I’m a self-confessed fragrance nerd so when Penhaligon’s invited me to experience their fragrance profiling service first hand, I must admit to actually whooping.
My fascination dates way back to when I first heard the words ‘signature scent’. For many years I refused to deviate scent-wise from my first love. It took dedication and perseverance to look the other way as new brands emerged and new fragrance families were launched. Eventually I cracked. I grew to appreciate a more diverse collection of glass bottles on the shelf; the idea of a perfume wardrobe seemed so much more appealing. However, the concept has continued to enchant me. The experience of wearing any scent is so personal and one which reveals so much not only about how we perceive ourselves but how we wish others to perceive us. It is fair to state my expectations were high.
Entering the dedicated profiling room at Penhaligon’s Burlington Arcade store didn’t disappoint: low sofas, soft lighting, a cut-glass decanter of water and an inviting box of posh chocs, each speaking not only of indulgence but also potential respite from olfactory overload. This is a tiny oasis where the senses are encouraged to rule. Taking centre stage is a glass cabinet filled with scent bottles, most conforming to the original nineteenth-century design, distinguished only by their distinctive labels. Along the bottom shelf was Penhaligon’s most recent launch, The Portrait Collection, each topped with a heavy golden animal head in place of a traditional glass stopper.
I was more than ready to let my essence be discovered. What I wasn’t banking on was quite how revealing that may prove to be. I have a very definite opinion on the sort of scents I like. I’m drawn to the disruptive and affect to scorn conventionality. I tend to favour men’s fragrances of a dark and woody character. If I go down the floral route I like it to be laced with spice. All of this is clearly to counter my deep-rooted fear of being discovered to be basic. I’ve traditionally shied away from citrus (too fresh) or gourmand (too foody) and whilst I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the classics (Chanel basically) I like to think that I’m all about the new, the mysterious, the leftfield.
Lovely Alexandra, my profiler, started by asking some searching questions (quite similar to the sort of word games you might play after dinner or over drinks – If I were a flower, which would I be? Am I more tea or coffee? And so on) and soon established that I like my scent to be high-impact and statement-making, which helped her get started because the sheer breadth and scale of choice was significant. Each delicate bottle in that cabinet had its own story to tell. Hamman Bouquet – the first scent created, reproduces the fragrance from the Turkish baths adjacent to the original barber shop, and is layered with woody notes to replicate the exact aroma as the spices wafted through the floor boards. Blenheim Bouquet, created in 1902, is a citrus aromatic named for the iconic Oxfordshire palace. And I loved Vaara, created for the granddaughter of the Maharaja of Jodphur and perfectly blending rose florals with warm resin and Tonka bean. I wondered at the crisp lavender linen of Sartorial, muddled with its faint presence of beeswax to evoke a tailor’s waxed thread. But, it wasn’t just the stories of the fragrance that were filling my head. Memories were stealing in: scent is so evocative and so, whoosh! Here one which recalled my mother’s goodnight kiss, another which whizzed me back to student nights of rum and smoke, yet another which took me back to my own early motherhood and a sudden yearning for peachy sweetness.
Narrowing down to just one felt like an impossible task but after nearly an hour I had just three strips left on the ‘yes’ pile and of these there was one I kept returning to. By this point I was working solely on instinct: any conscious thought chased away by a sensory overload and with gentle encouragement I made my choice. Was it a bold men’s fragrance, or a mulled floral? It was neither. It was the glorious Changing Constance – laden with spice but with a salted caramel heart note which firmly roots it within the gourmand family I’d hitherto declared ‘not for me’. Three weeks on, it has attracted countless compliments and I still can’t get enough of it. Clearly, my senses know me better than I do.
Final note: Fragrance-profiling is available at selected stores only. I know how frustrating it can be to read of something wonderful only to discover it entails a day trip so I am delighted to report that Penhaligon’s also offer an online service. When I checked it out, its suggestions included two of my top three choices from the day, which I found pretty impressive.