October 07, 2020

Can we just be honest? Perfume is confusing and mysterious. If you’re not traversing glass counters, getting handed samples and blotters while some nice lady spouts strange words like vetiver or cassis, you’re online clicking through fancy pictures of bottles with equally strange words, reading about companies that are indie and niche, or is it indie or niche, or wait... are those the same thing? Does it matter?

In a world where anyone can make a TikTok account and get insanely famous almost literally overnight, anyone willing to commit to the hard work and dedication it takes to be a perfumer (and we promise, it takes a lot) can go and scent the world in whatever way they see fit. While this is great news, it also gives rise to some terms that can either give you a really good idea of how your bottle was made, or terms that are purposefully blurred for marketing purposes.

Luckily, you know Olfactif and one of our goals is to provide you with real, up-to-date information and education about the art, science and personality of perfumery in an honest and straightforward way.

Let's sort it out. 


The most immediately recognizable in this perfumed parade are the well-known and loved Designer fragrances, also known as Mass fragrances, because they are, well, made for the masses. Makes sense, right. These are fragrances made by the major, popular fashion houses - with tons of money, research, and development thrown behind them to not only make a product that a particular fashion house is willing to stand behind, but also to sell and appeal to a large market of followers of that house. If you’re hearing names in your head (think Marc Jacobs, YSL, Polo Ralph Lauren, or Burberry) you’d easily hear on the runway at Fashion Week, chances are, it’s in this category.

This is also where Celebrity fragrances come into play. Celebs like Kim Kardashian to Sarah Jessica Parker will go to the big fragrance or fashion houses to work with their team to create their own fragrances. Because they go here, they are also made for the masses, for a perfumed palette that will appeal to a large audience. 

Celebrity, Designer and Mass fragrances have this in common: mass appeal. They are made for the masses, thus appealing to as many people as possible. They are easy to wear and approachable; with fragrance trends and popular ingredients being at the forefront of development. 

But wait, there's more!  

A lot of designer fragrance houses have Prestige lines as well, where you’ll see words like “private” or “exclusive” to give an air of rarity to the fragrance - and the price point definitely reflects that. You'll see words like "haute" and "couture" surrounding these brands and scent names that may be obscure, fancy, or French, because the French always make it fancy. The fashion house, Giorgio Armani, does this well. They have their mainline collection for everyday fragrances like Aqua di Gio, along with their  Prive Collection for their prestige line with Bois d'encens. 

If you’re ever wondering if a fragrance falls in the Prestige category, these are the brands where the bottles available all have a sticker that starts off at $200 and goes way up from there. In this category, it’s a really, really, really, really (did we mention really?) good idea to research, and get a chance to wear, the fragrance that you have your eye on.

Remember how we mentioned marketing? Well, marketing plays of big role in all of the above. From celebrity royalties to the millions of dollars put into R&D and marketing, they want to see a big return. So does it mean the juice inside the bottle warrants that hefty price tag?  Does the ultra-fancy name, accurately reflect the actual quality - or rarity - of what’s in the bottle? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. We'll leave that for you {and your skin} to decide.  

In between these three, however, is a category called Masstige that falls between the recognizable and affordable nature of a designer, but with a focus on giving the feel of exclusivity for a larger population. Coined, "the luxury for the masses", they’re a little more money, maybe a little less common, but still attainable for a market that isn’t interested, or able to engage, in saving up a few paychecks for their next bottle. This doesn’t just apply to fragrance either. There are many brands that have masstige subsections of their lines, or are wholly a masstige brand in the realm of clothing, beauty, tech, and more. 

But if you’ve come to Olfactif, chances are, you’re probably looking for something, truly, a little different. If different is your jam, indie, niche, and artisan categories are where it's at {and where our hearts lie}. Here they are!

Niche scent is a very large term that has really come to mean anything that isn’t made by a designer fragrance house. There are many debates about what makes niche, well... niche, and how it’s changed over time, but in general, a niche fragrance is not directly made by a large designer house. They are smaller (but often times not so small) houses with limited distribution and you won't typically find them at a department store counter. They will have an in-house perfumer or work with the larger fragrance houses. They have a retail boutique {or two} and are not bound by top-line revenue contracts or hoovering management teams. They often involve scents, notes, and perfumers that don’t mind being a bit off the beaten path.

But, over the years, as the interest in niche exploded, a lot of the big beauty brands wanted to get in on it too, and the niche brands we knew actually became large mega-corporate fragrance houses or got scooped up by the big guys with acquisitions. For example, Estee Lauder acquired Le Labo and Frédéric Malle and Puig acquired Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan Parfumeur to have niche brands in their otherwise mass portfolio, much to the consternation of fans and consumers, where the true meaning of niche has become blurred.

The word  Indie has made itself oft-spoken throughout the years in not only the scent world, but in music, movies, and even books - becoming an entire scene within nearly any aspect of arts. In fragrance, indie perfume is a smaller, niche brand not housed within a large beauty company or designer house, but privately owned. Sometimes indie brands do use outside perfumers to design their scents, but the scents are usually bottled in-house while the owner is involved in most aspects of the finished product and creative direction. This can offer greater control and vision for the owner and/or perfumer to do what they wish, as they’re not subjected to needing to answer to large, pursed-lipped corporate boards or investors for their choices or direction.

But wait, there's more!

Artisan denotes a person who is especially skilled at their particular trade, and whatever they craft tends to contain a little piece of the creator. It’s personal, and done by hand, in small, slow amounts. The key here is that artisan fragrances can never be mass produced. The perfumer created the formula of the fragrance you’re wearing, owns the brand, and down to the smallest detail, maybe even crimped the little bottle tops themselves too. True artisan pieces are not necessarily a guarantee of quality, but are definitely a label of craftsmanship, time, and rarity - as artisan, by nature, cannot be made on a huge scale.

Another word to throw into the mix is Independent. Independent conjures the notion that you are independent, on your own, free from outside your control and independently owned. Indie is the shortened version of it.

These last four can be a bit tricky because a fragrance can be all of these, or just a couple, but not the other. For instance, you can have a niche, indie fragrance, because it’s independently owned and a little off the beaten path, but maybe they work with outside perfumers and some of their products are private-labeled, so they wouldn’t be artisan. Artisan fragrances, by definition, are usually both indie and niche too, as they’re singularly craft-made on a smaller, independent scale.

So where does Olfactif fit in? 

Great question! We love to support niche, artisan and indie perfumers and brands and showcase their work to our Olfactif community through our subscription boxes and a la carte options. Our boxes are a curated theme-based collection of niche-artisan-independent fragrances, delivered right to your door each month from brands around the world. For October 2020, we took a deep dive on niche and how each perfumer can interpret certain ingredients (birch tar) or the feeling those ingredients evoke (warmth) with our Distinctively Niche Collection

Are you ready to dive into the world of niche with us? If you're not a subscriber, subscribe here

It's a lot to digest, we know. But as you navigate all of these categories, whatever you think of them, we can’t stress enough the golden rule of all perfume:

Just wear what you love.

Photo credits: Andre Benz, Sule Makroglu, Evie Schaffer Hans Reniers.

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