Perfume has been perceived as a luxury for centuries, from when the ancient Greeks, Persians and Egyptians distilled flowers, oils and plants to create scents. Over the centuries, the art of perfume making has evolved, with a wider selection of essential oils and other raw ingredients and improved technology to make the scent last longer on the skin. While modern perfumers attract attention and new customers with clever packaging and artful flask design, it is ultimately the juice that determines its long-term success.
“In my opinion, packaging and bottle design have become secondary to composition and ingredients,” says Anthony Wray, Skins Cosmetics senior trainer. “Designer collection fragrances or niche perfumes have taught us it’s not the bottle that matters, but what’s inside. We buy what we like to smell like, and it’s the lasting ability that we buy for and the compliments that we crave. This is no easy journey, as everyone’s skin is unique, and the chemical reaction to perfume is unique.”
Our sense of smell is particularly important due to its link to emotions. Although each of our five senses contribute to the recollection and reconstruction of memories, scents are the most significant, shows a study of smells and emotion undertaken by Dr Silvia Álava, a psychologist. The study shows that we remember 35 percent of what we smell, but only 5 percent of what we see. This explains why a whiff of a scent can have such a profound effect on us and our perception of things around us.
Perfumer Gaël Montero was inspired by his trip to South India when he created Memo Madurai. “I remember one morning, sitting on a small terrace drinking tea. All my senses were alert. In the warm air, the intoxicating perfume of the flower sellers, the power of the spices and the sweetness of the mangoes… the rich and airy Sambac jasmine of the offering necklace and the creamy scent of sandalwood around the temples.”
The finest fragrances in the world use the most renowned ingredients, but it’s also the concentration of these ingredients that contributes to the price. “Perfumers are attempting to break new ground with technologies and new smells. Concentrations are becoming more intense to achieve the longevity needed in this competitive market,” Wray explains.
Ingredients have evolved over time, but there are still many that dominate modern fragrances as they really are the epitome of the exotic, the smell of luxury. “Patchouli has to be the star ingredient,” Wray says. “Patchouli was popular back in the age of discovery and trade where silk trade with China brought luxury to Europe. The leaves were used to keep the silk fabric dry and as a bug repellent in barrels destined for dress making for royalty. As it travelled, the silk became impregnated with patchouli, and the scent was soon assocated with wealth and luxury. Today again, that trend takes us into the exotic world with its mysterious smell of luxury.”
Chypre (meaning Cyprus in French) is another ingredient that’s made a comeback and been given a contemporary twist. It is associated with fragrance preparations that date back to ancient times when the island of Cyprus was at the heart of the perfume trade.
But it was Francois Coty that established Chypre as a fragrance family – a classical feminine scent constructed with a citrus top note (often bergamot), a floral heart of flowers like ylang- ylang, jasmine and rose, and a woody, earthy dry down. “The original Chypre created by Coty in the early 1900s and called Coty de Chypre was said to have been the inspiration for great classics like Chanel N°5 and Dior’s Diorissimo,” Wray says. More recently, Paco Rabanne – known for breaking the rules of luxury – introduced a modernised version of Chypre in Fame, its latest fragrance for women. Here the floral heart is energised with a fruity mango twist, and the dry down is creamy sandalwood with a mysterious incense accord.
Ultimately, when it comes to luxury goods, it’s all about the experience. They are designed to make us experience pleasure and feel special by appealing to our senses, be it subtle aromatherapy in an elegant hotel lobby, the feel of a soft leather bag against your skin, the texture of a heavy crystal decanter in your hand, a plated visual feast or a bespoke fragrance caressing your skin. These sensory experiences are what set the high-end brands apart and, in a sense, allow us to craft and define our own luxury.
This article first appeared in the 2022 annual special edition of YourLuxury Africa.