The world of fragrance is truly subjective. Your signature scent could be somebody else’s idea of hell, but there’s something intriguing in knowing that not everything will suit all tastes. Occasionally, though, something comes along that takes the world by storm; something so instantly recognisable and well loved that it becomes a cultural phenomenon.
For a few years it was the warmth and comfort of Le Labo’s Santal 33, a scent that quickly became the talking point of various Fashion Weeks from London to Paris. It wafted around backstage and along front rows, captivating an entire generation. Before that, Viktor & Rolf’s sugary, amber-laced Flowerbomb lit up the planet, not forgetting Byredo’s woody, aromatic Gypsy Water. Then there’s Escentric Molecules’ scent-shifting Molecule 01, beloved because it smells completely different on everybody.
Now? We’re all going crazy for Baccarat Rouge 540. Created by Francis Kurkdjian — a globally renowned perfumer and arguably one of the greatest of all time (Dior just snapped him up as creative director of perfume) — he’s the man behind a whole host of iconic scents. They include John Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, Kenzo World and Narciso Rodrigez For Her to name just a few. But Baccarat Rouge 540 is not new. First launched in 2015, it was the result of a long-standing relationship between Kurkdijan and Baccarat — a French crystal manufacturer. “At the end of 2013, Daniela Riccardi, Baccarat’s president, asked me to create an olfactive signature that would mark the end of the company’s 250th anniversary celebrations,” Kurkdijan tells R29. “I imagined a perfume called Baccarat Rouge 540, that only existed in 250 numbered crystal bottles. After the launch, I knew it was good because whenever I wore it I got so many positive comments.”
‘What perfume have you got on?’ I asked. ‘It’s Baccarat Rouge,’ came the reply. In that moment, I realised that once I knew, I really knew.
In fact, the buzz was so incredible that he decided to give it a new lease of life, launching it in Baccarat’s emblematic bottle as part of his own fragrance house, Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Today, you can buy the original eau de parfum, but also the extrait de parfum, a candle, hair mist, body oil and a body cream. As a beauty journalist, Baccarat Rouge is a perfume I became aware of when there were reports of it being one of Rihanna’s favourites. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realised it was the scent I’d been unknowingly smelling all over the place. The first time was in a doctor’s office on London’s Harley Street. As I walked in, this powerful, all-consuming cloud of scent consumed me. “What perfume have you got on?” I asked. “It’s Baccarat Rouge,” came the reply. In that moment, I realised that once I knew, I really knew.
After that moment, Baccarat Rouge followed me everywhere: on the tube, in restaurants, in hotel receptions, at work meetings and work events. I even overheard Kylie Minogue (at the launch of her own fragrance, no less) ask another beauty journalist if she was wearing it. It was cropping up online, too: in a Facebook group called Mrs Gloss & The Goss, a 154,000-strong collection of beauty (and bargain) obsessed ‘real’ women, and my For You page on TikTok even fell victim (the hashtag #baccaratrouge540 has 55.4 million views and counting). TikToker Tayla Maree’s video on the perfume has amassed 2.4 million views so far. “I’ve had people stop me in the street and be like, ‘what are you wearing?’ I’ve had boyfriends ask me what perfume I’m wearing so that they can buy it for their girlfriends,” she said. “I work in women’s fashion and the amount of times ladies have left their changing room and been like, ‘I can smell you in there, what are you wearing?’ [In] bars people will come to me like, ‘what is that?’ Every single day I get compliments on this perfume.” This is how Tayla would describe the scent: “Imagine you’re in a penthouse apartment in New York City. You’ve just come from a black tie ball, wearing a backless dress and the love of your life starts kissing you on the neck. It smells like sex. It’s so incredibly sexy to me. I’d rather bankrupt myself than not smell like this.”
Similarly, when I posted a picture of the bottle on Instagram I was flooded with replies. They came from people who love it and from others desperate to know if it’s worth the £215 price tag. But why is everybody so fanatical about the fragrance? Kurkdijan says it’s because it’s contemporary yet timeless. “Its trail is unique and recognisable. It’s abstract; it’s not about flowers or amber, and the ingredients disappear to leave only the silage,” he says. This is proof alone that he knew what he was doing when he created it, because that silage (the trail a perfume leaves in its wake) is the thing people want most in a fragrance — especially if they’re spending a lot of money. We all want something that’s going to go the distance. Something that smells expensive and will fill a room and garner compliments without being overbearing. We want scents that we’re be able to smell on ourselves after a long day — and Baccarat Rouge 540 ticks every one of those boxes.
‘We’re designed to recognise danger and food, and Baccarat has a high-calorie, slightly burnt sugar smell. Your brain thinks it’s going to give you energy to fight mammoths — you know, if we were in prehistoric times.’
Alice Du Parcq
Alongside notes of saffron, jasmine and cedar, the fragrance has got a hearty dose of ambroxan in it. “Ambroxan is a synthetic molecule that creates this creamy, sensual, addictive yumminess — that’s why people go absolutely crazy for it,” says fragrance writer and expert Alice du Parcq. “It has a candy floss, burnt strawberry jam vibe that makes people’s mouths water.” Interestingly, mouthwatering is a legitimate thing that happens thanks to the way our brains work. “We’re designed to recognise danger and food, and Baccarat has a high-calorie, slightly burnt sugar smell. That means your brain thinks it’s going to give you energy to fight those mammoths — you know, if we were in prehistoric times,” muses du Parcq. “What I’m saying is that we’re good at detecting those calorific smells,” she adds, “and if somebody stops you in the street asking what you’re wearing, it’s your brain’s way of saying ‘that’s amazing food, you need to go and find it’. That also means (unlike with some other fragrances) you won’t get used to it and stop smelling it on yourself. Instead, you’ll always be aware of it —and so will other people.”
At £215 for 70ml (or £320 for the same sized extrait de parfum), Baccarat Rouge is not cheap by any stretch. Yet in a society that loves a dupe (whether that’s makeup, skincare or fragrance) some things aren’t worth cutting corners for. Baccarat Rouge is one of those things. It goes without saying that if you talk to any expert they’ll tell you the price reflects the craftsmanship and the ingredients used amongst other things. But for those who aren’t immersed in fragrance? “Put simply, it’s a guaranteed win because it smells the same on most people,” says Nick Gilbert, perfume expert and founder of fragrance consultancy Olfiction. “It lasts a long time and projects well, so people tell you that you smell nice — and we know that Baccarat crystal is expensive. Ultimately, these factors are important deciding factors when investing in perfume.”
Being a scent that will always receive compliments is one of the main reasons why people fawn over Baccarat Rouge so much. The feeling you get when somebody comments on your perfume is uplifting and poignant. Not only does it affirm your own personal tastes, but fragrance is invisible, so it implies close observation. Plus, a scented compliment is never throwaway. It’s unlikely somebody would mention a smell they didn’t like and all of those things help contribute to the important word of mouth exposure. “You see it happen with a number of fragrances that capture the zeitgeist at a specific moment,” says Gilbert. “The wearer gets a compliment, the inquisitor learns the name and then they feel as if they’ve been let into a secret because it’s not available absolutely everywhere.” Gilbert says Baccarat Rouge’s popularity is down to a combination of exclusivity and people finding it really moreish to smell. He notes that despite barely going anywhere these days, he smells Baccarat Rouge every day he does travel into central London.
Being a scent that will always garner compliments is one of the main reasons why people fawn over Baccarat Rouge. Not only does it affirm your own personal tastes, but fragrance is invisible, so it implies close observation.
Du Parcq concurs, adding that it’s almost like going to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. “There’s a need to go and cluster around this tiny little painting and stand there for ages, and suddenly people wonder what’s going on. It’s not just herd mentality, but it’s that thing of needing to smell it, needing to know what it’s like — and that’s the making of an icon,” she says. Du Parcq sums it up; we all want to be part of that moment. Kurkdjian, ever humble, agrees: “It is an amazing fragrance,” he says. “I love the way it smells, how people respond to it, the formula, the overdose of everything. I think it’s one of my masterpieces.”
As of this year, Baccarat Rouge is one of the most sought-after, best selling fragrances to ever exist. It has become a signature scent for many, but if you’re struggling to find The One, it’s always worth sniffing out those perfumes that you hear and read a lot about if you aren’t doing so already. If you find they’re not for you, or if you want something different, seek out other scents by those same brands. Another 13 by Le Labo is Santal 33’s lesser known (but arguably more interesting) counterpart, and the same sentiment applies to Byredo’s Mojave Ghost, and both fragrances in Escentric Molecules’ The Beautiful Minds Series.
Brands like Penhaligon’s offer fragrance profiling which is a great way to distinguish between different notes to help you find the ones you’re most drawn to. Buying discovery sets is equally a good way to explore different perfumes. Beauty retailer Escentual offers a monthly themed ‘blind trial box’ so you can try before you buy without being swayed by brand (November’s theme is ‘warm fragrances’). If you’re after a specific brand, most sell boxes of sample sizes so you can trial them before settling on a full size version. There really is a whole world of perfume out there — and it’s one that’s definitely worth exploring if you’re yet to find your forever fragrance.
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