Golden age of perfume in the air?

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The most popular season for fragrance buying is upon us, and with it, the clouds of perfume that mark the entrance to many department stores. Looking for a whiff of Marc Jacobs’ vampy new Lola? How about Thierry Mugler’s Alien Liqueur de Parfum, which is aged in oak casks? Even if most shoppers aren’t actively seeking the stars of the fragrance world, they will get a sniff as they run the gantlet of atomizer-armed perfume girls who gleefully spritz shoppers and keep stores joyfully aromatic.

Many shoppers will undoubtedly be drawn to traditional favorites. The so-called mass market category (sold at drugstores and supermarkets) is dominated by scents such as Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds and splash-it-on Jean Naté, along with some of the newer celebrity fragrances, including Britney Spears Fantasy, Glow by J Lo and Halle by Halle Berry. In the higher-end prestige market, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle and Estée Lauder Beautiful are among the top sellers.

In addition to the breakout scents that capture the attention of shoppers each season, the most notable trend in the industry comes from the growth in niche products.

“At the end of the day, fragrance is a sociological phenomenon,” said Michael Edwards, creator of Fragrances of the World, a decades-old retailer’s guide that now includes 7,000 perfumes and colognes. “On the one hand, perfume is a commodity,” dominated by global multinationals such as L’Oreal, which makes fragrances for Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Diesel and Yves Saint Laurent,” Edwards said. “But on the other side we’re in a new golden age of perfume,” driven by artisans who “seek to create experiences rather than brands” and who are finding an enthusiastic audience via the Internet.

Of course, the $3.4-billion fragrance industry, like so many others, has been hard hit by the recession. U.S. sales are down 10% heading into the holidays this year compared with 2008, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. While 50% of all fragrance is purchased between October and December and 1 in 5 consumers plans to buy perfume or cologne this season, the question remains: How much?

“We’ve never gone into the holiday season as down as we are this year,” said Karen Grant, NPD’s global industry analyst and vice president of beauty.

Many fresh choices

“The positive is that going into the holiday this year, a lot of the new launches are just hitting,” Grant said. “Whether it’s Lola [by Marc Jacobs] or Flora by Gucci, they’re getting more attention. The hope is that with some being so new, they’ll drive some traffic and energy and excitement.”

About 600 new perfumes are released every year, compared with 150 per year in the 1990s and 50 in the 1980s, according to the Fragrances of the World database. Most of those releases occur in the fall, to appeal to women who are already in stores updating their looks, and to shoppers whose wallets are open for the holidays.

Yet amid the hundreds of fragrances released each year, only a handful of hits rise to the surface. And many perfume industry insiders lament that successful launches such as Dolce & Gabbana’s citrus-y Light Blue and Thierry Mugler’s Angel are then copied for years by their competitors. Breakout hits of recent years such as Ed Hardy for women and Viva La Juicy from Juicy Couture are “likely to inspire copycats,” Grant said.

One leading perfume expert has concerns about perfume ingredients. “The formula cost in the mainstream brands has gone steadily down so the perfumes are simply cheaper in composition than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago,” said Luca Turin, a biophysicist and perfume expert. He is also the author of several books including “The Secret of Scent” and “Perfumes: The Guide” (written with Tania Sanchez), which offers critiques of more than 1,800 perfumes.

“If you’re talking fine fragrance, if you don’t put cash into the composition, you won’t get anything wonderful,” said Turin, adding that the best scent he has smelled recently was Tiare, from the small London-based perfumer Ormonde Jayne. He also noted the soon-to-be-discontinued B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful range of fragrances, saying they are “honest, high-quality products at sensible prices in fun packaging. What’s not to like?”

“What’s happening now,” said Turin, “is there’s a lot of diversity, which is a good thing.”

Niche fragrances from small independent players, such as the Morocco-based Frenchman Serge Lutens, account for less than 10% of the market but are pushing the envelope of creativity, appealing to a small, fanatical and growing clientele. Niche fragrances have experienced double-digit growth this year, according to Grant of the NPD group. “They’re really small in their overall penetration in the marketplace, but they seem to be an area where consumers are gravitating,” Grant said.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Vanille Havana, Kilian’s Pure Oud and Une Rose Chypree from Tauer Perfumes are among the favorites touted by Elena Knezevic on her website Part encyclopedia, part community forum and part magazine, the site was founded by Knezevic in 2007 in her home country of Serbia. Now based in New Jersey and supported only with Google ads, Fragrantica boasts a monthly readership of 600,000.

“The most important thing to be successful is to start from the art, not from the profit, because people will recognize your real intention very quickly, especially now when people use the Internet to find out things,” Knezevic said.

Niche perfumers typically devote more money to the formulation, less to bottle design and nothing, for the most part, to advertising. Instead of a blanket approach, small perfumers prefer word of mouth; they target a mere handful of outlets frequented by aficionados.

That’s the strategy at Etat Libre d’Orange, a niche French perfumer that puts 40% of its budget into the fragrance and attributes 100% of its inspiration to sex, or the pursuit thereof. The company’s offerings include scents with ribald names and “dirty” notes such as leather.

“We at Etat Libre give freedom to the perfumers and feed them stories to get them creating an emotion. The idea is to be carefree in all aspects except the quality of the scent,” said creative director Etienne de Swardt, who employs Albert Camus’ grandson as a staff perfumer.

Even traditional perfumers are getting “fed up of smelling the same thing,” said Pierre Aulas, olfactive consultant for Thierry Mugler, who also runs his own fragrance line, Ego Facto, on the side.

While Aulas says Thierry Mugler is different from other major perfume brands in that it “does not launch a product if it has not at least a hint of something new,” he adds, “people who really like perfume want more creative, more daring things, and in the niche fragrances that’s what you’re finding.”

Many of those niche fragrances can be found in Scent Bar, a tiny Beverly Boulevard storefront with a small, brown awning. Its 320 square feet is home to more than 400 rare perfumes that are set up like a cocktail bar. The shiny white counter is cluttered with bottles of exotic new releases such as Nasomatto’s Black Afgano (a scent made from smuggled hashish) and Tribute from Amouage (the Omani perfumer whose signature notes are frankincense and rose petals). On the wall behind it are hundreds more bottles divided by category -- fruity florals and woody exotics. A wall of men’s fragrances and a section devoted to Commes des Garçons fill out the boutique’s collection.

“Fragrances are little luxuries,” said co-owner Franco Wright, who also runs the niche fragrance website, which offers twice as many perfumes as the store. Unlike many perfumers, Wright says he’s been “super blessed” that the economy “hasn’t had a huge effect on us,” a situation he attributes to products that feel “very couture” without costing a fortune. The perfumes at Scent Bar cost between $40 and $400 per bottle.

“In this economy, when you can’t afford that expensive handbag and shoes, fragrance has become the go-to accessory. At the niche level, there’s some exclusivity. . . . And the cherry on top is smelling fabulous all day long.”