There's no industry where the adjective 'niche' is used so often as in perfumery. But what is the definition of niche? What does it stand for? Does it equal better and more expensive?
In my search for fine fragrances for our new scent store, I came to realize that 'niche' isn't always that niche.
What is Niche?
According to the dictionary, the adjective “niche” denotes or relates to products, services, or interests that appeal to a small, specialized section of the population.
What that basically means to me is that niche means ‘different’, not wanting to please everyone. The definition doesn’t say anything about price or quality, however.
What does it mean for perfumery? It seems like the perfume industry has really embraced this adjective, making it the new buzzword. I don’t know any other industry where the adjective “niche” is used so often. I’ve never heard of niche restaurants, hairdressers, DJ’s or shoe stores for instance.
There is no official definition of niche perfume, but the following distinctions are usually made:
Designer perfumes: perfumes from (larger) companies, mostly fashion houses. These brands offer much more than perfume, which is actually just a (profitable) 'by-product'. The perfumes are mainly created by external perfumers. They can be self-employed, but are usually employed by large, international 'fragrance producers' such as Firmenich, Givaudan or IFF. The first two groups are Swiss, by the way.
Celebrity perfumes: Perfumes with the name of a celebrity attached to it. A kind of luxury merchandising. Of course, they use external perfumers to create their perfumes.
Niche perfumes: perfumes from (smaller) companies who only produce perfume (and possibly other scented articles such as candles). For the creation of their perfumes, they usually rely on external perfumers.
Indie perfumes: perfumes of very small brands of which the owner is also the 'nose' or perfumer. Indie stands for Independent. They are not dependent on external 'noses'.
How niche is niche?
The above descriptions are mainly about the type of company offering the perfume, but they say little about what the real difference is between all those perfumes. Moreover, it is easy to find exceptions, and the different categories tend to converge. So we looked further.
These are the luxury brands that we all know and that you can find in almost all department stores, airports and perfume shops. They launch perfumes to give more people the chance to buy something from their brand and, of course, to increase their sales. They spend huge budgets on developing different formulas that they test on customer panels to make sure they appeal to a wide audience, and even more on marketing campaigns with famous models or actors to make their fragrances more appealing. Launching a new fragrance is like releasing a new film: the risks are high and they want to be sure it will be a blockbuster. If they have a winner, they create endless variations (called "flankers") of the perfume and, if possible, shower gel, body milk, deo, etc... to please even more people and generate more revenue.
So you mainly pay for the packaging, the research and the marketing. The perfume oil itself only represents a small percentage of the price. That does not mean that these are bad perfumes. Without the designer brands, iconic perfumes such as Fahrenheit, Angel or Chanel n°5 might never have seen the light of day.
The rise and success of niche perfumes has not gone unnoticed by designer brands. They have responded by introducing more exclusive lines, such as Armani Privé and Dior Collection Privée, in order to capture part of the growing niche market. These lines are more expensive and cannot be found in just any perfumery, sometimes even only in the shops of the brand itself.
Luxury perfume houses
What about perfume brands like Guerlain, Acqua di Parma or Tom Ford?
For these brands, perfume is not just a lucrative by-product but their main source of income. They all belong to international luxury concerns such as LMVH or Estée Lauder. Today, you can find them in every medium-sized or large city in the world, each with 70 or more different fragrances, something for every taste. By popular definition, you could call them niche, but admit it, that doesn't make much sense.
It gets even harder with avant-garde brands like Comme des Garcons or Maison Martin Margiela. It's true that their perfumes appeal to a narrower audience, but both also belong to international groups and, although more selective, are widely accessible around the world.
My search continued and brought me to brands such as Creed, Frederic Malle, Le Labo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Byredo. Luxurious and exclusive for sure, but each of them has released more than 40 different fragrances and is now part of an international group. Started as a niche and then merged into a larger company to continue growing. Can you still call them niche? Or is it a convenient way for listed concerns to gain access to the 'niche' segment? They brought us beautiful and very successful perfumes like Aventus, Portrait of a Lady or Santal 33, but if 'niche' means that they are only for a limited audience, then these perfumes have probably long passed that select status.
Our definition of niche
Defining niche has proven to be quite difficult. So we came up with our own definition:
"Artisanal perfumes, created by smaller, independent perfume houses, who produce perfumes on a small scale, have a limited collection of perfumes, with a clear story or inspiration that sets them apart. Brands that are passionate about creating great perfumes, but are less concerned about 'pleasing everyone', and more about pleasing 'individuals'."
This made the search easier, but even with this definition, we discovered hundreds of brands that fit all those criteria. We had to refine our definition even further: brands with a limited number of sales points. Being from Brussels, I translated this to 'no or at most one point of sale in Brussels, or even Belgium'.
Does niche equal better and more expensive?
As said at the beginning, the definition of niche says nothing about quality or price. Are niche perfumes better and more expensive?
A perfume is basically nothing more than alcohol and water with juice. It is the juice (the essential perfume oils) that make the perfume what it is. Some ingredients, such as pure jasmine, are extremely expensive, but on average, the actual perfume in the bottle only represents a very small percentage of the final sales cost. Of the larger brands, only Hermes, Guerlain and Chanel still use some natural ingredients, the rest are synthetic.
Smaller brands often save on packaging and do not engage in (paid) marketing. Therefore, they can use nobler ingredients. You pay more for the actual product and less for everything around it. Because they produce much smaller quantities, they have higher purchasing and production costs, which drives up the price.
They only have to find a limited number of customers for their products each year, which allows them to be more creative. Their perfumes do not need to appeal to millions of people. So yes, true niche perfumes are more original and contain more expensive ingredients. You get more value for your money but most of all: you buy a unique product made with love and devotion. A product with a story behind it, made by one or at most a handful of people who put all their passion into their work.
Of course, as in any lucrative industry, there are less honourable brands and you see huge price differences in the niche market. Some brands do go for very expensive packaging, or simply drive up their price to make it even more exclusive, while the quality of the product is not necessarily better.
There are excellent and bad perfumes in every categorie. Original creations and copy cats.
Niche therefore remains a confusing term that we are less and less fond of. We propose at ... smell stories ... only brands which we believe offer value for many and deserve the term 'niche'. Or at least the definition we have given it.