For all their proud claims of being marketing-free, the overwhelming majority of new niche brands are all about concept (and therefore, marketing), whether said concept is blood types or sticking every note known to man into cologne. Beyond providing brand identity and an easily-memorized 10-second sales pitch, these concepts are ultimately about legitimacy, a major concern for niche perfumery, since once you unmoor fragrance from its century-long coupling with fashion, you’ve got to justify somehow why you, of all people, feel entitled to put out a brand.
Launched with huge fanfare (and the attendant budget) at the Cannes film festival this year with a film by Bruno Aveillan (the multi-award winning ad film director of Cartier and Shalimar fame) and a cocktail party attended by the likes of Orlando Bloom and Heidi Klum The Harmonist barely qualifies as a niche brand. But it’s got a concept. Namely, finding your fragrance through a blend of Chinese astrology and feng shui.
Composed by Guillaume Flavigny (Givaudan) advised by a feng shui master, the collection comprises yin and yang versions of the five “fundamental energies”: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. A piece of software into which you enter your date, hour, year and place of birth determines your “personal element” (it seems that as “Yin Wood”’, I’m “seductive, flexible, a survivor”, “as charming and graceful as a flower” – I wish.) Then, according to what you are seeking (socializing, creativity, prosperity, status and seduction, wisdom), you are offered a scent reflecting one of the five elements, which is meant to help you in your quest. Conversely, you can blind-sniff all ten and based on which one(s) appeals the most, you’ll find out what aspect of your life you need to focus on.
Skeptics may dismiss The Harmonist’s pitch as fruitloopery, a gimmick solely aimed at moving bottles off the shelves. Still, as far as themes go, this one is well chosen. Just like the tarot, Chinese astrology is a strong symbolic system, sufficiently complex and ambivalent to allow you to project unformulated desires and unconscious thoughts into your reading. It works particularly well in choosing a fragrance, a process that requires you to tell yourself a story about the fragrance in order to bond with it (if only “I dig everything Prada stands for” or “I’m a Serge whore”).
The Harmonist provides a system that enables that – though there are just 10 perfumes, the principle is actually semi-bespoke, since each one means a different thing for every customer. For instance, my blind-picking “Hypnotizing Fire” means I’m seeking to develop my creativity, while for Ms. Yin Earth, it would mean she aspires to more wisdom. And since the placebo effect is a thing, if you believe it works, it probably will.
The Harmonist’s approach is most effective in the live, one-to-one consultations provided in the brand’s L.A. and Paris boutiques. Who doesn’t want to talk about herself? Connecting olfactory notes with emotions, qualities or aspirations helps the customer make sense of a particularly abstract, ungraspable medium. Not to mention that picking one fragrance out of ten for a reason – “this isn’t just a luxury, it’s spiritual healing” – rather than wading through the thousands on offer, must feel like a blessing for non-perfumistas.
I’m still treating my yin and yang to the whole range so it’s too early to post a review – for all I know, once my creativity, seduction, prosperity, wisdom and social life are enhanced, I may just spontaneously combust into a higher plane of consciousness… Watch this space.
Illustration drawn from Bruno Aveillan's short feature for The Harmonist, "Meet the Harmony". To view, click here.