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Today's Fragrance Industry: A Mountain of Mediocrity

posted by LIM College

I am writing this to encourage those who are interested in the fragrance industry to approach the art of perfumery with integrity and a desire to return to the artistry that has long vanished from the craft.  If you wish to enter this highly lucrative but often overlooked field, research and study the fascinating work of the great perfumers, bottle designers, and marketers of the past.  Become inflamed by their daring and refuse to accept the mountain of mediocrity that currently resides at every fragrance counter in the world. What follows may seem like a harsh appraisal, but my purpose is a call to revive an art that has been part of human history since its earliest cultures.

There was a time in the not so distant past when the creation of a fragrance was an art form equal to any great oil painting, sculpture, concerto, or play.  The time, effort, creativity, inspiration, and science that went into the creation of the scent, bottle, outer packaging, and for lack of better terms, positioning and marketing was an intuitive, agonizing, and ultimately cathartic experience that involved hundreds if not thousands of conceptual drawings, recipes for the "juice" and revisions until the final masterpiece was completed.  While we know that ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans all used essential oils for hygiene as well as to create sexual allure (not unlike today), according to Michael Edwards, author of the book Perfume Legends and an expert whose blog is widely respected in the industry, truly modern perfumery did not come into practice until the middle of the 19th century in Europe.Yet over the past 150 years we have witnessed the birth and death of the art of perfumery.  Other arts, even those older than perfumery, continue to evolve upward and new work is often touched by genius. The demise of the art of creating scents, however, if one reason had to be given, would be the result of the sin of greed.

The wealth created from this sector of the beauty business is the closest thing that exists to an evergreen money tree.  Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Thierry Mugler, Dior and countless other brands would not exist today if it were not for the profits from the fragrance sector of their empires.  Licensing income from perfumes enables those companies to design their clothing.  Without their fragrance business, they would be bankrupt.

Such greed has spread to every corner of the industry.  An endless parade of celebrities desire a bit of immortality through the creation of a fragrance named for them.  In most cases, they are simply selling their name to an anonymous company for easy cash and yet another way to compensate for the fleetingness of their careers as performers or public figures.  Fashion designers have either already created one or several perfumes, are in the process of creating their first or tenth, or wish they could rise to a level of fame at which some cosmetic company would be willing to fund the development of their egocentric signature fragrance.

Cosmetic companies churn out fragrances at an alarming rate in an attempt to hide the fact that brands are dying quicker than they can make them. They reuse existing bottles to save on tooling costs, dilute their brand equity by bringing out flanker brands that are mere shadows of second-rate originals, and consistently reduce the quality of the fragrance.  Fragrance houses such as Quest are disappearing or being bought up by a few mega-corporations, according to industry observer L. Prance, who writes for the industry website Cosmetics (Prance [2006]).  Those that survive are forced to keep up with the demand by pushing their perfumers to create within impossible timeframes, turn out inferior products, sell one company's rejects to another, or copy existing successful fragrances with minor changes.  Even iconic fine fragrances are no longer the product they once were.  In many cases cosmetics companies have replaced the percentage of natural essential oils with less costly chemical equivalents.

Another reason for the decline of quality is the consumer's fault.  The rise of the bath and body category-where single-fruit scents and simple ingredients dominate shower gels and lotions and spawned a huge business in body spray-has dumbed-down the nose of today's consumer.  If bath and body products do not smell pretty like an apple or vanilla, they have little chance of success with a large segment of the consumer market (based upon research done by the Fragrance Foundation in 2009).

The industry has become so saturated that retailers often unload their old stock on drug stores.  If you come across a brand in a drug store or flea market that is usually found exclusively in department stores it is either old, stolen goods, or counterfeit.  Aged products no longer smell the way the perfumer intended. Time changes the percentage relationship between the alcohol and raw ingredients as well as the olfactive nature of the raw ingredients.  Counterfeit products have been known to use human urine as a preservative. 

The music industry and publishing industries have had to migrate to the web and recreate themselves. So, huge changes in a whole field are possible, even though they require time, rethinking and major investments.  The chance that humans will not want to please themselves and attract others through scent in the future is tiny.  For entrepreneurs and new members of the cosmetics industry, however, it is important to realize how severe the challenges are-as well as to recognize the enormous financial and career rewards in this time-honored craft.

-Terry Burstein, Fashion Department, LIM College

Further Reading:

Edwards, M. (1996). Perfume Legends. Levallois, France: HM Editions.

Fragrance Foundation (2009). Market research. The Fragrance Foundation.  Retrieved February 17, 2010 from

Prance, L. (2006, November). Givaudan set to top fragrance market with purchase of quest.  Cosmetics design -  Retrieved February 17, 2010

Topics: fashion industry, fashion trends