dollars & scents

Scent of Romance is a perfume 'for gels' being launched by Barbara Cartland on her 95th birthday. It will have to survive in a market where a new scent appears every three days. Sarah Stacey investigates the financial chemistry. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers
"It's such an awful job to get any scent these days," laments Dame Barbara Cartland. "Sixty pounds for a tiny, tiny bottle - well, you can't ask people to pay that. I want gels to have nice things without them being so expensive."

This is why, on 9 July, Cartland's 95th birthday, she is launching Scent of Romance, "the sort of scent we used to have, darling, when everyone had such a lovely time and I had 56 proposals of marriage," explains the world's best-selling romantic novelist, who is still dictating a book about Love every fortnight (or, to be precise, love among the upper classes, though she's "running out of lords", she confides).

Scent of Romance has been created by her personal perfumer, John Bailey, whose family business in Abbots Langley, The Perfumers' Guild, specialises in hand-blending traditional scents using essential oils from aromatic flowers and herbs - the perfumes of the big companies are about two-thirds made up from synthetics. A 30ml spray of the Dame's eye-watering bouquet, starring her favourite carnation with a supporting cast of rose, jasmine, orange blossom and ylang ylang, sells for just pounds 9.95, including post and packing, with proceeds going to charity. By contrast, when you buy a pounds 30 bottle of designer eau de toilette, the contents are probably worth about pounds 2, the balance going on packaging, research and development, plus the shop's 60 per cent profit.

John Bailey, who has been in the business for nearly 50 years, describes Scent of Romance as "a very classic perfume, totally in key with a very classic and elegant lady". It wafts Dame Barbara back to the days when Bright Young Things wore the now-legendary Quelques Fleurs, by Houbigant; "although," she admits, "you do have to use rather a lot of this one to get any sort of effect."

"Launch" is a bit of a misnomer for Scent of Romance's trickle into the world. It was almost impossible to get even a whiff, in advance, of the Dame's elixir. After days of frantic telephoning and faxing to Mr Bailey, I ended up with only a scented bookmark; the bottle's pink, gold and white packaging wasn't ready yet, even though the original launch date was 14 February. The contrast with the hype for Allure, the newcomer from Chanel (at pounds 60 for the smallest 7.5ml bottle), is marked. Dedicated PRs at Chanel have been rallying the press for months - breakfasting, lunching, cajoling, promising, and whizzing journalists back and forth to Paris to interview all and sundry.

Perfume ads may be all about mystery and magic, but behind the luxurious images is some very hard-headed marketing. To bring Dolce Vita to the world last autumn, Christian Dior spent pounds 40 million, with a pounds 2.5 million advertising budget in the UK alone. Chanel's first-year budget to launch Allure worldwide is about pounds 15 million, according to creative director Jacques Helleu.

Such telephone number budgets are a desperate attempt to compete in a market glutted with perfumes. A new one is launched - or an old relaunched, thereby saving costs - every three days. "Only 2 per cent will succeed, and it's not because the others are bad - there's a graveyard of good scents out there," says Stuart Simpson, managing director parfums at Christian Dior in London.

Not only is there a glut, but the UK female fragrance market is simultaneously experiencing a downturn. Worth about pounds 400 million in 1993, it had fallen to pounds 354.3 million by February 1996. "In such a crowded marketplace, it's a question of trying to shout above the crowd," says James Micklewright, chief executive of Givaudon Roure in Germany, one of the international companies which create fragrances to a brief. "Each company is desperately trying to find the edge that will give its product a distinct spot in the market."

There was a scare a couple of years ago when the Monopolies Commission decreed that luxury perfumes could be sold through discount stores, but the more expensive products have held on to their 70 per cent market share. What worries the great perfume houses, however, is the commercial advance made by the giant companies selling cheap and cheerful mass market scents - Avon, Revlon, Coty with Exclamation! and L'Aimant, and the Body Shop with White Musk. Selling the concept of luxury is no longer enough. Even Chanel, with its haute couture, haut perfum image, insists that the newcomer Allure is "good value for money".

Most fine fragrance companies have only survived by amalgamation with multinationals such as L'Oreal, which has 10 per cent of the British market, or Unilever, which now owns Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. Assiduous targeting of the different markets is vital. The perfume industry said, for instance, that Dior had the lucrative Gulf States in mind when it launched the sweet, vanilla-heavy scent of Dolce Vita, with its bright- yellow-and-gold packaging and OTT gold-barred, dimpled bottle. "If it's sweet and it's Dior, it isn't a luxury, it's a necessity," Pinky Daniels, an advertising executive in the United Arab Emirates, explained to me.

How our sense of smell works - and why some people prefer sweet, others spicy - is still a mystery to scientists. Every day, each one of us takes more than 23,000 breaths, and, with every inhalation, a tidal wave of smells floods through our systems. Originally, this sense of smell was vital to survival, enabling primitive man to distinguish between good and harmful foods. Primitive mammals' brains were principally "smell brains", dominated by the limbic system, which affects libido and sexual repulsion, stress reactions and the metabolism, among other functions. Today, our olfactory senses are bombarded daily by many more thousands of competing scents.

Last year, Dr Luca Turin, a biophysicist with a passion for perfume, proposed a theory to explain the mechanism of smell. The idea used to be that each molecule you smelled, nice or nasty, transmitted its particular "odour sensation" through the nose to the brain by means of its unique shape. This molecular "key" then found its own similarly-shaped "lock" amid the millions of smell receptors in the nose. But this theory was fraught with contradictions - principally, that similarly-shaped molecules just did not smell the same.

"There are five different categories of musk, for example, which all achieve the same smell, but the molecules don't look a bit like each other," explains Dr Turin, who is based at University College, London. His theory is that the shape of the molecule is irrelevant. The key to the mystery is, he believes, vibration. "Molecules twang, to put it simply. Each molecule is made up of balls, or atoms, connected by springs - the atomic bonds. I believe that the unique smell of each molecule is contained in its vibrational frequency - the way it twangs on the nasal receptors. The idea was first mooted in the Thirties, but no one had a clue how it might work, and there was no way of testing it. Sixty years later, I could see that smell might work like colour vision or hearing, so that each molecule which hit the nose would be probed for its vibrations, just as the vibrations of colours and sounds are processed by the retina and the ear."

To test his theory, Dr Turin took molecules with different shapes but the same smells and checked to see whether their vibrations matched. The most spectacular example involved the sulphur-hydrogen bond, which produces that stink bomb smell. He scoured the chemical literature to find another set of atoms which had the same vibrational frequency, but lacked sulphur. He found it in the potentially explosive mixture of a rocket fuel called borane. "To my delight, I found that, although it had no connection with sulphur, it stank of rotten eggs."

Turin's theory also implies that you should be able to build a smell by adding vibrations together. And it works. "I bet you'd never guess that spearmint and nail varnish remover add up to caraway? Nifty, eh?" If this theory is right, human beings are walking round with more state- of-the-art technology neatly packaged in our noses than you would find in most laboratories.

Amid the crepuscular clutter of Turin's lab is a battered leather suitcase housing his collection of the century's most important perfumes. Turin is also the author of Parfum: le Guide, probably the only unbiased assessment of what's on the market. In this capacity, he thinks that "artistically, Allure is crap - somewhere between Dune and Samsara, which is a place you really don't want to be", but he has no doubt that it will succeed. He is even optimistic about Cartland's flowery venture. "The real secret is that right now we love clean scents - clean flowers, or clean steel." And the companies who throw pounds 40 million at their products will recoup it, he says, a view echoed by an anonymous, highly placed source in the perfume industry:

"Take Calvin Klein's cKone - it's not a good scent, and it doesn't last, but the marketing plan for that, like lots of others, including the Liz Taylor bunch, is to recover costs in the first year, milk it for all it's worth in the second, then bring in another one in the third."

The marketing of perfumes is as changeable as the scents themselves. "Well-being" is the new buzzword in creative briefings, reports James Micklewright. The previous one, promoting products which are only now reaching the market, was "unisex". cKone, which is a floral splash-on, embraced all the options and has been a phenomenal success. That heralded a rash of "fragrances to share". The latest is paco, billed as a "perfume for the people". It's a monument to the ingenuity of creator Paco Rabanne, who once wrote a book about his intergalactic past life before he alighted on planet earth. "paco the perfume" is clad in an aluminium flask, with no outer carton, and the only in-store accessories are a plain paper bag and a milk crate merchandiser. "If you like it, that's fine; if not, that's fine, too," says the galactic voyager. But the super-low-key press campaign, including postcards with the minimalist legend it's for everyone on the planet, it smells good, was still given a pounds l million UK launch.

Allure went minimalist in a different way. Although creative director Jacques Helleu used 16 different beauties, the photography is in black and white, and there's no jewellery and virtually no clothes. The packaging is a lean, beige version of No 5's signature black and white. There will be no television advertising.

Nearly 70 per cent of women wear scent. Why do they? According to a survey by the National Magazine Company, wearing it in the daytime makes women feel feminine, and at night it makes them feel more sophisticated. But Jacques Helleu, a charming, Cary Grant lookalike, will have no truck with such coyness. "Women who don't wear perfume are boring," he says. "Most men find perfume seductive. It gives a woman appeal. If she seduce 'erself, then she think that men will see the same thing in her."

Catherine Deneuve, he points out, admitted that she only bothered to put scent behind her knees during her heyday as a sex symbol. "Think about it," he suggests, one eyelid drooping, "fragrance is about sex, that's all"