2/11/13

Is Price Correlative To Quality?



When we see movies and photos with Cary Grant, we automatically think, "he's a high-class guy." I mean, look at him, with the chiseled features and the perfectly-combed hair, the pressed suits and ties. He's long deceased and forgotten (even unknown) by many people in the current generation of twenty-somethings, but for those who have some culture and knowledge of classic films, he remains an unforgettable Hollywood icon. How many men aspired to achieve Grant-esque levels of suave masculinity in their youths? How many women secretly wished they could happen upon someone with his looks and his charm? With Grant, the Robert Palmer song lyric directly applies: "there's no tellin' where the money is." He just had IT, whatever IT was, and this IT-Factor propelled him from the circus to international stardom.

The only problem with this assessment of Mr. Grant is that he himself wished he could be Cary Grant. Someone once said to him, "Everyone would like to be Cary Grant," and he said, "So do I." Grant projected wealth and luxury to the masses, but the truth is that no one on earth is as smooth and unruffled as his screen persona was. Millions paid money to see the fiction of Grant move in silvery wisps across a wall, but would millions pay as much to live with him if they knew how few of those wisps could be found in Archibald Leach? Archibald, unlike Cary, blew his nose, got spinach stuck in his teeth, stunk up portions of the house after using the john, and put his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of humanity. I'm sure he was still a great guy, but the stuff of legend? Maybe not.

When it comes to the subject of this blog post, I often feel that the same rosy thinking Grant's fans applied to him gets applied to today's perfumes. We want to be romanced by our fragrances before we buy them. We want to think that a bigger financial investment in this romance will yield more satisfying returns in the long, leisurely relationship that ensues. We tend to believe the promises sold to us about the quality and appeal of a perfume if it comes from a place that exhibits a finer pedigree, a honed commercial image, and are angry if the illusion doesn't hold up in the long-haul. But like people, perfume is complicated. Just because a brand puts one in fancy clothing, with a cool tagline, and an exclusive price tag, doesn't mean the liquid inside matches these external trimmings, and this is simply a fact of life.

Tania Sanchez, in her review of Aspen by Coty, remarked that Aspen's successful smell was surprising, until you remember that the only appeal of the non-luxury brands is their smell. This comment is arguably the most insightful one in her book. We get caught up in the idea that perfumes with high prices MUST be better, because they cost more, but the reality is that price is in no way directly correlative to how good a perfume smells. This truth is evident in a simple analysis of several factors, ranging from whether or not a fragrance subjectively suits one's taste, to whether a brand objectively reaps as much profit from a perfume's formula as it does from its packaging and marketing. One must consider too whether or not a brand slaps a premium on its products because of the high costs of packaging and marketing alone. Many brands have done careful market studies on the best approach, and it wouldn't surprise me if they found fancy bottles are a worthier investment than fancy formulas.

Victoria at Bois de Jasmin weighed in on this a year ago:
"Last year the weekly French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published an interesting article about perfume creation called La Guerre des Nez (The War of the Nose). It featured a candid interview with perfumers Dominique Ropion and Anne Flipo and provided a table outlining the price breakdown for an average prestige brand perfume. The revelation is that in a bottle of perfume that costs 100 euros, the value of the fragrance concentrate is only 1-1.50 euros, or about 2-3 dollars. The rest is for marketing and distribution: 19.6 euros for value added taxes, 36 euros for distribution, 25 euros for ads and so on. I know all too well the economics of making a perfume, but seeing this table was still a shock."
Between the marketing, distribution, taxes, ad campaigns (part of marketing but not all of it), costs for perfume creation is high, almost out of necessity, just to have competitive market presence. The laws of business have a pressure-cooker effect on the perfume industry, because seventy-five percent of a brand's appeal to customers is visual, not olfactory. It's the reason Chanel went out of their way to find a unique, unparalleled shade of "Bleu" for Bleu de Chanel. It's the reason Cartier went all nineteen-thirties nouveau with the bottle design for Roadster. It's the reason Creed wrapped bottles of Aventus in strands of black leather. Fragrances, like people, require fancy Cary Grant suits if their manufacturers want to justify raising individual unit costs by twenty or thirty bucks.


So what about little ol' Aspen? It has no fancy packaging, no hi-falutin' bottle, and no advertising/marketing campaign. Of course it had a little campaign once, back when it was a new fragrance, but we're talking a couple of print ads here. There was nothing outrageously far-reaching about the Aspen campaign, just a few words and pictures to make people aware that it exists. Someone over at Clive Christian could look at Quintessence/Coty and understandably think, "Aspen might smell okay, but it couldn't touch us." But that supposition is based on image. How much better do CC perfumes smell? Is five hundred dollars and fewer ounces per bottle justifiable in the face of something selling for five dollars an ounce? If you know anything about postmodern perfumery, you know that yes, Aspen smells very good. No, it doesn't blow all niche brands out of the water in terms of fragrance quality, but it's probably worth at least a little more than five dollars an ounce, in a just world. But with Aspen, you have to wonder, is it worth wearing over Cool Water and Green Irish Tweed? Or is it just a budget alternative to those fragrances? And does CC have a good reason to ignore the market model Coty uses in selling Aspen?

Yes, it's worth wearing Aspen over CW and GIT as a budget option, if and only if you feel it smells better, which makes it a completely subjective call, but a viable one. The other two, being more expensive perfumes, are understandably preferable to many men and women, but that doesn't mean their advantage over Aspen equates to Coty's frag being of lower quality. Aside from concentration and complexity, Aspen is not really a lower-quality product. Some may feel that the minty-herbal freshness in Aspen is unique enough to make it a preferable fragrance, especially with its strong outdoorsy vibe.

And CC's market model is the very thing Victoria illustrates above - high overhead. Clive Christian No.1 is "The World's Most Expensive Perfume" because its fugly bottle is plated in precious metals and studded with a diamond. Strip the thing down to Malle proportions (still pricey, but not the same), and suddenly the justification for the high premium is gone. I can't speak to the perfume, having never tried it, but I can say that whatever it smells like, it isn't being shouted about from roof tops, so spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on it seems aspirational at best. The fragrance oils used to perfume the contents of whatever bottle No.1 is sold in likely cost little more than a dollar. If Aspen's oils cost fifty cents, and CC's cost two dollars, that's not a big enough difference. And I doubt the cost of the extrait for CC surpasses a mark that would cut a one-thousand percent profit margin.

Over on basenotes, a member started a thread entitled, Cheap Fragrances Are Rarely The Best. Typical sort of nonsense one sees out of BN, but the responses to this thread suggests that even basenoters feel this is a false sentiment. To simply sum-up the OP's position, he feels that "in most cases, you get what you pay for." He goes on to say,
"Most fragrances that you could get for $50 or less are not really good quality. I'm not saying fragrances above $100 are all worth the price either, because that's the niche priceline and niche fragrances tend to make hate-or-love fragrances that are peculiar and challenge people to expand their tastes. So, even if you spend $250 on a niche fragrance, you may hate it. But the chances of finding something you really really like above $100 is much greater than at under $50."
Now, I could go on, and on, and on, and on about how dumb this paragraph is. I don't really know what this guy was smoking when he posted this, and he's a smart guy who has written many very interesting and informative comparison reviews in the past, on basenotes and Fragrantica, so I don't directly question his intelligence. However, I do question, with love of course, his sanity. I mean, really? Most fragrances for fifty dollars or less are not really good quality? This is a thesis he is going forward with?

You can buy any of the Caron masculines for less than forty dollars. All are of superior quality and composition, to the point where I use Pour un Homme as the continuing proof that a quality raw material (lavender oil) need not jack unit prices into the stratosphere if used to simple effect. There's a whole army of men who would argue that fragrances in the Pinaud range outclass things three and four times as expensive, and Pinauds usually sell at around eight bucks a bottle. Rive Gauche Pour Homme can be found online for well under forty dollars, and is by most accounts, including Luca Turin's, a true classic that is very well made, and smells divine. Kouros can be found in any formulation for around fifty dollars, and stands the test of time as one of the freshest, most beautiful masculine compositions ever made. LustandFury and Shamu1 recently called my attention to Taxi by Cofinluxe. When I wore Taxi to dinner with my family one weekend, my mother told me it smelled amazing, and she almost never thinks fragrances smell "amazing," let alone compliments them. Taxi is by Mark Buxton, and goes for about ten adjusted-for-inflation dollars these days. Rochas Moustache can be had for thirty-five dollars at brick and mortars around the country, and is steeped in classical tradition, ala Edmond Roudnitska and his wife Thèrèse. The very fact that Thèrèse had a direct hand in Moustache's creation makes it worth so much more than anything anyone could scribble on a price tag, yet it remains absurdly affordable in the formulation pictured on my blog (which is the one I own - I took that photo). The list goes on, and on, and on.

But people bit back on this. One guy wrote:
"Disagree. Prices change following sales. A presumed great scent can be sold at 100 dollars or euros today, and at 25 after a few months. Some scents launched without any advertisement -and sold in supermarkets and small stores- have a very low price and real good quality. Animal Oud sold at 10 euros/ 13 dollars, and it's impossible to find in stores the next day. You have to buy it immediately."
This comment supports what I said above, and what Tania Sanchez wrote in The Guide, i.e., inexpensive fragrances can smell good enough to be in very high demand, despite having low prices and no ad campaigns. Another guy said,
"I think it all comes down to whether one believes that an objective assessment of a fragrance's 'quality' can be made independently from whether one actually likes the fragrance or not. Certainly most buyers would like to think that when they spend more they get a higher quality product where there is greater attention to detail and less cost-cutting."
This illustrates my comments about the subjectivity of finding something "better" than something else, and how this variable throws a little monkey wrench into accurately gauging the effectiveness of discerning fragrance quality based blindly on price. And it's true, most buyers WOULD LIKE to think that they get a higher-quality product when they spend more, based on the notion that there is greater attention to the manufacturing details. This is questionable, and is a subject leveled more at the integrity of brand management than perfumers themselves. How many perfumers wanted to create a masterpiece, but were only given a budget with which to create something that is only "good"? And don't personal associations factor in with the enjoyment of any fragrance? Another guy answered that question:
"What it all boils down to is how well a scent resonates with you. If Pino Silvestre at $10 conjures up great memories of family vacations spent camping in the woods, it will be worth more to you than a $250 bottle of Invasion Barbare if you think it just smells like fancy shaving cream."
Still another guy wrote,
"While maybe I personally *expect* more from a fragrance that sells at a relatively high price point, I personally have found little correlation of price and whether I will enjoy a scent or not. I also should mention I have found (and own) more than my fair share of relatively inexpensive fragrances that I would put up against others selling for many, many times their price points. In short, I respectfully disagree with your premise. "In many cases you get what you pay for..." And in many more, you don't."
This brings up the Aspen analogy. Indeed, paying for an expensive perfume may give you what you paid for, but there's always the inexpensive perfume that gives you much more than you paid for, and how do you decide which purchase was wiser? Rationalizing often occurs, and I don't doubt that there are many Lutens buyers out there who are stuck with half a bottle of Arabie, wondering when and how they'll ever get through the remaining half-ounce. "Wear-ability" should factor into these considerations! And still another guy astutely said,
"Common sense says that you get what you pay for, and as a general rule, it's a relatively safe way to make an uneducated decision. Price and "best" are based on so many factors that have nothing to do with quality. Do a bit of homework and you'll find bests in all price points. Best, in this case, is meaningless since you've given no qualifier to explain the scale. Best for? Best at?"
Such a great point! What exactly is "best" being qualified with? Best against the worst? It's an arbitrary way of skewing the factors to favor your argument by saying that cheap fragrances are rarely the best, when you think the "best" and "worst" of something reflects in its price. Prices, after all, are related to demand, even in luxury goods. The OP responded:
"There are a lot of quality ones at low price; not the BEST ones, but good quality ones. For casual wearers, they're really good. But for people looking to build a collection, save your money for until you smell more fragrances."
This is an interesting sentiment. Let me tell you how interesting I find this - it sneaks something new into the dialogue, something nefarious, something otherwise unspoken among fragrance snobs online and within fragrance communities. It sneaks the notion that "aficionados" are wiser to build a large (read: huge) collection of pricier perfumes, at a leisurely pace, instead of bum-rushing into inexpensive things just because they're easily affordable, because this can taint your comprehension of perfume, and your stamina in having a perfume-collector's hobby.

Naturally there are some people who share this misguided and hilariously fallacious notion in the blogosphere. It's like saying you can only understand quality automobiles not by driving one, but by owning a garage full of them. But if you own one Corvette and drive it half the year, then you'll know a high-quality, relatively inexpensive car better than the guy who has a garage of three hundred expensive cars that he only gets to drive once a year at a steady rotation. The guy with the Corvette is likely to have a more finely-honed sense of quality because he has become intimately familiar with a shining example of it, a true standard, and seeks to know more about it (a profound person does not rise up, after all, but goes deeper), while the Jay Leno personality will have difficulty culling basic facts about his vehicles from memory, due to having so many, and will need to constantly back-track and try to re-evaluate the complicated world he's built around himself.

Building a collection is in no way reflective of how astutely one can appraise fragrances and fragrance quality, and the process of building a collection should not be based on trying to assemble higher price-points. If collection size were key to success in understanding fragrance quality, and also in maintaining stamina in writing about perfume, then this blog could not continue to exist, as I only have about thirty inexpensive perfumes in my wardrobe. Yet I've been blogging now for the better part of two years. And if assembling higher price-points were important, then every perfume enthusiast from here to Macau would either be broke, or very rich to begin with, because in actuality fragrance collections are based on what interests the collector, just like any other collection. If your interest is in affordable and what Luca Turin might call "lethally-effective" perfumes, as Shamu1's seems to be, then you will collect fragrances without regard to price point, and you will collect them based on wanting to wear them and enjoy them, not because you want to point to a large collection and pretend that this somehow ensures your longevity in the world of fragrance writing and appreciation.

If we're thinkers and perfume collectors, we can take two or three inexpensive perfumes and write volumes about them, without needing to defer to higher prices or a greater variety in our wardrobes. And if we're intelligent perfume writers, we don't need to ponder prices in assembling a collection and enjoying it. There are great things at every price-point, for every collector. Someone astutely mentioned that on basenotes:
"Where, in your original post, does it say best for building a collection? Are you talking about a collection of fragrances to wear, or do you mean a collection of fragrances to own as art pieces? Assuming one is building a collection of fragrances to wear, there absolutely are bests among the bargains."
To quote mister Leach, er, Grant: "Beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of past failings." In a word, Amen.














20 comments:

  1. Taxi strikes again. There is something much more satisfying in finding a cheap fragrance that also smells amazing as apposed to dishing out big bucks for a name to flaunt around.

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    1. Tell me about it! I've become fascinated by Taxi and how it's never mentioned by anyone. You'd think that Mark Buxton's early stuff would get play in the blogosphere, but no. Weird.

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    2. I just think most people would look at that bottle and price point and think it's actually air freshener for a cab. I would have never given it a chance if I hadn't read about it on Pour Monsieur and then happen to see it in a local discounters display. But then it was love at first smell.

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    3. Yeah Taxi's packaging leans toward being downright hideous, and the name is questionable enough as it is. That definitely doesn't help it. But while tacky, Taxi's packaging is no more ugly than Xerjoff, Clive Christian, or Amouage (I find it strange that no one talks about how ugly Amouage's bottles are - what's with their caps?) - it comes down to what I said before, which is that people judge with their eyes a lot more than you'd think. Maybe I'm biased or something, but despite people's sentiments to the contrary, I actually think Creed does a nice job with their packaging, especially the 2.5 oz bottles.

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  2. That BN post sounds ludicrous. I agree with you on several points. One, there is no correlation between price and quality natural ingredients.

    I have a price range in my head that I generally don't go beyond, and that's my own subjective quirk. My expectations rise with the price and once something gets out of the Estee Lauder/Chanel price range, it gets compared to my favorites of those lines. Almost nothing survives that comparison. I think I have two full bottles above that range, one Lutens (which I think is more comparable in price due to greater formula concentration) and I have L'Air du Desert Marocain. I must admit that when I smell something beyond this range and it falls short, the price kind of offends me. I haven't explored Creed, because as you've pointed out their women's offerings are not that interesting and due to their price range, well, there are so many other things in the world.

    However I have no illusion that things in the price range I personally am comfortable with are correlated to quality. It's about what I like and what I am willing to pay for. Chanel's branding is a fascinating study and they do many different things to maintain the price/prestige of the brand. Only some of those things have much to do with smell/formula.

    There is probably a sweet spot for drugstore finds based on original ingredients and prestige vs. number of reformulations. Something like Aspen can stay good forever because it was formulated for the price point where it still exists. Something that started out as a prestige fragrance can probably only survive a certain number of reformulations before it dies.

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    1. Hazel, your comment is spot-on.

      And your point about things above a certain price point falling short - yeah, that's kind of an offensive feeling, isn't it? Something $120 that smells like it could be $40. Yikes.

      Creed's feminine perfumes seem to be disappointing to me, but then again I'm a man so maybe I don't always "get" what I'm smelling in the same way a woman would. The good thing about Creed is that many of their "masculine" fragrances are better and also entirely unisex. I don't know what would tickle your fancy from them but I heartily recommend giving the men's line a try in lieu of the feminine line.

      I think the interesting thing about something like Aspen is that it wasn't so cheap once. Back in the nineties Aspen was still around $30 from brick-and-mortar shops, which in nineties dollars wasn't cheap at all. Today, the same bottle for $28 from K-Mart and $10 offline sees no degradation in quality.

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  3. This is the greatest post that I have ever read!!!!

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  4. Brut, Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur, Lapidus PH, Sung Homme, Open by Roger & Gallet and on a lesser extent and cheaper, Malizia Vetyver, Cigar by Remy Latour, etc. How can anybody say that when you have under 50 (30 ????? ) dollars for your perfume, there's no way to have quality !!

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    1. I know Omar, it's kind of an ill-conceived premise to say that the cheaper ones are "rarely" the best.

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  5. Price is such an odd thing. I really feel it's completely subjective - how much one loves and adores a scent should be the main criteria. That said, I'm a complete snob about some perfumes (Britney Spears, Kardashian things) and that is partially a function of price. They simply don't spend money on high-quality ingredients but use cloying synthetics instead. So, yes, price can offer the possibility of a better smelling perfume. But it's no guarantee as I've smelled some truly horrid stinkers from niche brands.

    There are some super-expensive niche brands I'd love to own (but cannot afford) and others I wouldn't wear if they gave it to me. Yet, some of my favorite comfort scents are really dirty cheap. For example, I absolutely adore vintage Karl Lagerfeld for Men (now, pathetically changed and called Karl Lagerfeld Classic) which one can find on eBay for about $25. Honey, leather, incense, tobacco and a weirdly subtle masculinized homage to Shalimar. I'll take that any day over a Montale Aoud and a large number of the By Kilian's that I've tried.

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    1. In a way, everything about perfume is subjective. Some people think celebrity fragrances are great, others just hate most of them, niche has its fanbase, its detractors, designer gets poo-pooed and then embraced when the odd duck so-called masterpiece comes along. But none of that matters. What counts is that the wearer enjoys what they're smelling on themselves when they spray a perfume on. From there, price, packaging, name, brand, color, shape, size, fit, everything suddenly takes on a different meaning, and one's personal opinion is the only thing with real worth.

      That's interesting about the By Kilian's, I'm going to have to tackle that brand and see what I think.

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    2. Yes, I agree that everything is subjective when it comes to perfume. As for the Kilian line, it is undoubtedly like every other line: it has some hits and some misses. I merely haven't been lucky thus far. I'm sure I'll find something to love eventually. :)

      OT, is there a way to subscribe to your blog by email? For some reason, the whole Google system is giving me some difficulty, from the name used to post (which is supposed to be Kafka) to some other quirks.

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    3. Yeah the Atom subscription feature on the bottom of the page doesn't work too well. The "Join this site" button gives you a couple of options for which kind of account you want to use I think, but unfortunately with Blogger it seems there are really limited resources for this. I'm sorry I couldn't be more of a help. It does look like your name as "Kafka" has become operational though.

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    4. No, I appreciate your assistance with such a silly technical question. Thank you. :)

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  6. Interesting post, it brings me to my own experience in perfumery. My first perfume buy was Nitro, a cheap version of Hugo Boss lol when I was 18. It cost 10 dollars, and everyone seemed to like it and I like it. But as so often happens in life, people evolve, our tastes become more complicated and so I abandoned the cheap drugstore fragrances in favor of designer fragrances, and I thought I was making an investment in something worthy by buying perfumes that cost between 60 dollars to 80 dollars.

    My personal favorite for years was Dolce & Gabbana's L' Amoureux. Then I had an epiphany: being the huge Madonna fan that I am, I decided to try Madonna's perfume Truth Or Dare, and I was so blown away when I discovered a perfume that literally lasted 10 hours on my skin. Before that I had never worn a perfume that I could still feel after 30 minutes. I used to think that it was somehow ok that one didn't feel one's own fragrance during the day because one's nose becomes numb to the same smell after just a few minutes. But I was wrong. What I had failed to realize is that, I did not feel the scent of the perfumes I used to buy, that ranged from Chanel to United Colors of Bennetton, because they are made with such astonishing poor quality that the scent literally is destroyed mere minutes after being applied.

    All of a sudden, my favorite fragrance L' Amoureux, which has a beautiful scent, just didn't cut it any more. If L' Amoureux barely lasted an hour on my skin, whereas truth or dare lasts 10+ hours, well buying L' Amoureux seemed like a waste of money.

    I realize that Madonna's Truth Or Dare is an eau de parfum and D&G's is an eau de toilette, but I've had other eau de parfum's that you can't even perceive, and mind you they had an 80 dollar price tag and so on.

    So I've been on a quest to find perfumes of not only beautiful scent, but that LAST. Anything less than 8 hours sillage and projection is a waste of money too me.

    Such quality is not found on designer fragrances, let alone cheaper drug store scents, or at least I haven't found it.

    Even some really expensive perfumes fall short. So far, only Robert Piguet perfumes I feel have the longevity of Madonna's perfume, and they justify their 135 dollar price tag. I am currently using Futur and I enjoy it very much and sense it all day with me, it is my companion in a way, it doesn't bail after 30 minutes like 90% of fragrances. But looking at other perfumes within the same range, for instance Chanel No5 which is more expensive, only lasts around 2 or 3 hours. It makes it a waste for me.

    So yeah, price does not go hand in hand with quality, and one can say that that is nowhere more true than in modern day perfumery, most perfumes, even high end brands are simply absolutely terrible.

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  7. I've got two words for the writer of that post: Estee Lauder. Depending on bottle size, most of their fragrances fall within the $40 - $60 range, and trump many high-priced niche lines in quality, complexity, and longevity.

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    1. Oh yeah, Lauder is an easy missile to use in shooting the price argument down. Others are Caron, YSL, and Puig. The list goes on and on. May be easier for guys to find a cheaper frag that's high quality than the ladies.

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  8. Great post! I'm currently rocking a newer COTY frag 'Beckham Homme' http://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/David-Victoria-Beckham/David-Beckham-Homme-12427.html

    I payed only $15 for a 2.5Oz. CHeck it out. Would love to see a frompyrgos review.

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    1. That's reputedly not bad. I will have to check it out. Thanks for the link.

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