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Can India’s $500 million fragrance market survive the pandemic?

India is an inspiration to the perfume industry all over the world, supplying raw materials and ideas. But how do stakeholders look at the future of the business?

The domestic flavours and fragrance market is valued at $500 million (around 3,600 crore), a small slice of the $24 billion global industry.

As I write this piece, perfumer Steve Pearce is crowd-funding a fragrance that smells like outer space, made with the olfactory inputs of astronauts. At the other end of the spectrum, Scents of Normality, released by the UK candle brand Earl of East, embodies the smells of The Local, The Cinema and The Festival, harking back to pre-covid days. Between these extremes lies the Indian fragrance industry, a source of inspiration for many perfumers—from the vintage Shalimar by Guerlain, based upon queen Mumtaz Mahal, to the current Flowerhead by Byredo, which smells like an Indian wedding.

The domestic flavours and fragrance market is valued at $500 million (around 3,600 crore), a small slice of the $24 billion global industry. Yet India is not just a growing market for consumption but also an important exporter of raw material for fine fragrances. It is synonymous with jasmine and sandalwood, so few people know that it’s the largest supplier of mint in the world. India also supplies ingredients in every category of perfumery—florals such as geranium, spices like pepper, woods including agar, and grasses such as vetiver. Regulations and lack of foresight may have hobbled the market, even leading to illegal trade, but the richness of natural resources and Indian love of natural fragrances has kept it afloat.

The pandemic hasn’t left the industry untouched, be it fine fragrances, essence for soaps, detergents or incense sticks. The good news is that the bulk of it has managed to keep its head above water. For Rishabh Kothari, president of the Fragrances & Flavours Association of India, covid-19 has been more about inconvenience than loss. “Transportation, delays because of lockdown have made this an exasperating time for us, but it hasn’t really affected the bottom line, because people have become more regimented about personal care products,” he says. Detergents, deodorants, soaps and incense sticks continue to be very much in demand.

The worst hit is the fine fragrance segment, an important though minuscule percentage of the total—of the association’s 850 members, just about 50 are in the fine fragrance business. “Eighty per cent of the world’s perfumes are sold at duty-free stores,” says Manan Gandhi, founder of Bombay Perfumery. “With their shutdown, the fine fragrance industry has collapsed.” The industry, which had its eyes set on growth with the entry of local players, has its fingers crossed on a speedy return to some form of normalcy. A look at this niche segment.

India is the largest supplier of mint in the world. Photo: Unsplash.
India is the largest supplier of mint in the world. Photo: Unsplash.

The Indian players

Chennai-based Jasmine Concrete Exports Pvt. Ltd has been making jasmine grandiflorum essence, “absolute” and “concrete”, since 1992. The flowers are used to make the concrete, which is processed to remove extra waxes and obtain absolutes that are one of the many ingredients of fragrances.

The company, today the largest producer of jasmine grandiflorum, with nearly 30% of the global market, chose the flower because the land near Coimbatore that it was considering was a dry belt—and jasmine doesn’t need too much water. Farmers were interested in this cash crop and it gave the family an opportunity to go back to their farming roots. “Plus we incentivized it with fair wages and interest-free advances for education, death or marriages,” says Chennai-based director Raja Palaniswamy, who runs this company. They started paying fair wages before fair trade became a mnemonic for sustainable practices.

“The market for grandiflorum absolute is 10 tonnes per annum and we make 3 tonnes in a year,” he says. The company now supplies to three of the four major flavours and fragrance conglomerates, including Firmenich and Givaudan. It is also getting into a corporate social responsibility programme with Bulgari, known as The Flower Gems of India, seeking to use sustainable farming methods to improve flower quality for higher profits.

At Kochi-based Plant Lipids, John Nechupadom too is pioneering sustainable practices as one of the largest suppliers of supercritically-extracted plant extracts in the world. “In the last 10 years, India has become a major player in naturals for the fine fragrance industry,” says Nechupadom, who supplies essential oils and extracts to the top 4 in the industry: Givaudan, Firmenich, International Flavours & Fragrances (IFF) and Symrise. But buyers aren’t just looking for oil. “People are also looking for technologies such as fermentation and biosynthesis, where you can create an active molecule.” says Nechupadom. “For instance, ferulic acid and eugenol is a precursor to making natural vanillin and this is becoming very big.”

India’s fragrance export market had been developing at a rapid pace. Assam Aromas, founded by Tajul Bakshi in 1999 at Nagaon, Assam, is making high-grade agarwood oils from mature wood branches that have older, more valuable resin, all over the North-East. Bakshi could not be contacted but a visit to his website (Assamaromas.com) offers a treasure trove of artisanal agar oils, hydrosols, teas, incense, chips and dust (used for havans).

Representational image: Incense burning. Photo: Unsplash.
Representational image: Incense burning. Photo: Unsplash.

The loss of ingredients

Among luxury ingredients, it’s impossible to leave out sandalwood, the king of fragrances. However, no one wants to talk openly about the grey business in this precious wood. Until 2002, individuals were not allowed to grow these trees. They can now but only officials from the state forest department can cut, buy or sell the wood.

These measures were aimed at protecting the precious tree but it is now listed as “vulnerable” in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species. “A lot of material is illegally taken out of India and exported via Sri Lanka,” says a source. The regulations have ensured that India has lost a lion’s share of the global market (estimated to be worth $156 million by 2024) to countries such as Australia, which is now the largest exporter of sandalwood in the world.

“Exports from India have drastically dropped down, even though Indian sandalwood oil contains 80% santalol compared to a mere 40-50% in Australian sandalwood,” says the source. Santalol determines the therapeutic value of the oil and the tree species are different: The Indian sandalwood is Santalum album, while the Australian tree is Santalum spicatum.

The fate of the Himalayan super-herb, Jatamansi, is similar. This medicinal herb, prized for its sedative effects, is also loved for its musky aroma. Thirteen years ago, in fact, L’Artisan Parfumeur Jatamansi was that brand’s first completely natural perfume.

This precious herb too is now listed as critically endangered by IUCN. The plant’s roots are the active/precious part, so it is pulled out entirely for sale and consumption, without any effort at replantation. Most of the produce grows wild in the upper Himalaya and there hasn’t been much effort to conserve it.

“Jatamansi is beautiful but it comes within CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) regulations due to its endangered status,” says Gandhi. So perfumers in Europe particularly want CITES permits that assure certain ingredients have been harvested in a sustainable manner. “Because we don’t have a clear framework or it takes a fairly long time for clearances, we lose out on business, in exactly the same manner as with sandalwood,” says Gandhi.

White or East Indian Sandalwood or Chandan Santalum album in Hyderabad , India. Photo: Creative Commons.
White or East Indian Sandalwood or Chandan Santalum album in Hyderabad , India. Photo: Creative Commons.

Inspiration India

So why do perfumers look towards India? “The varied climate, coupled with Indian culture’s love of fragrant things, means that India has a robust industry that takes advantage of its natural resources,” says David Moltz, co-founder and perfumer, DS & Durga, based in Brooklyn, US, who sources ingredients such as jasmine, tuberose, orange blossom, cardamom, saffron, lotus and mitti attar. “Our Dubai Oud is blended and created using the most natural, rare and pure Assam Indian Agarwood Oil, which makes it the most special and expensive fragrance from our First Generation Range,” says Mustafa Adam Ali, vice-chairman of the Spirit of Dubai, a new fine fragrance brand.

India has also been the inspiration for several Ormonde Jayne artisanal fragrances, whether it’s creamy white florals blended with basmati rice in Champaca, or their newest launch, La Route de la Soie, which celebrates the Silk Route. “Indian sandalwood and champaca are both exclusive to India,” says founder and perfumer Linda Pilkington. “The Indian sandalwood we use is superior to all others, it’s more creamy, more sensual and the aroma is smoother,” she says.

The new landscape

Lovers of incense, loban and attars, Indians are now turning to more niche fragrances. The rise of artisanal houses such as Scentido and Maison des Parfums is a testament to the new hunger for unique perfumes.

“When we first started, we began importing deodorants, moving on to popular scents that dominate the duty-free today,” says Varsha Dalal, talking of the time when she used to work with Baccarose (now Intercraft), which still imports brands such as D&G, Boucheron, Cartier, Elie Saab, Gucci and Kenzo. The veteran has launched the Embark range of fragrances, targeted at millennials. It is a reflection of the new Indian landscape, studded with local players such as Bombay Perfumery, All Good Scents, Litrahb Perfumery, and Naso, which claims to be India’s first 100% sustainable perfumery.

Despite the blow from the pandemic, then, the future looks bright for an industry used to fending for itself. “The real question to be asked is why Indians have been uncomfortable on spending on Indian fine fragrances, even before covid-19,” says Kothari. Snob value? Trust in international brands? No one knows. But this could be key to explosive growth.

Vasudha Rai is a Delhi-based writer.

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