The artisan perfumers who are changing the fragrance industry. Plus: top five niche scents

The market in artisan perfumes has grown rapidly as we learn more about how it’s made and seek something unique. We discover the perfumers and the fragrances behind the change

When Sophie Dahl posed naked for the YSL Opium ad in 2000 the ASA had more than 900 complaints. It was pulled from billboards presumably to avoid distracting drivers but continued to run in fashion mags.

Since then there have been plenty more controversial perfume ads: in 2007 Terry Richardson styled a porno chic ad for Tom Ford For Men, which featured close-up shots, and in 2011 Marc Jacobs’ Oh Lola! ad featuring 17-year-old Dakota Fanning was pulled after complaints that it sexualised children.

The fragrance market is worth around £26bn worldwide and £1.5bn in Europe annually, according to a recent report in Management Today, with just five companies owning most of the market.

Sophie Dahl in YSL Opium perfume advert
Remember this ad with Sophie Dahl for Opium? Today there’s a more thoughtful niche perfume market that doesn’t use sex to sell

The past decade has seen a rise in niche perfumers, says Michael Edwards, author of Fragrances of the World. In 2004, 139 artisan perfumers were created and this has risen to 441 in 2014.

Actual figures are hard to pin down but the Observer recently published a news story on indie perfumers, with figures from market research group NPD suggesting that the £150-plus segment of the couture market (including artisan perfumes) grew by 35 per cent in 2014.

The trend for celebrity perfumes is waning and even classic designer brands seem a little out of touch, with clichéd ads and big spending. Brad Pitt was reportedly paid $7 million for endorsing Chanel No.5 in an ad that was described as “embarrasingly awful” by The Week.

The backlash was not directed at Brad for taking the cash (who wouldn’t?), but at big brands for paying this kind of sum for celebrity endorsement in times of austerity.

A new generation of niche perfumers

Perfume. Artisan perfumers UK
Artisan perfumers Liz Moores, Sarah McCartney, Lizzie Olstrom, Ruth Mastenbroek and Nancy Meiland (clockwise from left)

Kerry Voke, fragrance stylist at Perfumology, thinks niche brands are a positive thing. “There’s a trend of boredom in the market, with the same old predictable marketing campaigns around Christmas time.”

Lizzie Ostrom from Odette Toilette, who hosts perfume events using a variety of different brands (like a wine tasting but for scent), says there’s been a move away from using sex to sell perfumes and that niche is about “inspiring sensory reverie or attentive thought” as per religious experience.

Artisan perfumes can be better quality, as they tend to use a higher concentration of natural ingredients and extracts that last longer. Sarah McCartney is an independent London-based perfumer who sells creatively named perfumes like The Dark Heart of Old Havana, Tart’s Knicker Drawer, and The Sexiest Scent. Ever. (IMHO).

She is aiming to grow her business organically, without the need for backers, as that would potentially mean less control over the business. She is passionate about inspiring women to try new scents, saying: “I’m 55 and I’ve noticed my contemporaries have often got stuck with a scent in their 20s and 30s and gone for a safe option, but later begin to explore. I encourage women to look a little wider.”

Artisan perfumers. Sarah McCartney. 4160Tuesdays
Sarah McCartney loves encouraging women to get out of a perfume rut and look a little wider than the obvious brands

Perfume blogs and subscription services

Consumer habits are also changing, says Stephen Weller, director of comms at the International Fragrance Association: “People understand more about the art of perfumery, that it’s complex and valuable, and they are seeking out innovative brands.” We are learning more through perfume blogs; perfume swapping communities and online subscription services like The Perfume Society.

You don’t have to have a degree in chemistry or study in Grasse to become a qualified perfumer any more. There are training courses UK universities and companies such as Cotswold Perfumery and Plush Folly. The end product can be marketed inexpensively using social media and craft websites like Etsy and Notonthehighstreet.

Mavericks are shaking up the stuffy world of perfume and about time too; it’s been a secretive world for far too long. I’ve often wondered if PR departments actually know what’s in some of the big brand perfumes or how they are made.

“We don’t have the same hang-ups around tradition as our neighbours in France,” says Sarah. “[They] are so busy arguing about where you should study – the battle between north and south France – and arguing about who is a proper perfumer.

“In the meantime the rest of the world is getting on with it. Fortunately the market is big enough for all of us to dabble.”

Five independent British perfumers

Alquemie Perfume A new range of five ‘gorgeously global’ perfumes handmade by Rosie Harness in St Leonards on Sea

4160Tuesdays A micro-perfumery run by Sarah McCartney that likes to create perfume that reminds people of happy times and interesting places

Nancy Meiland Parfums A perfumer and trained nose who has just launched her new Paper Leaf collection of three fragrances at Roullier White

Papillon Perfume Liz Moores creates exquisite perfumes using raw materials and exotic spices not used in conventional perfumery

Ruth Mastenbroek A niche English perfumer who created fragrances for major brands before launching her own business

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