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Artisan perfumers on the scent of a mystery

Do you think all fragrances are starting to feel the same? Rebecca Gonsalves profiles the artisan perfumers aiming to be different

Since ancient times, fragrance has captivated not only the senses but imaginations too. Once the preserve of the elite, perfume has been gradually democratised – commercially at least – since Guerlain introduced Jicky, considered the first modern fragrance, in 1889. Since that time the market has dealt with an influx of not only the designer fragrances that were so popular in the eighties and nineties, but the big sell of this millennium – the celebrity fragrance. As the shelves of beauty halls across the land groan under the weight of these populist offerings, logic – or market forces – dictates that unique fragrances are feeling the squeeze.

While that may be true, there is something of a revival afoot – although the experience of a custom blend is one that few can stretch to, a small group of fragrance makers are successfully carving out a niche for themselves, and their products.

One such team is that behind Shay & Blue, a new independent brand that launched at the end of March. “Our perfumer Julie Masse and I created Shay & Blue because there is too much samey perfume out there,” says Dom De Vetta, who worked for big brands such as Chanel and Jo Malone before going the independent route. “There are thousands of fragrances available, but they all smell the same.”

Shay & Blue was created as an antidote to the industrial process that lies behind the big-hitters of the fragrance world: championing artisanal, hand-made perfume making and keeping alive the craft of working with flowers, fruit and spices. De Vetta believes it is important not only for the quality it produces but the continuation of such skills.

“Celebrity fragrance is like eating McDonald's,” says De Vetta. “There's nothing wrong with it in the sense that it's cheap and fast and fun… But a few hours later it can leave you feeling queasy. If you have good taste you try not to eat it, and it's the same with high-quality perfume.”

Zahra Bishop, perfume and cosmetics buyer at Harvey Nichols believes there has been a rise in demand for niche brands: “Fragrance trends among our stores are always about niche and exclusivity, but at the moment there is a strong customer interest in the 'story' of a fragrance. We exclusively launched Eight & Bob at the end of March, which has a great story, and it sold out in two days.”

Fragrance remains a luxury item, albeit one that many would now consider a necessity such is the way its use has become quotidian, and needs to be marketed as such. Indeed the back story behind Eight + Bob may be a marketer's dream (see side-bar), but it appeals to a different emotion than a designer perfume or celebrity fragrance.

“Most perfumers tend to believe that a fragrance fits the wearer regardless of their sex or age, but in the UK perfumes are so often targeted at a particular type of customer,” says Bishop. Fragrance is after all a lucrative industry, and success relies on so much more than just what is in the bottle. According to market researchers Key Note, the total UK market for cosmetics and fragrances will be worth £2.33bn in 2014, and if the good work of the independent brands continues there will be more to the spoils than just the sweet smell of success.

Inflorescence, Byredo

Basketball player turned fragrance maker, Ben Gorham, established his brand in Stockholm in 2006. Each fragrance is inspired by the travels of Gorham, who had no formal training when he founded the company. The latest fragrance in the range celebrates the beginning of spring with florals including jasmine, lily of the valley and magnolia.

£130, Liberty, 020 7734 1234

Eight & Bob

There's a hard-to-beat back story behind this newly revived brand: first created in the 1930s by Parisian aristocrat Albert Fouquet who was persuaded to share his scent with John F Kennedy who requested eight bottles and “another one for Bob”. After Fouquet's sudden death, production was continued by his butler, Philippe, and halted by the Second World War until now.

£125, harveynichols.com

White Flowers, Creed

Founded in London in 1760 by James Henry Creed, the House of Creed is now led by Olivier Creed (pictured left) – the eighth generation nose from the fragrance dynasty. Creed maintains the use of traditional, read costly, infusion techniques to produce the essences that go into each fragrance.

From £135, harrods.com

Dries Van Noten, Frederic Malle

Frederic Malle refers to his eponymous brand, founded in 2000, as a perfume publishing house, where he is the editor who collaborates with guest perfumers and brands but retains final approval. His latest partnership, the first instalment of his “XXX” collection, took 18 months to translate the world of Belgian designer Dries Van Noten in to a signature scent that is the antithesis of modern designer perfumes.

From £110, Liberty

Shay & Blue

Established by former Chanel and Jo Malone executive Dom De Vetta in 2012, the brand's boutique opened its doors last month to showcase its collection that although inspired by the great scents of old, gives them a contemporary update. All made in England with real flowers, fruits and spices in traditional ways.

From £30, harveynichols.com, Shay & Blue 0845 548 0113.

La Fille de Berlin, Serge Lutens

One of the greats of the fragrance world, former creative director of Shiseido, Serge Lutens' salon in the Palais-Royal in Paris is a haven for those with tastes for the complex scents and stories he bottles and blends. The latest addition is “like an angry rose, very beautiful... assertive yet comforting”.

£69, harrods.com