I am sure most Spectator readers would agree that Christmas shopping used not to be so stressful. Every Christmas Eve my father, himself a Spectator contributor, would pop into Fortnum & Mason to pick up a reassuringly expensive bottle of Joy for my mother. Annually she accepted it with the grace of someone receiving a bottle of scent for the very first time — job done. She preferred Trésor but to admit it was tantamount to treachery.
Today the plethora of smells, assaulting the nostrils of anyone venturing into a perfumery, is enough to destabilise the most loyal brand devotee. The fragrance industry has exploded and now it is de rigueur to switch scent with one’s mood or time of day. People discuss scent like connoisseurs describing fine wine.
Foreseeing this trend, perfumer Lyn Harris founded Miller Harris in 2000, specialising in limited editions and personal fragrance. A visit to the flagship store in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square is like walking into a black lacquered jewel box, redolent of luxury and smelling heavenly. Her latest offering, Fleurs de Sel, conjures up a windy day by the ocean. ‘This has that salty tang of the Brittany sea marshes that I so love,’ Lyn enthuses. Its ingredients include sea moss, red thyme, clary sage, cistus, wild iris and rose, ambrette seed and vetiver. No wonder Lyn claims that the foundation stone of her brand is its dedication to precious ingredients.
Though Miller Harris is an established brand, Lyn’s core business is bespoke scent. ‘Personal fragrance is the future. No one wants to smell like someone else anymore,’ she says. Her waiting-list proves the point. Lyn can only take six customers a year and the process takes months. Then your very own scent’s formula is registered in Grasse en Provence, the epicentre of the world’s fragrance industry, before being delivered in a bottle engraved with the name you choose for it.
For those with less patience who need something special in time for Christmas, help is at hand. Les Senteurs, in Belgravia’s Elizabeth Street, opened its doors in 1984 and is already London’s oldest privately owned perfumer, stocking rare and cult fragrances from around the world. James Craven, in-house ‘Archivist and Fragrance Adviser’, assures me they stock enough great scents to find the perfect fragrance for everyone.
Like Lyn, James has witnessed a huge shift away from the giant, unisex brands that dominated the Eighties and Nineties. ‘Back then everyone wanted to smell fresh, like clean laundry,’ he says. ‘People were afraid to be noticed. But now people are craving the attention that comes from wearing a daring, individual scent. Men are no longer scared of florals.’
With that he picks up a curved bottle and sprays my wrist. Suddenly I smell irresistibly of daffodils in the rain and orange blossom with darker hints of musk, vetiver and sandalwood. It’s Caron’s Narcisse Noir and even its provenance reeks of romance. It was originally made for a maharajah in 1911 and then discovered by Diaghilev who made every dancer in the Ballets Russes wear it. Gloria Swanson was so addicted to it that she insisted the set of Sunset Boulevard was sprinkled with it daily. I feel I am aglow with timeless glamour as I am guided to the next shelf by Michael Donovan, PR for Les Senteurs. Michael’s knowledge of scent is encyclopaedic and his passion infectious. ‘This one has vodka, champagne and Russian tea in it,’ he says, spraying Ambre Russe. ‘If scent doesn’t smell a bit dirty, it’s just not sexy.’
Michael’s own scent odyssey began when he was given a bottle of Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, worn by George Clooney and Pierce Brosnan. ‘It changed my life. Suddenly everyone was asking me what I had on.’
Paris-based Creed was established in London in 1760 by an Irish saddler and the range is stocked by Les Senteurs. Championed by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, Creed’s reputation spread and soon Queen Victoria was wearing his Fleurs de Bulgarie. Creed went on to create fragrances for Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, and made Fleurissimo, still a bestseller, for Princess Grace’s wedding day. Six generations later, Olivier Creed’s devotion to the craft endures. To keep his nose refined, he never wears scent himself and only smokes one cigar a week.
If it’s good enough for a princess and a maharajah, it’s good enough for me. Gifts purchased, I leave trailing a cloud of golden daffodils in my wake. Christmas shopping just became stress-free again.