Perfume Love - A Guide to Niche Fragrance
Are you really into perfume? Does your heart skip a beat at the sight of a neat row of elegant flacons in the stores? If so, it’s likely your interest has been piqued by some of the more exclusive, offbeat, cult or harder-to-find fragrances that make up the fascinating and highly addictive world of niche perfumery. Perhaps you already own and wear a niche brand, but didn’t even realize it fell into such a category? Or perhaps you’re reading this and wondering; “what the heck is niche perfumery?” and just want to know more. If so read on to delve into the sensual and highly selective world that is niche perfumery. Be warned, what can start out as a highly pleasurable hobby can become something of a seriously addictive – but no less pleasurable – mini obsession. Happily it’s all in the best possible taste, of course (and it's not just for girls - some of the best 'noses' in the amateur and professional industries are guys).
The science behind smell
Before we delve into the seductive world that is niche, it’s important to pay proper homage to the sense that makes it all wonderfully possible. Our ability to smell – or Olfaction to use the correct scientific term – is a pretty amazing thing. The gene family that mediates our sense of smell is the largest in the human genome, with approximately 1 in every 50 genes devoted solely to our nose.
An odor is essentially a bunch of molecules floating around in the air. Humans can distinguish around 10,000 different molecules but scientists are only just beginning to understand the complex process of how the brain processes and interprets these molecules into individual smells.
The pleasure center – why smell matters
When we take in a particular smell, these molecules are carried up through our nose to the mucous membrane, where they then dissolve and bind to receptors – around 12 million in total - which, in turn, creates a signal that is carried to the olfactory bulb, situated near the base of the brain. Once this signal is received, the olfactory bulb processes the information and passes it along to various parts of the brain often referred to as the ‘pleasure center’ or limbic system. This is the area of the brain associated with memory, reward, pleasure and emotion, and a big clue as to why odors can provoke powerful – and often unexpected – emotional reactions; after all, who hasn’t experienced the visceral and highly emotive sensation of being instantly catapulted back to a long forgotten time and place at just the mere whiff of a scent?
Of course not all smells are good, or bring pleasure, and to make things more complicated, the business of smell is a highly subjective thing often related to personal experience and what’s delightful and pleasantly evocative for one person, can be unpleasant and downright repulsive to another. Happily, the world of niche fragrance offers something for all tastes and, save a dislike generally for all things perfumed, it’s likely you’ll find something to tickle your fancy among its hallowed halls.
A boost for our taste buds
What many people don’t realize is that our sense of taste is largely informed by our sense of smell. Without smell we can largely still identify the main tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but it’s our olfactory function that enables us to distinguish and fine-tune the majority of what we actually taste. Again, this indicates just how important a role our sense of smell plays in our most basic sensorial functions and why olfactory impairment – or the loss of smell- while not life threatening of itself, can present profound psychological consequences for sufferers coping with a diminished capacity for smell, taste, and even aspects of memory recall; all seemingly mundane pleasures we take for granted.
On the scent of a mate
Interestingly scientists now think that it’s our sense of smell that guides us to choose a mate too. The thinking goes like this: we unconsciously select - or rather sniff out - partners based on their genetic make-up. Anyone too close in structure to our own genetic make up is likely to smell less attractive to us than those with different compatibility genes. It’s nature’s way of ensuring a more genetically robust offspring who will be less prone to disease. Perhaps of more interest to the Perfumista is the idea that we might perhaps choose perfumes for ourselves that contain compounds that echo and enhance our own genetic ‘scent’, and perhaps explains why we tend to feel drawn to certain perfume ‘families’ or why a scent can smell very differently on the skin of two different people.
What is clear is that our sense of smell is a powerful tool for experiencing life to its fullest. Whether it’s sniffing out potential partners, a bad smell averting us from danger, savoring the aroma - and taste - of freshly baked bread or simply walking down a street of lime blossom in full bloom, our sense of smell not only plays a crucial evolutionary role in our lives, it elevates our existence beyond the mundane and enables us to experience the pleasures in life that are so integral to our emotional wellbeing.
Why get into perfume?
Perhaps the best way to compare the differing types of perfume is to think of wine, and the more complex wines from master vintners – think French Grand Crus and Champagnes – representing a good analogy for niche perfumery. If you’re still not entirely sure how it all relates, spend a little time on the various perfume forums and message boards and you’ll quickly see the similarities between the perfumista’s lexicon and a wine buff’s often baffling descriptions.
Confused? Well, at first you will be, but it doesn’t take long to nail the basics and slowly you will begin to differentiate the various ‘notes’, fragrance ‘families’ and be able to articulate that in words. For many ‘scent sensitive’ folks, it’s a little like entering an Aladdin’s Cave and perfume appreciation is a wonderful way to open your ‘nose’ and stimulate a more creative side that may otherwise have remained quite dormant.
There’s also something pretty thrilling the first time you are able to successfully nail the elements contained within a fragrance. And as with wine appreciation, one of the enormously rewarding aspects of honing your olfactory skills in order to appreciate fragrance is how it opens up your appreciation for so many other things in life too, be that food, nature or just the mundane. Your sensory awareness becomes heightened and you begin to ‘see’ the world a little differently.
The Fragrance Pyramid
You've probably heard people discussing a fragrance's 'notes', and here's a diagram to help make sense of exactly what it is they mean.
- A perfume's 'top' or 'head' notes are the first initial attention grabbing 'hit' of scent and last for a few short minutes only.
- Next the 'middle' or 'heart' notes take centre stage. These tend to last a little longer - up to half an hour or so - and are closer to the true core fragrance, but with a few added flourishes.
- Finally as the scent 'opens up' on your skin those critical 'base notes' take the floor and can last for hours depending on ingredients and quality of formulation. A perfume's base notes can present a very different beast to those first heady top notes and it's why it's always advisable to purchase scent once you've had chance to test it on your own skin, allowing time for base notes to appear.
So what exactly is a niche perfume?
Designer Versus Niche Versus Indie
Most of us will be pretty familiar with Designer perfumes. They’re the familiar fragrances that you find pretty much everywhere. Some will be more complex than others, and many will be cult masterpieces in their own right (think Poison by Christian Dior and Thierry Mugler Angel) but thanks to their ubiquity or tendency to use more cost effective ingredients in their formulations, they can’t really be called niche. Designer perfumes are not to be confused with celebrity perfumes (think Britney, Madonna, Katy Perry and Beyoncé). In theory there is also a distinction between Niche brands and Indie brands, though for many, those lines tend to be somewhat blurred, with many Indie brands - often started by knowledgeable, or self trained amateurs - acquiring more funding or becoming commercially successful and tipping over into Niche.
While any self-confessed ‘nose nerd’ can extoll the virtues of any number of Designer fragrances, it’s the ubiquity factor that leads many to seek out more unusual and complex, niche perfumes. This complexity reflects the level of artistry of the individual perfumers behind such creations – much like those master vintners – and the level of risk that these creators will take in order to step outside the mainstream fragrance market. Indeed their work could be likened to creating a work of art, with some formulations taking years of tweaking to get 'just right'.
Naturally, niche perfumers also tend to use more expensive ingredients and the results are not generally found in every department store and beauty department, lending them a greater degree of exclusivity from their Designer counterparts. That’s not to say Designer scents are inferior. In fact many Designer houses create their own niche formulations that can only be purchased in select boutiques, or perhaps for a limited time. There’s definitely a time and a place for both, but if you’re looking to find a less generic ‘signature scent’ (or ten!) or just curious to delve into the world of scent and niche perfumery, here’s some great tips and resources to help you get started:
- Hone your sense of smell – be aware of how everything smells around you, from your newspaper to ground pepper (though you might want to keep a safe distance!). Try to be consciously aware of your environment, and ‘in the moment’ of how it smells and begin to find words to describe those smells. Carry a notebook and jot down any scent related thoughts if you have time.
- Start reviewing - go through your own perfume collection and review each one, noting down what you can smell and the order each ‘note’ hits you. Don’t be afraid to write down any weird and seemingly unrelated associations – you may be closer than you think!
- Use the Internet - Join Fragrantica, Basenotes and any online fragrance appreciation websites and create a user profile for each. Search for the perfumes that you own and find out which perfume families they belong to, and the ‘scent pyramid’ composition of each. It’s likely you’ll start to notice similarities between your choices. Head over to the online forums, peruse reviews and gen up on the different perfume families, acquaint yourself with how other users describe them and also how they describe your favourite perfumes. Compare your own notes and see how close you got. Remember, it’s fairly interpretive stuff and there’s no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, but by comparing and making notes, eventually you’ll learn to sniff out key notes. Read fragrance blogs and magazines (see ‘the best fragrance blogs’). Search for online perfume reviews on Youtube – there’s a whole bunch of knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateurs with channels to peruse.
- Get Sampling -take it a step further and begin ordering perfume samples and ‘decants’ online (see ‘Ordering samples online’ box). You can order at ebay or from a number of companies around the world (check they can supply to your region). Many of the sample companies offer mixed sets which allow you to sample a range of classic and niche fragrances within a genre, for example ‘Tuberose’. It’s a fun, cost-effective way to experience a variety of fragrances without purchasing entire bottles while enabling you to hone your olfactory skills. The online community is very active and supportive too, with bottle swaps, guidance and advice the norm. Ask at fragrance counters and at more conventional beauty and perfume outlets for samples – some may even provide them for free!
- Experiment and enjoy! – Perfumery is about fun and pleasure. Delve into the world of fragrance and be transported to a sensual and evocative world of scents. There are thousands to choose from but here are Ten Great Niche Fragrance Houses to help you begin your perfumed journey:
10 Niche Perfume Houses for Beginners
These fragrance houses all offer a sublime range of classic, niche fragrances. Some are stand-alone, niche perfumers (Le Labo, Creed and Frederic Malle), some were bought by much larger beauty companies but have retained their artisanal approach (Annick Goutal and Jo Malone), while cosmetics houses like Guerlain offer exclusive, niche lines alongside more commercial offerings. Interestingly, Pehaligon's and L'Artisan Parfumeur are owned by the same company. All make a great place to begin your quest.
Fun Fragrance Poll
What's Your Fave Fragrance Family?
A Story of Scent (Extended Teaser)
Katie Puckrik Smells
If you're a Brit of a certain age, you may remember American gal Katie from cult TV shows The Word, The Sunday Show and as host of chat show, Pyjama Party (Pajama Party in the U.S remake) back in the 80s, 90s and early noughties. Appearing to be something of an all-rounder, she now writes for various magazines and the UKs Guardian Newspaper. But her new niche - which she does rather brilliantly - is Fragrance, and her highly engaging You Tube Channel 'Katie Puckrik Smells' features reviews and interviews and is not to be missed. You can also check out her website 'Katie Puckrik Smells' here.
Best Perfume Sites and Blogs
Here's a small selection of the many great blogs and websites dedicated to fragrance and all things scented:
- Bois De Jasmin - Perfumista Victoria's blog is a treasure trove of advice, tips, reviews and everything pertaining to perfume.
- Perfume Shrine - as a perfume historian, you can expect Elena Vosnaki's blog to delve into the technical and historical aspects, but the level of detail is fascinating and often mind bogglingly in depth.
- The Candy Perfume Boy - as the official book reviewer for Basenotes, British Thomas knows a thing or two about perfume and his short, snappy reviews make for great bite-sized reads to give you the low down on a vast array of perfumes.
- The Black Narcissus - another boy blogger - a Brit living in Japan - talking about life and his passion for frag. Witty, well written and evocative, it's a blog to inspire and encourage any olfactory obsession.
- Kafkaesque - yup, it's another guy bringing us an entertaining, eloquent and opinionated blog from a self-confessed perfectionist and dog lover (who also happens to be obsessed with fragrance).
- The Olfactoralist - Berlin based blogger and perfumista Lena's love is niche and special editions and this excellent blog gives you the skinny on everything pertaining to both.
- The Drydown - Tagging itself as 'Your Start Page For The Scented Net' - it's exactly that, a site with a ton of links to sites that discuss fragrance. A very good place to start indeed!
- Fragrantica - an essential, encyclopaedic resource for everything perfume.
- Basenotes - another essential resource site.
- Ozmoz - a thorough and well designed site with lots of fascinating nitty gritty on the technical side of perfumery and fragrance appreciation.
- Fragrances of the World - 'The Perfume Expert's Expert' - Michael Edwards is the Daddy of all things fragrance and it's his groundbreaking work on classifications - specifically the use of his fragrance wheel - is the standard throughout the industry today. Users can sign up for a free two-day trial and then subscription required for full site but his 'Discover a Fragrance' Tool is completely free and allows you to discover new fragrances based on the families of your current favourites - addictive!
- Now Smell This! - A well-established blog with a host of contributors blogging, reviewing and generally providing everything for the wannabe perfumista to gen up on everything scent related.
Where To Buy Perfume Samples Online
Samples and decants (simply a hand poured - or decanted - sample of perfume from a larger bottle) are a fantastic way to discover perfume without committing to an entire bottle. Many established fragrance brands and stores offer samples too, usually when you make a purchase,but many offer freebies too or sample sets for a nominal fee so don't be afraid to call or write to request samples. However, for the Perfumista it's often easier to head straight over to the Sample sites to purchase samples and decants in a variety of sizes.
If you really love a particular scent but still don't wish to commit to a full sized purchase, a larger decant is often an economical way to enjoy a fragrance without busting the budget - and there's a very active swapping culture within the online fragrance community.
Caution on shipping: It's important to check the laws within your own country to ascertain any import restrictions, fees and customs taxes that might be applied upon the goods entering the country. It's not the responsibility of the shipper to check this, so be forewarned!
- The Nose - a new and fascinating project set up by some serious scent industry heavyweights including Romano Ricci , Mark Buxton and Silvio Levi. The site compliments their gorgeous Parisien store and offers EU users the opportunity to order from their range of niche and artisanal fragrances. What's really exciting about this site is how users can sign up and utilise the fun and highly innovative 'Diagnostic Tool' that provides your unique 'olfactory pyramid' and recommends complimentary fragrances based on the specific fragrances families of your current perfumes, you can then order samples, rate them on the site according to preference and whittle down your preference. (There's a €10 voucher towards your next set of samples if you do, which essentially makes the first order free!). Non EU users can always sign up and utilise the diagnostic tool too and order elsewhere ; )
- First In Fragrance (ausliebezumduft) - German site with vast range of fragrances and offering EU and worldwide delivery (Insured post only). EU delivery €9.
- Les Scenteurs - gorgeous niche perfumery store offering a sample service. Shipping £3.
U.S SITES WITH INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING
- Décant Shop - offering a good range of hand decanted samples and the cheapest international shipping of all the sample suppliers. U.S shipping from $3.49 (free over $50), International shipping from $6.99 (free over $75)
- Lucky Scent - A big super slick name on the scene, with a gorgeous 'Scent Bar' you can visit in Los Angeles, these guys carry everything niche and are very active in the Fragrance community.U.S shipping from $4, International shipping from $8.
- The Perfumed Court - Vast range of niche, vintage, designer and hard to find fragrances offered in a variety of decants and sample sizes in a well run, professional operation. U.S shipping from $2.95 (free over $200), International shipping from $9.95.
- Surrender to Chance - Another highly recommended site offering samples, decants and sets that run the entire gamut of perfume - from cult to designer. U.S shipping from $2.95, International Shipping from $12.95.
- The Posh Peasant - with a highly readable blog, The Posh Peasant (AKA Abigail) also offers a well edited selection of samples, decants and sets to help you fuel your own frag obsession. U.S Shipping from $6.95, Canada $9.95, International shipping from $12.95.