Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Custom-made fragrances

To have perfume crafted exclusively for you, using some of the world's finest flowers and oils, is the ultimate in luxury. After all, a custom-blend fragrance is the story of your life

Published: Nov 7, 2015 06:16:40 AM IST
Updated: Oct 30, 2015 03:31:56 PM IST
Custom-made fragrances
Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe have been patrons of Floris

In the business of fashion, haute couture is about clothes—extravagant and beautifully made. But it can also be said about bespoke fragrance, the Holy Grail in the world of custom-made products. The perfume you dab on your pulse points is more than just a part of the grooming routine: It is an expression of style and personality.

As with clothes, discerning customers are looking beyond mass-produced fragrances and turning to carefully blended scents. “Brought up on a diet of olfactory banality, the public is repudiating this commercialisation,” says Roja Dove, master perfumer from the UK. “For those who can afford a bespoke service, it is the ultimate in discovering a scent of true individuality.”

Historically, bespoke perfumes have their roots in Europe; they were blended for royalty and wealthy patrons. Floris of London, which was established in 1730, is the oldest retailer of fragrance in England and is the ‘appointed perfumer’ to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Celebrated French contemporary perfumer Francis Kurkdjian’s client list, too, includes heads of state.

The process of creating a distinct fragrance can take anywhere from three months to almost a year depending on how fast a master perfumer—or ‘nose’ as they are affectionately called in the business—can understand a customer’s needs and demands. The challenge lies in translating a client’s ephemeral olfactory memories to blends of flowers, spices and oils.
Mandy Aftel, of Aftelier Perfumes in the US, remembers a client who wanted to gift her parents a pair of perfume bottles for their 50th wedding anniversary. “She picked out essences that reminded her of her parents. The resulting portraits allowed her to smell what they meant to her.” That is the mark of bespoke perfume.

This olfactory exclusivity comes with a hefty price tag. Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in London, for instance, offers bespoke services that start at £25,000. At Maison Francis Kurkdjian in Paris, prices start at €15,000, depending on ingredients used. Some examples of super-expensive ingredients include agarwood or oud, a dark aromatic resin or sap secreted from aquilaria and gyrinops trees in South Asia; ambergris which is produced in the intestine of sperm whales; osmanthus, a rare flower called that blooms once a year in China and other parts of Asia.

Forbes India offers a selection of some of the most prestigious bespoke perfume services in the world.  

Jean Patou, Paris
In the 1920s, late French fashion designer Jean Patou was one of the biggest names in the world of haute couture. His legacy lives on in the brand that bears his name. The Parisian couturier not only influenced women’s fashion but also transformed the world of perfume with Joy, one of the most expensive fragrances created by perfumer Henri Alméras for the fashion house. Ten thousand jasmine flowers and 28 dozen roses are required to create 30 ml of the fragrance, which today retails at $800. It was worn by the likes of Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy.

From its home in Rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, the house of Jean Patou is once again blending bespoke perfumes with Thomas Fontaine as its in-house perfumer. The journey of creating the ultimate olfactory reflection of oneself starts with “hearing the client tell her own story, talk about her culture and tastes,” says Fontaine. For €50,000, clients receive a personalised Baccarat bottle and the fragrance becomes a part of Patou’s perfume archive that dates back nearly a century and can be reordered by future generations.

Custom-made fragrances

Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Paris
“A human adventure” is how French contemporary perfumer Francis Kurkdjian describes a custom-made fragrance. So far, his calling has proven to be an adventure of sorts: At the behest of clients, he has created scented fans, perfumed a swimming pool in Spain with a fresh citrus scent and even captured the ‘aura of dead lilies or the smell of horses’. He has created 40 celebrated perfumes for major fashion houses, including Lanvin, Jean Paul Gaultier and Narciso Rodriguez; created the scent for money in collaboration with contemporary artist Sophie Calle in 2003; and has helmed fragrance-focussed installations at Versailles. Six years ago, he opened his resident headquarters Maison Francis Kurkdjian in Place Vendome, Paris.

In one of his more challenging projects, he blended “Benzoin (an organic compound) from Siam with the sweet softness of cinnamon from Indonesia, the amber depth of citrus from Spain with the strength of Vetiver (a kind of bunchgrass) from Java, the bittersweet note of Tonka (bean) from Brazil and the richness of patchouli from Borneo,” to create a single home scent for Monte Carlo Yachts’ new boat. The process of creating an individual perfume can take up to five months during which Kurkdjian presents his clients with 5 ml samples to wear “at home, in normal condition” because one doesn’t “choose a perfume just by liking the top notes”.  Prices start at €15,000.

Getting a bespoke perfume created at Floris means joining the illustrious private perfume ledger started by founder Juan Famenias Floris in 1730.

Its nearly 300-year-old customer ledger includes some of the most discerning patrons, such as Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe. Over the centuries, no request has been too bizarre for the noses at this prestigious family-run perfumer. “A gentleman wanted a fragrance that captured the smell of a motor racing track mid-race. Another lady, who was keen on watching tennis at Wimbledon, wanted a fragrance that captured the scent of a freshly opened can of tennis balls,” reveals Floris’s ‘nose’ Edward Bodenham, the ninth generation descendent of Juan Famenias. The company offers what it calls a ‘full perfume design’, where over a six-month period a client works with Bodenham and his team to bottle a truly unique scent. As a final thrill, clients get to name the fragrance. Prices start at £4,500.

Custom-made fragrances
Guerlain has earned the title of ‘His Majesty’s Official Perfumer’ in France

Guerlain, Paris
Before Shalimar or Vol de Nuit—two classic early 20th century perfumes from the house of Guerlain—founder Pierre Francois-Pascal Guerlain created a bespoke citrus-floral scent in 1853 for French Emperor Napoleon III’s bride, Eugénie de Montijo. Guerlain Eau de Cologne Imperiale, which is still sold and retails at €81 for a 100 ml bottle, earned Guerlain the title of ‘His Majesty’s Official Perfumer’ in France and commissions to create fragrances for Queen Victoria of England and Queen Isabella of Spain. At Guerlain’s opulent flagship store on Champs Elysees, Paris, the tradition continues. The process starts with a two-hour consultation with Sylvaine Delacourte, Guerlain’s director of fragrance evaluation and development to help “clients to relive their best olfactory memories”.  Thierry Wasser, Guerlain’s Swiss master perfumer, then meets with the client to refine the chosen scent.

Much like couture, it would take many fittings over a year to get a one-of-a-kind fragrance that represents the essence of the wearer. The end result is presented in a 500 ml Baccarat crystal bottle, along with multiple travel-size 30 ml and 60 ml sprays. The price for a personalised scent is €44,000.

Custom-made fragrances
Roja Dove uses only the finest raw ingredients to create perfumes

Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie, London
One of the best noses of this century, Roja Dove uses only the finest raw ingredients to create memorable scents. ‘So, when I use rose, I only use Rose De Mai from Grasse. It takes between 306,000 and 308,000 roses, picked before the sun becomes strong in the morning, to produce one kilogram of oil that’s priced at £32,000,” he says. When he begins work on a custom scent, Dove “meets a client for a cup of tea” in his atelier situated within the Salon de Parfums on the sixth floor of Harrods in London. With its purple velvet drapes, gilded mirrors, antique lacquer furnishing, rich silk upholstery and crystal bottles by Baccarat and Lalique, the atelier is a feast for the senses. While Dove doesn’t disclose the identities of his clients, he does remember one who was “so enthralled by the bespoke scent that they held a party to debut it to friends and family”. The fruits of his labour, or rather his ‘nose’, come at a hefty tag of £25,000.

By Kilian, New York City
Perfumer Kilian Hennessy hails from a lineage of luxury (his family is the H in LVHM). He is the grandson of Richard Hennessey, who founded the famous French cognac empire.

After working and training under some of the best perfumers in the business at Christian Dior, Paco Rabanne and Giorgio Armani, Hennessey started his eponymous brand in 2007.

His creations combine old world elegance with avant-garde blends. He may have moved away from the family business, but his perfumes continue to have cognac influences with vanilla and woody notes.

The Frenchman works his magic from his boutique in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. It can take anything from “a day to a year” to perfect a scent. “It all depends on the client,” says Hennessy. Prices are available only on request.

Once it’s done, it’s presented in art deco bottles that rest on plump beds of black satin inside carved, lacquered boxes that have their own tasseled key. 

Custom-made fragrances
California-based perfumer Mandy Aftel has made a niche in the scent world with blends crafted from natural ingredients

Aftelier Perfumes, Berkeley, California
Berkeley-based perfumer Mandy Aftel has made a niche in the scent world with blends crafted from natural ingredients. Unlike other perfumers, Aftel doesn’t rely on questions about memories and lifestyle to create custom fragrances. “The client sits at my perfume organ that is grouped in three sections—top, middle and base notes,” she shares. Top notes include fragrances like lime, spearmint and tarragon that are “familiar to people from cooking and gardening”. The middle notes are made up of spices and flowers while the base notes are derived from roots, barks, trees and grasses. Aftel, who counts on the likes of Madonna, Liv Tyler and Leonard Cohen as fans, describes the process of creating a personalised perfume as a “portrait of yourself in scent”.

A tailor-made perfume can punctuate time in someone’s life or cement a memory. That explains why Aftel has many repeat customers who come back for another scent “because something significant has changed in their life”. Her unique blends start at $2,000, and comes as two quarter ounces (about 7 ml) of solid and liquid perfume, along with a one ounce of parfum spray (nearly 30 ml).

(This story appears in the 13 November, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)