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You’ve definitely smelled it before. Maybe you hugged a new acquaintance wearing a cashmere sweater and thought, Ooh, soft and then, He smells fucking delicious. Or you were at Williams-Sonoma when the cashier stopped mid-sale ring-up and said, “Someone smells amazing. I’m going to have to smell every one of you to determine who it is.” The best-smelling person in the entire store was Marc Chaya, CEO and co-founder of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, but it could also be you—when you wear the brand’s hit perfume Baccarat Rouge 540.
Meghan Markle; dairy; Baccarat Rouge 540: Sometime in the past few years, the perfume became an entry in the potential Jeopardy! category of “Things People Have Strong Opinions About.” TikTok is full of opinion videos about the fragrance (there are currently 197.5 million—and counting—video views for the hashtag), usually set to the kind of rhapsodic string music people use for showing off Carbone’s spicy rigatoni pasta or a Mykonos sunset—blissful, euphoric, enraptured. On the Gossip Girl reboot, a lovably chaotic character is smelled before she appears, thanks to Baccarat. Singer Cartel Dough raps, “Rouge 540 Baccarat, Got on that money scent,” on his 2020 song “Murda Murda.” Kacey Musgraves named the fragrance one of her favorite things. Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn tells me, “My hairstylist wears it. My neighbor wears it. I’m just like, ‘Ugh. I wore that first!’” (Olivia Rodrigo wears it too).
Launched in 2014, Baccarat didn’t make an immediate splash into the spritz pool. It was a limited-edition release for the crystal brand’s 250th anniversary, which scented New York’s Baccarat Hotel’s lobby and Grand Salon that the brand decided to produce. Now it has been called the scent of 2021, and is currently among the top 20 most popular perfumes in the world, most of which are by big fashion labels and advertised by celebrity faces—unusually, Baccarat has none. It also comes with a luxurious price—a finger’s-length portion of the scent at 1.2 ounces costs $195 (“a spritz costs about $18,” Quinn jokes). TikToker Charles Gross calls it the “Cartier love bracelet of fragrances—it’s prohibitively expensive, but many people have it.” While it normally takes decades for something to be considered a classic, the buzz about Baccarat has been so great that Linda Levy, president of The Fragrance Foundation, agrees it has entered the classic category early. “A classic scent is one that spans different generations and continues to stay at a certain volume for many years. [Baccarat] has grown and will probably continue to do so—it is a classic.”
The fragrance’s success makes sense in hindsight of the perfume’s creator, Francis Kurkdjian. “The key ingredients for success are coherence, disruptiveness, and timing,” he says over Zoom. If perfume is like surfing, Kurkdjian is Kelly Slater: They both have finely chiseled jaws, but also the ability to time a wave perfectly. Kurkdjian’s done it again and again, with hits like Elizabeth Arden Green Tea and Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male. “For the past 30 years, we have been under a sweet halo effect,” Kurkdjian says. Sweet perfumes like Mugler’s Angel and Lancôme’s La Vie Est Belle have dominated, and some can smell sticky, powdery, yummy, fatty, and even headachy, thanks to a combination of many sugary ingredients. Kurkdjian chose his wave and used just one sweet note in Baccarat: ethyl maltol, a powerful ingredient that gives Baccarat the distinctive scent of candied strawberry jam. It’s sweet, but smells almost burnt. Set against the woody, savory quality of another ingredient, Ambroxan, it creates a scent paradox that’s as addictive as a salty-sweet dessert. “I wanted a heavy perfume that was both bright and light,” Kurkdjian says.
Baccarat is also an exercise in luxury minimalism. Most perfumes use 20-plus ingredients in small amounts, like 0.2 or 0.4 percent; Baccarat uses just a handful in higher quantities. Kurkdjian has described Baccarat as an “overdose of everything”: “In Rouge, I put one of them at 12 percent, which no one had ever done before.” And much like a classic bag, Baccarat endures. The scent is incredibly long-lasting, and has what perfumers call a long “sillage”—the trail it leaves behind. “I’ll spray it on myself while wearing a jacket, and it will smell like Baccarat forever. It doesn’t wear off like cheap perfumes; it’s incredible,” says TikTok influencer Audrey Peters, known for her comedic videos. Its strong sillage is also why you can smell it everywhere. It also has a unisex appeal. Gross says, “The fragrance is perfectly unisex, it is especially marketed towards men or women.”
When asked about the secret to Baccarat’s sillage, Kurkdjian sighs, and all he can say is, “It’s work.” But it was purposeful. “When you say to someone, ‘I love your perfume,’ or ‘You smell good,’ it’s a way to tell them they are beautiful. There is something very rewarding about the fact that you are recognized by your smell. All of a sudden, your identity stands out. So when you find a perfume that puts you in the front line and highlights your personality? Then it’s bingo.”
A version of this article appears in the November 2022 issue of ELLE.
Kathleen Hou is the beauty director at Elle Magazine.