Fifty Years of Fragrance

By Tom Branna, Editorial Director | August 2, 2013

Unisex scents, celebrity fragrances and the rise of the men’s market all hold prominent spots in the development of fine fragrances.

Any conversation about the history of anything nearly always gets its start somewhere along the Nile. Fragrance is no exception, as ancient Egyptians believed that they could communicate with their gods by raising scented smoke. In fact, the word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum, which means “through smoke.” Good stuff, but the more modern use of essential oils began in the late 19th Century with the commercial synthesis of aroma compounds. Around this time, in Germany, Giovanni Paolo Feminis created a scented water that he called Aqua Admirabilis, which is better known today as eau de cologne.

By 1964, the year Happi debuted, fragrance bottles were well ensconced in boudoirs throughout the US and around the world. Chanel No. 5 was the best-selling fragrance in the world 50 years ago (today, it ranks No. 6 overall and is No. 2 in prestige), according to data from the Kline Group. During that time, aerosols were gaining ground as a fragrance format and Avon was the No. 1 marketer of fragrance, noted Carrie Mellage, director, consumer products, Kline.

According to The Fragrance Foundation’s archives, during the 1960s, just 77 fragrances were launched—46 women’s and 31 men’s scents. That’s a far cry from the past decade when dozens of new scents were introduced every year.

The Feminine Mystique
Perhaps more than any other consumer product category, fragrance captures the spirit of the times. For example, By the 1970s, the women’s movement was in full swing and the rise of women’s prowess—in the home, workforce and on the national stage—was evidenced by the fragrances being introduced during that decade. For example, Revlon rolled out Charlie in 1973 and supported the launch with a campaign that featured an outgoing “Charlie Girl” who could mix it up with the boys and give as good as she gets.
Two years later, Prince Matchabelli brought the women’s movement home to millions of homemakers with the introduction of Aviance Night. The aldehydic floral fragrance was supported with a memorable jingle: “I’ve been sweet and I’ve been good/I’ve had a whole, full day of motherhood/But I’m gonna have an Aviance night!”

Women got out of the kitchen completely with the launch of Enjoli by Charles of the Ritz in 1980. It was promoted for its long-lasting scent as “an 8-hour fragrance for the 23-hour woman.” And, like Aviance Night before it, Enjoli relied on a catchy tune to generate interest:

“I can bring home the bacon/fry it up in the pan/and never ever let you forget you’re a man/’Cause I’m a woman…”

Throughout the 1970s, 197 fragrances were launched in the US, according to The Fragrance Foundation.

Signs of a Slowdown
During the 1980s, big hair was the norm and so were big fragrances—think orientals such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, which actually debuted in 1977. In fact, the success of Opium ushered in a wave of successful, rich fragrances such as Giorgio Beverly Hills and Calvin Klein’s Obsession in 1985.

By the middle of the decade, US fine fragrance sales had topped $2.2 billion, driven by the success of Oscar, Opium, Giorgio, Obsession and Poison. But there were signs that fragrance no longer held a special place in the hearts of gift-givers…or gift-receivers.

“We’re competing against cameras, cassettes, jogging outfits, designer running shoes, personal computers and video games,” warned Alvin F. Lindsay, president of Roure Bertrand Dupont in the pages of Happi. “We need some of that excitement to increase our market shares.”

During the decade, 462 fragrances made their debut in US department stores and mass retailers, according to The Fragrance Foundation.

One for All
The 1990s were marked by the rise of unisex fragrances led by Calvin Klein’s CK One, which debuted just in time for the holiday 1994 selling season. At the time of the launch, Happi noted that fragrance not only blurred gender lines, it “blurred distribution lines for prestige scents too.” That’s because CK One was available in department stores as well as Tower Records—remember record stores? Remember records? With its $34 price point, CK One also brought upscale scent to the masses.

“It (CK One) will probably draw people into the market that haven’t participated before,” predicted Salomon Brothers researcher Diana Temple in the pages of Happi.

By 1999, US prestige fragrance sales reached $2.9 billion, with men’s fragrance sales closing in on the $1 billion mark. Marketers had come to accept the fact that new fragrances drove the business.

“Women are not very faithful or loyal to one fragrance,” Carole Nicolas, executive marketing director, Beauty Prestige International told Happi. “They are looking for newness and are influenced by media and advertising, so they can go quickly from one fragrance to another.”

No wonder then, that by the close of the decade, more than 800 fragrances had been introduced, according to Fragrance Foundation estimates. And while the industry bemoaned the plethora of unexciting, me-too launches, marketers continued to trot out uninspired scents, backed by multi-million dollar promotional campaigns.

Star Power
Unisex fragrances were all the rage nearly 20 years ago, but all those his and hers scents faded into the background as the new millennium approached. Consumers’ thirst for these scents was ultimately replaced by their obsession with all things celebrity—a thirst that continues today. Elizabeth Arden created the celebrity fragrance category with the launch of Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds in 1991, but during the past two decades, Arden’s had to share the celebrity spotlight with companies such as Coty (in deals with Madonna and Lady Gaga) and Parlux (Rihanna and Paris Hilton).

By  2004, celebrity-endorsed brands accounted for 31% of prestige fragrance sales in the US, according to The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY.

“Celebrity fragrances have changed the face of the market,” Kenneth Hirst, president of Hirst Pacific Ltd., told Happi. “Building a successful brand used to take years. Now, with the power of fame, it can be achieved overnight.”

And it’s not just Hollywood stars who took to the idea of fine fragrance brands. Athletes like Derek Jeter, reality stars like Kim Kardashian, designers such as Vera Wang and performers like Justin Beiber have all lent their name and their fame to fine fragrance. Just last month, Rihanna rolled out her newest fragrance, Rogue by Rihanna, which is billed as an “adventurous scent for the woman who, like herself, radiates edginess and confidence but is also flirty and feminine.”

But even all that star-power wasn’t enough to keep cash-strapped consumers spending money on non-essentials like fine fragrance during The Great Recession. As a result, after peaking at $5.9 billion (retail) in 2007, fragrance sales tumbled to $5.2 billion in 2008 and 2009, according to Kline data. Since then, sales have climbed, but still haven’t reached their all-time highs that were set before the recession. 

A Man’s World?
To get back to record levels, more than a few marketers are counting on men to continue to use fragrance on a regular basis. Thanks to the success of body sprays, a new generation of men is more comfortable with fragrance than ever before. Teenage boys using fragrance? The idea may have been far-fetched 50 years ago, but the trend is expected to continue, thanks in part, to the popularity of Unilever’s Axe, as well as two 50 year-old brands.

Back in 1964, two men’s fragrances made their debut and continue to make their mark in men’s grooming. Estée Lauder created Aramis and Fabergé launched Brut. Lauder calls Aramis the first prestige men’s fragrance to be sold in department stores and the scent has grown into an entire Lauder division of men’s grooming products.

At the same time that Aramis was showing up on department store counters, the House of Fabergé was rolling out Brut by Fabergé. And for young men coming of age in the 1970s, Brut was a must-have in the locker room. Brut changed hands over the years, but owners often relied on athletes like Joe Namath and Muhammed Ali to promote the brand.

The men’s market received another boost in 1978 when Ralph Lauren teamed up with L’Oréal to introduce his first two fragrances, Polo and Lauren by Ralph Lauren.

But whether it’s Aramis, Brut, Polo or another men’s scent, the audience for masculine fragrances is wider than you think. That’s because, according to one industry estimate, 33% of men’s fragrances are worn by women!

Related End-User Markets:

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