How does one capture the scent of India? Is it just the heady note of jasmine or rose, or could it be a whiff of masala tea and the spicy aroma of black pepper? What does a city smell like, and how different is the smell of Delhi from Goa? How does one capture memories in a bottle?
These are the preoccupations of a new breed of Indian perfumers, who are breaking stereotypes and trying to raise the bar for Indian fragrances. They are in unchartered territory.
On one hand, India has been a land of olfactory indulgence – after all, this is where ittar, incense and aromatherapy have existed for thousands of years, and personal perfumes are part of ancient royal lore. On the other hand, there was virtually no modern Indian perfume that could stand its own against the sophisticated, marketing-driven branded-perfume industry in the West, notably Europe.
A few years ago, however, some Indians decided to do something about it.
One of them was Manan Gandhi. Brought up in a family that supplied ingredients to perfumeries in the West, Gandhi had picked up the intricacies of supply chain management and quality control in the perfume industry while growing up. On completing his Bachelor’s in management from Purdue University, USA, and Master’s in international business from Skema University in France, Gandhi founded a startup in Grasse – the heart of the perfumery world in France – to supply fragrance ingredients to perfume houses across Europe. But he felt there was more he could do.
“I really wanted to build a brand that pays homage to the beautiful Indian naturals that have been used in perfumery for generations now, but not quite given their due,” says the 30-year-old, adding, “There was no homegrown, contemporary, luxury fragrance range that would appeal to the millennial consumer.”
Launched by Gandhi in 2015, Bombay Perfumery offers a range of eight scents priced Rs 3900 to 4100 (100 ml, eau de parfum), with names such as Calicut or Madurai Talkies. Made in Grasse by a team of international perfumers – Jacques Chabert, Alexandra Carlin and Pierre Kurzunne – the perfumes are bottled in India and target the millennial Indian consumer by using local references in both product development and branding.
The label retails from 15 multi-brand boutiques in India besides their own online store. But Gandhi, who lives in Mumbai and Grasse, is practical about the footprint of Indian-made fragrances in the country, which he says is about a tenth of the overall Indian luxury business. A 2016 Euromonitor International survey pegged the Indian fragrance market at Rs 1800 crore, which is expected to touch Rs 3300 crore by 2020. “But this space has been dominated by deodorant brands or the cheaper, mass-market products,” Gandhi opines, being cautiously optimistic about the potential in metros and urban centers for niche fragrance brands such as his to compete with established global players.
So far, those who could afford to buy luxury perfumes looked toward large multinational conglomerates such as the house of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), which owns Christian Dior, Kenzo and Guerlain among others; or L’Oréal, which owns Giorgio Armani, Lancôme, Saint Laurent and so on; or the Shiseido Group, which has taken over Dolce & Gabbana, Elie Saab and Issey Miyake perfumes. About 40 of these top-end perfumes are distributed in India through Baccarose, which is the ‘big daddy’ in terms of control and direction of perfume retail and advertising in India.
Considering this landscape, perception and scale are two of the biggest challenges a new perfume house faces in India. Being an independent perfumery also means developing strong persuasion skills to convince retail outlets to stand up to market leaders and share shelf space. Limited marketing budgets are a further obstacle, as extra efforts are needed to find the right consumer and make them aware of the product.
In fact, educating the consumer is the most difficult aspect of perfume retail in India if you ask Pulkit Malhotra. The 30-year-old founder of the Mocemsa range of perfumes has found that once a buyer tries his couture fragrances, he or she has no hesitation in coming back for more, “but getting them to try something new in the first place is where the real work lies”.
Born in Delhi, Malhotra did his Master’s in finance and accounting from Edinburgh before heading to the exclusive Grasse Institute of Perfumery to study perfume-making under the master perfumer Max Gavarry. Belonging to a family that runs a business supplying industrial fragrances to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, Malhotra set up a 4000-sq yard manufacturing facility in Barcelona, Spain, where 80 employees make fine fragrances on a high-tech robotic plant.
It took Malhotra over two years to develop a range of 12 “vertical” perfumes, which contain 25% perfume oil and have a deep consistency of top and bottom notes so that the fragrance lasts longer on the body. Priced Rs 2500 to 5000 for 100 ml eau de parfum, they are bottled in Italy, assembled in China and then imported in India after meeting international safety norms, including a certification from International Fragrance Association, Geneva.
Launched in August 2017, Mocemsa retails from various multi-brand stores in Delhi and Bengaluru, besides online. Malhotra – who designs all perfumes himself and wakes up at 5 am to work because that’s when the sense of smell is at its sharpest – explains that local conditions have a strong role to play in fragrance formulation. “We customize our formulations keeping the Indian climate in mind. For instance, we source geranium oil from Egypt instead of China because it reacts better to Indian weather,” he says.
Despite India’s aromatic heritage, developing a fragrance for retail is a complex, long-drawn and expensive process, requiring an expert creative director at the helm to construct a scent that can stand the test of time. Besides Malhotra, another qualified Indian perfumer who designs his own range of perfumes is Rajiv Sheth. Having studied at ISIPCA Versailles, which is renowned for its post-graduate studies in perfume-formulation, Sheth launched All Good Scents in 2014. Made in Grasse, his range of 25 perfumes and colognes – affordably priced Rs 299 to 2000 – have created a niche for themselves, and do not compete with luxury players.
The luxury fragrance category in India, in fact, is still sparsely populated – for good reason.
“Making quality perfumes is a thorough study of fine craftsmanship,” agrees Mira Kulkarni, founder of Forest Essentials. Her 17-year-old beauty brand that gives “Ayurvedic formulations a luxurious twist”, and which now retails from over 50 stores across 17 Indian cities, has just last month launched its first range of three single-flower pure perfumes using nargis from Kashmir, desi gulab from Kannauj and jasmine from Madurai. “These are all reminiscent of Indian culture and refinement,” says the Delhi-based Kulkarni.
The Parfum Intense range, all priced Rs 4200 (50 ml), is made with pure grain alcohol in a herb-enriched preparation, fermented according to processes mentioned in Ayurvedic texts and bottled at their factory in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. The beauty brand also takes inputs from Estee Lauder, which holds a stake in the company and is a world leader in luxury fragrances.
Kulkarni rues the widespread misconception that Indian beauty products are not of high quality and says it needs to be challenged and altered. “Many beauty treatments such as aromatherapy facials, body scrubs and perfumes that are available in the West today are all based on centuries-old Indian traditions. If Indian companies keep consistently high standards, that perception will inevitably change,” she avers.
THE MEMORY OF SMELL
An Indian in Paris, Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan is out to change perceptions too, albeit in her own way. The perfumer, who also holds a PhD in architecture, makes fragrances based on memories and the locations she travels. In 2008, after studying at ISIPCA Versailles, she launched The Memory Pod Project, a compilation of smells based on people’s memories. In 2014, she launched her label The Perfume Library to make fragrances a performance art, a way to tell stories.
Made in France, her perfumes contain the essence of all the cities she travels. “For example, the collection in Goa is reflective of the smells of Goa and its greenery. New Delhi has a wider collection that is reflective of the diversity of the city,” she explains. For her, every perfume is like a poem, and she enjoys linking a scent to a location or a context, such as marijuana-inflected ‘Bhang Bang’, or the jasmine-infused ‘Aphtoori Absolute’, named after a Ladakhi proverb.
With her perfumes currently retailing from all Good Earth stores across India and from select stores in Goa and Kolkata, Nandan has been busy this year. She performed Scent Variations on Thoughts of Smell, a series of definitively unfinished accords worked over 10 years, at Heritage Art Spaces Goa. Last month, the 40-year-old released a new perfume, ‘Again’, in collaboration with fashion designer Gaurav Gupta, which has the base note smell of the forest and earth and is priced Rs 10,400 (50 ml, eau de parfum). Her challenge, she says, is “subtly expressing my art within the realm of what is a very loud contemporary culture.”
A BESPOKE EXPERIENCE
Another new brand that is trying to express a subtle art – and in fact goes a step further to offer a bespoke experience – is 3003 BC. Launched this August, it is a collaboration between cousins Anil Panda and Sushant Panda, along with UK perfumers John Stephen and Sarah McCartney. Anil, a former banker from Barclays, was drawn to perfumery after living in London exposed him to the mature perfume industry there. The 39-year-old roped in his Delhi-based cousin Sushant, former CEO of the advertising firm Havas, to handle business and marketing. “The idea was to cater to the larger worldwide luxury trend of personalized experiences,” says Sushant.
The company produces bespoke scents based on the customer’s requirements, priced Rs 5 lakh onwards. The perfumes are designed in UK and made in France after a series of intense interviews with the client. Then come many rounds of trial and testing. “Bespoke perfumes are not customized from a library of scents,” Panda, 49, explains, “but are created drop by drop.” The process takes anywhere from 12 to 14 weeks, and the price is based on the ingredients; once the composition is finalized, repeat orders cost less and take lesser time to produce. The aesthetics are important too: each bottle is hand-blown individually, so no two bottles can ever be alike.
The brand works purely through referral and is not considering retail. “Geography is irrelevant to the luxury consumer. They don’t go to the service provider; they expect the service to come to them,” says Panda of his marketing approach, which is primarily based on one-to-one communication.
The new firm has already been approached by other brands in the luxury space to create bespoke experiences for their clients, such as the scent of the destination city visited by travelers on a luxury cruise. “Our competition is not any other perfume brand, but a work of art or a limited-edition wine,” Panda adds. “Indian consumers are ready for this. The time is right.”