A spritz of fragrance may be a frivolous thing, but the type of scent we spray can also be a sign of the zeitgeist. This year, gone are the big, bold uniform scents that are easily accessible and in are rare, unusual and unique fragrances. Is it a sign of a growing trend of individualism?
A few years back, if you asked a woman what fragrance she was wearing, it would probably have been a big-brand name. Perfumes, of course, have long been the ‘entry point’ to purchasing a designer label, with every major fashion house having a line-up of juices bearing their designer’s signature. But, echoing what is happening in the travel and culinary industries, our tastes are changing in favour of something more unique and artisanal.
“There’s no doubt about it, everyone wants an unusual perfume,” says James Craven, a fragrance archivist at Les Senteurs (lessenteurs.com), a perfumery that specialises in niche scents. “In this age of exaggerated super-communication and the instant gratification of social media, celebrity and fame have come too close, are too cheap. The cognoscenti now demand something arcane, rare and unknown… a scent that will mark them out as an individual, an original, a rara avis.”
While the hyper-rich can commission a bespoke scent, which can take years to make and costs tens of thousands of pounds, the growing niche perfume market bridges the gap between bespoke and high street.
“At the moment, the quest for a rare or limited edition fragrance is a very popular trend in the luxury market,” agrees perfume expert Michael Donovan. “It reflects the celebration of the individual. In the 1980s and 90s brands defined us, but those days are gone. Perfume is now seen as an expression of our personality. What’s more, our increased knowledge of notes and ingredients and their provenance is challenging perfumers to create more and more idiosyncratic scents. For many of these artisans, such as Frédéric Malle, it is a joy to create the extraordinary rather than a generic, one-size-fits-all fragrance.”
According to the NPD Group, a leading market research company, niche scents have contributed 40% of the total growth of the fragrance market this year. Limited numbers, hard-to-source ingredients and hand-created bottles, however, mean that these fragrances manage to retain an air of exclusivity. And, after all, there’s nothing better than someone asking what perfume you are wearing, and then being able to have an air of secrecy around it, citing an unusual brand-name. It speaks volumes about our taste.
Ironically, these days, most of the well-known perfume labels are also quietly carving out their own slice of the action. Seen as an ‘haute couture’ line for their perfume offering – Dior has its Collection Privée, Givenchy has L’Atelier and Chanel Les Exclusifs. Non-commercial and hard to source – Chanel’s line, for instance, is only available in a handful of stores – the idea is to create an instant appeal in their rarity.
“We are more confident about fragrance now and we have learned to appreciate great scent,” says Michael Donovan. “Consequently, we are entering the second golden age of perfume, since the 1920s, with perfumers able to display outstanding creativity.”
Rare fragrances that hit the right note
Fiesta by Ramón Monegal
Based in Barcelona is the Spanish cult perfumery Monegal, which last year celebrated its centenary. Headed up by Ramón Monegal, a fourth generation master perfumer, the brand boasts a rich history of perfume making. Its latest offering is Fiesta, a limited edition fragrance described as an ‘homage to love and to Spain’. Multi-layered and costing £400 for 50mls (you can find it exclusively in Harrods), it ranges from top notes of sea molecule and peach blended with rose and osmanthus to a base of heliotrope and cotton candy.
“For me, a fragrance starts to become “rare” when it distances itself from the trends influenced by marketing or fashion,” Monegal says. “Today, more than ever, customers want to communicate a unique personal image. They look for ‘rare’ perfumes that aren’t available to everyone. In reality, they look for the extraordinary, that which brings them as close to their personal unique perfume as possible.”
Palace Oud by Thameen
With only 100 bottles made, this spicy blend, containing rare Indian Oud, which has been aged for 12 years, is not even on show at Selfridges, where it is exclusively sold. Like contraband, it is kept ‘under the counter’ so that only those ‘in the know’ will ask for it. Costing £2,750 for 30ml, it comes in a handmade crystal decanter and is a sensual, intense fragrance.
“I designed this fragrance around the ingredients,” says Basel Bin Jabr, the founder of Thameen, a luxury British brand. “We had an exclusive agarwood from India, which is like cognac, it gets silky smooth over time, so we really wanted to celebrate this. We teamed it with the most expensive rose in the world – the Taif Rose – Egyptian jasmine and cedarwood from the Atlas Mountains. The scent is so epic that we wanted to design a hand-blown, crystal flacon to do it justice! This is a scent at extrait strength – over 25% concentration – so it really is the most luxurious jus.”
Perfumer H by Lyn Harris
Better known for her perfume label Miller Harris, Lyn Harris, the only classically trained female nose in the UK, has embarked on a new venture to cater for the latest appetite for unusual fragrances. Perfumer H, an intimate perfume atelier in Marylebone, offers a three-tiered range: a pared-back seasonal collection (think: Raincloud for spring, Pine for winter), pre-made one-of-a-kind scents known as Laboratory Editions (the formula is exclusively yours) and a personalised perfume service – a collaborative process starting from £15,000.
“We live in a world where there is too much of everything and too much of the same,” she says. “The bubble has burst and people want to spend their money on less but have the best. Smell is so expressive of who we are, how we feel or who we want to be. It’s a magical escape and so the fragrance has have integrity on lots of different levels.”
Narcisse Noir by Caron
One of the truly great perfume houses, Caron was founded in Paris in 1904. Its Rare Perfume Collection is a coterie of its most important scents, dating back 100 years. Produced in their original bottles, they are in a pure perfume form – as they would have originally been worn. A cult fragrance in the 20s, but currently enjoying a low-key revival, is Narcisse Noir. It was created in 1911 by Ernest Daltroff, who was considered the greatest nose of the period. Combining rose and orange blossom with sandalwood and musk, it is a sensual, daring scent and comes with a high caliber of devotees. From the silent screen siren Gloria Swanson, who is said to have demanded that the set of the film Sunset Boulevard be scented with it to Dita Von Teese – this is as glamorous as perfume gets.
A La Rose Extrait by Francis Kurkdjian
Renowned as the creator of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male when he was just 24, Francis Kurkdjian is also regarded as one of most unique and original perfumers of our time. His past ventures have included trying to recreate the 17th century perfume worn by Marie Antoinette, inventing giant olfactory installations and opening one of the first bespoke fragrance ateliers in Paris in 2009. His latest offering is A La Rose Extrait. Costing £1,200 for 70ml, the pink juice is intrinsically feminine, and is made with 4,000 roses from Grasse and Bulgaria. It comes in a hand-engraved bottle in a chic, mirrored case.
Outrageous by Frédéric Malle
Born into the perfume industry – Frédéric Malle is the grandson of Serge Heftler-Louiche, who created the Parfums Christian Dior. Over the years he has worked as a consultant for the likes of Christian Lacroix and Hermes International, and alongside some of the truly great noses of our era. His label is considered as one of the original artisan brands. His latest fragrance, Outrageous, launching in February, is a collaboration with legendary perfumer Sophia Grojsman. Based on the culture and colour of Brazil, it combines bergamot, tangerine and green apple with cinnamon, musk and ambroxan. It’s what Frédéric describes as “clean sex appeal”.
This article appears in the February 2017 issue of Kensington & Chelsea Magazine