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Fragrance Goes Au Naturel

The natural niche trend is rising in the birthplace of modern perfumery.

PARIS — As the surge in niche brands and naturals continues to crest, a new generation of perfumers is marrying the two in France.

The country considered the birthplace of modern perfumery is seeing a wave of new natural fragrance brands, such as 100Bon, Parfumeurs du Monde and Source de Provence, whose scents are not of the grassroots, purely aromatherapy ilk. Rather, they’re more complex creations that are increasingly drawing fine-fragrance lovers’ attention.

“Many companies and people value natural solutions today,” said Helen Lalitte, president of Sevessence, a Paris-based boutique perfume house that develops wholly natural and organic creations, who noted the appeal is twofold.

Clients, she said, are looking for “fragrances that are natural and provide wellness through some of the essential oil benefits ‘built in’ the perfumes.”

While the numbers are still small, the niche natural fragrance market is on the upswing in numerous countries around the world. In the U.S., the market for natural fragrances in perfumes and cologne is expected to grow 2.3 percent per year to $235 million in 2020, according to The Freedonia Group.

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“Gains in demand for premium perfumes are expected to continue through [2020], supporting demand for high-value natural ingredients going forward,” Freedonia said. “In addition, growing female consumer preference for scents with lighter concentrations, such as cologne, will drive demand for essential oils and natural extracts.”

Other factors contributing to the uptick in popularity include some consumers’ desire for more traceability and sustainability when it comes to fragrance ingredients, plus a wish for more personalized products that can be filled with online DIY tutorials and kits.

Aroma-Zone, the French beauty retailer, offers on its web site the possibility of mixing organic scents with essential oils, absolutes, resins and floral waxes. “In creating one’s own perfume people profit from both the fabulous scents of essential oils and their aromatherapeutic virtues,” said a spokeswoman for Aroma-Zone. “In turning to 100 percent natural fragrances, our clients are after perfumes without compounds recognized as being toxic for health — phthalates, synthetic musks or endocrine disruptors coming from chemical origin.”

Among the recent crop of natural brands in France is 100Bon. The label — whose name, which when said in French, is a play on the words “sent bon,” which means “smells good,” as well as relating the idea of 100 percent goodness — launched in February 2017 and is the brainchild of Christophe Bombana, a longstanding beauty executive, who most recently worked at Hermès’ fragrance division.

“After 25 years in cosmetics, he wanted to create something else,” said Nicolas Brassier, managing director of 100Bon, noting the idea was to move away from widespread traditions of today’s beauty business, with its heavy-duty marketing and celebrity faces, for example. “He wanted to get back to ingredients. He wanted to return to what is the essence of perfumery — simply the emotion. He found that perfumery was too turned toward the ego.”

After being introduced to Philippe Maubert, chief of Robertet, the world’s largest natural fragrance supplier, and its lineup of natural ingredients, Bombana decided to create 100Bon.

“We wanted a 100 percent bottle of nature,” said Brassier, adding the idea, as well, was to have accessible pricing, which is achievable in part by the perfume bottles being refillable. Price points for the brand, which has two freestanding stores in Lyon, France, run from 13 euros for a 10-ml. eau to 89 euros for a 200-ml. refill of concentrate.

Today, 100Bon has 29 scents in two collections — one of eaux de toilette, with 8 percent to 12 percent concentration of fragrance, and the other of concentrates, boasting a 15 percent fragrance concentration.

Next up for the label, alongside more perfumes, is a bath line in May, to be followed by scents for the home, including candles.

100Bon is currently carried in 18 countries through about 900 points of sale, and recently opened 10/10 Hope in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and online.

Another brand in the sector is Parfumeurs du Monde, created by Thierry Bernard. The idea for it was hatched in Madagascar in 2015, where Bernard was discovering the raw materials of the Ambanja Valley. “I smelled many, many beautiful things,” he said.

There, he met distiller Patrick Collin, who shared with Bernard his dream of making a fragrance with the essences of Madagascar. “I told him: ‘I want to make your dream a reality, give me your essences and I will see what I can do,’” said Bernard.

A woman in the country presented him with an olfactive note, elemi, which he hadn’t known before. “In France I mixed it all according to the schema I had in mind… and that gave me the starting point for Tsingy,” he said, of Parfumeurs du Monde’s first scent.

Bernard later linked up with perfumer Isabelle Gellé, founder of The Perfumery Art School, who had a “very beautiful” patchouli from India. “The idea came to me to create travel diaries,” he said.

Other perfumers subsequently joined the project, and today they’ve produced the line’s six fragrances, with each referencing a part of the world. The scents’ outer packaging was designed to look like diaries.

“I really wanted to distance myself from other perfumes and create something that is really original and smells like nature, that doesn’t smell like a chemical product.”

The idea is to “make people travel through fragrance,” said Bernard. “Everything is done artisanally because I want to respect the maturation times of perfumes. I wish to do it with the old methods — filtering is done with paper.”

Naturals came, well, naturally to Bernard, who studied plant biology. “I was always very close to nature, and I have a passion — travel and plants,” he said, explaining he felt fragrance today was far removed from nature. “For me it was an obligation to return to true values.

“A natural fragrance won’t have the same smell on two different people because there are interactions between the essential oils and skin, and what’s more, that will change throughout the day,” he said.

Voyageurs du Monde scents are sold in Jovoy boutiques and on the brand’s own site and that of its NGO partner Coeur du Forêt, which receives proceeds from each scent sold.

Another natural brand with a geographic place at its core is Source de Provence, which culls its ingredients from the South of France. It’s there where the company’s founder Bertrand Suchet grew up. The former DDB advertising agency chief had a lot of experience working with beauty brands during his career.

Brands such as 100 Bon, Source de Provence, Honoré des Prés and Essences de Bach blend the sensibility of fine fragrance with an all-natural ingredient palette.
Brands such as 100 Bon, Source de Provence, Honoré des Prés and Essences de Bach blend the sensibility of fine fragrance with an all-natural ingredient palette. Joshua Scott/WWD

“He wanted to keep the know-how of the craftsmen of Provence alive and to create upscale, very natural fragrance [from there],” said Lisa Lhomme, head of communication and marketing at the brand.

Commercialization of the four eaux fraîches, which have 98 percent natural ingredients, began a year-and-a-half ago, while research and development started in 2011.

Each of the fragrances will become the basis of a line, including products for the face and hair, due out probably this year, according to Lhomme.

Source de Provence opened a boutique in the Marais neighborhood of Paris in November, and further retails its products through independent perfumeries and parapharmacies, mostly in southern France, plus on the company’s web site.

Officine Universelle Buly has been selling a 12-unit line of water-based perfumes, whose ingredients mostly run from 80 percent to 90 percent natural. It is called L’Eau Triple, with the “triple” referring to its three-times concentrate.

According to Victoire de Taillac, a founder of Buly, 30 percent of the store’s sales are generated by the collection.

“We love the rendering of scents with this formula, and our customers do, too,” she said. De Taillac explained her husband and Buly cofounder Ramdane Touhami had been concerned by the presence of alcohol and other additives typically in traditional perfume. “For him, alcohol was ‘disturbing’ the beauty of the scent,” she explained.

Aimée de Mars is another French natural fragrance brand on the market. It was launched in 2014 by Valérie de Mars and billed to be an “aromaparfumerie,” “body and soul perfume” with formulas that are 95 percent naturally derived, with no chemical filters or phthalates.

Honoré de Paris — billed as Parisian, ecological perfumes that are 100 percent natural — was introduced in 2009 by Olivia Giacobetti. And there is also Fleurs de Bach, known for its “flower remedies,” which debuted perfumes in 2006.

While the sector is clearly growing, it’s less clear what constitutes a “natural fragrance.” That is open to wide interpretation, since, as with natural personal-care products overall, there is no overarching legislation or certification outlining criteria.

However, most perfumers do turn to a standard called ISO 9235 put forth by the International Organization for Standardization, which deals with aromatic natural raw materials, and the NPA Natural Standard for Personal-care Products. In certain situations, they apply for COSMOS certification for organic and natural cosmetics.

Other governing bodies for raw materials are the International Fragrance Association and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials.

Some perfumers take a purist stance, saying a natural scent must have 100 percent natural ingredients, period, but others believe the percentage matters little.

The natural olfactive palette is much more limited than that of synthetic molecules, with at least 10 times fewer notes on offer. (And when implementing the NPA standard, that number is halved yet again.)

That makes working with only natural notes difficult. “[Natural fragrances] are extremely challenging to do,” said Ilias Ermenidis, a Firmenich perfumer, echoing the stance of many.

“When you work with all naturals, they are very strong ingredients, very pungent,” said Yves Cassar, vice president, senior perfumer at International Flavors and Fragrances, who noted that generally fine fragrance is a combination of naturals and synthetic molecules.

“Our nose has become used to the…clean smell that synthetics offer,” said Stephen Nilsen, a perfumer at Givaudan. “So the modern consumer typically likes a blend of synthetics and naturals. And what happens when you go 100 percent, is it becomes very aromatherapy-smelling.”

Ermenidis agreed natural scents “don’t correspond to the hedonics of the market. They don’t have that liveliness, performance and modernity.”

Nilsen said natural notes alone are like turning the volume up on a stereo “to the point where it just distorts and hurts your ears almost sometimes.”

There are other drawbacks: Naturals are harder to stabilize and can also be allergens. Plus, they are generally also much more expensive than synthetics. Natural jasmine absolute can be 3,000 euros a kilo, and vanilla absolute might range from 8,000 euros to 14,000 euros. That compares to synthetic molecules such as hedione at about 20 euros and damascone at 150 euros, for instance.

Then there are issues of sustainability. For naturals it’s necessary to grow a lot of plant material to extract enough essential oils for fragrance production. Plants are at the mercy of weather. Crops need to be replanted, their production overseen, and farmers must work under the best conditions – both professionally and personally.

Most major fragrance suppliers have already implemented their own sustainability programs with growers around the globe to make sure it’s a win-win situation all around.

But despite all of natural olfactive ingredients’ challenges, they are magic, perfumers say. “For me, natural in a fragrance means returning to true quality and values,” said Ermenidis.

“That’s where the fragrance business was born, with those ingredients,” said Mathieu Nardin, a perfumer at Robertet. “So that’s very important for me, because it brings an olfactive profile which is unique. It brings complexity, diffusion, richness and a very specific character.”

Further, there are real people culling the plants in an artisanal manner. “It’s not just a chemical reaction in a factory,” he added.

“The upside of naturals is that they’re incredibly complex and nuanced,” said Nilsen. “So they add a complexity to a fragrance that you can’t get typically through synthetics. If you think of natural, it’s almost like a fingerprint. There is a lot of detail in there.

“Naturals are beautiful,” he added. “They make you dream.”