Way back in the heyday of the fragrance industry, roughly between 1910 and the 1930s, when some of the world’s greatest classical scents were being devised, perfume was all about intensity. There were, of course, colognes and toilet waters, usually with a mere five per cent essential oils, but these were designed mostly to be used on linens or sprayed about the person as a cooling eau. When it came to proper scent, pure perfume or extrait (with concentrations of between 20 and 30 per cent of aromatic compounds, compared with 15 to 20 per cent in today’s eaux de parfum) made a more lasting impression.
Think of some of the greatest from that era and none of them was a shy, retiring little fragrance. Caron’s legendary Narcisse Noir, now back in its original form (£136 for 15ml parfum), was a huge, lush, fruity floral, and its Tabac Blond (£105 for 50ml EDP), a floral leather that was originally devised as a tribute to the newly liberated woman who smoked. Then there was the game-changing Chanel No 5 (£96 for 100ml EDP), Guerlain’s Shalimar (£50 for 30ml EDP), the first true oriental, and Jean Patou’s Joy (£250 for 15ml parfum), a lusciously rich floral. All were about intensity and all announced their presence in startlingly dramatic form; they were sure of what they were and the whole point seemed to be that their wearers, too, were unafraid to declare their affiliations. In such intoxicating concentrations, scents were risqué and alluring.
Lighter, white florals began to be popular in the 1930s when it was almost as if, in the middle of the Great Depression, anything overtly opulent might seem in bad taste. They blossomed in the 1960s too, when light fragrances were seen as more modern; even the great French parfumeur Edmond Roudnitska (creator of one of my all-time favourites, Le Parfum de Thérèse) opined that the lower the concentration, the better the perfume. And although some scents with very strong concentrations were launched in the following half century – think of those 1980s drama queens Opium, Giorgio and Poison – it is eaux de toilettes (with concentrations of five to 10 per cent) that have dominated the market. Frédéric Malle was an outlier, championing top notes in strong concentrations – over 20 per cent in Edouard Fléchier’s seminal scent Une Rose (£145 for 50ml EDP), created in 2003, and in tuberose-heavy Carnal Flower (£150 for 50ml EDP), from 2005.
But now there is once again a wider thirst for stronger, more sumptuous perfumes, the sort designed for special occasions rather than the workplace, and this Christmas perfumers across the fragrance hall are pulling out all the stops to dazzle, sometimes using ingredients such as the olive flower in Ramón Monegal’s Fiesta (£400 for 50ml EDP), but also devising extraits with concentrations of more than 25 per cent. These are extravagant, indulgent and opulent, scents to wear when dancing the night away or spending an evening at the opera – great luscious eaux with a hint of the carnal. They go with furs and velvets, sophisticated dinners à deux, vintage sunglasses and very fast cars; they exude confidence and style.
While the pace of modern living and the desire for a fragrance that lasts all day are factors in this change of direction (many a woman goes from gym to work to drinks to dinner without going home in between), a more important reason is a change in the way we wear perfume. Many women now have a fragrance “wardrobe” and so there is a place for these special-occasion scents. And, according to Lawrence Roullier White, owner of niche fragrance boutique Roullier White, “buyers are ever more discerning and now revelling in the intensity of the experience offered by high-concentration scents, using them like colour, to make the world more beautiful”. James Craven, perfume archivist at specialist perfumery Les Senteurs, thinks that, “for many people a high concentration defines luxury. It’s all part of a craving for more intense smells in a world already overloaded with fragranced products of all kinds.”
Inevitably, prices for very concentrated perfumes are high, particularly when they use the best ingredients in sizeable quantities. For instance, Neela Vermeire’s new limited edition Mohur Extrait (£315 for 50ml EDE) is a deeper, richer version of the EDP; Caron’s revisited original perfumes can cost up to £192 for just 27ml; while Palace Oud at Thameen is £2,750 for 50ml. “But these are glorious scents,” says Roullier White, “and, as with couture, there is no going back once you have worn the best. The difference between extrait and eau de toilette is like the difference between War and Pea ce and Mills & Boon.” He thinks one of the reasons for their newfound popularity is that they create a lasting impact: “People remember what you smelt like even more than what you were wearing. Furthermore, some houses are only making their eaux in small runs – such as Mohur, with as few as 475 bottles – so that not everyone can own one.”
Some modern houses such as Nasomatto and Clive Christian make fragrances only at extrait level. Nasomatto perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri does so because he believes wearing perfume should be an intense experience whatever the occasion. Among his 11 fragrances it is perhaps Absinth (€118 for 30ml EDE) that best encapsulates his philosophy. It is a wild tumble of earthy browns, woody greens and dry herbs, capturing that bittersweet moment when the earth is about to wake from its winter slumber. Highly addictive, it’s a perfume to wear all day long.
Clive Christian always releases perfumes in pairs that can be worn singly or together and its Noble VII duo (each £350 for 50ml parfum) offers, in Rock Rose, a contemporary fougère with that classic combination of lavender, geranium and bergamot, and, in Cosmos Flower, a gourmand perfume that aims to capture the “chocolatey sensuality of the Mexican cosmos flower”.
Meanwhile, Diana Vreeland released its Outrageous collection this autumn: three extrait scents, Simply Divine, Outrageously Vibrant and Daringly Different (each £250 for 50ml parfum). Although these are reworkings of her original Eau de Parfums range, Carlos Benaim – the nose with whom Vreeland’s grandson Alexander worked on the collection – points out that it wasn’t enough just to increase concentrations of the main ingredient. To balance the structure each scent needed a complete reformulation. As a result they are almost unrecognisable. “Working at this intensity isn’t easy,” says Benaim. “It is only too easy for a scent to become muddy and ugly.”
New perfume house Extrait d’Atelier has a marvellous collection of three super-strength scents (each £139 for 100ml EDP) named for master craftsmen: Maître Couturier, woody with a heart of lavender and African violet; Maître Joaillier, a sparkling floral with cedarwood and white musk for depth; and Maître Chausseur, resinous with a base of sandalwood and leather. Founder Chiara Ronzani believes that “the combination of natural ingredients in the formula pyramid at this strength keeps the scent consistently elegant throughout its lengthy development upon the skin”.
At young British fragrance house Bodhidharma, founder Michael Boadi creates perfumes only at extrait level and for winter his Black Lapsang (£165 for 50ml EDE) is an olfactory realisation of lapsang souchong, with a hint of smokiness from the smouldering, sacred notes of Russian birch tar and Chinese cade wood. Another British brand, 4160 Tuesdays, launched its wonderful Inevitable Crimes of Passion (£95 for 30ml EDE) this autumn. An intense blend of chocolate orange that Roullier White describes as “an olfactory illusion resulting from the complex interplay of grapefruit, coffee and wood notes”, it has a deep sensuality with strong animalic notes, as well as a lighter touch of citrus.
It should be said that extraits are not for everyone. Scents at this intensity take a little getting used to. Apart from the drydown lasting longer, they offer a different kind of beauty from the more diaphanous attractions of eaux de toilettes. “Those who like a high-concentration perfume should use it sparingly,” advises Craven. “Just a tiny dewdrop of scent, a moment of enchantment – this way the brain and the nose will have to work harder to pick up the fragrance and it will appear stronger.”
But I will leave the final caveat to Frédéric Malle. “Some people speak of concentration the way car makers speak of horsepower or camera dealers speak of pixels. What people don’t understand is that one per cent of one raw material can smell different in strength to one per cent of another. It depends on what is in a fragrance and how it is structured. A formula with too many ingredients is often weaker than something simpler but well structured. Some scents are meant to be powerful but others are meant to be like watercolours.” In other words, it takes a master parfumeur to take great ingredients and make sure they are neither unsophisticated nor aggressive.