Health & Grooming

Bring your own bottle

Combining cachet with eco-consciousness, old-school fragrance fountains tap the Zeitgeist, says Karen Wheeler.

December 22 2010
Karen Wheeler

Of all the images that encapsulate the spirit of fine perfumery, there are few more evocative than Caron’s famous fragrance fountains. Made from curvy Baccarat crystal and hinting at the alchemy of a bygone era, these magnificent Louis XVI-style urns have become just as iconic as the scents, forming the visual centrepiece of Caron’s glittering Parisian flagship. Guerlain’s leading store in Paris has also followed suit, and boasts an elaborate fountain installation.

The fragrance fountain, like the in-house “nose”, is one of the symbols of haute perfumery. Not only do the fountains themselves usually have ornamental value, but the perception is that scents dispensed in this way are somehow more luxurious than the pre-packaged, production-line variety. Fashion designer Thierry Mugler certainly saw the potential; his was the first fragrance house to introduce a modern version of the fountain, along with the launch of the Angel fragrance in 1992. “Angel Source” – a dispenser resembling a large, silver test tube, from which customers could top up their heavy, ice-blue glass bottles – was a great success (£51 for a 25ml bottle, £26 refill). He therefore introduced a similar fragrance spring with subsequent scent Alien (£49.50 for a 30ml bottle, £26 refill) and an eco refill bottle for Womanity (£39 for a 30ml bottle, £39 for a 50ml eco refill bottle).

Mugler, whose aim was to return to the glamour and personalised service that used to exist in perfumery, was ahead of the curve with his in-store fragrance springs. Nearly two decades later, refill fountains are popping up in unexpected places – and there is a more timely reason for their popularity. Not only are they customer-friendly (being significantly cheaper than a new bottle), they are also environmentally friendly.

Ecology was the key motivation at Kenzo Parfums, which recently launched a modern version of the fragrance fountain for its signature scent, Flower. “As a brand that draws inspiration from nature, we felt compelled to take a more responsible approach,” says Patrick Guedj, Kenzo’s creative director. “Although much has been done to reduce the brand’s impact on the planet behind the scenes, such as reducing paper usage and looking at methods of transportation, this is the first major project that is visible to customers.”

The Kenzo fountain, which was unveiled in September, took two years to develop. Guedj admits that it wasn’t easy. The first prototype, created by a well-known designer, could not be produced according to eco standards and was scrapped after discussions with retailers (for whom the installation of a fragrance spring throws up issues such as counter space and stock control). The Kenzo team also needed to redesign its bottles so that the pump dispenser would unscrew easily for refilling. However, after perservering, it finally came up with a fountain that pleased the retailers while still fitting the Kenzo aesthetic. Consisting of a red-and-white metal box rather than curvaceous, finely crafted crystal, it is above all practical. Each dispenser holds up to 500ml of scent and results in 47 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a 36 per cent reduction in the resources used, compared with 10 individual 50ml refill pouches – which are themselves more environmentally friendly than the bottles. “Luxury and eco are usually contradictory,” says Guedj, “as luxury normally means more packaging, while eco invariably means less. When we looked at how to be more eco-responsible, a fountain was by far the best idea.”

The beauty brand Fresh has also spotted this ecological potential, although the main motive for introducing fragrance “on tap” in all 15 of its stores around the world was a practical one. The initiative began after the success of the fragrance bar at its flagship boutique in Union Square, New York, where five discontinued fragrances (Cucumber Baie, Patchouli Pure, Pear Cassis, Tobacco Caramel and Violet Moss) were reintroduced in glass dispensers this summer. “A lot of customers had been asking us for perfumes that were no longer available,” explains Fresh co-founder Lev Glazman. “We have 200 fragrances in our library and we can’t inundate the stores with too much product, so the fountains were a good way to bring fragrances back from there.” Available in eau de parfum concentration, the scents are dispensed into small tester-size bottles (£16.50 for 15ml) designed to encourage customers to experiment with fragrance layering (wearing several layers of scent simultaneously).

The response, says Glazman, has been “phenomenal”, with people buying three fragrances at a time. He and co-founder Alina Roytberg are now looking at ways to expand the programme. “The fountains give us the ability to bring other discontinued fragrances back to market – perhaps each spring and fall,” says Glazman. “The fountain format also cuts out excessive packaging – something that we would like to take to a new level. Preaching doesn’t work; you have to entice people to recycle.” The in-store “drums” (as Glazman refers to the glass urns) also allow customers to try fragrances that would normally cost $75 per 100ml bottle without spending a lot of money. “It’s an easy, interactive way for them to play with scent, like modern-day alchemists. The fragrance bar catches people’s eye and creates a lot of animation. It’s almost like being in a laboratory or an old-style apothecary.”

The spirit of the apothecary-cum-laboratory has been more literally recreated at chic Parisian concept store Merci. Le Laboratoire Annick Goutal – a fragrance bar featuring bottles, bell jars and a wall of aluminium perfumers’ flasks – is currently one of the shop’s star attractions. The installation, which looks as if it could be a candidate for the Turner Prize, features five Annick Goutal fragrances on tap: Heure Exquise, Passion, Eau du Sud, Eau de Camille and Eau de Charlotte. Clients can either come to the store with their own bottle to fill or buy the perfume in a plain flask to decant later.

It’s surprising, really, that Annick Goutal has not introduced fountains at its own stores, as its famous “boule papillon” (a glass orb with butterfly stopper) is exactly the kind of bottle you would want to keep and refill. The added attraction at Merci is that the company – which was founded by the late Goutal’s sister and uses its dividends to support a charitable fund in Madagascar – sells the fountain fragrances at an average of 30 per cent less than the Annick Goutal boutiques. Eau de Charlotte, for example, costs €61 per 100ml, as opposed to €89.

As Guerlain perfumer Thierry Wasser points out, the concept of refilling actually dates back to the 19th century. But although the “Imperial Fountains” at La Maison Guerlain, the flagship on the Champs-Elysées, look like they date back to that era, in fact interior designer Andrée Putman created the wall of glass tubes for the redesign of the boutique in 2005.

“They were a brand-new installation and did not exist before. We decided to return to the concept of refilling, as we used to do 180 years ago, offering an exclusive service with some of the most popular fragrances, as our clients wanted to keep the wonderful bee bottles,” says Wasser, referring to the famous crystal bottle, decorated with bees, that was originally designed for Empress Eugénie of France in 1853. But even though the bee or “abeille” bottles can be refilled at the store (from €235 for a 250ml bottle, €170 refill), disappointingly the fountains are not used for the task, as it is quicker and easier to fill the bottles behind the scenes. “They are elements of decoration,” says Wasser. “There is a separate room in which the bottles are cleaned and refilled.”

And while those magnificent Louis XVI urns at Caron give the illusion that they have been around forever – or at least since 1903, when Ernest Daltroff opened the first boutique in Paris – they were actually created for the launch of the Avenue Montaigne store in 1981. As Roja Dove, fragrance expert and founder of the Haute Parfumerie at Harrods, explains, “The brand had just been bought and rather than go to the considerable expense of creating a new bottle mould for each Caron fragrance, it was decided to have one standard bottle and fill it from the Baccarat urns.” So a cost-saving measure became a marketing coup, turning the Montaigne store into a destination boutique, where the bottling, stoppering and beribboning of favourites such as Tabac Blond and N’Aimez Que Moi create what Dove calls “a little bit of theatre” (all €148 for 20ml bottle, €99 refill).

But there are reasons why fragrance fountains have remained largely a niche brand phenomenon. Though reducing costs, they are expensive to implement and, for global brands, only likely to succeed if the perfume commands large sales and a devoted following. Thierry Mugler’s Angel, for example, is a global success, with a fan club known as “the Angel Circle”, while Flower is Kenzo’s bestselling scent. “Flower has a large following of loyal fans who will be crucial to the success of the project,” a spokeswoman for Kenzo Parfums tells me.

The fountain and bring-your-own-bottle idea does, however, offer a solution to the eternal fragrance industry conundrum of how to create a product that will sell in the hundreds of thousands, while also remaining personal. “The fountain dispenser could give vintage scent bottles a new lease of life – the ultimate form of recycling,” says Roja Dove, who sells a selection of vintage bottles by Lalique, Baccarat and Daum, a French house specialising in pâte de verre glass (£250 to £1,000). Old bottles, as Dove points out, can be washed with purging alcohol (of the kind used in perfume factories to clean the vats) to remove any trace of previous scents.

At the same time, many fragrance manufacturers have recently raised the bar on bottle design, with a proliferation of fancy, limited-edition or expensive architect-designed flacons. Customers who have bought their favourite perfume in an expensive bottle will no doubt want to be able to replenish it – if not from a fountain, then at least with a refill. These refill containers are also a potential trend. Like Mugler, Kenzo offers take-home pouches, which (as with fountain top-ups) are cheaper than a new bottle. According to Patrick Guedj, the sachet refills are a “leap in the dark” for the luxury brand and it is too early to say if customers will embrace the idea.

At the Paris launch in May, it was clear that Kenzo’s refill concept had not gone down well with some. One Russian journalist confidently declared that the pouches would not appeal to her compatriots. Still, one can’t help but feel that fragrance fountains are the perfect synergy of eco and luxury. They allow the customer to enjoy a more personalised experience, while the perfume maker, ecologically speaking, emerges smelling of roses.

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