Sylvaine Delacourte* writes a piece on her blog about the state of ‘niche’ perfumery. Her thoughts are not new, in fact this is what many have been talking about for some time; the amount of new releases by niche, or exclusive brands, the number of new niche brands, and the difficulty at keeping up with them. What surprised me were her numbers 1 in 4 new releases is a niche perfume.
She says;”What is the future of all these niche brands? Some brands will grow with the support of powerful investors and become part of the conventional circuit, others will disappear? Either because they lack interest, or because they will not find any investors? New brands will be born?” (sorry for the translation.) She says that out of 1330 new releases 331 are niche. I don’t know where this number is from, but releases for 2014 says 2400 new fragrances. Let’s say 2500 to count in the last month of the year too, that would make 625 niche releases. I agree that this is a big enough number to question the word ‘Niche’.
I’m going to make a jump here, and come back to my own point later.
Recently I saw a good-looking Baccarat bottle, sealed but without etiquette, on an online auction site. It reminded me of something…a minute flickering through my minds inner picture album and I remembered what it was; Guerlilas, a long gone Guerlain vintage. With a bit of internet rummage I managed to establish that three perfumes were filled in this particular Baccarat bottle; Guerlilas, Guerlarose (also Guerlain) and a long forgotten fragrance Bal des Fleurs by Gueldy** all from 1930 perhaps 1929. For a very low bid, I thought it would be worth playing the vintage-roulette.
I was only partly lucky, the perfume is great and in amazing condition, but since it’s neither Guerlilas nor Guerlarose, I have no idea of whether what I smell is actually the third perfume mentioned; Bal des Fleurs or something else refilled and re-sealed… ( edit 2016, I’ve established that this is indeed BdF)
What was lucky was that I actually adore the perfume inside, it sits nicely somewhere between Arpège (1927) and Vega (1931), with its champagne bubbling aldehydes and soft but discreet abstract floral bouquet. I did search for notes and old adverts, but no luck. I shall do my best to describe it. This floral aldehyde is remarkably strong lived and strong-willed. The sparkle is bold, cheerful and happy, like if no 5 was a woman, slightly tipsy at a 1920s dance hall. In time as in execution, it sits somewhere between flapper and ‘The Depression’-it’s cheerful but not foolhardy.
It goes soapy in the nice old-fashioned way, which is more soap than clean, and in the abstraction of flowers, I believe I smell the sweetness of orange blossom and some jasmine. Even if there’s no obvious rose scent, I’m certain that it’s there. There’s a nectarish presence between the flowers and the sparkle, and as the fragrance reaches the dry down some 10-12 hours later, I detect just the tiniest lady-like bit of civet, and I suspect various balsams and/ or resins to make this lady get home safely on her high heels.
As much as Bal des Fleurs is no epochal fragrance, it is definitely as good as and better than some of the Floral Aldehydes which survived. I’ll wear it now and again as a happy fragrance, and though this Gueldy might not have survived the test of time, a small time capsule did, and can live on my skin every now and again.
Back to the thoughts I had receiving this forgotten fragrance and todays niche.
If we go back a little under 100 years, and look at new releases in for example the year 1920, my pretty rough guestimate***is that 600+ fragrances would have been released that year. Taking things like todays wider distribution into account, I might just say that history is simply repeating itself. Were they called ‘niche’ perfumes and ‘mainstream’- most certainly not, but surely there was a difference between what one bought at the pharmacy, and what one would buy at Rue de la Paix.
Not many of the perfumes from 1920 are known to us today. I didn’t expect they would be, and perhaps more interestingly, of the brands not many are still around. But a few stuck out; Molinard, Coty and…Guerlain.
They survived (without intermission) along with a few others in a supersaturated market. I can’t help but thinking of Mme. Delacourte’s own words, did they survive because they were the interesting ones or the ones with the biggest investors? Or something else entirely?
*Sylvaine Delacourte is fragrance creative director of Guerlain and writes her blog in French Esprit de Parfum
** Thank you Grace Hummel at Cleopatra’s various boudoirs and listings
*** This is based on the fact that even the best database only had 225 releases listed, but cross referencing the various brands on this database with other lists, such as Cleopatra’s, gave that most brands present in the list with only 1 fragrance, had infact released between 6-9 fragrances that year. So the 600+ should be a very conservative guess. Also, compare this to the releases in the 1970s between 50-70 and 1980s 80-150 releases I assume that here the databases are correct as they basically agree.
Disclaimer; if anyone should at all doubt it, I LOVE GUERLAIN PERFUMES- and I had hoped the bottle would house vintage Guerlilas, so this is merely my thoughts upon reading the post by Mme. Delacourte which coincided with the arrival of “Bal de Fleurs”(?). And I am happy that history did not erase some of my favourite Guerlain perfumes, Vol de Nuit, L’Heure Bleue etc…
and as nearly always, naivistic pics by me.