Op-Ed: De-mystifying niche fragrances (versus everything else).
A fellow blogger and I have been bantering lately on the topic of niche fragrance houses that have begun emerging and gaining their own notoriety. While our dialogues have touched on an array of topics, core was the theme of perfumers riding the niche fragrance wave, and begging the question of their overall quality. To that point, are niche fragrances better than designer or mass-market scents?
Admittedly, I began my own niche fragrance journey some years back when I grew jaded of the offerings in either the designer or mass-markets. For myself and others, niche perfumers held a certain appeal since many were producing unique, high-caliber fragrances. Around the same time, the popularity of niche scents began to trend higher as more perfumers emerged on the landscape. Of course, choice breeds competition, and one could conclude that more competition will eventually yield better quality as consumers separate good from ordinary or downright poor efforts.
Asking the difference in quality between niche and “non-niche” implies that we understand an important definition: Niche, itself. Precisely what defines a niche fragrance?
Elena Knezhevich of Fragrantica offers an excellent primer on niche fragrances that I won’t begin to restate here. I’ll suggest a few qualities that help to identify niche from “non-niche” (in other words, everything else that we know):
- Limited production quantities
- Limited scale availability (boutiques, high-end retail, direct from the perfumer)
- Generally, a higher retail price (though this can sometimes be debated)
- Generally, wider creative latitude (though not always)
While that leaves a fairly wide audience, that’s intentional as it excludes a much wider one. These qualities are general for a reason as they universally apply to a niche perfumer or niche perfume house. Once a perfumer begins marketing to the millions, it’s fair to stop calling them ‘niche’ and begin welcoming them into the mass-market. So to help underscore the definitions, let’s begin to generally categorize brands that are — and are not — niche. My sample list below is a very small cross-section for illustration; It is not intended to be exhaustive.
Niche: Olfactive Studio, Mona Di Orio, Ormonde Jayne, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Aftelier, Keiko Mecheri, Xerjoff, Byredo.
Non-Niche: Coty Prestige, Gucci, Bvlgari, Cartier, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Estee Lauder, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel.
That provides a basic idea on direction. Although one could say that certain legacy designers (operative term) have limited production quantity and availability (Jacques Bogart’s 70′s and 80′s period scents come to mind). But these aren’t niche just by virtue of their (now) limited availability or production, and the category doesn’t apply to heritage fragrances. And you can see from the comparison outline, having a designer label isn’t always a qualifier for a “niche” status (the number of people that have experienced Chanel No. 5, for instance, is more rule than exception). The non-niche examples include more than their share of “Designer” and Mass-Market scents (Beyonce or Lady Gaga, just two examples of celebrity scents among a wide market that expands to other labels).
Niche is definitely its own category. Much of what we review on Scentrist is considered “niche” primarily because much has already been said about mass-market and other available scents. We’ve reviewed more niche scents than those you’ll commonly find walking into your typical Macys, and yes, there is a vast field of niche fragrances from which to choose.
And there’s a ton of really crappy niche scents. Let’s make sure that’s clear.
“Moonshine and Bathtub Gin are not the drinks of liquor connoisseurs.”
Limited quantity and distribution alone are not ‘quality’ indicators, and there are more than enough “nouveau niche” perfumers capitalizing on the trend of consumers to upgrade their fragrance. While the growing trend has been in the niche fragrance market, and men’s fragrances an even more target-rich marketing demographic, perfumers have emerged and existing perfume houses have adapted to those trends by expanding their “limited” offerings. I’ve sampled quite a few of them.
While the perception of a niche perfume has some degree of snob appeal, too often this is misplaced and the products produced aren’t always remarkable or anything more than mediocre. Some, in fact, are total dreck. As testament, our reviews aren’t always effusive or glowing when a new scent is released. When we’ve encountered a fragrance that we’ve found to be ‘style over substance’, we’ve said so. Many can be just unimaginative or derivative of another product, including a previous release.
‘Niche’ often becomes a convenient label, and little else. That in mind, I’m comfortable in supporting my prior bullet points.
- Exclusivity does not always equate to quality.
- Niche does not always mean better than non-niche.
- Hard-to-find doesn’t mean so-good-it’s-sold-out. It’s often just hard-to-find.
The verdict: It depends. There are some excellent niche scents, many of which demonstrate creativity and artistry not commonly found in the mass-market. And often a niche perfumer knows enough about their target customer to listen and provide them something unique and appealing. There are also some skunks lurking in the flower garden, and many niche scents provide little to differentiate themselves from other fragrances that might be just as good and perhaps better, regardless of their ‘niche pedigree’.
The bottom-line: A fragrance is good because of what it is, not because of its label. I can be as partial to Guerlain or Clive Christian or Olfactive Studio as my common bottle of Fahrenheit or Kouros because I appreciate each for what it is, how it’s composed, and the outcome of the effort, not by its name.
After all, it’s not the label on the outside, but the juice in the bottle that matters.