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A lack of common scents— London

Preface

The question “Did the earth move for you?” usually implies the end of a successful Valentine’s date but for spice farmers in Indonesia it isn’t a good thing at all.

Perfume

14 February 2011

The question “Did the earth move for you?” usually implies the end of a successful Valentine’s date but for spice farmers in Indonesia it isn’t a good thing at all. For those who cultivate the raw ingredients that fuel the global perfume industry, earthquakes are just one of a host of natural disasters that have devastated this year’s crops.

The bad news for Valentine’s Day is that natural aphrodisiacs, including clary sage and ginger oil, commonly used in fragrances, are facing shortages. In economic terms, this lays bare the fragility of supply chains in a globalised market. In terms of attracting a mate, it could take potential suitors back to the 1970s when fragrances were the preserve of the very rich. Fragrance brands are absorbing the costs for now, but if commodity prices remain high they will have no choice but to pass these on to the consumer.

This €5.9bn global industry relies on a complex network of suppliers from every continent to provide the myriad spices and essential oils that go into the perfume used in fine fragrances and household products. In recent years freak conditions have disrupted this volatile ecology and sent prices soaring.

“Like fine wines, fine fragrances use natural ingredients affected by microclimates in local growing regions and perfumers are used to sudden change changes in these conditions,” says Lisa Hipgrave, director of the International Fragrance Association UK. “However, there have never been this many strange weather conditions simultaneously causing shortages all over the world.”

A volcanic eruption last year destroyed patchouli crops in Java, while the subsequent tsunami laid waste to farms on the neighbouring Mentawi islands. Floods elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago have seen nutmeg crops washed away and droughts in Russia and Ukraine have desiccated hectares of coriander oil.

It’s not just natural disasters that are causing problems. In China, labour strikes in the southern provinces have meant that essential oils, including ginger, clary sage and eucalyptus, are increasingly expensive.

The major problem for perfumers is that consumers are very sensitive to their particular fragrance. It isn’t possible to alter a fragrance that is already on the market without upsetting a large swathe of loyal customers.

Perfumers creating new fragrances have the luxury of casting their net slightly wider but unfortunately for them synthetic chemical scents are, in many cases, even more expensive than the natural ingredients they replace. And with China hoovering up synthetic chemicals, there is a spike in price for these too.

When it comes to seduction, the power of scent should not be underestimated. So this Valentine’s Day make sure to slap on as much as possible because next year picking up a bottle at bargain basement prices may not be possible. As everyone knows, love may be blind but it has a great sense of smell.

Monocle 24

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