Fragrance appreciation soars to new heights in Singapore

Here's a whiff of things to come: In just a year, Singapore will be home to the Asian branch of the famed Givaudan Perfumery School. The 118-year-old Swiss fragrance firm is behind the earliest designer fragrances such as Je Reviens of Charles Worth and Shocking of Elsa Schiaparelli, to great classics such as Opium and Poison.

More recently, it formulated Angel, Le Male, J'Adore, Infusion d'Iris, Armani Code, One Million and Lola. It is now set to unveil the first Asian branch of its school in Paris here - at the heart of a "market that is anticipated to be shaping perfumery in years to come," said Givaudan CEO, Gilles Andrier.

While Singapore Polytechnic has been offering a diploma course in perfumery and cosmetic science since 2011, covering sensory training for perfumery and fragrance creation, this new school at Pioneer Turn will be a training institution for future employees of the fragrance powerhouse.

But you don't have to enrol in a three-year programme at the school, or make a trip to Grasse, to be a perfume aficionado. Besides trawling through department store beauty halls for blotters spritzed with the latest designer scents, one could imbibe the olfactory arts at countless other speciality scent boutiques, workshops or even online.

Launched earlier this year, Code Deco is an artisanal perfumery based here that retails entirely online. It has developed a proprietary fragrance classification system to help clients select a scent according to mood and occasion. "Singapore is becoming a sophisticated consumer of design in all spheres and the same extends to perfume," said Gauri Garodia, the Indian-born "nose", founder and creative director of the company. "It has a fabulous foodie culture and that can only happen when you have a discriminating palate and 'nose'."

Mrs Garodia, who has created fragrances for corporate brands and worked for 16 years at consumer goods behemoth Unilever, also conducts a series of public workshops to help demystify the science and art of perfumery.

And she is one of several retailers who dedicate much of the business to school fragrance naïfs on the finer points of perfumery. "We've always worked to educate our customers more on the aspects of fragrances as it helps them understand how much wider the whole world of scent can be," explained Michael-Brendan Ng, marketing representative for Penhaligon's in Singapore. "We've been noticing a lot of return customers bringing in friends and family with a much more developed understanding and palate with each trip."

Artisanal edge

The classic British scent emporium has recently opened its second outlet here at Marina Bay Sands, stocking its 1,000 sq ft store with scented candles, shower gels, and, of course, its famed perfumes, bottled in clear glass flacons topped with ribbon-wrapped stoppers.

Navigating the vast range might boggle the mind, and nose, which is why the store provides a "scent profiling service" to help one identify preferred scents based on instinctive choices.

To the uninitiated, such ritualistic shopping practices might sound like sophisticated sales gimmickry, when one could simply stop by a perfume counter, dab a scent on one's wrists, before snapping up a bottle of a jus that has caught one's fancy. But herein lies the difference between mainstream scents that are easy on the nasal epithelium, and artisanal ones that require that much more effort to relish.

"The numbers game associated with the mainstream affects what you can expect to find inside the flacon: Most of what you pay for is actually marketing and the distribution network. Then follows the packaging and presentation. Then, at the end, comes the fragrance," said self-taught Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer, whose perfumes are handcrafted in his home laboratory in Zurich in batches of 500 to 1,000 bottles.

While brands like Chanel and Dior have their own in-house perfumers (Jacques Polge and Francois Demachy, respectively), most mainstream scents are created by large companies like Givaudan.

Artisanal and haute perfumery, on the other hand, is characterised by independent brand owners and creators, often focusing on the scent, less on the marketing and presentation, said Mr Tauer.

"It could be looked at from a similar point of view to fashion where there is a divide between high fashion and the clothing designed for a more commercial market: A niche house will more likely create a new product to challenge the idea of what is wearable whereas the commercial house will be more interested in coming up with the new black for the season, so to speak," elaborated Mr Ng.

Celebrity make-up artist Clarence Lee, for example, scours the globe for speciality perfumes which he then sells at his fragrance boutique Oblique, located at Bussorah Street store, Hide & Seek.

Tauer perfumes, as well as coveted indie labels like Mona di Orio, Histoires de Parfums and Humiecki & Graef are some of the uncommon scents that he carries.

Indie connection

"With many mass brands adding scents created from more sophisticated and rare materials, it definitely has 'trained' the consumers' noses to adapt to more unusual scents," said Mr Lee, who admitted to owning up to 100 scents.

"Also, the entry of more niche perfumes in the market allows people to be exposed to them, thus making them more aware of rarer perfumes."

After all, it is easy to be seduced by a scent backed by celebrity ambassadors or a fashion brand, not so much a house with zero advertising budget, rolling out scents with unusual formulations.

While certain structures like a floral, vetiver and wood combination, commonly found as an appealing men's fragrance, or a fruity floral for ladies are more palatable, according to Mr Ng, scents by independent labels might require a more open mind to appreciate.

Hence, the popularity of lust-worthy concoctions from houses like L'Artisan Perfumeur, Annick Goutal and Serge Lutens at Escentials boutiques; Frederic Malle from luxury lifestyle store Malmaison; or under-the-radar finds by Mr Lee is testament to the growing popularity of niche fragrances, and the more discerning Singaporean nose. It is little wonder then that Givaudan has picked Singapore as the location for its first Asian school, where applicants will be tested on their ability to recall the thousands of ingredients that could be blended into a scent, for a chance to be trained by master perfumer Jean Guichard - the man behind iconic perfumes like Calvin Klein Obsession and Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps Colombes Couleur.

As Givaudan perfumer Oh Hee Soon explained, "The biggest lesson in my profession is that stinky, smelly things are not always bad. It's just a matter of quantity and how to blend it with other ingredients. Dissonance can create the most interesting effects!"

Even for those who aren't quite cut out for a career in perfumery, there's no denying the snob appeal in being able to dispense your personal review of the latest Eta d'Libre L'Orange scent (which, incidentally, is Bijou Romantique - a complex, slightly powdery women's scent, available also from Oblique and Blackmarket No 2), or debating the merits between dabbing or spritzing.

But, as Mr Tauer said, "In the end, it is a matter of taste, too. It is like with clothes: If you just want to get dressed, any T-shirt will do fine. If you want to express your being different, the right garment might not be 'mass market'."


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