A perfume perfect for you

A row of identically-shaped perfume bottles are all turned so that the labels face away from me.

As I struggle to give coherent answers to a series of questions about the first fragrances I remember, my preferences in accessories and fashion, my lifestyle and habits, I can’t help feeling a little sceptical.

I own nothing with a designer label and my own ideas of my personal style are hazy at best. And besides, no fragrance smells horrible, so surely I am bound to like whatever is selected for me.

I am attending a fragrance profiling session with Kris Dembinsky, Head of Global Sales for Penhaligon’s, an English perfume house whose fragrances are now available in the Cayman Islands, exclusively at Le Visage in Camana Bay.

Founded in 1870 by Cornish barber William Penhaligon, the brand keeps the unorthodox spirit of its creator alive.

Staying firmly out of the mainstream, Penhaligon’s follows its own quirky, individual path.

It is not just the exclusivity that sets Penhaligon’s apart from the masses (you will not find these fragrances in high street department stores – try Harrods or Saks Fifth Avenue instead) but also their tradition of going against the grain: Penhaligon, court barber and perfumer to Queen victoria, was working in an era characterised by prudence and austerity; his style however was flamboyant, exotic and unorthodox – something which shone through in the fragrances he created.

His first fragrance, Hammam Bouquet, was inspired by the Turkish bath house adjacent to his barber shop.

It was designed to capture the hot steaminess and exoticism of the hammam.

The fragrance is still sold today, an impressive tale of longevity, considering that nowadays around 300 new fragrances hit department store shelves each year, and within two years 85 per cent of these have been discontinued.

Every perfume created at Penhaligon’s has its own unique story.

Rather than creating a fragrance to go with a mass marketing campaign, at Penhaligon’s perfumers are given free rein to take their inspiration from places, people and activities.

The most recent fragrance, Sartorial, was inspired by a tailor’s workroom in London’s Savile Row and captures the smells and materials of the room: fabric, paper patterns, beeswax and chalk.

As Penhaligon’s reputation and his appeal to the upper classes spread, he began to receive requests for bespoke fragrances.

Blenheim Bouquet was created for the Duke of Marlborough in 1902 and, typically breaking with tradition, Penhaligon came up with the first citrus based fragrance to be produced in England.

Up until then, fragrances had all been dense, heavy and musky, designed to overpower the unpleasant odours of Victorian London.

This light, refreshing fragrance continues to be a best seller today.

This quintessentially English brand has continued to create fragrances favoured by the aristocracy, receiving two Royal Warrants – marks of recognition awarded by members of the Royal Family who have been supplied with the company’s goods or services.

The iconic plain glass bottles, the old-fashioned paper labels and the very names – Elisabethan Rose, Racquets Formula, Jubilee Bouquet – all seem to evoke images of British gentility.

Interestingly however, although many of the fragrances are steeped in history, they do not smell in any way out-dated.

Dembinsky selects a number of fragrances for me to try out.

Despite my earlier conviction that I was bound to like them all, I actually reject the first two immediately.

The next two I like, and the last one I don’t.

I realise I don’t actually know the right words to describe what I smell, but one seems sweet and cloying, another too ‘pink’ and flowery, the last too harsh.

Having narrowed down the “families” of fragrances my preferences lie in, I am then offered some alternatives from the families I like.

The concept of fragrance profiling has been around for some time, but the practice has really been perfected in the last two years.

At Penhaligon’s staff are trained as ‘fragrance specialists’ rather than sales people and are experts on both their own range of perfumes, and other brands.

Dembinsky emphasises that it is important that specialists do not ask questions about the specific smells someone likes, but rather aim to build up a picture of the client’s personality, style and outlook.

The perfume names are kept hidden from view, lest you be influenced by them, or the associations you make with them.

My final choice turns out to be Quercus.

I couldn’t have told you off the bat why I liked this particular one, but when I learn the name is Latin for oak, and that it was inspired by the strength and solidity of those trees, I think maybe I do smell wood, foliage and the cool, fresh smell of a forests.

A further dimension of the brand’s unconventional approach is the fact that fragrances are not designed specifically for men or for women, and indeed my preferred choice is purchased by both genders in equal proportions.

The profiling service is available through the website www.penhaligons.com, where you can answer a series of questions and within a few days will receive a personalised email (not an automated response) suggesting two or three fragrances you will like.

You can then drop into Le Visage to try them out, or, even better you can now be fragrance profiled right in the store.

Penhaligon’s has expanded over the years and now offers a range of bath oils, shower gels, soaps, body lotions, candles and more.

Another service they offer, and something you can practice at home, is fragrance layering.

The idea is that you first wash with the scented soap, oil, or gel, then moisturise with a lotion of the same smell, follow this with a dusting of talcum powder and finish off with a spray of the perfume.

By creating layers of the same basic scent on the skin, it creates a noticeable depth of fragrance.

I had a mini-version of this done on my hands and at the end of the day I am still inhaling deeply and day dreaming of clean air and shadowy woodlands….

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