Today’s article is yet another clarification of a word out of the ever-so-confusing and lingo-laden perfume world.
That word, namely, is niche.
The word is popping up around the Internet more and more nowadays:
“(x) brand brings you a sensual yet elegant new niche perfume.”
“Expand your horizons with a bold and powerful niche perfume.”
But just what in tarnation is a niche perfume? What do they mean by niche? Maybe you remember that word from your 9th grade biology class, but you don’t know what in the Sam Hill it has to do with perfume.
Never fear – that’s why I’m here. What ever would you do without me?
A niche perfume is any perfume manufactured by a brand whose focus is on making perfumes. This is in contrast to designer perfumes produced by designer brands like Chanel or Dior that make products other than perfumes.
Let’s take a closer look.
What Is “Niche” Perfumery?
According to Merriam-Webster, the word “niche” in this context refers to “a specialized market”.
That’s exactly what “niche” refers to – a specialized market for perfumes.
You see, most of the perfumes you find at your local Macy’s aren’t niche perfumes. They are designer perfumes – that is perfumes from a designer clothing brand, like Chanel, Dior, or Yves Saint Laurent, or from a brand that primarily makes something other than perfumes, like Cartier, Boucheron, or Lalique.
As iconic a fragrance as something like Chanel’s No. 5 is, it could hardly be said to be the central focus of the brand. Louis Vuitton might make perfumes, but I doubt very much that they will set aside making LV bags in favor of perfumes any time soon.
In the designer realm, perfume is just one part of the whole. In the niche world, however, perfume is the star of the show.
What Makes Niche Perfumes Different From Designer Perfumes?
So, we’ve established what a niche perfume is. Even if they’re made by a brand which is focused on perfume, is a niche perfume any different from a designer perfume? And if so, how?
Well, the short answer is: yes, niche perfumes and designer perfumes can be quite different.
Let’s take a look at why.
Focus and Audience
Since perfume is usually ancillary compared to a designer brand’s main product, the considerations and ideas that go into making a designer perfume are different from a niche perfume.
Let’s just face the facts: designer perfumes are designed to make money.
Your average Joe can’t usually afford to walk into a Chanel boutique and buy a $6,000 handbag. They might, however, be able to stroll up to the perfume counter at their local Macy’s and walk away with a bottle of the considerably cheaper Bleu de Chanel, which goes for around $75.
Chanel perfumes are available at perfume counters around the country, from the ritz and glitz of Manhattan to the cornfields of Iowa. But can you go into that same Macy’s in Des Moines, Iowa and buy a Chanel handbag in the same way you can buy a Chanel perfume?
Designer perfumes are far more widely distributed than a designer brand’s principal product line because they are an easy source of revenue. Sure, you might not be able to fork over the doubloons for a Prada dress, but you can probably have enough to get a Prada perfume. Designer perfumes are made to be a little piece of luxury pie that most anybody can afford.
For that reason, designer brands aren’t necessarily so keen on mounting avant-garde art projects (well, except for maybe Comme des Garçons) when it comes to their perfume line. Designer perfumes are made to appeal to a wide audience in order to maximize sales.
A designer masculine is usually fresh, clean, and uplifting, unless it’s a cold-weather oriented release, while designer feminines are usually sweet, fruity, and floral. To deviate too far from that formula is to invite low profit margins, and that, of course, is what we might say is a big no-no in the business world.
Of course, that’s not to say that some brands don’t release the occasional adventurous or challenging perfume – take, for instance, Dior’s landmark Dior Homme, with its lipsticky iris and cacao scent profile, or Gucci’s polarizing Gucci Guilty Absolute, a spare, almost medicinal blend of rawhide leather and smoky woods without even one drop of sweetness.
In general, though, most designer brands are allergic to risk, and the composition of their perfumes reflects that.
With a niche perfume, however, there’s a lot more leeway.
Not every niche perfume brand is out there making crazy art perfumes that smell like alien butts, but you could, if you wanted to.
État Libre d’Orange, for example, enfant terrible brand of the niche world well known for making challenging scents, prides themselves on their infamous Sécrétions Magnifiques, often called one of the most disgusting perfumes ever made, an olfactory recreation of the smell of blood, sweat, saliva, and semen.
Even Byredo, one of the more mainstream niche brands, has a fragrance in their repertoire called M/Mink, meant to recreate the smell of ink, which is often described as smelling like a freshly cleaned urinal.
Of course, most niche perfumes aren’t that wild. Rather, they have the potential to be that wild. With less consideration going into selling bottles or appealing to the widest possible audience, niche perfumes have the liberty to explore new artistic possibilities and offer unique olfactory experiences.
For this reason, the audience for niche perfumes is, well, niche. Most people aren’t interested in perfume-as-art. But niche opens up that door for the people that are.
Quality of Ingredients
Raw materials for perfume ain’t cheap.
Natural sandalwood, rose absolute, orris butter, and of course natural oud, can be considered some of the most expensive raw materials in the world. Oud alone is worth almost twice its weight in gold.
It should therefore be unsurprising that designer perfumes cut a few corners here and there – maybe more than a few.
But it would be simply disastrous for a designer brand to release a perfume with, say, oodles of real Mysore sandalwood or rose absolute; they’d be bankrupt in a matter of days. Any company must do what makes financial sense, and it wouldn’t make financial sense to make designer perfumes with the highest quality natural ingredients.
That doesn’t mean that designer perfumes are low quality. Remember, natural doesn’t automatically mean better in the perfume world.
It does mean, however, that the average department store perfume might not be as high quality as a $400 niche perfume.
Because the audience for niche perfumes is smaller, and hence the scale of manufacturing is smaller too, niche perfume brands can spend more of their funds on high quality ingredients.
Niche houses like Frederic Malle, Le Labo, Francesca Bianchi, Roja Dove, and Amouage create unique and powerful fragrances made with ingredients of impeccable quality. That level of quality is simply not possible to achieve on the mass scale that designer brands deal in.
Of course, niche perfumes with high quality ingredients and bottle presentations are priced to match.
Though there are relatively affordable niche brands out there, like L’Artisan Parfumeur, Serge Lutens, or Acqua di Parma, the norm can be quite a bit more expensive than the average designer perfume.
$150 for a 1.7oz (50ml) bottle is a fairly common price on the niche market, but that number can soar depending on the brand. A 3.4 oz (100ml) bottle of Frederic Malle’s The Night, which contains real oud, will set you back $1600, and Roja Dove’s Haute Luxe, chock full of authentic ambergris, rose de mai, and jasmin de Grasse, costs a whopping $3450, taxes and shipping excluded.
Of course, that’s far from the norm, but it still demonstrates that the niche world is a different ballpark compared to the Macy’s perfume counter.
If you love perfume and consider it to be an artform like I do, then those high prices might become more and more palatable as time goes on. Before you know it, you might be eyeing that $3450 price tag and doing the math.
How much would you be willing to pay for art? How much would you be willing to pay for something that you love and makes you happy? People certainly spend as much or more on expensive wine or whiskey, fast cars and glitzy watches.
It’s up to you ultimately to decide whether you’re willing to pay a higher price for an oftentimes more unique and higher quality perfume. Some people will be more than satisfied with what they can get at Macy’s, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Others, like me, will be willing to fork over a pretty chunk of change for a beautiful scent.
Where Do I Start If I Want to Get Into Niche Perfumes?
This is a question that merits an article of its own, but I’ll do my best to answer it in part even so.
There are a number of brands that are a bit more mainstream, and are considered to be a good first foray into the world of niche if you’re feeling a bit squeamish.
Brands like Le Labo (Santal 33, Bergamote 22, Another 13) and Byredo (Gypsy Water, Bal d’Afrique, Pulp) offer Scandanivanesque hipster-minimalism that would not be at all out of place on a shelf in your New York loft apartment or an IKEA showroom.
Diptyque (Tam Dao, Philosykos, L’Ombre Dans L’Eau), Guerlain (Aqua Allegoria line, L’Homme Ideal line, Mon Guerlain, many, many more), and Penhaligon’s (Sartorial, Halfeti, Iris Prima) are all more classically minded houses that are widely distributed around the world.
Atelier Cologne (Clementine California, Pomelo Paradis, Orange Sanguine) offers fresh and relatively natural citrus perfumes that are perfect for summer, while By Kilian (Black Phantom, Angel’s Share, Love) is all about dark, sexy, and sumptuous creations.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention two darlings of the niche perfume world, Parfums de Marly (Layton, Delina, Herod) and Creed (Aventus, Green Irish Tweed, Virgin Island Water), often considered to be “gateway” houses into niche. I’m personally not that into them – I’m much more of a Guerlain and Frederic Malle kind of guy – but there’s no doubt that many people get their taste for niche perfumery from these two brands.
No matter if you favor the familiar or the avant-garde, there should be something your speed available from one of these brands. Best of all, they’re available at most major department stores for you to test.
The Final Word
So, to recap:
A niche perfume is a perfume made by a brand whose focus is on perfume. This can be contrasted with designer brands like Chanel or Dior, for whom perfume is only one of many product lines. Niche perfumes also tend to be higher quality, more adventurous, and more expensive than designer perfumes.
If you consider perfume to be art, or even want to try something a little bit edgier and more exciting than what you might find at your local department store’s perfume counter, I encourage you to dive into the niche perfume world.
Exploring this world is part of what ignited my great passion for perfume in the first place, and surely what’s kept the flame going for so long.
Designer perfume is wonderful, and a huge part of my perfume collection is designer.
But if you want to challenge yourself, why not give a niche perfume a sniff the next time you’re walking through the perfume department?
You never know – you might just fall down the rabbit hole.