Bespoke Perfumes, Who Needs Them?

From time to time I start thinking about bespoke perfumes. Not in terms that I consider ordering one for myself but in general, as of the idea itself.

If you were to do a search online for “bespoke perfume,” you’d find dozens of articles about that type of service, as well as offers of the said services. The prices start from $250 for a 50 ml bottle and goes all the way up to “contact for the price” (or 200K pounds mentioned in one of the articles – not sure how figurative was that figure).

Why wouldn’t I want to have perfume made just for me? Let’s look at it step by step. Since it is a theoretical exercise, I’ll assume that anything is possible.

Perfumer

I think it would be strange to have your perfume created by some random perfumer with whose work you are not familiar: while we can keep the discussion going whether perfume is art or not, it is definitely not pure science; and, in my opinion, not everyone can just learn how to mix ingredients and start creating amazing perfumes.

I ran a query in my database and figured out, which five perfumers created the most perfumes that I love.

 

Christine Nagel. Most of my favorites from her are her work for Jo Malone. As much as I like perfumes from that brand, do I really want my bespoke perfume to be of that “easy-wear-office-friendly” type?

Christopher Sheldrake. All Serge Lutens perfumes that I like and wear have been created by Sheldrake. But most of Serge Lutens perfumes that I do not like, were also created by him.

Bertrand Duchaufour. I like and wear many perfumes by this talented perfumer, and now when the daughter of the bloody dictator, for whom he created perfume 5 years ago (if you’ve somehow missed the story, look the Leftovers part of this post) is arrested, I probably wouldn’t mind him to be a creator of my bespoke perfume. But would he even have time? The man authors approximately one perfume per month.

Geza Schoen (presuming he actually is the nose behind all Ormonde Jayne perfumes). Until the brand decided to become a luxury one, they were one of my absolute favorites: I love or at least like 7-8 of their perfumes. But I’m not sure I would be able to pry a vat of Iso E-Super from him, no matter how much I pay.

Jean-Claude Ellena. I just don’t know if he still has any Dia left in him. And everything else is a little too sheer for my current taste: I like wearing many of his perfumes as my day-wear perfumes but none of them would be on a short list for a proverbial signature scent (or bespoke perfume, while we’re on the topic).

Notes

But let’s say I settled on the Perfumer. How do I know what I want to get? Clearly, I should shoot for the most beautiful perfume I do not have in my collection already. So of course I can show the Perfumer my most recent exercise with the Desert Island Perfumes and provide a list of my 13 favorite notes: linden, amber, lavender, iris, black currant, rose, mimosa, lily of the valley, narcissus, galbanum, sandalwood, cedarwood and vetiver. But how do I know that actually these thirteen notes make me like perfume? As my analysis in that post showed, the highest count of those favorite notes (8 of 13) make up my favorite Chanel No 19 – but I already have Chanel No 19, and I don’t need another one. And how do I know that it is not the combination of the other 76 notes, which composed my Top 20, that do the trick?

My Favorite Notes

Process

Assuming the Perfumer got all the information both from the notes I think I like and based on the list of perfumes I know I like, after a while we’ll have the first take – and what? How many times have you tried perfumes that sounded amazing based on what you read about them only to be completely disappointed? It is not easy to write a negative review for perfumes created by the brand or perfumer with whom you have some type of relationship or even just like them without knowing them personally. Also, have you ever experienced personally or witnessed any perfumer’s reaction to somebody criticizing their work?

I’m not sure I would be able to say: “Scratch that, let’s start over.” Instead, most likely, there would be polite going back-and-forth with: “It seems a little too sweet…”, “What if we were to add more floral notes?” or “It reminds me X, which I already love and wear.” How many iterations would I go through before giving up and agreeing to something that is very nice but doesn’t come even close to how I feel about my most beloved perfumes? What if it is not even “very nice”?

Price

For my theoretical experiment I’m going with the assumption that I can pay any price. But what is the price? What the price should be?

ScentTrunk, which keeps searching for the business model for making money from the exploding perfume industry, offers a free test kit that “includes a palette of the 6 fragrance families so our lab can identify the smells you love or hate” (you pay $4.95 for S&H). After that you can get your personalized perfume for just $11.95/month. I think we can all agree that I will skip the discussion of what exactly one might expect to get for the money.

Ok, how about € 220 for 50 ml of all-natural perfume “by Perfumer Composer AbdusSalaam Attar”? You can choose up to 7 (out of 92) essences for your perfume. If you want something “rare,” you’ll need to pay more: extra € 100 for ambergris, € 150 for Mysore sandalwood, € 250 for iris root and € 300 for agarwood. But even if you go “all in,” the most you pay is € 1,020. And you can name it whatever you want! So choose 7 ingredients, mention the most important 3, tell your profession or field of work (“important for olfactory psychology”!), add comments, “give your skype for contact ecc…”, prove that you’re not a bot (because, you know, it’s a huge work to put all those 7 notes into the shopping cart; and if you make a mistake, the whole form refreshes – so you should really be into placing that order) – and … I’m not sure what happens next because I didn’t manage to convince the page I wasn’t a “spammer.” But anyway, how personal can you expect it to be for € 220?

$6,750 can buy you three consultations with the team of perfumers at Floris, which will result in 100 ml bottle of your bespoke perfume (plus 5 future refills).

Even though By Kilian’s site states “Price upon request” on their Bespoke Perfume by Kilian page, from my recent visit to Salon de Parfums in Harrods I can surmise that it won’t be less than £15,000 – because that is how much their “one-of-a-kind” Midnight in London that Tara and I tested there costs.

By Kilian Midnight In London

I heard different numbers for bespoke perfumes by Roja Dove but the closest one to the official price was £25,000, which was mentioned a year ago in the article-interview with Mr. Dove. If you ask me, his semi-bespoke perfumes rumored at £1,000 for 250 ml, is a better deal: you can try it and decide if you like it, if it is unique enough before you commit.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, you can find dozens of brands, perfumers and no-name services that offer customized/custom/bespoke perfumes on the wide range of prices. But, in my opinion, even the highest price I cited here is not enough to pay for real creativity and uniqueness. I just do not believe that any great and talented perfumer would create something really great just for me – one person.

Why would the Perfumer spend enough time and effort to earn even £25,000, if selling it to a brand or launching it under their name would get a much better return? The explanation I could come up with was that it might make sense only if the result is not expected to be anything too special. For example, if it is done for “civilians” – people who have previously used Perfume de Jour from department stores: almost any average-pleasant perfume made from good ingredients by somebody who knows the trade would be a definite step up. It also can work for people who do not love perfumes but want to wear them because it is a part of the accepted routine. In this case, exclusivity and personal service might be much more important than actual perfume. In both cases it shouldn’t require too much time or magic from a skillful Perfumer. And those “bespoke” perfumes do not even have to be that unique from one customer to another – they just have to be different enough from what one can come across at regular perfume counters.

I have it. Now what?

But even if I manage to get the result I really like, what would I do with it? Should this perfume become my signature scent? Probably not: I’m not a one perfume woman. Should I treat it as a special occasion perfume? But then what should I do with my other special occasion perfumes? I’m not sure I have enough special occasions. Do I wear it just like any other perfume in my collection, several times per year? But then why even go through the exercise of creating bespoke perfume?

So even in my imaginary world, in which I can choose any perfumer to work on my scent and am not limited by any financial considerations, going through with that project does not seem appealing.

And then one last thought had occurred to me: I bet I can wear many of the existing perfumes in my current collection, and, almost any way you look at it, those would be not much farther from a bespoke perfume then any created as such might be.

 

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Images: my own

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32 thoughts on “Bespoke Perfumes, Who Needs Them?

  1. Hi dear,
    that’s some serious thought you have given to the topic of bespoke perfume!
    Of course I am aware such service exists but I have to say that I was never tempted to take part in such excercise. Probably because I am not willing to pay the cosmic price while the cheaper ones repel me as they probably use low quality or mostly synthetic ingredients.

    There is a place in Warsaw that opened few years ago – it’s some sort of a lab you can go to (upon booking first) and you’re being let into a room with different perfume ingredients (all synthetic) and you’re allowed to mix your own perfume. You can use as many aromachemicals as you want to make a 50 ml bottle of your perfume.

    Friends from Warsaw went to try it and they said that as long as it was a fun activity to do, it’s a poor experience. The smell of perfume was solely depending on a person mixing ingredients, so they were not really “perfumes” as they were blended without perfumery knowledge. They also had no lasting power – few minutes later the scent was gone.

    • I’m surprised that those perfumes have poor lasting power: if nothing else, many the aroma chemicals should have at least some residual longevity. Though, I remember my friend in Ukraine showed to me perfumes that one could buy there by ml (10-15-20), and those also were very fleeting.

      One day you’ll make perfume for yourself, and hajusuuri and I will be your first customers ;)

  2. What a fun and interesting post.
    I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I’ve had many of the same thoughts, and come up with the conclusion; I don’t believe anybody could actually make a perfume I wanted more than Vol de Nuit or Attrape Coeur.

    • It took me years to come up with the set of perfumes that I adore, and most of them took some time to settle in that Top N list. So I wouldn’t dare to hurry the magic :)

  3. Twice I had a fragrance custom made for me…once at Garden Botanika and then one made by an unknown perfumer in 1998 ( I really liked that one but after several re-orders I got side tracked by other new releases)…..said perfumer turned out to be Sarah Horowitz-Thran. Back in the day the cost was so low (can’t remember what I paid but it was definitely reasonable) and it smelled really great on my skin (it was a grapefruit, lilac, sandalwood blend).

    Nowadays I do my own blending and customizing by adding essential oils or fragrance combining….that’s all I need to make things a bit more unique :)

    • I can imagine making perfume for yourself (theoretically, I am not capable of doing that), and I definitely can imagine liking something created by Sarah Horowitz, Dawn Spenser or Laurie Ericson 20 years ago. But today, 2-3 thousand perfumes later, I am much more finicky.

  4. I agree with everything you’ve said, although my brain would never process the thoughts as neatly as you have! I especially resonate with the part about the process. I feel I could be encouraged to like something in the moment which would disappoint me later. And like you, I am definitely not a one perfume woman, although I think it is a romantic idea, to be identified and remembered by one scent. There are so many perfumes out there that I haven’t tried and I have more than I can reasonably wear already, so the whole exercise seems pointless. Unless I win the lottery tonight~

    • If you happen to win the lottery tonight (or any other day), I could still suggest a better way to enjoy extra money (perfume-related, I mean) – so come and we’ll talk (and I won’t even ask for the consulting fees ;) ).

      My perfume fidelity goes as far as to keep using the same perfumes that I used to love many years ago. But I cannot use just those, and I keep getting more favorites.

  5. Ah, this was a great read, Undina. I chuckled to myself a few times. I particularly enjoyed in relation to Christopher Sheldrake “All Serge Lutens perfumes that I like and wear have been created by Sheldrake. But most of Serge Lutens perfumes that I do not like, were also created by him.” Haha. So true.
    There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with bespoke fragrances and I agree that we’re not the market for them. I see people at Bloom who are gifted a semi-bespoke perfume experience for their birthdays as something fun and then the other end of the spectrum is all about the luxury/exclusivity factor.
    I’d love to know how much Guerlain charge. At least it’s Thierry Wasser who makes the finished article.

    • I’m curious about Guerlain also. They recently re-created the original versions of their scents. They are for smelling only at their store. Not for sale. Wouldn’t be compliant with IFRA. But perhaps they could consider them bespoke and not have to worry about ingredients. Of course the cost would be huge. I believe they already have a bespoke service for $25,000

      • It’s an interesting point: I wonder can I sign a release form when ordering a bespoke perfume and get one that doesn’t have to follow IFRA standards? :) What if we could organize a “class action” with everybody who wants the “old” formulas signing/pre-ordering those perfumes with acknowledgement of all the possible consequences of using them?

    • Thank you, Tara.

      From what I read while working on this post, Guerlain has bespoke perfume service (Lindaloo is right, the price I saw mentioned was north of $20K. But what surprised me more, they have the next level up – private perfumes – which is 15 times more expensive. I couldn’t figure out what was the difference but I didn’t spend too much time comparing details since – no matter what – Guerlain won’t be my brand of choice.

  6. I love this post! You had me laughing out loud (“All Serge Lutens perfumes that I like and wear have been created by Sheldrake. But most of Serge Lutens perfumes that I do not like, were also created by him,” “I probably wouldn’t mind him to be a creator of my bespoke perfume. But would he even have time?” “But I’m not sure I would be able to pry a vat of Iso E-Super from him, no matter how much I pay.”), and you also made me think about what I would do.

    I would probably go the Barbara Herman route, or do what Ari did (Cécile Hua and her husband have a bespoke service https://www.bespokefragrance.com/pages/about-us). In any case, I would want to know my perfumer as a person in addition to knowing their work.

    In any case, wonderful, wonderful post, Undina! Thank you for brightening up my day and giving me food for thought!

    • Hi D! It’s great to see you – I miss your posts. And thank you for your kind words.

      I’m the opposite: I think I would feel even worse working with someone I know personally. But I could probably work through an independent agent. This way both parties can complain to him/her; I – about how frustrating the process is; Perfumer – about how unreasonable and capricious I am ;)

  7. What a fun read. I think the whole bespoke perfume experience is supposed to be meant for the uber rich. Let’s face facts, the 1% doesn’t want to smell like everyone else. As such, if you have the funds, why not? I’m sure that most people that get their own private perfume are not perfumistas. Therefore, they feel that they have something special that no one else has. There are perfumers and sources that will do it as a “mixing party” where you create your own, but it’s more of a fun activity and less of a perfume. I’m all for it…but will never have the funds to do it right. Thanks for the wonderful pictures of Rusty….they always make my day. xoxoox

    • Thank you, Steve. It’s great to have you around again.

      I wouldn’t mind spending $100-$150 to play with some ingredients under a perfumer supervision – but mostly to appreciate my favorite perfumes even more, I wouldn’t expect to get anything worth wearing from that exercise.

  8. Fantastic post. On a serious note: Who would actually care whether a perfume was bespoke or not? Not a single soul. It would have to be for the purchaser’s pleasure alone. One massive rip-off that has certain people laughing all the way to the bank. On a lighter note: Bloom’s service is fun and blending your own would be cool. The materials there are very nice quality and the results pleasing. But still, if you have way too much money, and a certain “style (or not 😁)” then whatever blows your skirt. More Rusty please. 💋

    • Thank you, Val.
      I was present during such session at Bloom and thought that it wasn’t organized the best way: in a tiny shop, while Tara, Vanessa and I were testing different perfumes loudly exchanging impressions, a couple was “working” on perfume, I think, for her. It might be fun in theory but I don’t think it was the best experience one could have with that type of activity.
      I do not object to those services per se – as long as participants enjoy the process and realize what they are getting for their money. It’s not for me but I appreciate the popularization of non-mass-market perfumes.

  9. I loved this post, and all the systematic thinking that went into it. I found myself nodding along and agreeing with everything you said, also your assessments of individual perfumers that you liked. If I ever went down the bespoke route – and I wouldn’t, for all the reasons you mention – I would be that soldier, wanting to be encouraging and not just saying ‘Sorry, still not quite nice enough’ with every iteration. I am happy to have a scent wardrobe to cycle through in my usual haphazard fashion, much of which might as well be bespoke, given the likelihood of anyone round here wearing anything in it!

    • That thought about the nature of our perfume collections just dawned on me :)
      I wouldn’t mind though perfumistas party with somebody who knows something about the proper mixing – “to play perfumer” together.

  10. I LOVE it when you rant about something. I had done a budget bespoke perfume at Bourbon French in New Orleans. I have not worn it in a long while so I took it out and put some on last night. It’s nice enough but not really me.

    If I were to have a “proper” bespoke perfume, it would be for the thrill of working with a perfumer, with the perfumer sharing his thoughts about a material and tips on what to do or what to avoid. The perfumer I would pick is Christophe Laudemiel. He is passionate about perfumery and is very talented. As to how much I would be willing to pay, probably no more than 4 digits. By chance Clayton just published an interview with the man himself (
    http://whatmenshouldsmelllike.com/2017/08/22/an-interview-with-perfumer-christophe-laudamiel).

    And meow meow? That Rusty is sooo beautiful!

    • Thank you, dear :) I hope I will be able to maintain some balance between rants and something more positive.

      While I enjoyed reading the interview, and Mr. Laudamiel seems like an interesting person, I didn’t like any of five or six his perfumes that I’ve tried; and I didn’t read too many raving reviews for the rest from his portfolio – so I’m a little hesitant. But I’ll keep an eye (a nose?) on his future creations.

      Rusty will get a couple of treats – for those pictures that haven’t been previously used on this blog.

  11. The idea of bespoke perfumes has never made sense to me even if I have all the money in the world. The perfumes I love such as Dior Homme, vintage Eau Sauvage, vintage Kouros, vintage Opium, I don’t think even a million dollar bespoke perfume can surpass these. I am not too arrogant to think that somehow my imagination will result in a more beautiful perfume than the minds who are Master Perfumers or who have spent years in creative direction. I should have the humility to acknowledge my limits and trust those with more credibility. The first iPhone was revolutionary because those who made it were technology insiders, not because the ideas came from customers with little or no knowledge of hardware and software capabilities. An average customer does not even know what he loves. I didn’t like lavender or was ever mesmerized by iris note until Dior Homme came along. I didn’t know tuberose can be the central note of a perfume that smells plummy until I smelled vintage Poison. And I hate Lutens Rousse where cinnamon is the central note yet I love Shiseido Feminite du Bois where Cinnamon plays an important role besides cedar.

    • Not trying to pull devil’s advocate but just to be fair, I have to say that both your arguments and my are true only if we are sophisticated enough to truly appreciate those creations by Master Perfumers. If, on the other hand, “our” tastes are much simpler, “we” might enjoy whatever generic floral, musk or amber concoction was created specifically for us much more that the most acclaimed masterpiece created before. And if we do not have much exposure to perfumes, any variation on the great existing perfume might just do the trick.

      But for most people who reads this post and your comment, you’re absolutely right.

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