Dubai perfume souk oud niche-perfume-susan-skelly

Niche perfumes | Sexy scents | Fragrance stories

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

Premium perfumes no longer owe their cachet to flower power alone. Fragrance is upping the ante with notes borrowed from drugs, French palace floors, and the Three Wise Men, reports Susan Skelly.

Niche perfumes are a little like a Scandinavian gourmet pizza – layers of  improbable, intriguing combinations of ingredients foraged by a “nose” who’s part mad scientist and part creative genius.

Take the Myths fragrance from the trailblazing Middle Eastern perfume house, Amouge, with its notes of labdanum (a gum resin obtained from the twigs of a rock rose), ash, leather and rum.

“This is so out there,” says Nick Smart, head of the Australian niche perfume distribution outfit, Agence de Parfum, and of Libertine Parfumerie in Brisbane. “You think, how can that work? Yet it’s a masterpiece.”

Amouage Interlude incorporates pimento berry oil, oregano, frankincense, myrrh, and agarwood smoke, while the new Amouage Opus X layers accords (just like a music chord) of varnish, bloody rose and metals with rare and precious oud sourced from Laos.

Italian-born, Amsterdam-based perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri, who doesn’t list ingredients in his perfumes, created the Nasomatto line to evoke emotions: Absinth (degrees of hysteria); Narcotic V (addictive female sexual power); Black Afgano (hashish).

Smart lifts a bell jar from a hefty Cire Trudon candle called Solis Rex, and offers the entrapped scent for assessment: “This is the smell of the wax that goes over the Versailles floors …”

Candles cire trudon classic scents workshop

Cire Trudon’s classic French candles waxing lyrical

Agence de Parfum has 17 brands in its portfolio, among them Amouage, Creed, Juliette Has A Gun, Lubin, L’Artisan Perfumer, Penhaligon’s and Robert Piguet.

Smart’s best-selling men’s niche fragrances are: Aventus Man (Creed), Interlude Man (Amouage), and Lord George (Penhaligon’s). Best-sellers for women are: Honour Woman (Amouage), Gin Fizz (Lubin), and Lady Vengeance (Juliette Has a Gun).

Related article: Prince of Perfume 

“The niche brands we represent are not mainstream, they are actually making fragrances outside the norm, and being more experimental. Because they don’t have the big marketing budgets that drive research, there’s more room for creativity,” says Smart, in the Aladdin’s Cave of coloured glass, fetching graphics and eccentric stoppers that line a showroom tucked away in Sydney’s Darlinghurst.

Nick Smart Agence de Parfum niche fragrances Australian distributor

Nick Smart, director, Agence de Parfum, Sydney

In 2016, 2,240 new fragrances were released, up on the 2,077 in 2015. No less than 865 were niche fragrances, an increase from 247 in 2007.

Niche brands are taking up more shelf space at upmarket department stores such as Harrods in London, Printemps in Paris, and Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s in New York.

Boutique perfumeries such as Nose, Jovoy and Aroma-Zone in Paris, Peony Haute Parfumerie in Melbourne, and MiN and Atelier Cologne in New York are adding to the olfactory fun.

What defines niche? In essence, they tend to have a more limited distribution (some as few as eight “doors”); be made from fine materials, with unusual construction; and aim to create an experience or an emotion.

Making their mark on the category are ancient Middle Eastern fragrances such as frankincense and oud.

Trudon perfume launch quay restaurant sydney 2017 skelly

Scents of the souk in Dubai

Oud resin comes from agarwood trees native to North India, China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Only agarwood trees exposed to a particular fungus possess the prized aromatic resin, fewer than 2 per cent.

Good quality oud can cost as much as AED77,000 (A$26,209) per kilogram. Demand is so high that agarwood is now protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In 2016, 271 different perfumes containing oud were released. In 2000 there were just six.

Impressive oud-bearing fragrances include Yves Saint Laurent’s M7 Oud Absolu, Tom Ford’s Oud Wood, Lubin’s Idole, Serge Lutens’ Arabie and Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud.

Christopher Chong, the creative director of Amouage, told last year, “As not many people have the chance to smell the genuine oud, many people think real oud is fake, and vice versa. Almost all the oud fragrances in the mainstream market are synthetic.

“Real oud is not what you expect, as it is smooth and warm without any of the crude dry wood and smokiness we often smell in the synthetic. Genuine oud has a warm undertone to it with a smooth transcendence of leather and animalic notes.”

One of the very few fragrances in the more mainstream market that uses genuine oud and is not too hardcore, says Chong, is By Terry’s Terryfic Oud.


Creed Madison Avenue store window

Creed’s jewel box store on Madison Avenue, NYC

Crucial to the rise of niche are the stories that travel with them. Behind the counter in the little white and gold jewel box of a store on the corner of Madison and 67th Street in New York City, Emerson, a consultant, is expounding on the history of the perfumes in the Creed portfolio.

The House of Creed was founded 257 years ago, in 1760 in England, and the first fragrance ever made was commissioned by King George III in 1781. It was Royal English Leather, and you can still buy it.

The Creed fragrance dynasty boasts commissions from other royals including Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Queen Cristina of Spain, and Diana, Princess of Wales; politicians such as Sir Winston Churchill; and stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, and Cary Grant.

Fleurissimo was commissioned for Grace Kelly by Prince Rainier in 1956, the floral notes inspired by her bridal bouquet. You can still buy that, too.

“When it came to royalty,” says Emerson, armed with crisp white card tester strips, “a perfume had to leave an impression in the wake of its wearer.” Subtlety took second place to olfactory aura.


Can flowers continue to hold their own in the perfume world?

After much polite inquiry about lifestyle and likes, and much sniffing and wafting, we settle on Royal Oud (inspired by the wood, leather, marble and gold of a Persian palace) and Emerson sends me on my way with a sample and memories of an hour well spent.

Creed’s perfumers, Olivier Creed and his son Erwin Creed (the 7th generation), source essences from Bulgaria, Turkey, Morocco, India and Haiti. It is said that their fragrances contain the highest percentage of natural components in the French perfume industry. They create their scents using an almost obsolete infusion technique, whereby each component is weighed, mixed, macerated and filtered by hand.

Creed perfumes only became publicly available in 1970.

Says Emmanuel Saujet, CEO of International Cosmetics and Perfume which distributes Creed in the US, “With Creed, rarity comes first, in terms of limited points of sale.”

Even so, he says, the brand has been growing organically between 9 and 14 per cent for the past 12 years.

Speaking in New York last year, at a Luxury Daily conference, Saujet said, “Niche is a place where we believe the customer is looking for something different, something based on story-telling.

“The functional is no longer as important as the emotional in luxury … the customer is not looking for  fragrance … they are looking at who’s behind it, what it’s created for, what are the unique aspects of the aromas, how was it made, what are the clues in the packaging all about … how does it relate to emotion?

“Craftsmanship, the artisanal, and the ingredients we use are there to strengthen the story-telling.”

atelier cologne agence de parfum niche perfume skelly

Atelier Cologne in a range of handsome slipcovers

Michael Edwards – whose Fragrances of the World tome documents all the new arrivals each year (new interests include Galop d’Hermes, Miyako by Auphorie, and Angel Muse by Thierry Mugler), sees the niche push as one of a number of new fragrance trends.

While the great perfume houses have long had their own collections of niche – Chanel’s Les Exclusifs, Guerlain’s Les Parisiennes, and La Collection Privee Christian Dior – now they are buying up niche nuggets elsewhere. In the past three years Estee Lauder has acquired Le Labo, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and By Kilian.

Perfumers who were previously anonymous “noses” for the great perfume houses are increasingly creating their own lines.

Then there’s the trend to “shared” fragrances (once were unisex), turning the feminine and masculine categories on their head. A decade ago, Edwards says, there were 653 feminine fragrances launched and 157 “shared”; in 2016, the feminine category had 870 new fragrances, but the “shared” were up to 990.

Last year Cire Trudon branched out into perfume – the line called, simply, Trudon – with a lavish launch at Sydney’s Quay restaurant, attended by executive director Julien Pruvost. Its portfolio is of five fragrances, Bruma, Olim, II, Mortel and Revolution (the latter evokes an Australian bushfire!) which are all “genderless”.

Trudon perfume launch quay restaurant sydney 2017 skelly

Cire Trudon launches its Trudon perfume line at Quay in Sydney

Partly, says Edwards, this sharing push is coming from Millennials refusing to be labelled and wanting all that’s individual and unique.

“It intrigues me the number of people looking to make their own perfumes,” he says. “Millennials are buying essential oils to make candles – and will soon be able to buy kits that allow them to mix and match fragrances.” The appeal of many perfume masterclasses is to create your own at the end.

The explosion of niche can be partly attributed to science. Far from bemoaning the decreasing use of natural ingredients (demand, price, rarity, regulations, allergies) Edwards believes the lab is opening up a whole new world of fragrance via synthetics.

michael edwards penhaligons savoy steam langhams launch 2017 skelly

Michael Edwards assesses Penhaligon’s Savoy Steam

The received wisdom, says Edwards, is that great perfume requires great naturals. “That’s actually not true. There are only so many natural scents, and beautiful as they are, if you used only them you’d get pretty tired of the results after a while.

“The magic of 20th and 21st century perfumes lies in the imaginative uses of the new synthetic materials,” he says. “If you pull apart, say, jasmine, you’d find over 800 chemicals there. Once you can identify the make-up of each one, you can clone it, so you have a new note.

“Is it any less useful a note? No, it’s just different note.”

Modern perfume-making, he maintains, is at its best “the marriage of a body of fine naturals on a skeleton of innovative synthetics. Every great innovative fragrance over the past 100 years has bought to the fore a new innovative synthetic material, to add a nuance that we never had before.

“Synthetics are the core of our business, the key to the innovation that is to come.”

Nick Smart sees the rise in niche as being on par with the way an appreciation of wine comes with age and experience. It’s a connoisseurship.

“If you thought about a spectrum of one to 10 in niche perfumery, one is the scent of the commercial washing-up detergents and washing powders we grew up with, and 10 is the super niche.

“If you grow up drinking cheap wine and are then given a Grange or a French Champagne, you may not like it immediately – it’s a process to get there. An evolution.”

Pass the Black Afgano.

An edited version of this story appears in the January/February 2018 issue of Robb Report Australia

Photos by Susan Skelly and supplied


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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