BeautyMatter and Christophe Laudamiel teamed up for a three-part series on the existing landscape of the fragrance industry, current infrastructural developments, and proposals for a future that upholds the art of perfumery for creators and perfumers alike.
"Admittedly, perfumery isn’t the domain of a single, striking secret—it’s rife with fraudulence. There are clones whose outrageous pricing makes an impact claim for originality. There are perfumers who go by multiple names so their output doesn’t seem inartistically rapid,” writes Gabe Oppenheim in The Ghost Perfumer: Creed, Lies, & The Scent of Century. But in order to uncover the mythologies and trade secrets, one needs to evaluate the infrastructure first.
As with the beauty industry at large, conglomerates reign supreme in the fragrance arena, especially after waves of acquisitions over the past decade. Coty completed its merger with the Procter & Gamble fine fragrance division in 2016, while L’Oréal acquired the Mugler and Azzaro fragrance brands in 2019. These houses, as well as Interparfums, Revlon, and Parlux, own a majority of the perfume brands today. While conglomerate acquisition is a logical part of an industry based on volume (“luxury” and “mass” brands are sold at the same counters at Sephora), it has certainly changed the nature of operations. Fragrance isn’t simply confined to the perfumery world, with companies like Mastercard employing fragrance in their marketing strategies and new fragrance developer Scent Beauty raising around $12 million in funding, in part thanks to high-profile celebrity deals with the likes of Cher and Dolly Parton. Make no mistake: fragrance bottles may be in small formats, but they equal big business with reputationally high margins over the course of many decades. Unfortunately, there are insufficient logistics in place for the brands and stores when compared to the industries of jewelry or fashion—limited packaging and shipping resources. But with this immense concentration of brands comes an increasing responsibility to ensure a sustainable and ethical future.
Christophe Laudamiel has been refreshingly vocal on the need for a transformation within the fragrance industry, from combating a few nests of racism to crafting a new code of ethics for perfume creation and promoting true education and more honest marketing. In the sophomore outing of his three-part series with BeautyMatter, and following the “Dear World” manifesto, Laudamiel outlines how the industry is evolving and the urgency for action.
Corporations & Conglomerates
The industry is experiencing a mutation as we speak: over the past 10 years ingredients have become easily available to the public and a full perfumery laboratory can now be equipped by simply ordering online. In France, thanks to Michel Roudnitska and Olivier Maure at Art et Parfum, individual perfumers in Europe have been offered fully equipped laboratories since 2004 for their independent projects. The number of perfumers globally (currently called “independent” perfumers, although no one calls a musician an independent musician) will soon reach the number of staff perfumers employed in large fragrance houses.
Interestingly, many of these fearless perfumers come from seasoned backgrounds in music, anthropology, sport management, natural ingredient sourcing, marketing, luxury goods, social media, science, and art. They inject the industry with methods, ethics, speed, concepts, diversity, public relations, fairness, and artistic rigor forgotten in the mainstream industry, which functions on antiquated principles, protected turfs, and a lack of the most basic rules of ethics and respect for the art they all claim to sell. In the music or visual industries, such practices are illegal or hindered by contracts, copyright, and anti-cartel laws. Formal academic education is extremely limited, even in the three perfumery schools, all based in France, that exist for the entire world, a system much less advanced than Juilliard, Conservatoire de Paris, or Columbia Journalism School. Because of these limited capacities, geographies, and spectra, a growing tide of “independent” perfumers and self-taught perfumers-to-be has emerged.
At the same time, in those past ten years, the commercial industry has become more concentrated with a few giants owning most of the largest brands on the market. Yes, music conglomerates like Sony and Universal have a lot of labels. But most of them are not developed out of Paris for the entire world, by one team imposing all music styles down to the single notes or requesting plagiarism. Staff perfumers are used like chickens on a chicken farm or songwriters exploited in Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s, writing songs for a dime with no possibility of royalties and proper authorship credit. It has further shifted the nature of fragrances from individually crafted creations to undertakings led by standard briefings and rock-bottom lines. This has moved fragrances away from significant usage of prestigious ingredients that brands make consumers believe are inside the bottles with no authors’, or perfumers’, names on them. Some key conglomerates—L'Oréal, Coty, Interparfums, Revlon, Designer Fragrances, Parlux, and more recently, Scent Beauty—purchase extremely famous brands in an eclectic shopping spree, resulting in very inhomogeneous baskets, all under one merchandising roof. The L'Oréal fragrance division does not function like the reputable L'Oréal shampoo and hair color and L'Oréal Professional divisions that the public knows very well. There are also groups such as Estée Lauder, LVMH, and Puig which are more homogenous and consistent in their roster of brands and methods.
Where Are the In-House Perfumers?
It turns out that one single department at these giants oversees all the brands. It turns out that none of them employs a perfumer. Not too long ago, one of those luxury fragrance departments was headed by a person who knew nothing about perfumery, and according to her own account has never worn a perfume. It’s as if I headed Sony Music but know nothing about music, what a note is, and never purchased a song. Really? It turns out that those departments are concentrated in Paris, France. So imagine fashion by Vera Wang, Armani, Diesel, Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Davidoff, Joop, all being developed in Paris by the same French fashion team, with no fashion designers on staff. Imagine that this team gets work done for free from third-party fashion designers. This team cannot spot, or does not want to spot, the difference between nylon and silk or wool, to see whether a seam is going to crack in one month or one year. Imagine, those third-party fashion designers do not know for which brand they create and in how many years their fashion pieces will come out. Imagine some managers walking around between the rows of fashion designers, asking one to remove an arm on a suit, another one to add organza here because his mother or boyfriend suggested it, another one to remove the metal in that heel because it is too expensive, and, by the way, still make it look balanced, elegant, and make sure the public thinks silk and gold trims are still in there, even if they aren’t.
The fashion brands Saint Laurent and Gucci both belong to the high luxury conglomerate Kering. Design- and creativity-wise, the fragrances are run by the mass-market houses of L'Oréal and Coty. Saint Laurent still brands its perfumes under Yves Saint Laurent. Both fashion brands are directed by a fashion designer, yet there are no perfumers at L'Oréal or Coty. Not even as consultants. Their fragrances are purely a merchandising enterprise by marketing powerhouses. As long as we don’t disclose what is actually inside a YSL or Gucci bottle, as long as the ignorant public believes all the smokescreens, the industry is surfing on waves of hot air.
When it comes to celebrity perfumes, there are routinely six levels of filtering between the perfumer (the music composer) and the celebrity. A perfumer very rarely truly collaborates with a celebrity or fashion designer. The celebrity or designer knows very little about perfumery in general and even about their “supposedly” own scent. Have you noticed how they speak very little about their scents? Many don’t even wear them. Of course they have no clue about olfaction—they are musicians, actors, fashion designers. They certainly know that what is in the bottle must be really cheap because they know how much money they get back in royalties or profit. Do they know perfumers receive no royalties, for a “song” that is a Top 10 hit for 10 years? Do they know how much farmers get back from their perfumes, that there is so little natural raw materials in them?
The dollars that consumers spend on a perfume bottle first serve the stores, then the distributors and packagers, then the fashion designer or the singer, who receives way more than the perfume composer, who gets zero royalty. Perfumers are very poorly compensated versus other artists. They have very little decision power, very limited decision on the change they are asked to perform on their creations, they can be totally cut out from their creations legally. The farmers and molecule designers are even further down the ladder.
Margins in a Bottle
Perfume prices don’t always reflect the actual juice inside. Chris Classic, founder of fragrance brand Savoir Faire*, recently addressed the popularity of $200-$500–priced perfumes, when equal quality can be found at a more inclusive price point (the brand’s 50ml eau de parfums, by comparison, are priced at $135). No business wants to make a loss, but in perfumery, it is extremely hard for the public and even the casual connoisseur to verify the relationship between raw material costs and final product prices.
Most perfumery ingredients range from $100-$30,000 per kilo ($45-$13,600 per pound), but the steep price tag is more likely to be paying for expensive photo shoots and video campaigns, rather than high concentrations of costly materials. When you buy a 50ml fragrance at $70, that equates to $1,750 per kilo ($790 per pound), yet the brand bought the fragrance oil for $70-$100 per kilo ($30-$45 per pound). So here goes your natural jasmine absolute at $6,000 a kilo ($2,720 a pound), a typical floral absolute price. Orange flower, tuberose, and rose absolutes are double that price.
Visuals Over Olfaction
Interestingly enough, fragrance priority has gotten overshadowed by cosmetics. A very new trend is that the top fragrance houses (IFF, Symrise, Givaudan, Robertet) focus significantly on cosmetic ingredients and actives, and acquire such businesses. Sephora is now much more a cosmetic location with some fragrance brands on the sides, versus the fragrance store it used to be. How much support of new molecules and new technology is provided to fragrances and perfumery art specifically versus actives for creams and serums (many unscented by the way, thanks to the clean movement)? A company has only one CEO and one board so, by de facto, the focus on fragrances will decrease and the energy and dedication get split, including the creative management style of the CEO. No one in the fragrance industry (olfactory) was busy with buying and managing actives for the senses of vision and touch (cosmetic) until about 5-10 years ago. Managing biologists, dermatologists, and clinical studies is very different from managing perfumers (and musicians and fashion designers). Think about Sony going into fragrant molecules or Ralph Lauren suddenly operating recording studios. Yes, Ralph Lauren would put nicer sofas in the studio, but what about the quality and originality of the music?
Scent is much more important than look, so it seems to me that we, the olfactory, are missing the boat. It seems fragrance science and creative management styles are relegated to a second priority versus cosmetic anti-aging, humectant ingredients, or volume items. It is not about creation. There will be now opportunities downstream for high customization firms, high-end creation firms, and high-tech firms for device technology). Upstream, firms specialized in highly selective inventory, a bit like in architecture, will grow.
The goal of these behemoths is to buy a liquid as cheap as possible, to package it in catchy ways (packaging designers are much better treated, like fashion and furniture designers), and to resell it as expensive as possible. The color is as important as the smell. Have you asked a whisky maker to change the whisky for a colorless whiskey “that smells like the colorful whisky” because we need to sell it colorless in the bottle. In commercial perfumery just about every second project is like this. The fashion designer has no idea what is going on in his or her juice, or does not want to know, provided they only see the profits. They would never on earth treat their fashion in that fashion. The celebrity contracts mention the required hairdresser for the celebrity’s photo shoot, but does not mention the required perfumer for the fragrance, which will only ever so slightly touch the skin of that celebrity anyway. The smell just has to be liked by millions of people, like hamburgers at McDonalds. It is extremely complex to design a new hamburger at McDonalds. It is a skill indeed, you can use AI and spices too, but not what we expect from the fragrance industry that wants to say perfumery is a creative and expensive art.
Future Ingredient Regulations
The decisions surrounding ingredients at IFRA (International Fragrance Association) and their RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials) and Prodarom colleagues are not based solely on science. Ultimately, they are screened by a non-diverse panel of self-recruited scientists, and the final decisions are based on volume and priority depending on clients, licensors, and packagers. The body determining the overall system, including its functioning and funding, are not scientists but fragrance business managers at the shackles of the fashion and music brands. This is very unusual for so-called scientific organizations.
A new worrying development is the new Green Deal being enacted by the EU. It threatens hundreds of fragrance ingredients including bergamot and lavender, some very European ingredients. The public has to know that large brands develop only one formula for the entire world, so if an ingredient is restricted in one country, the whole world is restricted to that fat-free version. Like music, movies, even haute cuisine, we deserve the true luxury of variety, which in turn, shall increase the richness and technologies used in mainstream global initiatives.
On the brighter side, we are seeing a new diversification of ingredient sourcing. More and more pharmaceutical factories already located in areas such as Madagascar or Tunisia are looking into diversifying their extraction methods for fragrance usage. Fragrance usage requires a larger variety of plants than a drug which needs only one plant extract as the active. It can help farmers when that medicinal plant is out of season, if its world market collapses, or if that one plant ingredient is acquired by a pharmaceutical giant. These pharmaceutical-grade factories in remote places are a gem for the fragrance industry because perfume plants also need top extraction engineering, both in labor and devices. To their credit, French and Swiss companies have supplied large numbers of devices, extractors, and top stills around the world tuned to fragrant plant extraction to individuals, but a lot needs to be done to diversify further. These smaller top-class units are injecting new ingredients into the perfumers’ catalog, but the perfumers have to be allowed to use much more, 10 to 100 times more of these natural extracts. This is possible simply if say $2-$5 of the bottle price would go back to the perfumers and farmers instead of all the intermediates mentioned above.
In the final part of our series, we will explore how the fragrance industry, educational systems, and consumers can help shape a better future for perfumery and humanity. Stay tuned…
*Full disclosure: All Savoir Faire fragrances are created by Chris Classic, except the next release by Christophe Laudamiel.
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