For many of those who truly love fine perfume, for whom it’s a great and precious art form, the world is, as the great French perfumer Serge Lutens once memorably put it to me, “trop parfumé”. The fact that a walk through a store’s beauty department involves dodging the eager spritzers of the latest eaux means most of us are completely deluged by scents. And this super-abundance somehow manages to distance many of us from their delights. Which no doubt accounts for the fact that a few of the more thoughtful perfumers are trying to engage us in a more meaningful relationship with the olfactory world and the pleasures it has to offer.
Take Azzi Glasser, a “nose” who until now has worked entirely behind the scenes, producing perfumes for Agent Provocateur, Bella Freud, Nicole Farhi and Jasper Conran, as well as many a high-profile private customer (Helena Bonham Carter, André Balazs, Johnny Depp, to name a few). This October, she introduced a collection of 11 scents under her own name, called The Perfumer’s Story, that will be available at Harvey Nichols in the new year following the store’s recent Art of Scent venture, which was designed to help its customers “explore how scent defines us as individuals, its emotive and evocative qualities and ability to transform and empower”. Glasser has long felt that the way scent is conventionally sold serves more to confuse the customer than to help. “Many people have said to me that all the talk of top, middle and base notes didn’t illuminate them at all, so I decided to offer the public a taste of what I’ve been doing for my private clients – an olfactory styling service [called the Style Concierge] – using assistants I’ve trained myself.”
Glasser started with 10 scents: four unisex, three for men and three for women (all £95 for 30ml EDP). For each she had certain personalities in mind. Sequoia Wood, for instance, is for those who are sensual, creative and edgy; Old Books (worn by Stephen Fry) for people who are intelligent, creative and unique; Tuscan Suede for those who are sexy, sophisticated, confident, and so on. But instead of talking about notes and ingredients, the assistants will match the scent to the personality of the client.
“This is what I do for my private customers, who often have no idea what to use,” says Glasser. “I met the musician and director Jonas Akerlund [who has worked with Madonna and Beyoncé and many other artists] and he said he hated perfume. I saw that as a challenge. When I asked him if there were any smells he liked, he said he liked the smell of the earth, things like ditches. So I came up with Ditch. I used some watery accents, a green-grass note, a hint of calone and wood notes mixed with vetiver, patchouli and oud to give the earthy accord you find at the base.” Akerlund says that while it is “out of my comfort zone”, he’s having “a lot of fun with it”. Now, for the first time, Ditch will be sold along with the other 10 scents. But be warned: it is, as Akerlund puts it, a scent for those who don’t give a hoot what other people think.
Others are trying to involve the customer much more in the creative process, with demi-bespoke scents (fully bespoke is always, of course, an option, but it is infinitely more expensive and time-consuming). At Ex Nihilo, a quirky niche brand based in Paris, customers are offered what it calls “a subtle personal-isation” of its perfumes – nine existing fragrances (all £210 for 100ml EDP) at its space in Harrods’ Salon de Parfums with a choice of three extra ingredients. To give an example, if you were to like Ex Nihilo’s Rose Hubris, you could emphasise the “rose” by adding rose de mai, make it spicier with sandalwood or give it a new twist by adding iris. The extra cost would be between £30 and £60.
Then, at Selfridges, British niche fragrance company Thameen (founder Basel Bin Jabr) has started what it calls its Luxury Perfume Experience in the VIP room on the 4th floor, which involves highly trained scent “sherpas” guiding customers through the construction of seven of its most luxurious perfumes. The 30-minute session is free and designed purely as an illuminating experience – it can be pre-booked by calling the Thameen counter.
Meanwhile, in Beirut, Ideo Parfumeurs has launched the Atelier des Parfums which, with the aid of clever computer software, enables customers to create their own perfume on the spot. The client chooses an “olfactory base” and is then asked to select a series of images, which the computer uses to get a sense of their personality and suggest ingredients – from hundreds of essential oils – to suit. These are then made up into a personal scent. The final cost depends on the price of the ingredients, but ranges from around $150 to $500 for 100ml. This initiative has been a huge success and the company is thinking of rolling it out to other countries, while an online version is in the pipeline. They also invite customers to complimentary “olfactory gatherings” and offer sniff tests to help them discover how scent operates as a memory and emotion stimulator.
A relatively new Venetian perfume brand is The Merchant of Venice, founded by the Venetian family that established the Museo dei Profumi in the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice in 2013. It launched in the UK in 2014 with some 40 fragrances through House of Fraser stores, but in Harrods’ Salon de Parfums it offers customers a special selection of six more highly concentrated oud-based perfumes (£180 for 30ml EDP) using almost double the strength of essential oils and essences of a usual eau de parfum. And, more unusually, there is also a choice of three very fine handmade Murano glass vases to hold them. These are meant to be seen as artworks – even when not holding perfume they are things of beauty in their own right. One is based on the paintings of Paolo Veronese and costs £2,000; another is the Vaso Nero Oro Argento, a more classic shape in black with gold and silver leaf (£1,200), while the third, the Murano Vaso Tipo Rosso e Oro (£800), is a deep Venetian red. You simply slot your chosen glass phial of perfume, which comes with its fine blown-glass top, inside the chosen vase.
And finally, Harvey Nichols sells The Merchant of Venice kit, which enables the amateur “nose” to experiment with various essential oils and learn the basics of how a perfume is created. The Perfumer Kit Woody & Fougère (£70) comes with two 50ml bases, plus six facets (10ml EDT) containing different mixtures of essences, one for each main olfactory family, and a manual to explain how to turn all this into your very own bottle of eau de toilette.