Almost 3000 News Perfumes Are Launched Each Year: What does that Mean for the Noses Behind Them?
In 2020, the global perfume market reached a value of 32.8 billion dollars. In the UK alone, more than 7.5 million liters of perfume were sold: the equivalent of three Olympic swimming pools. Over the course of the 20th century, perfume evolved from being a niche product reserved for the exclusive, and selective use of the wealthy, into an everyday commodity of mass market appeal. With this growth in demand and production, so too has the industry become more and more competitive for fragrance producers and creators.
Today, if you were to take a stroll down the beauty departments of Selfridges or Bloomingdales, you’d find that almost all the glass-encased perfumes neatly stacked on their polished counters were designed and produced by one of a handful of global fragrance companies. As of last year, just the four biggest names in the flavors and fragrances industry—Givaudan, IFF, Firmenich and Symrise—held 49% of the market share, with others like Takasago, Mane and Sensient following shortly behind. As a perfumer, working outside one such company means restricted access to the projects commissioned by beauty and fashion houses, as well as comparatively limited resources. Without the teams of experts, consumer tests, high-tech laboratories, premium materials and market research that industry leaders can provide, staying competitive becomes a herculean feat. For perfumers and evaluators, the “noses” behind perfume creation, options are scarce.
Karine Dubreuil-Sereni has been working in the perfume industry for over three decades. Ten years ago, she opened her own company, Vox Profumi, thereby becoming one the few independent perfumers that have managed to find a place in the fine fragrances industry. Because she works independently, she can claim ownership of the perfume formulas she creates, be they for Gucci or YSL, a privilege that most of her colleagues in the fragrance industry renounce, signing off all rights to their creations to their employers. Dubreuil-Sereni, however, would not have been able to catch the solo ride she did 10 years ago if she hadn’t spent the previous 20 years working for leading fragrance producers, nurturing her expertise, reputation and network. She first had to build a name for herself. One that clients would follow when she set off on her own.
Dubreuil-Sereni is able to access top tier laboratories, materials and production facilities thanks to her partnership with Takasago, among the top 10 largest flavors and fragrances companies in the world, which operates as Vox Profumi’s producer. She can use their equipment to develop her formulas, and whenever she wins a brief, it is with Takasago ingredients and through their production line that the perfume is manufactured. There are other independent perfumers that have similar arrangements with leading flavors and fragrances companies, but they are a rare breed in the perfume ecosystem.
Over the course of her lifetime, Karine Dubreuil-Sereni has watched the perfume industry change drastically. She was born in Grasse, a town of fifty-thousand nestled in the green hills of the French Riviera. Known as the perfume capital of the world, Grasse’s centuries-old perfumery tradition and historical production of natural extracts, courtesy of the flower fields that surround the city, earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage in 2018. “I was raised in the cradle of perfumery,” says Dubreuil-Sereni, “and I got to know what were maybe the last good years of Grasse’s perfumery. Many businesses have disappeared… even the flower fields have disappeared.”
Dubreuil-Sereni trained at the Roure Perfumery School, founded by Roure Bertrand Dupont, a Grasse-based fragrance producer. In 1994, she opened the first fine fragrance laboratory for fragrance producer Drom, and then went on to work for Mane, a leading flavors and fragrances company. In the time since she graduated from the school, Roure merged with Swiss giant Givaudan, and the Roure Perfumery School was rebranded as Givaudan Perfumery School. In 2019, eighteen years after Dubreuil-Sereni left the company, Givaudan also acquired Drom. Currently, Givaudan is the world’s largest flavors and fragrances company, making almost 7 billion dollars in sales in 2020 alone. The names Roure and Drom, on the other hand, are no more.
Many other small-to-medium-sized fragrance and natural raw material producers have been served the same fate. The Grasse-based Laboratorie Monique Remy was purchased by IFF in 2009; Creations Aromatiques and Belmay Fragrances are now both part of Symrise; another Grasse based fragrance creation house, Expressions Parfumees, was acquired by Givaudan in 2018. The same is true for perfume brands, their clients, most of which now operate under the umbrella of large, publicly-traded beauty and fashion groups. Guerlain, perhaps the most famous perfume house in the world, was acquired by LVMH in 1994, Frederic Malle was purchased by Estée Lauder in 2014, l’Artisan Parfumeur by Puig in 2015, Atelier Cologne by l’Oreal in 2016. “You have these giant groups that talk to other giant groups,” says Karine Dubreuil-Sereni, “and inside you’re a creator, but a diluted one. I had the impression I had lost the soul of my profession.”
The story of the perfume industry is the story of globalization, and raging against it is perhaps just as futile as protesting market economy or the advent of the internet. Ultimately, the technical expertise, human and financial resources and production capabilities required to cater to the needs of the perfume market are such that only giants can enter the ring, join the fight and emerge having won at least some of the rounds. Internal and external competition are an integral part of the business model around which the fragrance industry is shaped, and part of the reason why battling without their backing is so difficult.
Most perfume projects aren’t commissioned directly to a fragrance producer. When a perfume brand, be they Lancôme or Thierry Mugler, decide to launch a new perfume, they will send out a brief to multiple fragrance producers. The brief is essentially the seed of the perfume project, the initial, more or less clearly defined concept for a new perfume that fragrance producers are meant to help grow into an actual, bottled scent. The first step to winning that brief is, of course, receiving it.
Perfume houses tend to have what is referred to as “core lists” of suppliers. They’re like a guest list of celebrities that have a permanent table in the VIP lounge, and for the most part, they will simply consist of the heavy hitters of the fragrance world, your Rihannas and Adeles, so to speak. In addition, a particular brief may be sent to one or two outsiders that appear suitable to deliver on a given project, and maybe, on certain rare occasions, to an independent perfumer. Unless you’re Karine Dubreuil-Sereni, however, it is highly unlikely you will make the cut.
Once the brief is received, fragrance producers pour in resources to deliver on its contents, and hopefully come up with a better formula than their competition. Catherine Bru, the Fine Fragrances Creative Director at IFF, is well acquainted with the hustle. “When we work on projects,” she says, “we can work in 10 different directions, and work for months and months.” Within each company, different perfumers are assigned to the same project, normally upon selection from an evaluator, and all asked to present a variety of fragrance options within a given time-frame.
If perfumers are the artists of the fragrance world, then evaluators are the artistic directors. Often described as scent design managers, they determine what is referred to as the “olfactive strategy” that guides a project. Unlike perfumers, who may be assigned to any variety of briefs, evaluators typically work with a handful of clients that they come to know in excruciating detail. They look at market trends and consumer tests, they know every page of their client’s perfume portfolio and every aspect of their brand image, and with this knowledge they guide perfumers in their work. Catherine Bru compares it to cooking. To deliver a meal worthy of a Michelin star, you need a star chef, but you also need a critic with trained taste buds and expert knowledge to savor the dish and tell you what’s amiss. “When you cook,” she says, “it’s important to have someone who comes in and says, mmh, you put too much salt in that.”
Josephine de Longueville, evaluator at IFF, works with perfume brands from the Puig group, a Spanish fashion and fragrance group who’s portfolio includes the likes of Carolina Herrera and Jean Paul Gaultier. When she receives a brief from them, de Longueville will coordinate with Bru to assign a set of perfumers to the project, and then work with them to deliver on the brief. Once each perfumer has presented their formulas, she will test them blindly and decide on the best ones, normally no more than 3, and with these she will go back to her client. On their end, her counterparts in other fragrance companies will do the same thing, and presented with all the proposals, the client will decide on the winner. Out of the dozens, potentially even hundreds of formulas prepared by different perfumers, across different fragrance producers, only one will go into production and reach the shelves of our department stores.
“I think as a perfumer you get more disappointments than anything else,” says Enrique Gomez-Dueso, senior perfumer at Givaudan. He loves his job, but he also knows that losing out on briefs you’ve spent months working on is just as much a part of it as sniffing at test strips. If the client doesn’t choose your fragrance, which happens often, “all the work we did,” says Gomez-Dueso, “it’s not forgotten, but you don’t get money and it’s not going to come on the market.” Your work is shelved, potentially to be revisited as a starting point for a future project, and you move on.
Wasted money may seem a perfunctory thing to focus on when compared to the disappointment of seeing your creations rejected, but really it is at the core of everything. When you work at Givaudan or IFF, the incoming stream of work and revenue is enough that you can afford to bet on a couple—even several—losing race horses, to pour thousands of dollars worth of resources and weeks worth of working hours into developing briefs that you will never make a single cent on. That’s part of the beauty of being in these companies. The projects keep coming, and the money is there to develop them.
Fanny Bal is a rising star in the perfume world who has already created formulas for some of the biggest names in fashion, like Armani, Lancôme and Givenchy. Currently, she works as a perfumer for IFF, and she is very conscious of the advantages that entails. “In the big companies like IFF, Givaudan, Firmenich,” she says, “you have the big projects, you have the big customers. And you also have the smaller ones, like niche perfumery. You can have access to everything.” When you’re a smaller fragrance producer, let alone an independent perfumer, your access is limited, as are your resources, and each discarded fragrance deals you a heavy blow.
When asked what the determining factor is in making a great perfume, everyone that was interviewed for this article suggested uniqueness. Ironically, the same market growth that killed small fragrance producers and independent perfumers has also made it all the more arduous to achieve precisely that. In a 2011 BBC documentary on the perfume industry, Chandler Burr, long-time perfume expert and critic, can be seen in his home surrounded by cardboard delivery boxes filled with new perfumes that have been shipped to him for testing. “A couple years ago, there would have been a lot less” he can be heard telling the BBC reporter, as he opens yet another carton of perfume bottles, “there were only about 150 launches a year. In 2011, there will have been 1200 I think.” In 2019, there were 2968.
Perfume is a mass market product now. It is available everywhere and to everyone. “The enterprise adapts to the client, the client adapts to the consumer, and the consumer asks for more every day,” says Josephine de Longueville. And she’s right. But when launches are so frequent, and the market is saturated with scents, it becomes harder for brands and perfumers to come up with a fragrance that is innovative. “You can’t ask human beings to be machines,” says Karine Dubreuil-Sereni. “When you have 10 creations to complete in a year, compared to when you have 200… the result isn’t the same.”
Some young independent perfumists are resisting this tendency, choosing to forfeit the opportunity to develop perfumes for sale to the public and focusing instead on creating one-of-a-kind fragrances for the exclusive use of a particular client. Fanny Berthouly, a recent graduate of ISIPCA, the world’s leading perfumery school in Versailles, decided to do just that. She started Maison Madeleine soon after completing her studies, and now works with small clients to create tailor-made ambient fragrances, be they for an ancient villa in Greece, a wedding or a chocolate store. Unlike most perfumers, she gets to work hand in hand with her clients, and choose the projects that inspire her. Exactly what Dubreuil-Sereni was after when she founded Vox Profumi.
These days, Karine Dubreuil-Sereni is somewhat disillusioned. She hopes her industry will slow down, that the number of yearly perfume launches will start to follow a downward trend. “Maybe there will be a return to slow perfume,” she says, only half-seriously. “After slow life and slow food, maybe we’ll have slow perfume.” Current rhythms of production certainly appear to her to be untenable. With an eye towards sustainability, and in response to consumer demands for greener perfumes, producers have begun in recent years to invest more and more in developing fully natural fragrances. Most have amped up their extraction and production facilities of natural ingredients in Grasse. And so the flower fields around Dubreuil-Sereni’s house are beginning to come back. Whether small fragrance producers and independent perfume creators will return with them, however, remains to be seen.