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Small fragrance creators such as Maelstrom in Paris are influencing a $49 billion global industry.
Last year a juried competition was held to re-create a 1940s-era cult perfume called Iris Gris. Created by the perfumer Vincent Roubert and released by the designer Jacques Fath, an influential French couturier, the fragrance went out of production when Fath died of cancer in 1954. Eventually, Roubertâs son donated the formula to the OsmothĂšque, a scent archive in Versailles, France. Recipes owned by the archive cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes.
Iris Gris has widely been considered one of fragranceâs holy grails. People buy and sell vintage bottles on EBay, and âitâs become a legend,â says Rania Naim, the current creative director of Jacques Fath Parfums.
A number of established perfumers submitted versions of the scent to the competition that tried to exactly mimic the original. But when it came time for a decision, the panel unanimously agreed that the entry from a tiny upstart perfumery called Maelstrom was the best. Run out of a lab in Parisâs 5th arrondissement by three ÂtwentysomethingsâPatrice Revillard, Marie Schnirer, and Yohan CerviâMaelstrom was unknown to most of its rivals, in part because it had only been founded that year. Itâs made seven perfumes so far, including this one. And yet, âthe first judge smelled all the entries, and not even one minute later he chose Maelstromâs,â Naim says.
The new Iris Gris, renamed LâIris de Fath, will be released in September. Because of the large quantities of pure iris used in the formula, the perfume has an astronomical price tag. âSome people think that the iris smell in perfume comes from the flower,â Cervi says. âBut we use the rootâyou grow it for three years and then dry it for three years.â A single 30 milliliter (1 ounce) bottle will cost âŹ1,470 ($1,712), and just 150 bottles will be made a year.
Not every perfume the Maelstrom partners make is that pricey, but virtually every one fits in what Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst for NPD Group Inc., calls the âprestigeâ section of the luxury market.
Initially, Jensen says, such complex, often unisex, super-high-end perfumes were created to set a brand apart rather than turn a profitâa kind of halo product along the lines of haute couture or a rare supercar. In 2011, Dolce & Gabanna, which has a line of perfumes sold in Walmart, also released a high-end line called the Velvet Collection; a 5 oz. bottle costs $430. Such projects are âabout putting the perfumer in the spotlight,â Jensen says. âIt was about quality, artistry, ingredients, and creating these really rich experiential fragrances.â
But to the surprise of big brands, she says, these Ârarefied perfumes started to make money. As a result, they also began to acquire independent makers of Âsmaller-batch specialty perfumes, which last year accounted for about 6 percent of the overall $4 billion U.S. fragrance market. In 2014, EstĂ©e Lauder, for instance, bought niche perfumers Editions de Parfums FrĂ©dĂ©ric Malle and Le Labo, whose trendy Santal 33 is the darling of city dwellers from Los Angeles to London.
Often, the perceived prestige of an expensive fragrance is derived from advertising as much as the scent itself, but anyone who smells a perfume by FrĂ©dĂ©ric Malle will know sheâs encountered something unusual. Malleâs Portrait of a Lady is often held up as one of the most innovative and interesting scents currently in circulation: It has a significant amount of natural rose essence, which is complemented by a huge dose of patchouli. Itâs so special, fans pay $390 for a 100ml bottle.
Maelstrom, which creates scents for other companies and none under its own name, mostly produces below that tier. It made Pavillon Rouge for the small perfume company Jovoy Paris, which costs about âŹ130 for 100ml and smells of wood and grass, and five scents for the brand Compagnie des Indes, each of which costs âŹ65 for 100ml. But they all share an intangible quality; they all smell expensiveâan effect achieved by combining a strong scent with complexity and structure. A rose smells like a rose, but a rose and patchouli together smell like money.
And while that cured iris root might be costly (âŹ25,000 a kilogram, to be exact), according to Revillard, achieving that effect isnât really all about high-priced ingredients. âYou have the quality of the raw materials, and then you have artistic quality,â he says. âAnd both are totally different.â
A mass-market luxury perfume might use high-end ingredients, but itâs designed to be generic enough to appeal to consumers at airport kiosks in Beijing, department stores in New York, and boutiques in London. Less expensive perfumes can be strikingly inventive. âYou neednât have good-Âquality raw materials to have a good artistic vision or to demonstrate originality,â Revillard says.
When Revillard or Schnirer make a perfume, they start with whatâs known as a âbrief,â which dictates in broad strokes what the perfume should smell like and cost. (Revillard and Schnirer actually make the fragrances, while Cervi helps refine them and handles business development.) One clientâs brief could include the instructions, âdry, woody, and darkâ; Âanotherâs could say itâs âfor a woman between 25 and 30 years old who likes to dream.â But Maelstromâs spin is to always make something that smells vaguely familiar yet refreshingly unlike anything youâve encountered before.
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To make one of these surprisingly layered creations, Revillard moves on to a rough idea for its basic composition; he refers to this as âthe spineâ of the perfume, which he maps out on an Excel spreadsheet with a precise weight for each ingredient. There are natural materials (jasmine or citrus, for instance) that he knows will give a perfume its initial character.
After that, things get complicated.
âYou have to find the right [combination] between all these raw materials,â Revillard says. âItâs simple to add a Âformula together, but then you have to balance everything.â He adds ingredients to a glass beaker thatâs placed on a scale, constantly tweaking the formula, first on the spreadsheet and then testing it in practice. Mixing in alcohol causes the perfume to open up. Top notes may fade early on, though middle and base notes should last. âYou can put together a very good perfume, but then over the course of the day, [the smell] becomes very flat,â Revillard says. âThat means thereâs a technical problem, so you have to change things around.â
Maelstromâs unusual-but-approachable signature, along with its small size and insider credibility, is what allows the company to fit seamlessly within todayâs fragrance Âlandscape. Much like niche brands that have been purchased by large perfume companies, it complements industry Âbehemoths such as Coty Inc. or Givaudan or EstĂ©e Lauder by drawing new audiences to fragrance. âSome Âpeople in the larger companies know about us, but they donât care about us as competition,â Revillard says. âWeâre not in the same market.â Acquisition by a larger company is a Âpotential Âoutcome, but Cervi says Maelstrom would like to remain âa human-size company.â Itâs growing slowly but steadilyâby the end of the year, the co-founders hope to have released 13 perfumes on top of the seven they already produce.
The trio are, by industry standards, strikingly young. Revillard is 26, Schnirer, 28, and Cervi, 29. âWeâre some of the first to become independent perfumers at our ages,â Cervi says. âAfter school, people usually enter the industry via companies, and after a while might decide to become independent.â
Revillard met Cervi in 2012 at a workshop in Versailles hosted by the OsmothĂšque. (Its website claims itâs the only scent archive in the world; its collection of more than 3,200 perfumes, all preserved under argon gas, certainly makes it the most comprehensive.)
Before Revillard and Schnirer even graduated from the Ăcole SupĂ©rieure du Parfum Ă Paris, where they were lab partners, they received their first assignment, from a jewelry chain called Arije that wanted to make a scent for its stores. It became Maelstromâs first fragrance. âItâs all word of mouth,â Cervi says. âIn this industry, itâs very difficult to send an email to someone, or to a brand, and be like, âHello, weâre here, this is what we do.â It doesnât work like that.â
With its first commission, Maelstrom made enough money for the trio, plus some interns, to set up shop with little to no outside investment. Their atelier is located on the ground floor of a small building on the Left Bank, less than a minuteâs walk from Notre Dame.
When a perfume is ready, or at least when they think itâs ready, the staff of Maelstrom will test it on themselves. âIn a laboratory, itâs very difficult to take in all the qualities,â Cervi says. âYou have to wait until youâre outside at night with some friends and see if you get compliments. Because if you think youâve developed something powerful and heavy, and youâre at a party and you donât get any reaction, itâs probably a bad idea to stick with that formula.â
This is almost certainly not the testing methodology used by the giant fragrance companies, but itâs the essence of what makes Maelstrom so successful. They donât just make perfumes that smell niceâthey make scents that they, as connoisseurs, want to wear themselves. âI wear perfume every day and every night,â Cervi says. âAt every moment. I canât live without perfume on my skin. Really.â
A Brief History Of Dollars And Scents
Perfume has offered a whiff of oneâs wealth since Ancient Egypt. Ben Krigler, the fifth-generation owner of the Krigler fragrance house, recalls five class-defining concoctions.
Clive Christian No 1
This cologne âmade the Guinness Book for most expensive cologne in the world at $215,000 a bottle,â Krigler says. âIt was delivered to your home via Bentley.â (You can get 30ml now for $525.)
Oud for Highness
âWe created this in 1975 for the King of Jordan,â Krigler says. âIt costs us $75,000 and includes saffron from Asia and a rare oud from Japanâ (about $20,000 a pound). Today itâs $635 for a 100ml bottle.
Guerlain Habit Rouge
Launched in 1965, it was the most important menâs cologne of its time. âWhile not necessarily wildly expensive, it was the fragrance of high society for years to come,â Krigler says. Itâs about $29 for 1.7 oz. now.
Monsieur de Givenchy
The first menâs cologne by Hubert de Givenchy was heralded as wildly unique in 1959, Krigler says. âIt was sweet, spicy, and heavyâwhen most scents were light and floral. It was for the dandies of the day.â Now it costs about $30 for 3.3 oz.
A. Rallet & Co.
In 1843 this shop opened in Moscow, bringing along French perfumers and chemistsââincluding my great-great-great grandfather!â Krigler says. The scents became the go-to for the imperial family.
Written by James Tarmy with assistance by Cator Sparks for Bloomberg