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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In the Search for the Perfect Berry: Strawberries

 

Where I come from, in 1970s and ’80s students from schools and universities as well as clerks, engineers and even scientists from cities would be taken to work at kolkhoz (a form of collective farms) for days or even weeks during the summer and fall months – as a part of the yearly Battle of Harvest. It was a mandatory activity that most people hated but in which they had to participate.

One summer after the seventh grade I spent two weeks at such kolkhoz. Since we were children, we got the more pleasant work than digging up potatoes or weeding: we were picking strawberries.

Strawberry

We lived in large barracks with outhouse and outdoor washing sinks; food was awful and the only entertaining we had were a couple of movies we watched in the local club house. But we were young, our friends and class-mates were there and a long-awaited summer vacation was coming right after that so it was rather a pleasant adventure. In spare time we played badminton, cards and guitars. Life was good.

Being city kids, most of us could never get as much fruit as we would like to: those were scarce and relatively expensive. So for the first couple of days in kolkhoz strawberries that we were picking went into our bellies/baskets roughly in 50/50 proportion.

Since the whole day (well, it was probably just 4-5 hours but it felt like more) we were moving through the rows of strawberry plants looking for ripe berries, when we went to bed at night all we could think of was picking strawberries. I remember discussing it with several friends and we all had the same experience: as soon as we would close our eyes but before completely falling asleep we had visions of parting leaves with our hands to reveal an abundance of very large red strawberries.

By the end of our time in kolkhoz none of us could look at another strawberry.

Strawberry

Strawberry note in perfumes isn’t one of my favorite. Probably because it’s so ubiquitous not only in cheap mainstream perfumes but also in many other functional products. But as with any other note strawberry can be done well.

Miss Dior Chérie Originale (pun intended!) by Dior, created by Christine Nagel in 2005, from what I get reading multiple reviews, was a perfect example of the “good strawberry perfume”. It was never “my perfume”, I never wanted to wear it but I remember it smelling nice on one of my friends. Unfortunately it has been reformulated and renamed so many times that by now nobody can be sure what version they smell. If you didn’t live through all the transformations of this perfume you might want to take a look at a very useful comparison article from Perfume Shrine.

Miss Charming by Juliette Has A Gun, created by Francis Kurkdjian in 2006, is my absolutely favorite strawberry perfume. I do not like JHAG’s bottles. I do not like the brand’s name. So I tried their perfumes very reluctantly. Had I known who was the nose behind this perfume, there was a good chance I would have never tried it at all (since MFK doesn’t like perfumistas, I do not like him). But I didn’t know. And from the first test I loved how Miss Charming developed on my skin. It’s soft, bright, not too sweet or too fruity and… very charming. Many roses get very soapy on my skin, which I do not like. Miss Charming stays tender and beautiful until the drydown. If it weren’t for the above-mentioned reason I would have bought a bottle by now.

Are there any perfumes with a prominent strawberry note that you like?

 

Images: my own

In the Search for the Perfect Lilac, Take 2

 

It has been a long time since I published the first episode in which I shared my impressions of Pur Desir de Lilas by Yves Rocher, Lilac by ElizabethW, French Lilac by Pacifica, Lilacs & Heliotrope by Soivohle, Highland Lilac of Rochester, After My Own Heart by Ineke and En Passant by Frederic Malle. Since then I bought French Lilac by Pacifica – as I planned, still haven’t got Highland Lilac and tried more lilac perfumes.

Rusty And Lilacs

Purple Lilac by DSH Perfumes and White Lilac by DSH Perfumes. They both smell quite realistically: I could clearly picture each of the flowers; purple lilac – slightly wilted, with some green; white – brighter and fresher. I like White Lilac more but both do not seem like a finished perfume.

Lilac by Demeter (2009). It’s perfect for the price I paid (~$5 for 30 ml). I don’t think it’s a perfume for adults but it makes a nice room spray: it smells good but doesn’t stay long enough to become overwhelming.

Purple Lilac (Lilas Mauve) by Yves Rocher (Annick Menardo, 2012). Last year I jumped through some hoops to get it from the U.K. since it wasn’t available yet from the U.S. website. It smells of lilacs if you smell it alone but in comparison to other lilac scents it seems too artificial. I was so disappointed that I haven’t even compared it to the other Yves Rocher’s lilac I own – Pur Desir de Lilas.

After all the testing I realized that even though I still miss lilacs and still enjoy the smell of flowers (and my ideal lilacs bouquet has only lilacs in it) I do not want to wear it as a soliflore. I like the note in perfumes but I want it to be well-mixed with other flowers. I think at least partially it’s because now I know that there is no natural lilac, this note is either created artificially or recreated using other floral notes so a single-dimensional scent seems too simple. If I ever want just it Pacific’s perfume is more than enough (I urge you to try a roll-on if you haven’t tried it yet).

Rusty And Lilacs

I was really looking forward to trying Opardu by Puredistance (Annie Buzantian, 2012): if anybody, this brand could pull off this note in a beautiful composition… I can’t say I disliked Opardu: it was very pleasant and it did start with a burst of beautiful lilacs but it didn’t wow me. After the first disappointment wore off I tested Opardu again, this time with a better response – that’s how it usually happens to me. Now I plan to try it sprayed since I suspect it might wear differently this way.

Rue des Lilas by Phaedon (Pierre Guillaume, 2011) just happened upon me. I heard something about it and spontaneously decided to buy a small decant from a split. I was pleasantly surprised by the perfume: it’s an interesting composition of wood and my two favorite nonexistent (for the perfumery purposes) flowers – lilac and lily-of-the-valley. Unlike Demeter’s or Yves Rocher’s lilac perfumes Rue des Lilas is a lilac perfume for grown-ups. My problem with this perfume is that I dislike the bottle: it reminds me of functional products. So if I decide to get more after I use up my decant I might go for the next decant.

White Lilac & Rhubarb by Jo Malone (Christine Nagel, 2012) was a strong like from the first sniff. Since it was a limited edition I had to decide quickly… I enjoy wearing it in hot weather. It’s more than just a lilac perfume: rhubarb and heliotrope add complexity and sweetness to the bouquet. I know that there is supposed to be rose in it but I can’t smell it at all (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Jo Malone’s Red Roses turns awfully soapy on my skin). With White Lilac & Rhubarb I had one of those moments when you keep turning your head trying to figure out from where that great scent comes only to realize that it’s coming from you. I like this perfume but still can’t imagine that anbody in her right mind would pay the price currently asked for it! And it’s not even a question of how good the perfume is: it was out there for such a short period of time that I don’t know how anybody could have developed such a deep connection to it to spend $300-$500 on a 100 ml bottle. 

Rusty and Jo Malone White Lilac & Rhubarb

Do you have a favorite lilac perfume?

 

Images: my own

In the Search for the Perfect Pear

In my childhood August a month before the school started and a month when an old pear tree in my grandparents’ garden was ready to share with us the best pears I’ve ever eaten in my life.

August Pear

I was too little to think of such things as variety so all I can remember now: it resembled Comice pear – green-yellow with an occasional red blush. The tree was tall, with a lot of branches. Low hanging fruits … were allowed to ripe on the tree. Whenever I felt like it I could go there and choose which one I wanted to eat. Pears that grew higher on the tree would be usually picked slightly immature and left to ripen in the summerhouse. My Grandfather had built it himself and I loved spending time in it – playing when I was younger or reading when I got older. A wonderful smell of dozens ripening pears accompanied me in those hot summer days when tired of running around in the sun I would resort to the shade of the summerhouse.

Unlike mimosa, linden or lilac – all scents which I always loved and wanted to wear as a perfume, I’ve never considered pear to be a wearable scent. I like eating them in the season, don’t miss them off-season and definitely don’t want to smell of them.

I like Petite Cherie by Annick Goutal – created in 1998, notes include pear, peach, musky rose, fresh-cut grass, vanilla. But I wore it for years before I learned it had a pear note. Even after that I thought I couldn’t smell a pear note. I tried to describe how Petite Cherie smelled and I couldn’t. I can’t come up with words to represent what I smell and the scent doesn’t remind me of anything else so I can’t even offer an association. I do not have any special memories connected to Petite Cherie, so probably I really just enjoy the scent. If you’ve tried it you know how it smells and if you haven’t – try because whatever description you’ll read will not give you the right picture of what to expect from this perfume. For years I thought of it as of a universal darling but recently I met a couple of people who, to my surprise, found this perfume to be unpleasant. I wore it again while working on this post and I still love it.

Deep Red by Hugo Boss – created in 2001 by Alain Astori and Beatrice Piquet, notes include black currant, pear, tangerine, blood orange, ginger leaves, freesia, hibiscus, sandalwood, Californian cedar, vanilla and musk (fragrantica.com). This is one of my favorite perfumes from my pre-perfumista period of life. I know Perfumeland’s attitude towards that brand. I realize that it probably isn’t that great and stands out both in this post and in my current collection. And I do not care: I liked Deep Red for many years; I went through two bottles of it and still have some juice left in the third one; and I still enjoy wearing it.

English Pear & Freesia by Jo Malone – created in 2010 by Christine Nagel, notes include pear, freesia, rose, amber, patchouli and woods (from jomalone.com; other sources mention quince, rhubarb and white musk). Sweet, almost gourmand but not quite because of the strong floral component. It’s a bright and warm scent but at the same time it maintains transparency usual to Malone’s colognes. It doesn’t develop much on the skin (as most of other perfumes in this line) but if you like what you smell it’ll stay with you for hours. I got a small decant of English Pear & Freesia from a co-worker and I will buy a bottle once it’s gone.

La Belle Hélène by Parfums MDCI – created in 2010 by Bertrand Duchaufour, notes include pear accord, aldehydes, tangerine, lime blossom, rose essence, osmanthus absolute, ylang-ylang Madagascar, orris butter, hawthorn, Mirabelle plum, myrrh, vetiver Haiti, patchouli, cedar Virginia, amber, oak moss absolute, white musks, sandalwood, licorice wood (luckyscent). It’s a true gourmand scent, sweet but with some dirty note in the drydown. For me La Belle Hélène smells not like a pear fruit but like a pear tart (love those). It’s much more complex than English Pear & Freesia. I got my sample from a draw at Persolaise – A Perfumer’s Blog. I like how it smells and develops on my skin but I’m not sure if I want to wear it as a perfume. The price is also a stopping point. So when I’m done with the sample I won’t probably be seeking even a decant (read the review that inspired me to test this perfume again recently).

Mon Numéro 1 by L’Artisan Parfumeur – created in 2009 by Bertrand Duchaufour and re-launched in 2011 (though I can’t find it now on L’Artisan’s website), notes include pear, basil, bergamot, violet leaves, black currant buds, mimosa, osmanthus, magnolia flower, hay, musk, vanilla. I have a strange relationship with this perfume. I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it. It opens very nice and fresh on my skin but then in one out of three times it becomes too soapy – and not in a nice, clean way. It always dries down to a more pleasant and well-balanced scent but it doesn’t excite me, I do not feel compelled to wear it more. I’m very grateful to my perfume friends for the opportunity to try it (Suzanne shared with me some Mon Numéro 1 from Birgit’s sample) and want to assure them that it wasn’t a total waste: even though I do not like it as much as they did (read their reviews through the links above), Mon Numéro 1 helped me to learn what is called “pear” in perfumery. I do not recognize it as a pear scent but I smell it in all tested perfumes with that note listed in the description. So now I know. And I do not mind smelling like that “pear.”

Honey Pear Tea

What is your perfect pear?

Mine – Honey Pear by Golden Moon Tea.

 

Images: my own

WTD, Episode 3.2: Tea Fragrance Blends by Jo Malone

Early this year (2011) Jo Malone introduced a limited edition collection Tea Fragrance Blends created by Christine Nagel.

“Five distinctive, contemporary scents, inspired by that most quintessential of British traditions – when everything stops for tea.” (Jo Malone official website).

English TeaI tried all five colognes from the collection and ended up buying three – Assam & Grapefruit, Earl Grey & Cucumber and Sweet Milk. Fresh Mint Leaf and Sweet Lemon both were nice but too simple. I wish Jo Malone released all five blends in a gift set of 9 ml each. Otherwise I had no use for 30 ml of a mint-centered cologne.

Earl Grey & Cucumber by Jo Malone – notes include bergamot, apple, jasmine, cucumber, angelica, davana, beeswax, vanilla, musk and cedarwood. I cannot smell any cucumber but I do get Earl Grey tea – not just a bergamot that is commonly used in many perfumes but the specific aroma you get from a freshly brewed Earl Grey tea. It wears very nicely on my skin, and I’m glad I bought it.

Assam & Grapefruit by Jo Malone – notes include grapefruit, black tea, cardamom, almond and patchouli (according to the official website; other sources mention also rhubarb, rose and musk). This one was an impulse buy. It smelled on paper much better than it smells on my skin. It’s a very subtle scent that turns too soapy on me half of the times I wear it. I tried to combine it with Sweet Milk and together they’ve created a nice spring scent but I’m not sure it needed to be a standalone cologne taking into the account that there is a very nice Grapefruit cologne in Jo Malone’s line. Robin at NST liked it much more so you might want to read her take on Assam & Grapefruit.

Earlier I’ve already told my story about Sweet Milk.

If you’ve tried colognes from the Tea Fragrance Blends collection do you think any of them are worth being brought back as a part of the permanent collection?

Image: my own

See all episodes:
Weeklong Test Drives, Season 3: Jo Malone
WTD, Episode 3.1: Kohdo Wood Collection by Jo Malone
WTD, Episode 3.3: Nectarine Blossom & Honey, Lime Basil & Mandarin and Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone
WTD, Episode 3.4: In the Search for the Perfect Linden
WTD, Episode 3.5: Orange Blossom by Jo Malone

“Here’s a photo I’ve been looking for…”: Sweet Milk by Jo Malone

… the sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.
Thalassa Cruso

I like Jo Malone‘s colognes. I own more full bottles of this brand than of any other. And then some decants and sample sprays. One way or another there are fourteen scents by Jo Malone in my collection. Not being familiar with the limited edition concept in the past, I’ve missed some of the perfumes I wish I haven’t. So this time I went to a store as soon as I read the new limited edition Tea Collection by Jo Malone became available.

Sweet Milk by Jo MaloneIt was an interesting idea – tea party components in a bottle. I concentrated on two “main” scents – Assam & Grapefruit (bought it) and Earl Grey & Cucumber (still thinking about getting it); I dismissed Fresh Mint Leaf and Sweet Lemon as nice but too simple; as to the Sweet Milk scent, it piqued my curiosity because it smelled … differently but I didn’t think I would like it. I sprayed it on my wrist just to see how it developed on the skin. And as I was sniffing it repeatedly, not only the scent but also my childhood memories started developing. And in no time my mind conjured vivid pictures from the past.

Dive in to keep reading…