This question arises over and over again and is sincerely posed most often by people who are deciding whether they want to make the move to niche. They like perfume, and notice that the world of perfume is much larger than what one would gather from flipping through fashion magazines, but that larger universe—beyond Chanel, Guerlain, Givenchy, Estée Lauder, and all of the other mega-houses which advertise in Vogue—remains intangible and elusive. What are these other, lesser-known houses held in great esteem by perfumistas everywhere? What, precisely, is it that makes them niche?
Many people have offered answers to this question which focus upon extrinsic factors. Often people simply assume that niche perfumes are more expensive than non-niche perfumes, and so this is presumably part of the reason why they seem to be protected by a halo-like aura of reverence. The idea that a perfume is good because it is expensive is yet another example of the heartfelt desire on the part of nearly everyone everywhere to retain at least a vestige of a belief in meritocracy. If it costs a lot, it must be good. Certainly, this may generally be true about perfumes, as of many other things.
On average, a meal which costs $10 is not as good as a meal which costs $100. There are rare exceptions, of course, for example, a recent plate of fish and chips which I happened upon on a cool fall day, and which I am prepared to assert achieved a near transcendental level of deliciousness. Perhaps I was merely hungry, or perhaps the meal really was great, despite its modest cost.
Similarly, the chances that a $20 bottle of perfume purchased at CVS is going to be really good seems rather slim, and not without reason. The reality is that when you sniff a wide range of $20 perfumes you find that, as a matter of fact, they tend to smell cheap. There are rare, felicitous exceptions to the rule, but more often than not, the quality of a cheap perfume will reflect to some extent its price.
Is the converse true? If you sniff a wide range of $100 or $200 perfumes, are you likely to find that they are excellent? I think that there is certainly a higher probability that a $100 perfume is going to be better than the vast majority of $20 perfumes. Whether or not one happens to like a particular composition, it is often quite clear that the materials of which it is made are of high quality. Even at the lower levels, there really is a patent difference in quality between the ingredients of, say, a Coty perfume and a Coty prestige perfume. Compare even a Coty prestige perfume to a triple-digit dollar perfume, and the difference will likely be even more stark. If someone cannot tell the difference, then that usually means that the person does not have that much experience in evaluating perfumes.
A related question which arose in a different forum was whether those who claim (such as the authors of The Holey[sic] Book sometimes do) that low-brow, inexpensive perfumes are excellent might be neglecting the quality of components and focusing solely on the structure and proportion of the various notes. One good example to reflect upon in connection with this issue might be Salvador Dali Laguna, a perfume which does seem interesting and even unique, but which degrades over time to the point where it ceases to be pleasurable to wear after a few hours. The perfume was created by Marc Buxton, and I think that in most cases where he has constructed a perfume for a niche house such as Comme des Garçons, as opposed to a seriously low-brow juice factory such as Salvador Dali (most of the offerings of which are available online for around $20 a bottle), one will not encounter the same unpleasantness. In the case of a considerably more expensive, "niche" Buxton composition, the perfume fades away without falling apart, and this would seem to have something to do with the quality of the components.
Clearly there is a reason why some perfumes regularly sell for so little money, and it's not because the houses which produce them are doing charitable works in giving away their products for free. No, the truth is that the perfumes which are sold consistently at low price points are the same ones which are cheap to produce. They are so cheap to produce, in fact, that there is still a profit margin on a bottle even when sold at online discount emporia for a fraction of the MSRP. But I digress...
In discussing the case of Marc Buxton's Salvador Dali versus his Comme des Garçons perfumes, I referred to the latter as a niche house. What, then, to return to our initial question, is a niche house?
Well, it's not just a house which produces expensive perfumes, because plenty of mainstream houses with gigantic advertising budgets have those gigantic advertising budgets precisely because they charge much more for their perfumes than it costs to produce them. Producing expensive perfumes is clearly not a sufficient condition for being a niche perfumer, but is it necessary? I think not, for there are clear examples of what I term "budget niche" houses, meaning houses with a niche orientation but which offer wares at quite affordable prices. In fact, my view is that focusing upon cost merely obscures the issue and distracts attention from the intrinsic differences between niche and non-niche houses.
Again, some have proposed that accessibility and availability are the key to being niche. Niche houses are generally small and local, without the means to project a global image in the way that mainstream houses do, through massive advertising campaigns. But is this “local” quality—or the fact that the perfumes of a house may be difficult to come by, or that it is difficult to communicate with the house—is any of this relevant to what makes a house niche?
I'm inclined in this case as well to deny that any of these extrinsic factors is really the solution to the niche vs. non-niche conundrum. If we were to say that niche houses are those which are small and inaccessible, then this would imply that if they suddenly took on a sophisticated marketing team capable of projecting an effective global image, then they would cease to be niche. Again, does a niche house which in its early years “does not do samples” cease to be niche upon finally getting its act together (perhaps after reading sherapop's manifesto, Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery) to produce an excellent sample program permitting perfumistas all over the world to partake of their wares without having to turn to the ebay hawks who scoop up free samples and sell them for profit? I think not.
No, the popular answers to the question What is niche? may have a superficial appeal, but to get to the root of this matter we must dig a bit deeper. What distinguishes niche from non-niche houses inheres, I maintain, is the central intention of the niche perfumers themselves. If they are producing perfumes because they are artists and therefore are compelled in expressing themselves to produce perfumes, then I'd say that they are niche. If they are producing perfumes primarily in order to earn money, then I'd say that they are more business persons than artists and do not qualify as niche.
Now, when I recently proposed this answer, one savvy interlocutor rejected it, on the grounds that I seemed to be suggesting that non-niche houses cannot produce great perfumes, and that great perfume artists cannot work for non-niche houses, both of which seem patently false. Although I appreciate these rebuttals, I do not believe that they are fatal to my view. For in locating the essence of “niche”-ity in the intention of the perfumers, I am not suggesting that any person has pure intentions one way or the other. In other words, I concede that even the most artistic of perfumers is constrained by financial considerations. The necessity of dealing with all of the mundanities of life makes it the case that each and every perfumer, including those whom I regard as niche, has some financial interests at stake. After all, if they did not, then why not sit at home and stir up new perfume recipes never to be shared?
Not so fast, sherapop. Could it not be the case that perfumers wish to share their wares for other reasons having nothing to do with the money which they will earn through doing so? It seems clear that some of the more famous perfumers working today have earned a ton of money, so they probably do not have any financial need to continue doing so. Take someone like Sophia Grojsman. This is a woman who is a perfumer through and through. That is who she is. She does not create perfumes in order to line her coffers but because she obviously loves to create perfumes.
In a feature at Fragrantica, I recall that Grojsman referred to her perfumes as her children. In other words, like all great artists, she gives birth to creations which then lead lives independent from that of their creator. Grojsman is opposed to reformulation, but once she has created a perfume for a house, it becomes theirs, so there is nothing to be done when the management of a non-niche house (= with a primary business intention) decides that there are ways to make more profit out of a perfume successfully launched, say, by diluting it or reformulating it so as to cut production costs while marketing it under the original name. I have discussed this topic at length in Reflections on Reformulation.
To return to the question of niche, what I want to suggest is that niche really does inhere in the intention of the primary actors at the house. If the house is concerned above all with profit, and not with perfumic creation or beauty, then it is non-niche. This does not mean that there are no artists working for such houses. No, what it means is that they do not have the final say on what is done with the perfumes which they create under the aegis of the house.
In the houses which I regard as indisputably niche, including Tauer Perfumes, Keiko Mecheri, Mona Di Oro (may she rest in peace), Ineke, and many others as well, the mission of the house is perfume, not profit. Yes, they need to make money, but this is a means to producing more beautiful creations.
I am not denying that such houses may metamorphose over time. Take L'Artisan Parfumeur, for example. L'Artisan used to be considered the quintessential niche house, and they may have been one of the first to focus on distinguishing themselves from the mass market houses. However, my impression is that they have moved farther from the niche category as they have become a more successful business. The house itself does not seem so niche to me anymore, though certainly they enlist great artists to produce new perfumes.
All of this is to agree with one wise perfumista who, in responding to my post focusing on intention, said that he thinks that the distinction between niche and non-niche is not all that important, in the end. What he cares about, and what we all should care about, as consumers, is finding perfumes which give us what we're looking for. In fact, many people are not even looking for great art in perfume. They just want to smell good, and for them this goal can be achieved using mass market or in some cases even low-brow drugstore juice. Mainstream houses are aware of the fact that many consumers of perfume are uninterested in perfume as an art. That is why mainstream houses avail themselves of marketing data and may commission the production of perfumes which are created only in order to capture the wallet share of a broad swath of likely consumers.
Others perfume users, we perfumistas, are looking for more, and our quest for great perfumes is an ongoing adventure. Perfumistas will be happy with a beautiful, breathtaking, unforgettable perfume whether it was produced under the aegis of a mega-conglomerate corporation or in a quaint corner of Switzerland by one man with a small lab and a garden. They will sniff critically and be wary of so-called niche houses which charge astronomical prices for their wares as yet another marketing ploy. Price may be a rough indicator of quality, but it can also be hype, pure and simple.