My all-time favourite perfume is Chanel Coco Mademoiselle. I coveted it for years, and eventually, in the days of being broke and freelance, I spent the paycheck from my first published article on a bottle of it. Even now I wear it every day because I love the way it smells and the way it makes me feel. And yet, despite all this, if you were to ask me to describe the scent to you, I couldn’t.
Perfume is such a personal thing, but there is so much I don’t know. Fortunately, I was about to get an education, thanks to a birthday gift from my brother. I had an appointment with a London perfumer – and not just any perfumer. I was going to Floris.
One of London’s oldest perfumeries, Floris has been operating since 1730, and is where Queen Elizabeth buys her own personal fragrance, although naturally that scent is kept a secret.
The original location is tucked away on Jermyn Street, behind the pastel façade of Fortnum & Mason – incidentally, where the Queen gets her groceries – but the bespoke perfumery appointments take place at their new Ebury Street address, in the pretty colonnaded streets of Belgravia. It was here that I met Shelagh Foyle, an experienced perfumer who would take me through an olfactory journey.
And it really was a journey – it even had an element of time travel. Although all the senses contain memory receptors, those of smell are the oldest, and a whiff of a scent can take us back to a specific moment in time. We will all react to a fragrance in different ways because there will be something personal associated with it. And it could be good or bad. For this reason, I was warned, I may not like everything I would smell during my appointment.
“I have no idea what you’re about to experience”, said Shelagh.
This was personal.
The first scent I loved. It reminded me of the CK One I used to steal from my mother’s dressing table when I was fifteen. (Sorry Mum, about time you knew.) I found out this was bergamot, which makes sense given my obsessive adoration for Earl Grey tea. It is also, Shelagh revealed, one of the main components of Coco Mademoiselle. Wow. We’d barely started and I already had my world rocked.
Another scent was immediately offensive – it smelled exactly like my dad’s place did after a house fire gutted most of the building. “Sandalwood”, said Shelagh. I thought I knew what sandalwood smelled like from dabbles with cheap incense, but turns out the real thing is quite different. And, interestingly, I’m told that not everyone can smell sandalwood. Seriously? How can someone not smell that? I found this hard to believe, but the very next fragrance – musk – gave off no smell at all. I sniffed it again and again, but there was nothing there. Shelagh gave me a knowing nod. Everyone’s nose is different.
So is everyone’s skin. I’m a warm person so apparently I carry perfume well, but as is widely known, a perfume will smell different on me than it will on someone else. We tried my favourite base fragrances on my skin, allowed them to develop, and in the meantime I whiffed my way through a vast selection of complementary scents, from grassy citrus notes that smelled like the foliage in a florist, to resinous amber that reminded me of the souks in Morocco. There was spicy ginger and sweet burnt sugar, smooth vanilla and pure almond. Things I thought I would like and recognise, I rejected. Others I didn’t connect with, probably because I could find no point of reference. It was like being in a test kitchen, except nobody else could taste what I was making. This was just for me.
As Shelagh masterfully measured from large brown bottles, squeezed in essences with an eyedropper, gently stirred and made calculations in her notebook, I was busy with the task of naming my fragrance. Shelagh’s method was inspired by whisky distillation, and being a big fan of whisky I was tempted to bring that into the label. But ultimately the tea influence of the bergamot and the association with the royal perfumery meant only one name would do. Lady Grey.
Putting the final touches to my perfume was tricky – mild panic set in as I couldn’t decide if I liked the scent on my skin. Florals, citrus and base notes jostled for front row and every few minutes it smelled different. What if I changed my mind? What if I get it wrong? My error was overthinking it. Don’t think, just smell. Shelagh reassured me we would get it just right, and patiently added a touch more of this, a little less of that, and finally we found the perfect balance. A perfume made of good memories and ingredients that would mingle magically on my skin.
Lady Grey went into the official database, my own personal Floris fragrance. I watched as the concoction was bottled, boxed and then presented to me in a carrier bag tied with ribbon. I was even handed an official copy of the recipe – but, just like Her Royal Highness, I’m not telling.