Yes, of course, we do! Only in 1990, we had 76 new perfumes, this year we have 700 and this doesn’t include the upcoming holiday launches.* Even the consumers are asking the industry to slow down. In various studies done on both sides of the Atlantic women express skepticism and disappointment when it comes to recent releases. “They all smell the same” is a common refrain. While the number of new launches is indisputably high, you can’t blame the malaise of the fragrance industry on the volume alone.
A couple of weeks ago I was researching materials for a presentation on 1920s fragrances which required me digging in the archives and leafing through lists of long forgotten perfumes. You can get a whiff of the 1920s today through Chanel No 5, Guerlain Shalimar, Caron Nuit de Noël, Molinard Habanita and perhaps 20-3o others, and it might seem as if the fragrance houses were launching one classic after another.
But one look into the Guerlain archives, and you see that in the 1920s the house launched more than 20 different fragrances. There were several variations on identical themes like jasmine, vetiver and leather. At the end of the day, only Shalimar, Liu, and Eau de Fleurs de Cédrat survived. You can find similar trends from Chanel to Weil.
Today some houses use the market place in much the same way as Jacques Guerlain did–as a testing ground. They continuously refine the collections, remove fragrances that don’t perform well and introduce others that they hope would do better. The number of launches itself doesn’t mean poor quality, and the main difference between the 1920s and 2010s is that perfume has stopped being a luxury affordable to few and became an ubiquitous cosmetic product. Women also buy more perfume for themselves rather than wait to receive it as a gift. More men use fragrances on a regular basis. Even babies have scented products designed especially for them.
In principle, there are enough new consumers to absorb all of the offerings, but this only works if each new release stands out or is at least different. But even the niche house follow the pack as they either release variations on the best sellers (exhibit A: Bond no 9 Scent of Peace=Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue) or jump onto the rickety oud bandwagon (exhibit B: Robert Piguet Oud; what does a Swiss fashion designer have to do with the Middle East?) When even professionals have difficulty telling new launches apart, much less remembering them, it’s no wonder that a perfume lover is at loss.
For the hundreds of launches to make sense, the stores should also rethink how they sell. The department store perfume space hasn’t changed much in fifty years, except that it has gotten more crowded. Instead of dumping everything on the counter and pretending that every single bottle of perfume contains a masterpiece, why not take a page from other industries like wine or food. I shared some of my thoughts on this topic in Why Fragrance Shopping is Often Frustrating; the way perfume is retailed affects the industry deeply.
I accept that in the near future we won’t see fewer launches and higher quality. I don’t even count on stores giving up the old-fashioned way of organizing their perfume counters. But time and again I wonder why the industry doesn’t educate its consumers about fragrance, what’s contained in a bottle, how perfumers work and where materials come from. As someone who stumbled by chance into a fragrance lab and couldn’t bring myself to leave, I know how fascinating and exciting perfume creation can be. The purple prose of press releases doesn’t do it justice.
*Information via Michael Edwards’s Fragrances of the World.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin