Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes in the United States says she considers herself a very lucky woman because she has the opportunity to craft beautiful scents every day with “materials that are so gorgeous, diverse and historical”.
“Smells are complicated,” the perfumer says. “They take you places, remind you of things, and just allowing them to wash over you will start you on a path.”
Penny Ellis, bespoke perfumes manager for Floris London, shares the sentiment. “Having a fragrance that evokes memories is the most beautiful thing,” she says. “How a certain scent can instantly transport you to a particular place in time is so powerful and magical.”
This is especially the case for bespoke perfumes, which takes the world of personalisation to new dimensions. The process offers individuals a chance to not only convert emotions and memories into a unique scent, but also to create new emotions and memories to be associated with the fragrance.
There are only a handful of artisans who have mastered the exacting skills required to make a name for themselves in this field.
Cartier perfumer Mathilde Laurent is one example. A trained chemist, Laurent brings her scents to life in the maison’s fragrance laboratory. It is in this stunningly meticulous laboratory, located on the sixth floor of the Cartier Foundation building in Paris, that she applies her art using a chemist’s apparatus of pipettes and flasks.
While Laurent offers experience from working under Jean-Paul Guerlain at Guerlain, another house known for its expertise in bespoke fragrances, it’s equally important that she also has a background in science. Crafting perfumes is a delicate balance between art and science. And when it comes to creating a bespoke scent for a client, an even more complex task is added into the mix.
After all, the ultimate goal of a bespoke perfume is to translate the client’s story – whether it’s a vision, a memory or a feeling – into a one-of-a-kind scent they can share with loved ones.
“My job is to tell [their] story,” says Francis Kurkdjian, another perfume artisan who has designed specialised scents for everyone from royalty to celebrities as well as for spaces.
As romantic as that concept sounds, that is where the difficulties lie. In the quest to create a bespoke scent, the perfumer also has to take on the role of a psychologist. The artisan must go beyond the art and science of making perfumes and come to truly understand what their client desires.
“It’s very important to have an exchange with them,” Kurkdjian explains. When it comes to creating a bespoke perfume, “it’s not [just] about designing. It’s not about trying or guessing, it’s about meeting expectations. I have to understand what [the client] wants”. The key to success is simple, says Parisian perfumer Blaise Mautin: “Listening, listening and listening.” Mautin, like his counterparts, has designed countless scents for individuals and spaces alike.
The design process begins as a conversation between client and perfumer. Mautin starts with a quiz, which helps determine which smells his client prefers. Aftel invites clients to sit at her “perfume organ”. They are invited to experience Aftel’s range of top notes, middle notes and base notes, then are asked to rank their favourites without knowing what the scents are.
“I create their perfume from their unvarnished and completely open love for the essences that they treasure the most,” Aftel says.
Given the nature of the process, it is not surprising that the industry veterans use the word “intimate” to describe bespoke perfume making. Kurkdjian says: “[Clients] expect intimacy because creating a perfume is a process that includes intimacy.”
The process is intimate because the perfumer must get to know their client in depth to determine how to best translate their emotions and memories into a scent.
There’s no shortcut around this. “[You can] never second-guess a person’s preferences based on their obvious characteristics,” says Floris London’s Ellis, who enjoys the process.
“People have such intriguing memories and experiences, which the fragrance materials reveal and I get to share.”
Complex as the practice may be, the results make it worthwhile. For the customers, the appeal is obvious. “When you have a bespoke perfume, you are [all that more] unique,” Mautin says. It also pushes you into the realms of true luxury, he adds, because “real luxury is [the] small details which change your life”.
For the perfumers – like any other artists – their work is a source of pride and joy. “Like a painter would do with colours, my underlying motivation with each perfume is to capture a memory or a feeling, and share that through a scent,” Aftel says.
Aftel recalls her most challenging project, in which a customer ordered a pair of perfumes for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Her client selected essences which reminded her of them, and helped the perfumer to create an olfactory portrait of the couple. “The resulting portraits allowed the client to smell what her parents represented to her and gave the parents the experience from her viewpoint of what things they would like to smell,” she says. “It’s moving and it’s meaningful.”
Because the process of creating a bespoke fragrance requires a great deal of time and effort from both the perfumer and the client, industry powerhouses limit the number of orders they take each year. The range varies between perfumers. For example, Kurkdjian takes no more than 10 orders a year, while Aftel can complete two bottles per month.
And the process doesn’t end once the custom scent is bottled. The formula is usually kept on file so that it can be re-created or passed on to future generations.
However, there are varying views as to whether or not clients should be given their fragrance’s formula. Mautin does not provide it, as he believes he should be the one to choose each ingredient to ensure it is correct and has two select laboratories which he trusts to handle his creations. Meanwhile, Ellis provides the customer with their formula while also adding it to Floris London’s private perfume ledgers, so that the client can reorder the bespoke fragrance whenever they so desire.
Regardless of approach, it cannot be denied: Clients who opt to have a bespoke fragrance designed for them are in for a treat. Not only will they end up with a unique scent, but they will also have their essence captured in a bottle to cherish for a lifetime.
There has certainly been a push towards personalisation of perfumes, says Mia Collins, head of beauty at Harrods.
Harrods opened Salon de Parfums last year, a floor dedicated to rare and luxury perfumes.
"All the brands in this department include an element of personalisation and customisation in the services and products they provide," says Collins, adding that the store wanted to give customers an "elevated level of exclusivity" for its fragrances.
Customisation ranges from "something as simple as having a bottle engraved with your initials versus the purest definition of 'bespoke': having a fragrance created uniquely for you", she says. She has seen immense interest from both ends of the spectrum.
This is the case for British perfumer Clive Christian. His signature perfume No1, also known as "the world's most expensive perfume", is available at Harrods.
While the perfumer does not create bespoke fragrances, he has created limited-edition and bespoke bottles to house his signature scent.
Special-edition bottles in the past have included the No1 Passant Guardant, created exclusively for Harrods' Salon de Parfums, and No1 Imperial Majesty housed in a stunning bottle created by French crystal house Baccarat.
Additional reporting Vivian Chen