When it comes to perfume royalty, it's hard to get more blue-blooded than French house Rancé. The perfumery, which dates back to the 16th century, grew into prominence when it began supplying King Napoleon I and his family members with bespoke perfumes.
Today, even though Rancé has launched various new scents through the years, the family-owned perfumery is still best known for its Imperial range of 10 fragrances that were each created for different members of Napoleon's court.
“We are one of the few perfume-makers with a legacy of such pedigree. Many customers trust the company more when they know about its legacy, traditions and focus on quality,” says Patrick Pace, international business developer at Rancé. The brand launched in the Singapore market in May at high-end multi-label beauty boutique Escentials.
Indeed, Rancé, together with the few remaining perfume houses that have an illustrious history of supplying scents to nobility including British brand Penhaligon's and French house Creed, are experiencing a surge in interest in modern times.
These independent perfumeries belong to the market segment of niche brands that saw its global market share increase by four percent from 2011 to 2012, says Master Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, who has created scents for cult favourite brands such as Penhaligon's and L'Artisan Parfumeurs.
Rancé, in particular, which was barely known outside perfume aficionado circles up to just a couple years ago, has seen its sales jump by about 70 percent in 2012, in part due to an aggressive global expansion plan, and is now available in 60 markets worldwide.
This focus on carefully crafted fragrances, which have juices rich in history and sentiment, can be seen as an extension of a larger global consumer trend in obtaining products that emphasise their artisanal origins. Case in point: The Hermès Birkin or Chanel's tweed jackets have never been more popular than they are today.
Cult perfume brands with relatively younger histories have also shown a strong affinity for creating scents that pay homage to traditional perfumery practices. For instance, Jeroen Oude Sogtoen, co-founder of French brand Mona di Orio, says: “When we launched in 2005, we felt that people were ready to experience parfum like they used to be made in the glorious past of perfumery in the twenties and thirties.”
The fragrances, such as the Les Nombres d'Or Collection, are inspired by classical perfumes and features traditional fragrance accords such as musk and vanilla, which are blended in careful proportions to reach “melodious harmony”, says Sogtoen.
Even though the niche brands are leading the charge on this trend, the larger fashion brands have very quickly caught up as well with their own artisanal perfumes that draw on their rich heritages and archives. There's Dior's La Collection Privée, which is inspired by key events and places in Monsieur Christian Dior's life; Guerlain's The Exclusives range which pays tribute to the brand's history as a haute perfumery; and Chanel's Les Exclusifs range of perfumes inspired by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel's life.
When Bottega Veneta released its first eponymous fragrance in 2011, the leather floral chypre scent was composed based on two main inspirations — the Venetian countryside where the brand originates and the scent of the fashion house's signature Intrecciato bags.
Françoise Mariez, senior vice president of European brands at Coty Prestige, which produced the fragrance, explained why the scent was so strongly linked to Bottega Veneta's roots: “The aim was to attract a clientele who fancies the brand, creating an opportunity to access to the brand through the fragrance, in addition to [attracting] actual Bottega Veneta customers.” It appears customers were indeed enamoured with smelling like a Bottega Veneta boutique as the brand has just launched Eau Légère, a summer version of the original scent.
Whether these “heritage” scents originate from small cult brands or larger fashion labels, what they have in common is that their creators pay utmost attention to the ingredients that go into their concoctions. This is why master perfumers such as Duchaufour appreciate working with perfumeries which traditionally place a premium on the quality of the scent produced, instead of trying to balance their account sheets.
Duchaufour says: “When I create perfumes where a budget is set, the ingredients I can use are limited, and as a result, the combination of accords and the resulting palette is limited.” For example, 1kg of the highly sought-after Florentine iris, which is widely considered the best that money can buy, can cost anywhere between €70,000 and €100,000.
But this does not mean such perfumes smell old-fashioned and dated. Duchaufour, who has created five perfumes for Penhaligon's, including the upcoming Vaara commissioned by the maharajah of Jaipur and will be launched early next year, says he is not interested in “creating a museum of perfumes that people won't buy”.
Two of his perfumes for the Penhaligon's Anthology collection — Orange Blossom and Esprit du Roi — were adapted from the house's original recipes. “These were first created in the seventies when tastes were more ‘hippy' and people preferred heavier scents,” he explains. His modernised formulations have a lighter touch, but linger on with a depth that is hardly found in standard fruity-floral concoctions that are so popular in mass scents.
Similarly, Christopher Chong, creative director of Oman-based Amouage, says this is a misconception he wishes to debunk: “From day one, Amouage has always been an international brand that pays tribute to the grand traditions of classical perfumery. I have then added my own twist to it by deconstructing the traditional constructions in the accords by creating a certain strangeness or imbalance. Perhaps it is Amouage's birthplace that gives the illusion that these perfumes are exotic.”
Indeed, “exotic” ingredients such as oud wood, tuberose and patchouli, which were popularly used in perfumes of yore, can be used in modern and unconventional ways, as evidenced by Tom Ford's premium Private Blend collection, where each fragrance is created based on a single note.
The fashion designer and perfume connoisseur wanted a range of “artisanal fragrances that are unconstrained by the conventions of mainstream scent-making”, says Jo Yong, brand general manager of Tom Ford in Singapore.
The Private Blend collection, which makes up about 30 percent of the brand's total business, looks set to grow further in the coming months. Yong says a collection of four Private Blend fragrances inspired by ingredients that have “treasured prestige in the Orient, ranging from voluptuous florals and precious fruits to aromatic spices and rare oils”, is set to launch in September.
Retailers such as Escentials and Oblique, a cult fragrance boutique that stocks hard-to-find brands including Mona di Orio, are cautiously optimistic that more consumers are beginning to appreciate the unique beauty of a well-crafted fragrance.
But while some customers are moving away from “boring fruity or floral scents of not so exclusive bouquets”, says Clarence Lee, the owner of Oblique and a celebrity make-up artist, he finds the “majority are still into mainstream scents as many are not so well informed and their noses are not accustomed to unusual scents”.
As with an appreciation for vintage wines and the other finer things in life, perhaps it just takes time and a willingness to experiment to cultivate a nose for exquisite scents. Cheryl Tan, brand manager of Escentials, says she sees more customers “gravitating towards niche scents as they want to be different and not wear the same fragrance as everyone else”.
She adds: “It is usually not love at first sniff, but when customers take time to appreciate and try the fragrance, allowing it to develop on their skin, they find that it is something exciting and different.”
Take a whiff of these fragrances and be transported into another world through the stories that these scents evoke
Mona di Orio Les Nombres d'Or Tubéreuse, from Oblique
This fragrance is part of the brand's Les Nombres d'Or (or the Golden Ratio) range, which references an ancient mathematical proportion said to define perfection. To balance out the heaviness of tuberose, fresh pepper, bergamot and jasmine are added to give the scent a lighter, greener touch.
Rancé Imperiale Laetitia, from Escentials
This oriental spicy scent with notes of patchouli, vanilla and orange blossom was created by the Rancé family for Napoleon's mother Laetitia, who was known to be a feisty woman with a strong personality.
Hailed by perfume connoisseurs as a modern classic, this fragrance by Bertrand Duchaufour was inspired by the distinctive cocktail of scents in the workshops of bespoke tailors in London's Savile Row. The woody, ozonic notes combine with beeswax and tonka bean for a nostalgic sniff down memory lane.
Tom Ford Private Blend Jardin Noir Jonquille De Nuit
This Jardin Noir range of four scents are darker, dramatic versions of four of the perfumery's most popular blooms — rose, narcissus, hyacinth and lily. The Jonquille De Nuit features two types of narcissus flowers to bring out both the honeyed notes of the flower and its greener undertones.
Bottega Veneta Eau Légère
The leathery chypre Bottega Veneta fragrance, so reminiscent of the scent of its boutiques, gets a summer update with a lighter, sparkling touch to conjure up images of a cool waterfall on a hot sunny day.