Ever since Guerlain’s Jicky—considered the first “modern” scent thanks to its trailblazing use of synthetic notes—hit the scene in 1889, fragrance creation has been a fusion of art and science, chemistry and poetry, careful calculation and happy accident. But perfume history moves fitfully. Cast an eye back at the last century, and you’ll see ebbs and flows dictated by the fashion of the time—from the smoky leathers and oriental fantasias of the 1930s and 40s to the voluptuous florals of the 50s, through the hedonistic excess of the 1980s and the ozonic minimalism of the 90s. From the standpoint of technological and ingredient advancements, more has happened in the last few years than in the several decades before combined, while the explosion of niche perfumery has brought back an emphasis on ingredient sourcing and storytelling, sweeping away the icelebrity-scent dominance of the early aughts in one fell swoop. After an unfortunate dip when overly commercialized, overly market-tested fragrances ran rampant, perfume has become interesting again—galvanizing a new generation of spritz aficionados, elevating the perfumer to recognized show-runner status, and proving that quality and creativity matter far more than the name on the bottle.
So where are we now, as we look forward to 2020? At the intersection of many “truly exciting developments,” in the words of Fragrance Foundation president Linda G. Levy. On the one hand, we have the rise of individualism—no millennial wants to smell like another millennial—and on the other, the complete blurring of boundaries when it comes to gender. Today’s “unisex” is nothing like what it was in the CKOne era: It’s not about telegraphing an olfactory effect that reads neither male nor female, but rather about acknowledging that notes need not be gendered in the first place. Why shouldn’t a man wear rose or jasmine? Why would a lack of a y chromosome mean a lady can’t love smelling like cigars?
“What I’m seeing now, everywhere, are fragrances being introduced that are not specifically masculine or feminine, and this really opens perfume up in a way that's never been seen before,” says Levy. “Retailers are still a bit behind the consumer in that there’s a men’s department and a women’s department, but the future will be gender neutral. I think we all have to get into that language.”
There’s also been a huge shift in the way that we wear and experience scent. A signature spritz seems as antiquated as a mink stole; we’re now stocking our vanities with perfume wardrobes that enable us to play when we spray—with moods, with how we want to be perceived on any given day. We’re infusing scent into every aspect of our lives—far beyond that coffee table Diptyque, we’re now using fancy diffusers in our cars. Ambient scent is dancing around our noses in hotel lobbies, in corporate offices, even in spaces like the World Trade Center observation deck, where a custom aroma, blown in via air vents, was recently introduced. Fragrance has also left the bottle when it comes to our bodies: wafting in our wake from hair mists, golden pendants, scented lipsticks, and even perfumed stickers.
While fragrances themselves are becoming more globalized—we know you well, oud—and nuanced with notes that have never before made it into perfumery thanks to headspace technology, there’s also the brave new world of Artificial Intelligence, which is being used at major houses to create new accords and mix and match ingredients in fresh combinations. And although there has been much speculation about AI’s role—will it usurp the human nose?— the hot-shot perfumer of 2020 is much less likely to a bot than to be a woman. Female perfumers have finally taken their place at the forefront of the industry. “There was this traditional idea of a French man standing in a field of lavender or whatever,” Levy says, “but that’s in the past. The female perfumer is a big deal now, and perfumers as a whole are more diverse in terms of ethnicities. This is something that is only going to grow.”
Finally, in a world where climate change is affecting raw material harvests, and botanicals in general are besieged by the encroaching human squeeze, sustainability will likely become one of 2020’s greatest concerns. Increasing transparency in the fragrance industry is being driven by the consumer demand as well as internal priorities—and companies are stepping up to the plate. “Big corporations like L’Oreal and Estée Lauder have made dedicated statements in regards to sustainability, and I think they've really holding themselves responsible for meeting their goals,” says Levy. “The fragrance houses themselves have very strong global programs in sustainability. The work they’re doing to eliminate waste, protect the environment, reduce their carbon footprint, and source ethically is something that they're very proud of.” Yet at the same time, she foresees a necessary shift in the conversation regarding naturals versus synthetics, with a push towards greater education about the safety and sustainability of latter. “I think it's something that needs to be spoken about more often because if we use natural resources for everything, we would be out of ylang ylang or sandalwood. Consumers need to be comfortable with the fact that synthetics are sometimes the better choice.”
More and more, we are coming to understand that fragrance affects not only how we’re perceived, but also how we feel. Beyond aromatherapy, commercial scents—some of which are even positioned as “functional” fragrances—are being touted for their capacity to calm us, ground us, or give us lift. The planet may be getting denser and stinkier; but there’s an unfolding endlessness of ways to smell beautiful, and to surround ourselves with transformational scent. Ultimately, what has entranced humans about perfume since time immemorial will forever remain unchanged. The same urge that drove Cleopatra to scent the sails of her ship is the same impulse that makes us light a candle or spritz a scarf with an eau de toilette. Fragrance is a silent way of speaking; it’s invisible jewelry; an aura we can create in order to feel happier, safer, sexier, more truly ourselves. Is there anything else that has such power?
April Long is an award-winning fragrance writer and veteran beauty editor for publications such as Nylon and Elle. She is currently the Beauty Director of Town & Country and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two dogs. Her favorite scents are dirt and rose.