Something’s in the air: cult perfumes

Something’s happening in the perfume world. Where once we coveted the big-impact, big-name scents, there’s now a growing demand for little-known, yet luxurious, niche fragrances.

While there’ll always be a place for a spritz of Chanel No 5 or a burst of the sensual scent that is Guerlain’s Shalimar, the way we want to smell is changing. While many classic perfumes will undoubtedly stand the test of time, there’s a new trend afoot with many of us seeking out more unusual brands in the quest to smell original and unique. It’s also a decidedly top-end market – with many perfume lovers willing to pay eye-popping prices for scents containing exotic, hard-to-source ingredients.

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Harrods’ uber-luxe Salon de Parfums, which opened in October 2014, is reflecting the trend in its edited selection of the world’s finest and rarest scents all offered up in grand surroundings in the ‘fragrance gallery’: think twinkling chandeliers and impressive architectural columns (harrods.com). Here you can secure a limited-edition bottle of Emerald Stars from the niche Italian brand  (£350 for 50ml) or, indeed, invest in the world’s most expensive scent. The special edition version of Clive Christian’s No 1 fragrance, which was first launched 15 years ago, comes in a 24-carat gold and diamond encrusted crystal bottle and is filled with 30ml of the perfume costing an eye-watering £143,000.

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Over at Harvey Nichols (harveynichols.com), the Artisan Niche perfume department brings together an eclectic mix of signature fragrances from Maison Martin Margiela’s subversive range to quirky offerings such as Playing with the Devil from Kilian, an own-label brand from the renowned Parisian nose (£175 for 50ml).

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Alexia Inge, co-founder of Cult Beauty (cultbeauty.com), which seeks out underground beauty brands from across the world, agrees that we are shunning the concept of generic perfumes.

“No-one wants to smell like everyone else anymore,” she says. “A good perfume is like a fine wine, it always starts with old fashioned artistry and skill and takes at least 12 months to formulate (by comparison, most ‘celebrity’ perfumes are put together in two days!). When you wear it people chase you down the street to find out what it is. It’s that elusive quality that we are all after.”

 Molecule 01_Bottle

Her tips for unique scents include Molecule 01 by British brand Escentric Molecules (£65 for 100ml). “Its pheromonic effect smells different on everyone and yet is intensely alluring on all. You will never get as many compliments about your scent,” she says.

Black Jade with box Black_jade bottle 

Black Jade by Lubin Paris [£65 for 50ml] is another must-try. It’s based on an ancient scent – Jardin Secret made especially for Marie Antoinette by royal perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon, to whom Lubin was apprenticed. It has smoky notes yet is very feminine. It’s basically a rose floral, with attitude.”

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Renowned for his alternative take on scent is perfumer Francis Kurkdjian (franciskurkdjian.com). He is best known as the ‘nose’ behind Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, one of the world’s best-selling perfumes, not to mention another 40 fragrances he created for major perfume companies. Inspired by the origins of perfume, he launched his own luxury fragrance house Maison Francis Kurkdjian in the heart of Paris in 2009. Here customers can visit his fragrance atelier for a bespoke service. As well as perfumes for women and men, his olfactory creations include impregnated papers and perfumed bubbles to scent the home. He has also been called upon to create ‘perfume installations’, such as decadently scenting the fountains at the Palace of Versailles.

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“Creating a scent is a way to express myself and create unique emotions,” he says. “People look for something new to wear that will make them noticeable and garner comments when they are wearing it. A fragrance is a story. You need a beginning and an end.”

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Ben Gorman

With a cult following already well-established, Byredo, a Stockholm-based perfume house, is gaining momentum in the perfume world, not least because of its enigmatic founder Ben Gorham. Having had no formal training as a ‘nose’, his unusual creations – such as Gypsy Water and Bal D’Afrique – explore the connection between scent and memory, and are meant to take the wearer on a personal journey (byredo.com).

Byredo Bal D' Afrique Byredo Flowerhead Byredo Gypsy Water Byredo Mojave_Ghost

“As a perfumer having a unique voice is vital,” he says. “A great fragrance should have something to say and transport the wearer. Byredo is about the vision – we seek to take the wearer on a journey and to surprise them along the way. It’s nice to use a rare or little known ingredient to add the element or surprise. In my Flowerhead scent I used Lingonberry, for instance, which achieved this perfectly. It is typically used in Sweden for jam.

“Fragrances have become ‘bigger’ in the last few years,” he continues. “Customers are more confident and much happier to make a statement with their scent. The celebration of the individual is another influence – our customers want to smell unique and use a fragrance that says something about them as individuals.”

While mainstream perfume houses focus on glitzy packaging as much as – or sometimes more – than the fragrance, with obscure labels it’s all about the content and artistry. The emphasis is on originality with many perfumeries using higher concentrations of perfume extracts and natural ingredients, thus commanding a premium price. Packaging, by contrast, is often simpler, albeit sophisticated, in design.

 Pure Parfum Namibia (Frazer Parfum) Solid Perfume Namibia (Frazer Parfum) Solid Perfume Namibia with ostrich leather pouch (Frazer Parfum)

Christa Moreau, the founder of Scent Corner (scentcorner.com), a luxury online emporium that sources unusual scents from around the globe, is in agreement: “There has been a strong homogenization of fragrances from the mainstream market over recent years; as a result the public is in search of a new type of perfumery. I believe more and more people are prepared to pay a higher price for their perfume as long as it is singular, authentic, while also carrying strong values.

“Only small niche brands have the luxury to spend several years in the creation of a new fragrance, to use the finest quality of raw materials or to work with craftsmen who can shape by hand each bottle,” she explains. “This freedom makes them the major players of an authentic perfumery that can be considered as real luxury.

“As an example, I recently discovered the omumbiri, a raw material gathered by the indigenous Himba women from Namibia. We now stock some South-African brands, such as Frazer Parfum, that are among the only ones in the world to include omumbiri in their creations.”

Electimuss Saggita Cut Out Electimuss Venti Cut Out Platinum Muscus Cut Out Rhodanthe Cut Out

Derived from the Latin word meaning ‘to choose the best’ new British perfume brand Electimuss also takes inspiration from further afield. The label’s starting point is with the ancient Romans, who used only rare and exotic ingredients in their perfumes sourced from their expansive Empire (electimussparfum.com). Its Pure Perfume Series uses a very high concentration of premier and rare essential oils – such as that from the Golden Champaca flower found in the Himalayas – making it covetable to perfume aficionados and giving it unusually long-lasting properties.

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Other ‘under-the-radar’ brands – such as Odin NY, Juliette Has A Gun and Thameen – also have their own individual take on catering for this growing appetite for the unusual. Odin NY’s new White Line scents, for instance, pull together fine, raw materials in pure form presented in elegant white-on-white bottles (odinedt.com).

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Juliette Has A Gun, founded by Romano Ricci, approaches perfumery as art and has just launched a new luxury collection, with a first offering called Moon Dance. It features exquisite, natural ingredients to create an intense floral chypre (€195 for 75ml, juliettehasagun.com).

“Our new luxury collection has enabled me to indulge myself as a perfumer but also indulge our clients by using some of the most rare and costly ingredients on the market,” Romano Ricci says. “A sumptuous velvety rose absolute and an incredibly sensual tuberose, the most hypnotic of all the white blossoms, are both the finest in the world and a joy to work with and to wear. I also hunted down to most beautiful saffron – very expensive but it is incredible.”

 Thameen Limited Ed. Palace Oud

No expense is also spared with Thameen’s limited edition Palace Oud, which costs £2,500 for 30ml due to it precious ingredients. Rare Indian oud, aged for 12 years, wild Egyptian jasmine and Arabian rose from Taif are bought together in a hand-blown crystal decanter. Consumers need to be quick off the mark, though, as only 100 bottles have been made (thameenfragrance.com).

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Finally, Nasomatto, the fragrance project of international creative perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri, aims to offer conceptualized scents that are both radical and unique (nasomatto.com). Having composed perfumes for many fragrance houses, the off-shoot label – translated as ‘crazy nose’ – was formed to allow Gualtieri the freedom to use a tranche of new ingredients, including camel dung from the Arabian Desert and hashish, with the latter being used as the central ingredient in his stand-out perfume Black Afgano.

“Black Afgano was the first ever ‘black’ fragrance and also the first to feature hashish as its central note,” says industry expert Michael Donovan. “When it launched a few years ago, this scent caused a major stir with beauty buffs. It sold out at Selfridges, where it was first stocked, instantly and devotees would queue to get their hands on it once they heard that a new batch had arrived. It’s still very hard to get a bottle unless you’re quick! It became the fragrance to copy – although nobody else has got it quite right. It is warm, dark and sensual and smells like nothing else on the market.”

This, of course, is the very essence to what many of the underground brands want to achieve and as the demand for unique scents is growing, big beauty brands are also getting wise to the growing change in tastes. In Guerlain’s Champs Elysees boutique you can find its Les Parisiennes collection, made up of re-editions of the label’s heritage perfumes, selling at €200 each, as well as a collection of vintage scents and the top-end L’Art et La Matiere range of perfumes (guerlain.com). Chanel also has a range of rare blends in the form of its Les Exclusifs de Chanel collection. It is made up of 13 different scents in delectable mini flacons, sold only in a handful of select stores, each containing blends of pure perfume (£115 for 75ml, chanel.com). Having bought Jo Malone – once considered niche – a few years ago, Estée Lauder has now made a savvy move and acquired Le Labo and Frederic Malle – both small and interesting perfume brands – presumably with an eye on capturing that elusive smell of success.

This feature is also in the current issue (February) of Canary Wharf Magazine.

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