Health & Grooming

Everything’s coming up rarities

Rare and exotic flowers are the new fixation of the fragrance world. Karen Wheeler reports on the lengths some perfumers will go to to capture them.

November 28 2009
Karen Wheeler

Right now, everything should be coming up roses in the fragrance world. The reason? Perfume preferences are said to be closely linked to the economy and social environment. And just as hemlines are said to plunge with the stock market (witness the recent vogue for maxi dresses) and sales of red lipstick are said to surge, so floral fragrances – the safest, least challenging perfume category – have historically flourished in a recession.

Perfume consultant Yves de Chiris calls it “the swinging pendulum theory of perfumery”, pointing out that “the Roaring Twenties were characterised by daring orientals such as Shalimar, while the Wall Street crash gave us Joy, Jean Patou’s legendary (but safe) floral blend of rose and jasmine, in 1929. Similarly, the oil crisis in the 1970s saw a spike in floral launches, such as Anaïs Anaïs, while in the 1980s boom years the “blockbuster” scents – those generating $10m-$20m sales – were predominantly orientals such as Poison. Then in 1988, just as the economy started to go pear-shaped, the blockbuster scent was Eternity (you guessed it – a floral).

But according to research by fragrance creation company Givaudan, the “florals in a crisis” theory does not stand up to scrutiny in the current downturn. Earlier this year, it carried out in-depth interviews with 1,000 women in the UK about their fragrance preferences and disproved the theory that floral fragrances are the default fall-back in times of economic woe. And yet the theory is not entirely without substance. Significantly, the fragrance that attracted the most new buyers among Givaudan’s research group was Kenzo Flower, a soft floral (£33, 30ml).

And while consumers are not reverting to floral fragrances, the fact is that some of the most interesting trends in fine perfumery currently revolve around flora. Natural flower essences, for example, are under­going a renaissance after decades of cheap synthetic substitutes. “Florals have always been the mainstay of women’s perfumery,” says Maurizio Volpi, Givaudan’s global head of marketing and consumer research. “But what is new is the interest in exquisite natural materials and quality. The floral launches we are seeing at present are a reflection of the interest in naturals, as well as a desire to return to simplicity.” In response, Givaudan has put together Orpur, a collection of 55 top-of-the-range natural materials – many, but not all, of them florals, selected by consensus by the company’s perfumers.

And it’s not just natural absolutes of rose, jasmine, iris (hugely fashionable in the past few years) and other stalwarts of the scent world that are undergoing a resurgence. The most interesting emerging trend is for relatively unknown and exotic flowers. Botanists aside, who had heard of champaca (a highly fragrant orange-yellow flower from India) or osmanthus (a fruity floral white flower from China or Japan) until a few years ago? Recently, they have become all the rage in niche perfumery, with Ormonde Jayne’s Champaca (£68, 50ml eau de parfum) and Osmanthus (£68, 50ml) followed by Tom Ford’s Private Blend Champaca Absolute (£100, 50ml) and Keiko Mecheri’s Osmanthus (£75, 75ml), which, as you might expect of an LA-based Japanese perfumer, is very light and unobtrusive, despite the opaque black bottle. Even Comme des Garçons, known for its wonderful cutting-edge blends and unusual notes such as concrete, ink, rubber and sherbet, now offers Luxe Champaca (£135, 45ml), an unexpectedly beautiful floral, in its line-up.

In perfumery, it seems it’s the rare, the esoteric and the frankly unheard of flower that really excites people now. In some cases, because the flower in question is either very rare, very fragile or small, it is not possible to use natural oils or absolutes. Instead, the flower’s scent can only be “captured” by science – resulting in nature-identical ingredients or “new naturals”.

In a generic grey and glass meeting room at Givaudan HQ in Paris – where fragrances are created for Prada and Comme des Garçons, among others – I am inhaling the scents of some of the world’s most elusive and exotic flowers. They include the Death Valley Indigo Bush – a plant with an indigo blue flower that blooms only when there is sufficient rainfall in Death Valley, Nevada – and the rare Allspice Orchid from Peru, which contains more than a hint of cinnamon. (It is a myth, incidentally, that orchids have no scent.) But I am not sniffing the real blooms. There are no velvety petals to tease the fingertips or brilliant colours to seduce the eyes. Instead, the scents I am experiencing – from tester strips dipped into little glass bottles – have been identically recreated from nature thanks to a scientific technique known as headspace.

Headspace or ScentTrek, as Givaudan prefers to call its version of the technology (Firmenich, another fine-fragrance creation house, calls its variant NaturePrint), is not new – it’s been around for several decades – but it has opened up many possibilities for the perfume industry. No one, least of all the perfume companies themselves, likes the idea of plundering virgin rainforest or immaculate eco-systems so that yet another new scent can clutter up fragrance counters on the other side of the world. Instead, this technology – which basically uses a glass bell jar to capture and analyse the scent molecules in the air around the fragrant object – allows perfumers to take the odour of a substance (a rare orchid in the Venezualan jungle, for example) and copy it in the laboratory, without needing to destroy it or remove it from its habitat. Headspace also allows perfumers to mimic the notes of flowers (lily of the valley, for example) and plants that are too fragile, or whose petals too small, for normal extraction techniques.

It is thanks to this technology that scents such as Black Orchid (£40, 30ml), born out of Tom Ford’s desire to find the blackest orchid possible, exist. Ford’s perfect black orchid was created by a grower in California, and its spicy scent captured by headspace, without which the scent of black orchid could not have been reproduced in sufficient quantities to make the fragrance.

But while science has a role in recreating identically the scents of rare species, there is no doubt that it is natural essences, oils and absolutes that excite perfumers the most. Prada’s Infusion range, which started with the limited edition Infusion de Fleur d’Oranger (£45, 50ml) and, more recently, Infusion d’Iris (£42, 50ml) exemplifies the new trend for fragrances based on natural floral absolutes, with an emphasis on quality. “Mrs Prada hates things that smell of cheap, synthetic ingredients – the sort of things that you smell everywhere,” says Daniela Andrier, the nose behind nearly all Prada scents. The recently launched L’Eau Ambrée (£63, 80ml) also contains very expensive essences, including natural absolute of Mai rose from Grasse. “For Prada I can spend much more [on the ingredients] than for most perfume briefs and I am convinced that people can smell the quality,” says Andrier.

But the new wave of florals does have a point of difference. “There is, for example, a trend for a very strong rose, but not a traditional rose,” says perfumer Antoine Lie. “It is made contemporary by combining it with masculine, woody notes.” (A good example is Rose Noir by Byredo – £115, 100ml, eau de parfum – a rose rendered more interesting by the addition of mosses and musks.) Lie is the nose behind Daphne (£90, 50ml, eau de parfum), the eponymous fragrance of socialite Daphne Guinness, created in collaboration with Comme des Garçons. It’s a character-packed, authentic-smelling scent loaded with tuberose, which, according to Lie, “contains some very noble, very expensive ingredients” – patchouli, oudh and vetiver in addition to the tuberose, which gives the fragrance “an enormous richness”.

The proliferation of “haute parfumerie” ranges has also favoured premium floral ingredients. Van Cleef & Arpels has just launched a couture perfumery collection, Collection Extraordinaire, which consists of six fragrances, each built around high-quality floral essences, including Bois d’Iris or Iris Wood (£120, 75ml) and Lys Carmin or Carmine Lily (£120, 75ml). Cartier, meanwhile, has added five new fragrances to its Haute Perfumery collection, launched last month. Based on the delightful concept that each scent encapsulates a different hour of the day, they include I L’Heure Promise (£195, a fresh, early-morning fragrance) and XII L’Heure Mystérieuse (£195, a resinous cocktail-hour blend of jasmine, patchouli and oliban). Cartier’s in-house perfumer, Mathilde Laurent, says that she was given absolute free rein on raw materials for the scents, which feature liberal doses of iris, jasmine, Mai rose from Grasse, and narcisse. “We have used some of these ingredients in five per cent concentrations, which is an astronomical amount. Most mass-market brands that claim to feature these ingredients contain mere traces,” she says.

But possibly the most compelling floral trend of the moment is the interest in “specialist oils” – natural oils or absolutes of exotic, relatively unknown flowers that are not widely available or are expensive to produce. “Each fragrance oil supplier has a small list of ‘speciality oils’, which are only available in small quantities and usually very expensive, so mass-market brands cannot use them in a significant way,” explains Linda Pilkington, owner of and perfumer at Ormonde Jayne, who sources many of her oils from Laboratoire Monique Rémy in Grasse, which produces some of the finest-quality naturals in the world.

“How many jasmine or rose fragrances exist? Thousands, many of them very good. If you are a small fragrance house, you want to have a point of difference and it’s very difficult to find,” says Pilkington, who was the first perfumer to take oils of exotic flowers, including the previously mentioned champaca and osmanthus, as well as black hemlock, orris noir (black iris) and sampaquita (a member of the jasmine family and national flower of the Philippines) and use them as the key ingredient in a scent. Her latest discovery is tiare, a Tahitian gardenia, used for her new perfume of the same name. (If you like Chanel Cristalle – £40, 50ml – I guarantee you will also like Tiare; £180, 50ml parfum; £68, 50ml eau de parfum.)

“There are hundreds of gardenia scents on the market but nearly all of them are synthetic or made up using jasmine, tuberose and vanilla into a gardenia-like smell,” she explains. “I wanted to find a really outstanding gardenia absolute. The flower grows like wildfire in Tahiti but the flowers are very small so you have to harvest a lot to make a kilo and it’s very expensive. The flowers are picked to order and the supplier in Grasse doesn’t keep stock of the absolute, so you have to plan at least six months ahead and, along with the price, that keeps most people away.”

“Fifteen years ago the bar started to lower in fine fragrance, with natural ingredients losing out to synthetics,” says Judith Gross, global director of naturals marketing at IFF, owner of Laboratoire Monique Rémy (LMR), who points out that demand for natural orris, for example, had dwindled so much that many of the orris producers in Italy were about to give up and sell off their iris fields as real estate. Fortunately, given the recent popularity of orris, LMR stepped in to keep the growers in business. “We are definitely seeing a return to high-end, beautiful naturals,” says Gross. “Look at Bulgari Jasmine Noir [£78, 100ml, eau de parfum], which contains an amazing proportion of beautiful, luxurious naturals. The fact that it has been so successful (apparently exceeding expectations to become Bulgari’s bestselling limited-distribution fragrance since its launch last year), proves the demand is there.”

There is no doubt that customers’ noses are becoming more attuned to quality, as the explosion in niche perfumery proves. As Maurizio Volpi says, “Consumers find reassurance from natural ingredients which reflect a desire for craftsmanship perfumery returning to its roots.”

The link between floral fragrance and the economy might not be as pronounced as it once was, but who knows what exotic blooms – natural or otherwise – might be popping up in fine perfumery in the future: Eau de Death Valley Indigo Bush, anyone?

See also

Fragrances