born and an obscure often unloved scent feels like a must-have for everyone’s collection, or someone’s personal “holy grail” yet to be obtained.
Before long, you end up with something that sells for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on the aftermarket, has this huge reputation for being a “masterpiece”, and people will see ownership of such a scent as instant clout among their peers or the community at large (depending on the size of the hype) if they shell out the extortionate price to buy. Or sometimes, as has happened with the actual historical case of “tulip mania”, the bubble bursts because people just give up on wanting something when it becomes too bizarrely and inexplicably expensive out of nowhere (which is what happened to the tulips in the 16th century), and investors looking to salvage speculative losses flood the aftermarket at discount prices with bottles they initially hoarded to profit on.
The last one is admittedly a rare occurrence, because Human psychology seems to keep people lusting over what they can’t really have, causing resellers to hold indefinitely in hopes of another hype spike, and people will continue the echo chamber of worship while they scrape to afford a precious taste of “unicorn blood”. I have seen “unicorns” come off their pedestal because houses either re-issue them, or a forgotten cache from a distributor gets liquidated in bulk and floods the aftermarket, making scalpers loose their asses as the scent is seen as relatively common and undesirable again. Now that we have that covered, to better understand the “unicorn” phenomenon, we have to look at the mindset behind it.
For starters, there are definitely social dynamics in the online fragrance community, and much like the film “The Warriors”, different schools of thought tend to organize into various gangs that are all themed around what they like and generally hold an uneasy truce with each other unless someone from one camp wades into the territory of another (usually in disagreement) and picks a fight. Among these “gangs” is a very strongly-opinionated subset of collectors that believe anything older is invariably better than anything new, so discontinued fragrances are the ultimate form of “they don’t make them like this anymore”.
Others don’t care so much for vintage styles, batch variations, or how much X or Y is in their perfume, they just like exclusivity and bragging rights, even if it means paying dearly for it. These folks want all the things nobody else can have, and want to lord their overpriced baubles in front of the other kids like a spoiled child at Kindergarten recess with rich parents who buy them all the latest toys. There are still others that have this weird conspiracy theory about IFRA (International Fragrance Association) being the Legion of Doom out to ruin perfumery, and think when something gets discontinued, it’s because “it was too good” to let people keep having.
This last one is particularly problematic because it frames the perfume industry as one of cynical snake oil salesmen that actively denigrate, deceive, and cruelly exploit their customers. While I won’t say it doesn’t happen at all, as some of what comes out (especially in the mainstream and luxury perfume segments) does feel very detached and cynical, I doubt such cynicism is really at the heart of discontinuation itself. Let’s be honest, if your reaction to people liking and buying your product is to get rid of it because it was “too good” to let anyone have, you won’t be in business very long.
Circling back, hype happens in all collector communities, especially with limited products, so no hate on anyone who actually enjoys “chasing unicorns”, but for those looking to avoid such potential stress and anxiety of buying perfume in a perpetual state of panic, some light needed to be shed on what causes both that said panic, and the weird cult-like veneration that sometimes follows. That’s why we can’t discuss “unicorns”, FOMO frenzy (fear of missing out), and the associated madness of it all without discussing discontinuation itself and why perfume brands get rid of things.
What causes discontinuation?
Typically discontinuation is a last resort in the life cycle of a perfume, when for one reason or another, it can no longer be made and sold as-is, and redevelopment of the perfume is either too difficult, deemed not economical, or barred for some other technicality.
Like with reformulation, regulations in materials can trigger discontinuation, especially if sales don’t justify spending research and development money on reformulations or the removal/restriction of materials has such a drastic effect on the perfume that reformulation into something respectful to the previous iteration and its fans is nearly impossible. At this point it’s “better off dead” and gets the axe.
More often than not the most common reason is the perfume was just not selling to the expectation of the brand anymore, so while they could continue making it to serve whatever niche fans remain and probably turn a meager profit, cost benefit analysis makes it clear they could put those resources to more profitable use. Sometimes changing regulations or materials availability as noted above can trigger this response too.
Also like with reformulation, licensing agreements (specifically their revocation or expiration) can trigger discontinuation if the license holder decides not to let anyone make the perfume, with reverse-engineering a new formula causing potential legal trouble or just not being economical. This mainly happens when creative directors or perfumers retain rights and leave companies or houses exit contract with one lab for another.
Probably the rarest but also the least-liked reason for discontinuation, is when a new creative direction is undertaken by the brand, usually caused by a new director, house perfumer, or corporate decision, and its decided the old fragrance no longer fits the vision for the brand itself. In such repositioning, it really doesn’t matter how well-liked or well-selling a perfume is, because it doesn’t fit what the brand wants to be.
What to do:
If the announcement of discontinuation is the first you’ve heard of a fragrance, buy a mini or get a sample first if you can, and get a clear opinion of it before you’re invested. I’ve avoided so many expensive mistakes that way.
Back it Up
If you already know and love the fragrance, get at least one more if you have a larger collection, or two if you have a smaller one, just so you don’t have to feel nervous about using it. You can always sell it later if it does “go unicorn” on you.
Go for Lowest Price
Don’t worry about batches or reformulation, because you may not know how you’ll feel in the months ahead after purchase, and it doesn’t make that great of a difference especially if sourcing replacement may be difficult.
Let it Go
If you haven’t fallen in love at first sniff, or it isn’t a favorite fragrance you can’t live without, don’t be worried when the bottle runs dry. There are so many other perfumes out there waiting to be discovered, crying over one that’s gone away or gotten too expensive to replace seems a waste of energy.
Ultimately, your “Holy Grail” is likely already your favorite fragrance, sitting right there in your wardrobe, waiting for you to enjoy it again. When in doubt, stop “chasing unicorns” and look at the things you already love, ask yourself why you love them. If you’re no longer satisfied with the feeling you get from wearing that favorite of yours, and that leads you to explore the option of adding new fragrances to your wardrobe, make regaining that feeling the unicorn you chase, and not a specific bottle.
“Scarcity is an illusion. Unlearn it”
-Purecaramel on Basenotes
Find me on Basenotes as Zealot Crusader, or Instagram as The_Scented_Devil
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