Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trickle Down or Wash Out? Niche Perfumery Takes a Hit--From the New York Times!

I subscribe to "Perfume News" from the New York Times, which seldom arrives, and on the rare occasion when it does, usually turns out to be a press release about a new mass market fragrance or line which somehow made it past the gatekeepers who presumably determine what does and does not constitute news. It's not that surprising, really, given that the perfume industry is an intrinsically hype-ridden zone. The "critics" (I mean the ones who earn money for writing about perfume...) are shills; the perfumers are often hacks. Big corporations--above all, LVMH, Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, and Coty Prestige--continue to gobble up small houses and are, needless to say, profit driven. What's new in any of that?

Yesterday's NYT Perfume News, "Trickle Down Fragrances: Mass-Market Perfumes Developed by High-Price Noses," was remarkable in that it not only shilled for a new perfume line, the Sonia Kashuk Collection for Target, but also directly attacked the niche perfumery enterprise, claiming that comparable perfumes can be had for a fraction of the cost:

Perfume lovers can now buy a deeply scented bottle of a new eau de toilette, blended with natural oils of sandalwood and jasmine absolute sambac, both imported from India, formulated by the French-trained perfumer who has worked on scents from luxurious niche brands like Atelier Cologne, which last year introduced a pair of fragrances in sleek glass bottles infused with either gold or silver, retailing at $195.
That earthy scent, called Red Promisia, costs $19.99 and is sold only at Target.

Am I the only person to question, first, whether this is news and, second, whether any of it is true? Let's consider four more specific questions, since comments were not allowed on this "news feature" at the New York Times:

  1. Isn't Indian sandalwood in short supply? Isn't that part of the reason why Guerlain Samsara was reformulated?
  2. Isn't jasmine absolute restricted by the IFRA? Isn't that another part of the reason why Guerlain Samsara was reformulated?
  3. I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Atelier Cologne, but don't their $195 bottles hold a full 200ml? 
  4. Finally, who is Rachel Helder, and for whom does she really work?


  1. "The influence of niche perfume brands, which often focus on olfactive complexity, is helping make fragrances more dynamic across the board. 'The Diptyques and Byredos are really the ones driving the market and creating differentiation,' said Jennifer Powderly, Robertet Fragrances’ vice president for marketing.” - Doesn't sound like a hit on niche to me.

    1. Point well taken, Bryan! But the article opens by claiming, in effect, that only dumb schmucks would pay $195 for something available at Target (pronounced TAR-ZHAY) for $19.95. Does it not?

      As I read it, the sentence cited by you suggests that the niche houses are sabotaging themselves by using Robertet, Givaudan, and IFF perfumers...

    2. How so? Even looking at the opening sentence: "Perfume lovers can now buy a deeply scented bottle of a new eau de toilette, blended with natural oils of sandalwood and jasmine absolute sambac, both imported from India, formulated by the French-trained perfumer who has worked on scents from luxurious niche brands like Atelier Cologne, which last year introduced a pair of fragrances in sleek glass bottles infused with either gold or silver, retailing at $195." - This essentially points out that the perfumer has worked for high-end niche, and has nothing to do with the sentences that immediately follow, other than to connect the perfumer to the reality of the fragrance industry, which is to work for both high end niche and low-end designer. I see no link to a demeaning of niche at all. Nor any slight against those who utilize the services of the major aroma chemical concerns. Could just be my take, but it's how it came across to me immediately. Could you give more examples of exactly how you take the article to be demeaning to niche (and possibly the "big" players like Robertet)?

    3. Well pointed out, Bryan.

    4. Happy to oblige, Bry!

      Let's look first at the insinuation about Atelier, which is said to use fancy bottles with pieces of gold and silver inside. This suggests, does it not, that the fool who buys the juice is paying for the bling. The "smart shopper", looking for good perfume boasting Mysore sandalwood and Sambac jasmine, should, the author is saying, be going to Target, not wasting their hard-earned money on the bling-enhanced bottles of Atelier, et al.

      You yourself, Bry, have complained about the Bond no 9 Bling. The same argument is going on here. Are you willing to pay more for a bottle which is not more valuable to you (since you find those bottles somewhat aesthetically repugnant), when the juice inside can be had for a fraction of the MSRP--if in fact it can?

      I take this as a clear jibe at niche. The article is claiming that you get not only the savvy perfumer, but also the fancy ingredients, so long as you are willing to forego the irrelevant packaging trappings and renowned names of niche.

      Now, I think that the claim that this new juice at Target packs much mysore sandalwood is likely a bunch of nonsense. Here's what Wiki says about that ingredient:

      Santalum album, or Indian sandalwood, is a threatened species. It is indigenous to South India, and grows in the Western Ghats and a few other mountain ranges such as the Kalrayan and Shevaroy Hills. Although sandalwood trees in India, Pakistan and Nepal are government-owned and their harvest is controlled, many trees are illegally cut down. Sandalwood oil prices have risen to $2,000 per kg recently. Sandalwood from the Mysore region of Karnataka (formerly Mysore), and marayoor forest in Kerala, southern India, is high in quality. New plantations were created with international aid in Tamil Nadu for economic exploitation. In Kununurra in Western Australia, Indian sandalwood (S. album) is grown on a large scale.

    5. (cont'd)

      My understanding is that most perfumes which use true sandalwood these days are sourcing it from Australia, not India. (And that's only a tiny fraction of perfumes claiming to contain sandalwood when they really contain abstract "woodishness" with infinite longevity.) So maybe a bottle of this Target juice contains a microdot of true sandalwood from India, but that's got to be about it, given that it costs $2K per kilogram. Ditto for the jasmine. I would surmise that the Target juice probably contains jasminoide or some other synthetic surrogate.

      Of course, you are right, if this is your point, that many niche houses also use these aromachemicals. But then the question becomes: why buy niche at all? If you truly believe that there is no difference in either the quality of the composition or the ingredients used, then you'd be a fool to throw your money away!

      Most nichees (for lack of a better word--and because it resembles Nietzsche! lol) do not believe that some juice in a plastic bottle at Bath & Body Works or Target is on the same level as a bottle by Hermès (to take an example which I myself would be willing to defend). Yet the article preposterously claims that you can get perfume which is just as good for 10% of the price!

      If that isn't a slam on niche, then I don't know what could be. Everything probably turns here on the facts, and I'm not convinced that what the article is claiming, about the equivalence of ingredients used and the level of energy and time invested in the cheaper juice by the same perfumer, is true. One thing is clear: even if the level of energy and time invested by the perfumer are the same for niche and mass-market perfumes (probably earns more from the latter than the former...), the ingredients simply are not--at least not for the good niche houses.

      I do not believe that niche means, by definition, "good" or "nice" or excellent. Only some niche warrants the hype and the price. All of the others are fly-by-nights who are riding out this multilaunching, house-sporing wave in perfume history as long and far as they can--until the bubble bursts, at which point people will finally recognize that much of the juice they were fobbing off was indeed equivalent to the stuff in plastic bottles at Target and BBW.

      There is still good perfume being made with natural ingredients. Creed, anyone? Creed is not only about the bottle. The stuff inside is not going to be found inside the bottles at Target, because Creed is not a charitable organization but a business.

    6. Well I guess one could look at it that way, but I feel it's a slight misreading of the article. Rather than dragging down niche, it seems like Ms. Felder is simply applauding a rise in designer. The general quality of inexpensive discount store fragrances may or may not be improving, depending on your point of view. However, the opinions of that article simply seemed to be conveying that some cheapies, including the one specifically mentioned, are able to impress buyers as being luxury goods and not just cheesy weekend sprays.

    7. Right. But isn't that just the name of the marketing-hype game? Make the product you're trying to sell sound as appealing as you possibly can. Persuade potential consumers to believe that they are getting a good deal so that they'll willfully part with some of their cash and give you, not THEM (the competition), your fragrance market share.

      "sold only at Target"--sure sounds like marketing text to me! ;-)

  2. For the record, I should probably add that I do not believe that the perfumes of Diptyque and Byredo are better than the designer perfumes of the twentieth century. They are certainly *not* more complex than iconic perfumes the likes of which we simply do not see anymore.

    The author appears to have simply lifted two names out of a hat to make her sound more knowledgeable about perfume than she is.

  3. The actual products were singularly underwhelming, I did not care for any of them. Target was doing fume heads and consumers more of a service when they stocked Pacifica and the excellent Apotheke:M line.....

    1. Thanks for putting these products to the sniff test, Katy McReynolds!


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