PARIS: Deep in concentration, Tina Queralt sorts through a scatter of white paper strips sprayed with scent. She has whittled the choice down to a handful in her search for The One: the perfect perfume.
One Saturday in the run-up to Christmas, the Parisian and her two daughters have come to investigate a niche perfume store called Nose, that holds more than 250 references - and the elusive promise of personalised perfumery.
Opened in June, Nose is one of a new breed of stores that prides itself on cutting the marketing out of the scent business to put the focus back on the people at either end of the chain - the creators and clients.
The concept behind Nose is an online questionnaire, where clients key in details on their tastes - perfumes they have worn before, favourite keynotes - and an algorithm generates five suggested scents.
“It's a starting point, not an ending. So it enables us to understand 'Who is the customer?'” explained the store's co-founder Nicolas Cloutier. Tina and her daughters took the questionnaire in-store, and said the results closely matched their taste.
From there a salesperson guided them through the scents of Nose's 30 niche brands. Tina settled on “Aqua Universalis” by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, declaring herself “delighted” with the experience.
A perfumer for more than 20 years, Mark Buxton is part of the team behind Nose. Two years ago he opted out of what he calls “the industry” and started his own line, which is one of those on offer in the store.
When big companies develop a new perfume they typically brief the perfumers with a general idea of the smell they want, perhaps a character to keep in mind, and a price limit that affects the quality and quantity of materials used.
By contrast, perfumers say they have more room for creativity when working for smaller, niche firms because they are less constrained by cost ceilings, freeing them to use natural oils and high-quality synthetics.
Buxton never gives himself a price limit, and to him that's one of the biggest advantages of niche products.
“They have, in general, great diffusion and long-lastingness, and that's because they're using high quality products,” he told AFP.
Of course that increases the price. At Nose perfumes average around 100 euros ($132) and up. At a nearby beauty chain, the range falls between 30 and 90 euros, with Chanel “No. 5” midway at 54 euros.
“You don't see much packaging here”
Mining a similar vein, New York-based Le Labo opened a Paris branch in July, offering its own combinations of essential oils, which are kept separate from the alcohol base used for diffusion until a customer makes a purchase.
Jovoy, another niche perfume boutique, opened its second shop in February. Owner Francois Henin says he looks for a connection with the people behind the brands he stocks.
“What we sell is full of passion,” he said. “It's because the perfumers are authentic that their products are authentic, and that they will last.””You don't see much packaging here; we want you to see the promise of what's inside.”
Often set up by perfumers going it alone, many but not all of them French, these niche firms will typically offer a range of six to 10 perfumes, stocked in 600 to 1,000 outlets, with an average turnover of 10 million euros.
The Nose team vets every new scent for quality and originality before putting it on sale. The store recently delivered its first bespoke perfume - though for that level of personalisation, prices start in the thousands.
In France, the southern town of Grasse has been the centre of perfume making since the 17th century, under Louis XIV. The sun king reportedly used so much that the scent made him ill.
Up until the early 20th century, when perfumers began producing larger batches, they used to create for a single individual.
Today perfumes are heavily associated with fashion and celebrities, a trend started by Coco Chanel's “No. 5” in 1921. Since then perfumes have become a normal part of a designer's franchise.
But to Cloutier, perfumes hold a special place in that they are closely associated with memory - mirroring the fact that the brain centres for smell and memory creation lie close to each other. The link is important to perfumers as well.
Mark Buxton's fragrance “Wood and Absinthe” was inspired by an evening in Corsica, when he and a friend raided the drinks cabinet and found only the notorious spirit.
“This whole ambiance, this whole feeling with the absinthe, of course we were getting a bit drunk, and with the smell of the maquis, the woody notes, and this freshness in the air because the sun was going down, gave me the idea to capture this moment,” he said.