According to the research specialists Euromonitor, the market for perfume is booming. Last year in America, sales topped pounds 2.2bn. France came a close second with pounds 925m, making the French market for perfume bigger than our market for staple products such as potatoes and sliced bread.
Look closely at Euromonitor's statistics on how much deodorant and bath oil we use compared with our French or Japanese counterparts, and you start to realise the big cultural differences that remain between nations. Perfume may be the third largest sector of the wider cosmetics and toiletries market in France, but in Japan the market barely exists. Culturally, a strong scent is inappropriate in Japan; if women do use perfume, it may be designed to last for only an hour. So you apply it at the start of your lunch hour, and return to the workplace without offending colleagues. On the other hand, Euromonitor says, Japan's market for skin care is the largest in the world. Differences in the basic beauty regime of women, and to a lesser extent men, fuel heavy expenditure. Japanese women regularly use several different types of moisturisers, while Japanese men buy face- packs, nose-packs, male-specific hair bleach and eyebrow-design kits. The kits include an eyebrow brush and comb, special scissors, tweezers and an eyebrow pencil. There is even a template to help men to achieve designer eyebrows.
Consumers worldwide may have a never-ending appetite for new products, but all is not roses in the English garden of fragrance. Euromonitor estimates that the average Frenchwoman spent about pounds 36 last year on perfumes, almost double that of her UK counterpart. Perfumes and fragrances, meaning full- strength scent, and eau de parfum and eau de toilette, distributed through both premium and mass-market channels, make up one of the least dynamic areas of the beauty industry in the UK. Compared with the wider cosmetics and toiletries markets, the perfumes and fragrances sector was the only one to decline in value terms between 1992 and 1996, according to Euromonitor.
So if we are spending less, are we smelling less sweet? Probably not, because although British women are buying less of fragrance's haute couture, we have jumped in at the deep end with bathtime and skin-care smellies. Sales of scents such as Calvin Klein's CKOne, which epitomise the whole- body approach to smelling good, have consequently gone off the clock.
"CKOne is head and shoulders above everything else," says Tracy Wharton, retail operations manager of Selfridge's perfumery and cosmetics hall. It took Selfridges less than six months to clock up pounds 1m-worth of sales of this politically correct, inoffensive scent. CKOne goes anywhere, anatomically, socially and geographically. Its refillable travel bottles cry out to be taken to the gym. And you can buy it anywhere: from the cosmetic hall of a department store, from a counter at Tower Records, off the shelf of a discount chemist. In short, it is the antithesis of the French perfumes that dominated the market from the time of Louis XVI to the early Seventies.
Roger Dove, PR manager at the French perfume company Guerlain, has watched the market change. "Twenty-five years ago, perfume was a real luxury which nobody bought for themselves," he says. But, like overseas travel, "price has had an impact across the market, and now the masses can afford to buy it," says Mr Dove. For an extremely reasonable pounds 28.50, Selfridges offers a 50ml CKOne eau de toilette spray plus heavily scented CKOne body wash and body moisturiser packs in a 100ml size.
Classic French perfumes such as Shalimar and Mitsouko by Guerlain are fighting back. Glamorous bottle shapes from the past are making a return, and there are campaigns to persuade us to behave more like our French counterparts, and pay a king's ransom for tiny bottles of full-strength perfume.
"In the UK and the US, women don't understand that perfume is the softest of the fragrance strengths," says Mr Dove. "We buy eau de toilette, which has qualities more suited to a good dietary product. Its instability as a mixture means that 50 per cent leaves the skin within half an hour of application, whereas 50 per cent of perfume remains on the skin after 24 hours. The rapidity with which eau de toilette is lost makes it strong but short-lived; perfume is soft and sedate by comparison."
Guerlain may have a point about strengths, but it is on less sure ground with consumers when it talks about perfumers and their assistants. "Perfume is the true expression of a scent because it is the only thing the perfumer creates. The eau de parfum and eau de toilette of a scent are created by the assistant," says Mr Dove.
Consumers, who have demanded and got brands that are consistent and open about their provenance, will find this one hard to swallow. Earlier this month, the industry recognised another communication gap between the perfumer and his customers. At the Fragrance Foundation Awards, the perfume equivalent of the Oscars, the innovation of the year award went not to a fragrance, but to a system that helps perfumers understand customers' likes and dislikes. Developed by Quest, a fragrance manufacturer, the Multimedia Initiative Redefining Intelligent Aromatic Design (Miriad) is essentially art psychotherapy for perfumers who are frustrated by our lack of ability to put into words what we like about a smell. Intrepid poets may have tried to capture the essence of a scent, but like most people they lack the perfumer's vocabulary. Miriad allows perfumers to use a series of concentric circles, coded by colour and width, which build up into pictures representing a particular mix of smells which you or I may like. The Fragrance Foundation felt that Miriad would inspire new ways of using raw materials.
Selfridges sees anything up to 50 new perfume launches annually. This summer we have the US designer Tommy Hilfiger launching tommy girl, his new perfume for women. Is it galling for companies such as Estee Lauder, which slave away year in and year out, to watch the Hilfigers of this world stack up phenomenal perfume sales almost overnight? Hardly. Who owns the Hilfiger perfumes? You guessed it: tommy girl, and tommy, Hilfiger's perfume for men, are made by Estee Lauder companies.
These new perfumes will do well if they outsell Chanel No 5, which always comes back at Christmas as the top seller - though that certainty is under threat this year with the threatened boycott of Chanel by ecologists. They claim that the use of essential oils extracted from an exotic tree is threatening Brazil's rainforests.
Even so, there is something about the lasting power of French perfume which American designer gels have yet to topple.
Eau de monde
A life of sweet facts.
What countries spend on perfume.
In dollars, per capita.
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