Italian Artistic Perfumery: How to break into the American market

2021 . 12 . 10 | written by Karen Marin

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Fragrance sales in the United States have been experiencing a boom since the pandemic started. Year to date 2021 sales just posted a +36% increase over 2020 – an unprecedented performance, that currently shows no signs of slowing down. Some experts also indicate that niche fragrances are driving the growth. In parallel, consumer behavior shifted as Americans have become more curious to explore, to discover and to find new ways of bringing scent into their lives.

Last week Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) and Beauty Inc paired up with the Italian Trade Agency and Esxence, the Art Perfumery Event, to host a webinar entitled Insights into Artistic Perfumery. The digital event was specifically focused on how the Italian fragrance market differentiates itself from other markets and how Italian brands can be successful in the US. Silvio Levi, founder of Essencional and co-founder of Esxence, was joined by US-based fragrance specialists Emmanuel Saujet, co-founder of ICP, Marisa Auciello, SVP Sales, Europerfumes, and Givaudan perfumer Linda Song in an informative discussion hosted by Allison Collins, senior editor of beauty at WWD. Read on as we share the main topics and the key takeaways.


The discussion kicked off by delving into Italy’s long history with fragrance which actually dates back to the Romans who used it for both religious and grooming reasons. As Silvio Levi pointed out, Italy has made incredibly important contributions to perfumery and should be recognized in the same league as France, England and other countries. Not only did Catherine de Medici introduce fragrance to France when she married the French king in the 16th century, but in the early 18th century, it was an Italian perfumer based in Germany who created the eau de cologne or acqua mirabilis. To this day there are many ‘Acqua” brands in Italy: Acqua di Genova, Acqua di Parma, Acqua di Selva, and so many others. Italy is also a country of art which thrived during the Renaissance, often supported by convents and religious institutions. Think of Santa Maria Novella which, in addition to being a pharmacy and producer of fragrances and cosmetics since the 13th century, commissioned numerous artists to decorate its eponymous basilica and other buildings. He explained that now there are many brands that have been on the market for over three generations, but at the same time, there are experimental brands coming up. The brand identity goes beyond simply being an Italian heritage brand, to a brand that merges different arts – such as music, painting and photography – with fragrance. Consequently, there is an Italian style coming from the 18th century and also an Italian style coming from the 21st century.“We have heritage roots and many heritage brands but also disruptive and provocative brands. Brands that came from music, design & culture. We have brands coming from specific locations such as Sardinia, Sicily, and Florence. When we started Esxence in 2009 we had 16 niche Italian brands…now we have 77 brands – an incredible increase.” He went on to state that trends are coming out of Esxence and that they are often as much as ten years ahead of their time. “Everyone is talking about oud today – we had it 10 years ago. Now we are looking at how to give a smell to something that doesn’t have a smell like a stone or snow or water. And to achieve this we cooperate with artists to make something you can translate into an olfactive message. Perfumery should be an art – but it is also very emotional.”

Italy also has a wealth of raw materials. There is Bergamot from Calabria, orris root in Tuscany, lavender in the Piemonte region, and so on. The panel recognized that there are beautiful stories around the suppliers, the harvest, the production, and that these stories can take you away.


According to Linda Song, perfumer at Givaudan, there is such a variety of US consumers that there is a market for strong and bold scents as much as there is one for light and fresh scents. The American consumer is less into the details and more into the feeling the fragrance evokes. She explained that there is a need for a variety of olfactory families including fruity florals, ambery musks, woods and gourmands, but that the facets and the nuance and the details are less crucial. The decision of what to wear and when is very personal as consumers are paying attention to how a fragrance makes them feel, seeking something that fits their mood at a given moment. She summed it up succinctly. “People want to enjoy what they wear.” She also mentioned that there have been changes in olfactory preferences since COVID. “It made people realize how important the sense of smell is to our well-being.” Initially people sought comforting, reassuring and feel-good fragrances, but now they are ready to go out and they want to try something new. “It’s not a one-note industry; there’s room for everything.”

In fact, Silvio Levi pointed out that the Essencional Study Center found that people did use more fragrance during Covid and that there was a dramatic increase in consumption. No one predicted a spike in the sales of fragrance. The panel remarked that in the past, during difficult times and the Depression in the United States, women bought a lipstick as a small luxury item which made them happy. Leonard Lauder called this the “Lipstick Effect”. Has the pandemic spawned a “Fragrance Effect” wherein buying a fragrance brought a moment of joy at a time when it was scarce?


Once again, Silvio Levi referred to the Essencional study which indicated that Americans are showing a lot of interest in niche perfumery in general and in Italian brands based on their online research. “People want to know the behind the scenes story, and a lot of words can explain a fragrance but we must use key words. What is the mystery inside the bottle? Let’s not forget that fragrance is the best transportation you can have…it takes you away.” Marisa Auciello reinforced this point and offered an explanation to this obsession. “Fragrances are transportive – if you can’t get to Italy this bottle will take you there.”


The pandemic had a clear effect on physical and mental health. Consequently, there was an increased demand for fragrance that imparted wellness and functional benefits heightened by ingredients that could calm, invigorate or relax. Similar to other markets, spending time at home created an uptick in the use of home fragrance as people wanted to enhance their personal space.

Naturally, the “Work from Home” phenomenon also made the choice of what fragrance to wear more personal. Linda Song pointed out “Ten or twenty years ago, it was more about what you were projecting, how you wanted people to see you. Now it’s about what you want for yourself.” And within that tendency niche and artistic perfume brands are very unique, allowing individual expression.


Silvio Levi pointed out that the distribution model in the US, where department and specialty stores predominate, is the reverse of Italy where the retail landscape is more weighted to privates shops with less importance coming from department stores.

Emmanuel Saujet of ICP commented that there are easily 200 or so “mom & pop” indie shops for fragrance in the US. Although the sales volume coming out of this sector may be low, through growing genuine relationships with the shop, it’s possible to build the business together. He spoke about the American trend, fueled by Amazon, of wanting things with immediacy, such as same-day delivery, coupled with the American penchant for returning purchases. “The US Model is about consumption and consumers love to buy and return. This doesn’t happen in Europe.” He cited he has a return rate “north of 5% - which is a big number.” What the consumer may not recognize is that once a product is opened and returned, “it all goes in the trash, which, talking about sustainability, is another problem.”


The panel agreed that the American consumer is savvy, curious and experimental. It’s important to focus on simple straightforward messaging while letting the fragrance take the spotlight. Insisting on the emotions evoked by the fragrance and the feeling it generates is much more important than talking about notes and olfactory pyramids.

For Marisa Auciello, SVP Sales, Europerfumes, who represents a portfolio of brands including Xerjoff, Jusbox and Culti Milano, finding the right audience for the brand is key. Xerjoff, for example, works the art of collaboration by pairing up with various athletes as well as charitable organizations. Jusbox has an affinity with music, so they have created Spotify playlists for the brand. She spoke to the need of getting fragrance into the hands of the consumer through sampling campaigns – such as Birchbox – or a distribution network or other marketing means. “It’s important for people to access and experience your product. It’s hard to beat in home sampling.” She also called out the heavy reliance on social media in the US, including TikTok. She stated, “We have had things go viral and sell out.”


Emmanuel Saujet spoke about his experience building the House of Creed in the US – a business that went from $1.2M to now over $100M. “I would say starting a business today in the North American market is very expensive. Brands must look at the market and spend in the right areas.” He indicated that the market is very competitive, ranging from large groups like Estee Lauder, to the smaller independent brands, all competing against each other. He emphasized the importance of finding and retaining talented people. “We have people who have been with us for over 12 years, and we have built relationships with our retailers by being in the stores.” He said it is important to spend time behind the counter, to see what is happening and to do whatever is needed to help. He mentioned that everyone talks about service, but where is it really given? In his opinion, this is one reason why it is critical to have branded boutiques where the customer will have the full experience of the brand, where excellence in service is a standard and where client loyalty will be cultivated.

Marisa Auciello concurred that it is crucial to have a brick & mortar presence and to build on the so called “mom & pop” indie retailers but that selling online, “Is a necessity in this day and age, even if it’s a showroom.” She stressed the need to be strategic with online services, to simplify the return process, to cross promote and to facilitate additional sampling.

Silvio Levi stated that small brands need to partner with seasoned local professionals who understand the complexities of the market. “Shipments, documentation, customs, legislation…these must all be considered.” He also mentioned that it’s not common to find a company that will take on one brand, that it’s preferable to build a portfolio of brands who show potential.


As the discussion drew to a close, viewers were treated to a short video which captured the spirit, the feeling and the vibe of Esxence. This major international event, which has been held for over 12 years, brings together niche brands with buyers, distributors, brand owners, fragrance experts and afficionados for an unparalleled fragrance experience where history and tradition meet innovation and research. It’s an opportunity to discover, to meet, to discuss, to learn and to mingle with like-minded professionals during a multi-day live show in the heart of Milan. The event, which will take place 17 – 20 March 2022, is considered a “must” by fragrance insiders.

For all those interested in Italian perfumery and artistic brands, continue to read Essencional – and sign up for the weekly newsletter – to keep informed and to discover fresh content every week. In 2022 the editorial team will make a deep dive into the Italian approach to perfumery while also featuring stories on a variety of Italian brands.