Subtle yet luxurious is the olfactory mantra of heritage perfume houses

It was Christian Dior who said, ‘Long after one has forgotten what a woman wore, the memory of her perfume lingers.’ So no matter how many show-stopping dresses and perfectly tailored trousers you have, it’s your scent that will succeed you – literally and metaphorically.

Such is the size of today’s perfume market that scent is now considered to be a high-fashion accessory in its own right. Yet as industry insiders hail a new, mid-recessionary era in anti-conspicuous, ‘anti-bling’ consumption, striking just the right ‘note’ of understated luxury with your fragrance has never been more difficult.

Discreet decadence
Cue the new era of ‘scent subtlety’. Today’s fragrance aficionados are declining to run the perfume-spritzing gauntlet of department-store beauty halls, instead delving into the olfactory archives of age-old perfume houses, such as Grossmith and Houbigant. Here, they discover a quieter, more discreet decadence, with scents that whisper clues to their rich heritage in pioneering exquisite fragrances. Select a subtle scent and you could be wearing a blend similar to that of your great-great-grandmother.

‘We know from Leonard Lauder’s 2001 “Lipstick Index” that women see beauty products as an affordable, accessible way to sustain a sense of luxury and style during an economic downturn,’ says Jonna Dagliden, a lifestyle trends analyst for LS:NGlobal. ‘Fragrance houses with a rich history can establish an emotional connection with women, who in turn feel like they’re taking part in the story and craftsmanship of a scent, rather than just buying it.’

According to global market research company Euromonitor International, the scent market is worth an estimated $37 million (£23 million) worldwide – $20 million of which can be attributed to the sale of premium (rather than ‘masstige’) perfumes.

Provenance, authenticity and heritage are the fragrance industry’s new buzzwords

Heritage hits
Subtle scent seekers are now journeying back more than 200 years, to the so-called ‘perfumed court’ of Marie Antoinette. In 2005, modern-day nose Francis Kurkdjian reinterpreted the fateful queen’s favourite fragrance, originally created by her personal perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon. Notes of rose, iris, tuberose, Chinese musk and grey amber were revived in MA Sillage de la Reine, sold exclusively at the Château de Versailles.

In England, Simon Brooke (the great-great-grandson of John Grossmith) has resurrected one of the country’s oldest perfume houses. Treasured Grossmith formulae, including that of a custom-made perfume for the wedding of King George V in 1893, have been revisited for the return of the perfumer’s characteristically exotic fragrances: Hasu-no-Hana, Shem-el-Nessim and Phul-Nana, which combine top notes of bergamot or neroli with a heart of ylang-ylang and a seductive base of tonka bean, vanilla bourbon or heliotrope.

For those wishing to stay two sprays ahead of the crowd, 2011 has seen the relaunch of the lavender-infused Fougère Royale by Houbigant (created by the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie), whose fragrances drifted through the European courts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and were favoured by Napoleon.

‘Unlike large cosmetic conglomerates, niche fragrance houses are often owned by individuals who are the custodians of another generation,’ says fragrance expert Roja Dove. ‘They use only the finest and highest proportions of natural ingredients to create a more subtle, complex perfume than anything produced synthetically. Essentially, they prioritise the bottom note – not just the bottom line, in financial terms.’

As a result, long-forgotten, unusual notes, such as oud and hemlock – and the scent of the rare Tai’if Rose (found only at 1,500m above the shores of the Red Sea) used in Ormonde Jayne’s ultra-decadent Gold Dust powder – are re-emerging. These are treated to a process know as ‘maceration’: a time-consuming, repetitive treatment whereby ingredients are allowed to rest and mingle, before being ‘cut’ with alcohol for a deeper, multi-dimensional perfume that offers a whole new sensory experience.

It’s a feeling that a new generation of scent creators are already starting to draw on. Kilian Hennessy, who launched his By Kilian collection in 2007, is the heir in a long line of Cognac makers who translates his knowledge of brandy distillation to the similar process of perfume maceration. Each of his scents, including the newly launched Incense Oud, from the Arabian Nights collection, is imbued with childhood memories of roaming the family cellars. Expect heady blends of sweetness, alcohol and an aroma reminiscent of ageing wooden Cognac barrels.

Lasting legacy
‘Provenance, authenticity and heritage are the fragrance industry’s new buzzwords,’ says Lana Glazman, Director of IFF, a leading manufacturer of flavours and fragrances. ‘In the future, finding pleasure in the ever-increasing rarity of scents will become more important as women rely on fragrance as a means of defining their individuality in an understated way.’

So remember: not only will your perfect perfume come with a legacy of its own – it may just define yours, too.

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