Small fragrance creators such as Maelstrom in Paris are influencing a $49 billion global industry.
Last year a juried competition was held to re-create a 1940s-era cult perfume called Iris Gris. Created by the perfumer Vincent Roubert and released by the designer Jacques Fath, an influential French couturier, the fragrance went out of production when Fath died of cancer in 1954. Eventually, Roubert’s son donated the formula to the Osmothèque, a scent archive in Versailles, France. Recipes owned by the archive cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes.
Iris Gris has widely been considered one of fragrance’s holy grails. People buy and sell vintage bottles on EBay, and “it’s become a legend,” says Rania Naim, the current creative director of Jacques Fath Parfums.
A number of established perfumers submitted versions of the scent to the competition that tried to exactly mimic the original. But when it came time for a decision, the panel unanimously agreed that the entry from a tiny upstart perfumery called Maelstrom was the best. Run out of a lab in Paris’s 5th arrondissement by three twentysomethings— Patrice Revillard, Marie Schnirer, and Yohan Cervi—Maelstrom was unknown to most of its rivals, in part because it had only been founded that year. It’s made seven perfumes so far, including this one. And yet, “the first judge smelled all the entries, and not even one minute later he chose Maelstrom’s,” Naim says.
The new Iris Gris, renamed L’Iris de Fath, will be released in September. Because of the large quantities of pure iris used in the formula, the perfume has an astronomical price tag. “Some people think that the iris smell in perfume comes from the flower,” Cervi says. “But we use the root—you grow it for three years and then dry it for three years.” A single 30 milliliter (1 ounce) bottle will cost €1,470 ($1,712), and just 150 bottles will be made a year.
Not every perfume the Maelstrom partners make is that pricey, but virtually every one fits in what Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst for NPD Group Inc., calls the “prestige” section of the luxury market.
Initially, Jensen says, such complex, often unisex, super-high-end perfumes were created to set a brand apart rather than turn a profit—a kind of halo product along the lines of haute couture or a rare supercar. In 2011, Dolce & Gabanna, which has a line of perfumes sold in Walmart, also released a high-end line called the Velvet Collection; a 5 oz. bottle costs $430. Such projects are “about putting the perfumer in the spotlight,” Jensen says. “It was about quality, artistry, ingredients, and creating these really rich experiential fragrances.”
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