First, exactly what are niche perfume brands? It’s wise to start by answering this common question before I drill down, or niche down further into the sub-category of natural perfume houses; a top 5 of which I’ve homed in on to review in this post.
Niche, natural perfumes – the economics
There are ‘riches in niches’ so the refrain goes, but there are also voices which counter the niche argument saying that by focusing on the few, a brand will lose out on customers or opportunities. It’s an age-old debate and one I had when starting Olentium as a predominantly naturals perfume house. We tend to use 50:50 naturals vs aromachemicals and will always seek naturals first in our creative process.
Natural perfumes and those using a high percentage of natural and nature-identical ingredients are becoming more commonplace. With health issues to the fore during the C-19 pandemic, natural cosmetics are surging as a market segment. Consumers are looking to naturals as a way to nurture their well-being and psychologically cocoon themselves from the ill-wind of external forces beyond their control.
At the same time, cosmetic and personal care product consumers are holding cosmetics’ brands to account on their record in fostering sustainability and ethical business which goes beyond packaging to look at a brand’s ingredient choices. I’ve written before at length on sustainable natural perfumes.
So, now, we’ve a duo of niches: naturals and sustainability. Not inconsiderable ‘niches’ if you look at predicted market share statistics. According to a recent Mintel (UK) report, some 54 per cent of consumers surveyed had bought eco-friendly cosmetics and personal care products lately. But this figure leaves a lot of room for growth in the green cosmetics’ industry, and in natural perfumes too.
Niche Perfumes – the Emotional Definition
Niche when applied to perfume brands however has become a catch-all for the unusual, the sought-after, the inspired and creative, and the elusive. Niche perfumes can be difficult to find and buy if you aren’t a city dweller with those niche perfumeries close by (I’ve some recommendations for niche perfumeries in Paris to seek out if you’re passing through the French capital). Samples’ services of course do overcome proximity, and certainly in these times of Covid-19 when in-store point-of-sale experiences are limited anyway.
I won’t add the word exclusive to the adjective list as huge brands, especially celebrity ones of the ’90s to noughties, would offer exclusivity in the guise of limited edition flanker fragrances. Niche means exclusive to the few anyway.
The word ‘niche’ resonates immediately in the fraghead’s mind as something desirable, and as applying to a brand or individual perfume that, with luck, you might be among the first to discover, trial and review; thereby upping your own status as a fragrance influencer on social.
What defines a Niche Perfume…apart from its elusiveness?
I’ve come up with four key pointers to identify and classify niche perfume. If a perfume brand checks most of the boxes of most, then it’s likely a niche offer.
Size doesn’t matter that much
Small isn’t necessarily niche in perfumery terms. We think of a niche as being a chink, recess or tiny corner. Immediately size plays a part in defining the word niche. Not so in perfumery where defining niche perfume brands is more than a discussion of size alone.
A niche brand may well have started life as a little-known outsider working from a single, artisanal atelier; the personal creative outlet often of a known, in-house ‘nose’ of an international perfume house. An example of this would be Maison Francis Kurkjdian founded in 2009 by the man of the same name who had worked for Quest International (now part of Swiss-based flavour and fragrance giant Givaudin).
Maison FK started with a single store in Place Vendome, Paris, but is now widely available in perfumeries niche and otherwise, as well as online. It is however niche in name if not niche in size, for some of the next reasons.
Niche is created with passion & purpose
Whether large or small, a true niche perfumery is one whose creativity and ethos is defined by the founders and perfumers, whether the same people or not. Their creativity is evident in the products from the first trial blotter sniffs in their labs to finished product on shelves. They hold sway and their inspiration drives the business forward.
Niche perfume houses are as much businesses as those of international fragrance brands, if they are to sustain salaries and pay suppliers. Their difference lies in how a perfume is born. You will sense through reading up on true niche perfumeries that the founder/perfumers’ eye, nose and business sense is evident throughout.
Enter a perfumery that prides itself on offering niche fragrances and you will see in their marketing, website, point of sale and customer care a passion in action; one fueled by the brands themselves. A niche perfumery assistant should know the origins of the perfumes they sell and not provide glib marketing spiel to your queries. This leads us to the next point.
Niche perfume brands are not marketing led
I will defer to that great perfumer and master of the minimal, Jean-Claude Ellena, former in-house perfumer at Hermes. In his short book ‘Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent’, Ellena reveals much that goes on behind the scenes in the world of big-business perfumery. He devotes an entire chapter to perfume marketing and how it has evolved, for the worse you sense, since the 1970s when marketing departments started dictating the creative process.
He laments: “The objective was to sell perfumes on a global scale…To create a global market, the priority [of perfume houses] shifted to the marketing of demand [which]…operates by continually assessing the needs, habits, and interests of consumers…While this approach can be described as innovative, it is not creative.” Ellena adds further on: “Perfume design is guided by a system of olfactory check boxes…the criteria set by the marketing people. …This technique has distanced perfumers from the judgement of their own senses and curtailed their creativity.”
We have all seen this in action with the rise of flankers riding on the back of a successful fragrance. With a few note edits, a slight shift in packaging and target customer segment, but not too much to alienate the earlier consumers, a flanker is pumped out to capitalise on the first of its name.
Ellena identifies the rise of so-called niche perfume houses as salvation from demand marketing; a glimmer of free-spirited creativity in a bland, mass market. He says that niche may not be the best nomenclature for them as that defines their system of distribution.
Niche houses, freed of marketing-led decision-making must do or die by speaking directly through the medium of their perfumes, not glitzy ad spend or marketing fluff.
Writing his book in 2011, Ellena was talking of early, idealistic niche houses. Now, niche can be large, well distributed and if not a household, then certainly a well-known name in perfumery circles. Things have moved on since Ellena’s ideal of niche.
That said, much of what he foresaw still rings true today. He ends this part of his industry expose’ saying that niche perfumes are “simply unique fragrances, inventions of the mind, which appeal to the olfactory sense”. I think that a perfect line to wrap up our definition of niche perfume brands bar one last short point.
Niche as classic and timeless
Following on from the above, I would just add that many niche perfumes, while perhaps pushing our olfactory senses, can be described as classic and timeless.
As they are not mass packaged goods designed to the dictates of focus groups and marketeers, they may or may not be in vogue at any given time. They are inherently timeless.
Some niche perfumers, particularly the more artisan and independent, create limited editions and will vary their output from year to year, even season to season. This of course ups the cache’ of a fragrance if it is limited. But the juice inside tends to timeless even if its production isn’t.
5 European Natural & Niche Perfume Brands to Try
Abel Odor – Pulling off a feat of luxury and natural, Abel Odor, launched in Amsterdam in 2013 by New Zealander Frances Shoemack, has the mission of “inspiring positive change by creating the world’s best 100% natural perfume,without compromising on ethics or aesthetics”.
I’ve trawled Abel’s ingredients lists, which are in full on its website, and it has pukka natural credentials. Perfumes are aided by the addition of ambroxan and natural isolates which bolster the power and longevity of the all-natural scents.
Some may not be as lasting as you are used to with synthetics, but Abel’s perfumer Isaac Sinclair has worked tirelessly and his magic to create a superb 8-fragrance range, including the superb neroli (Golden Neroli) and floral (Pink Iris); neither of which are easy feats in naturals.
Aer Scents – Launched just under three years ago, Aer Scents is more than hot air about naturals. I know the founding Berlin-based duo of Ted and Stefan (in person – the former, and online, the latter) and had plenty of chance to experience their truly unique olfactory works at Pitti Fragranze fair in Florence.
They produce strong concentrations in 30ml flacon and focus each perfume on a single ingredient as the heart of an accord. That’s not to say their perfumes are linear, simple accords as they have well-crafted offers with depth and complexity. As they say, it’s harder to do simple and work with fewer ingredients than toss a tonne into the pot. For more on Aer, head to that Pitti post.
April Aromatics – Another brand to create small, luxe flacons with panache and purpose is April Aromatics. Founder and perfumer Tanja Bochnig imbues her perfumes with a sense of wellness and holistic well-being by using all naturals and adding crystals to the juice. A licensed yoga teacher, Bochnig works, like Aer Scents, from Berlin and has seen her perfumes win an impressive line-up of industry awards. I’ve not managed yet to trial them but certainly April Aromatics has pioneered naturals and lifted them to luxe status.
Kamila Aubre – Also bringing an element of wellness and holistic living to her perfumes, Kamila Aubre is an independent perfumer working in Belgium whose work I admire. Aubre’s perfumes are quiet, pensive, reflective creations which take poetry and jazz as their muses.
Less flashy than the preceding brand’s, Kamila Aubre’s work stresses less is more both in terms of notes and packaging. The perfumer strives to work with sustainability, not just naturals, at the forefront and writes of zero waste, recycling and reducing. She pushes herself to ensure the cycle of her perfumes and their packaging has minimal environmental impact.
I wear her ‘Gloire de Dijon‘ EDP which is a delicate tea rose and rooisbos tea accord fleshed out with vetiver, orris and cepes. Loveliness if slightly fleeting. However, Villanelle EDP is a strong base-note heavy scent with punch and an interesting, if by-chance, name association.
Hiram Green – Canadian born, Netherlands based, Hiram Green is another self-taught perfumer who set out to dispell the oft-told tale of naturals as amateur aromatherapy blends with poor performance. In fact, none of my top 5 natural niche perfume brands here are poor in any sense.
I discovered Hiram Green only fairly recently and what struck me first is the incredible rainbow of colours his perfumes come in. Arbole’, with its vibrant lime which has no bearing on the notes listed; and Hyde with its dark brown-burgundy hue which is redolent of its key notes of birch tar, labdanum, vanilla and oakmoss, are two jewels of colour.
Green apparently has his secret(s) on how he achieves longevity, colour and radiance. Hiram Green won the Art & Olfaction, 2019, Artisan Award and is clearly a master of naturals (vegan, non-GMO and more). I’ve yet to try them as they can’t ship to my island, but I really do suggest seeking this niche perfume brand out.
FAQs on Niche & Natural Perfumes
A niche perfume is usually created by a small, independent perfume house and is designed by the perfumer-creative rather than defined and directed by the needs of focus groups and what the market wants. It retains an authenticity in a perfume industry led by global, mass product brands.
Today, independent, self-taught perfumers are entering the market. They create lines as well as have the flexibility to launch limited edition niche perfumes. Many of them work solely with natural ingredients. Try Abelodor, Aer Scents, Hiram Green, April Aromatics and Kamila Aubre.
Niche perfumes are more directly linked to the perfumer-creative behind the fragrance. They offer unique olfactory experiences and perfumes that you won’t find in department stores or duty free shops. They are a way to explore the art form of perfumery and feel that bit more special and self expressive for wearing a less common fragrance.
Olentium is a niche perfumery house based in Malta, and creating mixed media perfumes using a judicious amount of aromachemicals to balance the naturals for creative effect and other facets such as longevity. Our signature an first eau de parfum is Acqua di Olentium, launching late spring 2022.