How to Make a Perfume Smell Expensive

9 Min Read |

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, Roubert’s son donated the formula to the Osmothèque, 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 fragrance’s holy grails. People buy and sell vintage bottles on EBay, and “it’s become a legend,” 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 Paris’s 5th arrondissement by three ­twentysomethings—Patrice Revillard, Marie Schnirer, and Yohan Cervi—Maelstrom was unknown to most of its rivals, in part because it had only been founded that year. It’s made seven perfumes so far, including this one. And yet, “the first judge smelled all the entries, and not even one minute later he chose Maelstrom’s,” Naim says.

The new Iris Gris, renamed L’Iris 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. “Some people think that the iris smell in perfume comes from the flower,” Cervi says. “But we use the root—you grow it for three years and then dry it for three years.” A single 30 milliliter (1 ounce) bottle will cost €1,470 ($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 “prestige” 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 profit—a 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 “about putting the perfumer in the spotlight,” Jensen says. “It was about quality, artistry, ingredients, and creating these really rich experiential fragrances.”

But to the surprise of big brands, she says, these ­rarefied perfumes started to make money. As a result, they also began to acquire independent makers of ­smaller-batch specialty perfumes, which last year accounted for about 6 percent of the overall $4 billion U.S. fragrance market. In 2014, Estée Lauder, for instance, bought niche perfumers Editions de Parfums Frédéric 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 Frédéric Malle will know she’s encountered something unusual. Malle’s 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. It’s 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 €130 for 100ml and smells of wood and grass, and five scents for the brand Compagnie des Indes, each of which costs €65 for 100ml. But they all share an intangible quality; they all smell expensive—an 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 (€25,000 a kilogram, to be exact), according to Revillard, achieving that effect isn’t really all about high-priced ingredients. “You have the quality of the raw materials, and then you have artistic quality,” he says. “And both are totally different.”

A mass-market luxury perfume might use high-end ingredients, but it’s 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. “You needn’t have good-­quality raw materials to have a good artistic vision or to demonstrate originality,” Revillard says.

When Revillard or Schnirer make a perfume, they start with what’s known as a “brief,” 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 client’s brief could include the instructions, “dry, woody, and dark”; ­another’s could say it’s “for a woman between 25 and 30 years old who likes to dream.” But Maelstrom’s spin is to always make something that smells vaguely familiar yet refreshingly unlike anything you’ve encountered before.

To make one of these surprisingly layered creations, Revillard moves on to a rough idea for its basic composition; he refers to this as “the spine” 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.

“You have to find the right [combination] between all these raw materials,” Revillard says. “It’s simple to add a ­formula together, but then you have to balance everything.” He adds ingredients to a glass beaker that’s 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. “You can put together a very good perfume, but then over the course of the day, [the smell] becomes very flat,” Revillard says. “That means there’s a technical problem, so you have to change things around.”

Maelstrom’s unusual-but-approachable signature, along with its small size and insider credibility, is what allows the company to fit seamlessly within today’s fragrance ­landscape. Much like niche brands that have been purchased by large perfume companies, it complements industry ­behemoths such as Coty Inc. or Givaudan or Estée Lauder by drawing new audiences to fragrance. “Some ­people in the larger companies know about us, but they don’t care about us as competition,” Revillard says. “We’re not in the same market.” Acquisition by a larger company is a ­potential ­outcome, but Cervi says Maelstrom would like to remain “a human-size company.” It’s growing slowly but steadily—by 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. “We’re some of the first to become independent perfumers at our ages,” Cervi says. “After school, people usually enter the industry via companies, and after a while might decide to become independent.”

Revillard met Cervi in 2012 at a workshop in Versailles hosted by the Osmothèque. (Its website claims it’s 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 École Supérieure du Parfum à 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 Maelstrom’s first fragrance. “It’s all word of mouth,” Cervi says. “In this industry, it’s very difficult to send an email to someone, or to a brand, and be like, ‘Hello, we’re here, this is what we do.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

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 minute’s walk from Notre Dame.

When a perfume is ready, or at least when they think it’s ready, the staff of Maelstrom will test it on themselves. “In a laboratory, it’s very difficult to take in all the qualities,” Cervi says. “You have to wait until you’re outside at night with some friends and see if you get compliments. Because if you think you’ve developed something powerful and heavy, and you’re at a party and you don’t get any reaction, it’s probably a bad idea to stick with that formula.”

This is almost certainly not the testing methodology used by the giant fragrance companies, but it’s the essence of what makes Maelstrom so successful. They don’t just make perfumes that smell nice—they make scents that they, as connoisseurs, want to wear themselves. “I wear perfume every day and every night,” Cervi says. “At every moment. I can’t live without perfume on my skin. Really.”

A Brief History Of Dollars And Scents

Perfume has offered a whiff of one’s 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 “made the Guinness Book for most expensive cologne in the world at $215,000 a bottle,” Krigler says. “It was delivered to your home via Bentley.” (You can get 30ml now for $525.)

Oud for Highness
“We created this in 1975 for the King of Jordan,” Krigler says. “It costs us $75,000 and includes saffron from Asia and a rare oud from Japan” (about $20,000 a pound). Today it’s $635 for a 100ml bottle.

Guerlain Habit Rouge
Launched in 1965, it was the most important men’s cologne of its time. “While not necessarily wildly expensive, it was the fragrance of high society for years to come,” Krigler says. It’s about $29 for 1.7 oz. now.

Monsieur de Givenchy
The first men’s cologne by Hubert de Givenchy was heralded as wildly unique in 1959, Krigler says. “It was sweet, spicy, and heavy—when most scents were light and floral. It was for the dandies of the day.” Now it costs about $30 for 3.3 oz.

A. Rallet & Co.
In 1843 this shop opened in Moscow, bringing along French perfumers and chemists—“including my great-great-great grandfather!” Krigler says. The scents became the go-to for the imperial family.

Written by James Tarmy with assistance by Cator Sparks for Bloomberg