Perfume is categorized into types based on smell, and there are several ways to categorize those smells. Michael Edwards, for example, has defined 4 groups – florals, woody, fresh, and oriental – and he has subdivided into 14 categories. To further complicate things, there is another way to categorize fragrances, and that is by the fragrance house type, which is said to dictate the quality, cost, and pricing of a perfume. But not always, and the lines between these distinctions have become increasingly blurry over the years.

Designer

Designer fragrances are created by reputable noses (individual perfumers or perfume institutions) commissioned for the job. They are the mainstream brands and are often part of larger fashion houses, crystal makers, or even furniture or luxury hotel companies.  They are the fragrances you will most commonly find in department stores, stores owned by the brand itself, and duty free shops in airports. Designer fragrances permit the average Jane and Joe access to a world of luxury that is otherwise not affordable. I’d splash out on a bottle of Chanel perfume, for example, but I’d have to sell my condo in order to afford a Chanel bag. Note that alongside designer fragrances, it is also easy to find cheaper drugstore fragrances and increasingly higher-end brands (which often translates into “niche”) as well.

Niche

Niche is a word that is thrown around often to designate anything that is not mainstream. The term originally applied to fragrances not found in or different from those of department stores, but that is no longer the case. Indeed, since the niche market has exploded, so-called niche fragrances are as ubiquitous as the Sephora outlets (Ulta, Bluemercury, and other such beauty retailers) in which they are now housed. I believe L’ Artisan Parfumeur was one of if not the first house to be designated as niche, and it’s interesting to me that the brand name contains the term “artisan” and is also much more widely available now. The term niche is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor. Still, niche production does tend to be on a much smaller scale, and niche perfume presence in mainstream retail stores is not pervasive by any stretch.

Indie

The term indie is often ascribed to brands that are niche but smaller and independently owned. However, these days even many indie companies are fairly large. I feel the term is a clever marketing buzzword that seems to be applied to brands with a very zany, whimsical, alternative feel. A brand I feel represents the indie genre well is Imaginary Authors.

Artisan

People disagree on the usage of niche and indie, but the term artisan engenders even more debate. Artisan brands create artisan-made products, meaning handmade and in-house as opposed to factory-produced. Artisan is therefore a  subset of indie. But here again, many companies have their perfumes batched and bottled in labs rather than doing it by hand, removing them from the strict definition of artisan. And the artisan label is not a guarantee of quality, as some people might suggest. They do tend, however, to be creative, original, and very personal (to the creator, at least). The lack of mass production means that the quantity may be limited and the products hard to get one’s hands on. Costs for artisan brands are higher. This is due to the need for increased labor and more expensive ingredients and packaging ( since they must be purchased in smaller quantities).

Bespoke

For those who have both the money and the desire for supreme originality, bespoke is now considered the preferred method. To some consumers, a bespoke perfume is the ultimate luxury fragrance. Bespoke perfume takes the world of personalization to an entirely new level. According to Joanne Lam, “The process offers individuals a chance to not only convert emotions and memories into a unique scent, but also to create new emotions and memories to be associated with the fragrance.” Perfumer at Jean Patou, Thomas Fontaine, said it could cost someone $30,000 to $50,000 to create a personal scent. Famous perfumers that charge such a premium include the likes of Roja Dove, Francis Kurkdjian, Mathilde Laurent (of Cartier), Lyn Harris (of Miller Harris), Blaise Mautin, and Mandy Aftel (of Aftelier Perfumes). Because of the time and effort involved, these perfumers tend not to take on many clients seeking bespoke services. The waiting list can be years long. There are several companies who offer bespoke services as part of their brand, or even as their main service, and not all of them charge pinnacle-of-luxury prices. DYI bespoke fragrance workshops have also become popular, but I wouldn’t expect to create a masterpiece after one experience. It could be a lot of fun, though. Find a list of bespoke services and DYI companies at the bottom of my links page.

Drugstore

This is my own category, though I’m certain others use it, too. Drugstore is a term used by the makeup and skincare social media community to describe not necessarily cheap quality products, but those with cheaper prices that are commonly sold in “drugstore” retailers. Maybeline, Revlon, Bourgois, L’Oréal, CoverGirl, E.L.F. etc. are all drugstore makeup brands, and they are sold in Target, Walgreens, Wal Mart, Rite Aid, Sams Club, Shopper’s Drug Mart, etc. These lie in contrast to designer makeup, like Dior, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Chanel, Estée Lauder, Burberry, YSL, etc., which are sold in department stores and stores run by the brand. Mostly obviously then, perfume sold at drugstores is drugstore perfume. Note, however, that many a designer perfume is also sold at major drugstores, especially perfumes that have been around for a decade or more and are still popular. For the most part, though, drugstore perfume consists of non-designer fare, perhaps some beauty brand perfume (see below), older designer releases, and the “lesser” designer brands and celebrity perfumes. They are sold at very accessible price points.

Beauty Brand

When I use the term beauty brand perfume, I refer to perfumes that are sold, sometimes exclusively, at the global beauty brand branches of the chain that owns them. L’Occitane, the Body Shop, Yves Rocher, Aveda, Bath and Body Works, Lush, Origins, Jurlique, Kiehl’s, and Philosophy come to my mind. I believe that the quality and pricing is similar to those of drugstore perfumes (perhaps a tad higher), but you might find some real gems (Eau des Beaux and from l’Occitane comes to mind, and Kiehl’s musk is classic). I don’t know if anyone else other than me has defined this category or finds it useful.


For things like the FIFI award categories, perfumery classification terminology is important. But ultimately these categories should not matter to consumers, who buy what they like and can afford. Sadly, there are status-related and emotional factors that also drive consumer behavior. Someone may not adore their custom-made bespoke scent as much as they say they do; they are more in love with the idea of owning a bespoke fragrance and what they perceive that does for their social status and/or the way they feel as a result.

Pia Long of Volatile Fiction, in addressing types of perfumers,  claims that distinctions represent a semantic nightmare:

“Indie perfumer, self-taught; indie perfumer, not-really-a-perfumer; indie perfumer, ex-industry…

If a self-taught indie perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a functional fragrance industry perfumer; they’ll be met with a blank stare. If an industry perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a member of the general public, it might evoke romantic scenes of sniffing roses and vanilla pods all day long, when the daily reality for that perfumer could be figuring out a cheap but still attractive scent which doesn’t fall apart in a new type of detergent product.”

What do you think about the way perfumes are categorized in terms of house? Are you swayed in any way by such categorization?