We’ve all lost touch with our humanity; or so goes the post-truth pre-Trump ‘Instabook’ millennial thesis. This proposition has even been extended to perfumery, its primal communication finding affinity for some with the notion of the ‘noble savage’. The idea that a revival in animalics is caused by the attempted rejuvenation of feeling human in a digital age is very compelling but I do not believe it to be the stimulus of animalic themes in fragrance.
Issues and reasons
Firstly, whilst I do very much believe that perfume is taking on elevated status precisely due to its (currently) undigitisable qualities, thereby endorsing personal and intimate experiences that have great value in both cultural and capital market places, most contemporary perfumes contain a majority of synthetics and most animalic notes must be synthesised for ethical reasons. This presents a problematic irony in trying to link the animalic facet to a type of technological exile to beastly odours which, if merited, is more a subconscious than active consumer decision that is somewhat at odds with the still-prevalent function of perfume to enhance, cover, and sublimate.
Secondly, the trend for animalics can be alternatively explained by what they represent in the context of perfume history as well as what they give to a composition in the current market climate. Animalic suggestions are cropping up in the commercial scent sphere as well as niche brands, often as a way to legitimise claims of authenticity and sensitive intelligent product design that is in accordance with the niche brand culture we find ourselves in. In addition, the traditional animalics such as ambergris, civet, and castoreum, and their synthetic counterparts, all lend projection and longevity that often signals quality to consumers. ‘Animalic resonance’ equals perceived quality right now.
Whilst trending, inclusion of animalic accords is still not the norm in fragrance creation. They evoke a sense of differentness for much of the global fragrance market, particularly in Europe and North America, and as such are viewed as a pathway to innovation in an industry that is always desperately seeking newness to offer its consumer the new must-have. The commerciality of animalic scents also rests on their strong performance properties (projection and sillage) as well as animalics being linked to luxury and rarity through a connection to early twentieth-century perfumery in Paris and London. Finally, sex still sells, and animalics function to propagate the idea that a sexually suggestive smell will arouse a sexual reaction which, it must be remembered, is not always the case, such as in the believed provocative effects of many chemical-heavy ‘fresh and sexy’ American fragrances on that continent’s consumers.
In addition, there are many challenges in incorporating animalics in fragrance creation that range from the costly nature of using natural notes such as cistus labdanum, to the divisive opinion many animalic notes generate, to the commercial marketing risk a brand takes in promoting an animalic accord. It is also difficult for both formulation reasons and product expectations to franchise an animalic-heavy creation across product forms, such as in body lotions, shower gels, lip balms, candles etc., and this often goes against brand strategies that seek to aggrandise touchstone scents and plunder their worth across product categories.
Front of the pack
Personally, I still think ambergris has great potential for modernisation, both in using the real material and also in the idea of ambergris. Its story usually inspires consumers and, although extremely expensive and scarce, real ambergris can still be found and used in the industry. It is a remarkable material in having the capacity to work in all of the fragrance families (fougère, chypre, oriental etc.) and could significantly be used to rejuvenate generic aquatic scents for men (like Invictus) with an unusual animalic accent, whilst still retaining what people love about the profile (saltiness, freshness, and projection).