A scent-lover's guide to Paris

Whiff of success.
Whiff of success. Photo: Getty Images

Julie Street sources exclusive fragrances created in the city's boutique perfumeries.

Aesthetes visit Paris for the architecture, gourmets go there for the food - but perfume obsessives are drawn by the promise of rare scents waiting to be unearthed in the city's niche boutiques.

The French have long understood that wearing perfume is a subtle mix of hedonism, seduction and personal style. This was all well and good back in the 1920s when a dab of Arpege at the nape of the neck marked a glamorous sophisticate. But how to waft originality in your wake when celebrity fragrances and mass-market scents dominate?

Serge Lutens, of Salons du Palais-Royal Shiseido.
Serge Lutens, of Salons du Palais-Royal Shiseido. Photo: AFP

A trip to Paris is a must, not only as a pilgrimage to the place that gave us Patou's Joy and Chanel's No.5 but also because the city is home to independent perfume makers creating the most singular scents.

The first stop on any perfume shopping spree in Paris should be Maison Kurkdjian, near the Tuileries gardens.

A pioneer of bespoke perfume creation, Francis Kurkdjian is renowned as one of the most brilliant and innovative noses in the industry. He scored his first hit with Le Male for Jean-Paul Gaultier in 1995, aged 25, and went on to impress the olfactory elite with best-selling fragrances including Narciso Rodriguez's For Her, Acqua di Parma's Iris Nobile and Dior's cult Eau Noire.

The buzz around the Armenian-born perfumer escalated after he filled the fountains at Versailles with scented soap bubbles and reproduced the smell of money for an art happening in 2003 organised by French installation artist Sophie Calle.

This resumé would be reason enough to book a private consultation with Kurkdjian. His made-to-measure perfumes cost from €8000 ($10,050) but you can expect starting prices of €30,000 or more for the bespoke service at Cartier or Guerlain.

Kurkdjian, who cites Breakfast at Tiffany's as one of his favourite movies, believes everyone should be able to "buy a little piece of the dream". So his pretty zinc-and-gold boutique also carries more affordable items, such as scented leather bracelets, incense paper and tubes of perfumed bubbles for children.

Perfumistas who don't have a spare €8000 to secure their own copyrighted fragrance for life can attain the sweet scent of exclusivity by tracking down a perfume that is so rare, so unusual and so difficult to find that it gives them their own unique sillage (meaning a "boat's wake" or a "vapour trail", sillage is the elusive whiff of perfume that remains once you've passed by - a crucial concept in perfumery and the French art of seduction.)

Second stop on the perfume trail has to be Jovoy, one of the latest additions to the Paris perfume scene. This discreet little boutique, tucked away in a quiet side street near the Place Vendome, is owned by Francois Henin, a man committed to "restoring perfume's essential mystique". Although it's as sleekly designed as a modern concept store, Jovoy has the aura of an old-fashioned perfume shop where fragrances are sniffed from the stoppers of amber apothecary bottles rather than waved around on cardboard strips.

Henin could have been content to resurrect the vintage perfume house of Jovoy (founded by Blanche Arvoy in 1923) but while he was working on re-creations of fragrances from Arvoy, he decided to take the revival a step further. "I came up with the idea of creating a 'temple of rare perfumes'," he says. "Bringing together 20 or so independent brands under one roof."

An inveterate storyteller, Henin is often found in his shop, sharing his knowledge and passion for perfume with clients. Spritzing a hint of Casta Diva by the Italian niche company Nobile 1942 on the back of my wrist, he explains how the scent was inspired not only by Bellini's classic aria Casta Diva (from the opera Norma) but also by the on-stage requirements of opera singers, who have long been banned from wearing perfume during performances because of the effect it might have on other members of the cast. Casta Diva's delicate accords of frangipani, Egyptian jasmine and white musk are designed to unfold gradually so not a hint of fragrance is diffused during a performance. However, by the time the diva returns to her dressing-room to greet her admirers, her scent will be in full flower.

Henin also recounts the story behind Josephine and Le Vainqueur, two contemporary re-creations by the historic perfume house of Rance. Legend has it that before his coronation in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned master perfumer Francois Rance to create two exclusive scents: one for himself, one for his beloved Josephine. The perfumes were designed so that if the pair found themselves in the same room, Josephine's fragrance would dominate. But if the Emperor and Empress were to move closer together, the two perfumes merged to create a whole new fragrance. In 2004, Francois Rance's great-great-granddaughter, Jeanne Sandra Rance, revisited the company archives and re-created Josephine, a romantic floral that smells surprisingly modern after all this time. But it is the male component of the duo, Le Vainqueur, which haunts the senses. Close your eyes and inhale its dark, visceral notes of vetiver, musk and ambergris and it smells as if Boney might be standing before you in mud-spattered leather boots.

Henin's boutique stocks vintage scents by classic perfumers such as Maison Dorin; the historic British brand Grossmith; L.T. Piver, a traditional French perfume house that has existed since 1774; and it also carries cutting-edge contemporary creations. These include the exclusive French line MDCI and Henin's personal "coup de coeur", Technique Indiscrete, a collection of avant-garde fragrances by Belgian couture-designer-turned-perfumer Libertin Louison. Louison draws inspiration from a range of eclectic sources. Santa Subita captures the sensual wood, incense and myrrh aromas of St Catherine's Orthodox Church in Brussels, while Delivre-moi, a rich mix of anise, honey and almond, began with a random trip to the countryside when Louison saved a queen bee struggling to get back into her hive.

Most fragrance fans will find their own way to classic Parisian perfume shrines such as Guerlain, Caron and Annick Goutal. To sniff out the city's more unusual and exclusive scents, the best place to start is the 1st arrondissement, where you'll find Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier (founded by Jean-Francois Laporte), Parfums de Nicolai (whose founder and chief nose, Patricia de Nicolai, is a member of the Guerlain family) and JAR, the boutique of Paris-based American jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal.

Cutting-edge scents by British perfume iconoclast Mark Buxton and the experimental French collective Le Labo can be sampled at the perfume counter at Colette. A few doors away, Hotel Costes is the only place in the world where you can buy Olivia Giacometti's ultra-niche perfume line IUNX.

No Parisian perfume pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to the legendary Salons du Palais-Royal Shiseido, Serge Lutens's opulent HQ, which has attracted a cult following since opening in the Palais-Royal gardens in 1992. Fragrance connoisseurs from around the world flock here to stock up on Les Exclusives, perfumes from Lutens's non-export line that can be bought only at the Paris boutique or shipped by mail order to a limited number of European countries.

I've been a long-time fan of Frederic Malle's Editions de Parfums, so called because Malle places himself in the role of editor, "publishing" unique fragrances by a team of internationally renowned perfumers who are given carte blanche to create the perfume of their dreams. Malle has opened several stores across the city but the original outlet in the 7th arrondissement remains my favourite.

One of the stars in Malle's portfolio of perfumers, Jean-Claude Ellena, is the official nose at Hermes; in 2000, he joined forces with his daughter, Celine, to launch The Different Company. Showcased in a tiny boutique in the Marais, the pair's sophisticated and beautifully packaged fragrances are designed to be worn by both men and women.

Those looking for more subversive scents should drop into another independent Marais parfumerie, Etat Libre d'Orange. This niche Parisian perfume house was founded by Etienne de Swardt, a marketing maverick who, like Malle and MDCI, has assembled a dream team of perfumers that includes Antoine Maisondieu (grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher Albert Camus). Etat Libre d'Orange specialises in perfumes with provocative accords and taboo-breaking names. The bottles are a little too risque to make gifts for conservative friends, so you're unlikely to encounter too many women trailing the scent of Putain des Palaces (Hotel Slut) or Magnificent Secretions. With outre fragrances such as these, your own unique sillage is pretty much guaranteed.

FAST FACTS

Maison Francis Kurkdjian, 5 rue d'Alger, 1st. Metro: Tuileries. Custom-made scents by appointment, phone +33 142 774 033.

Jovoy, 29 rue Danielle Casanova, 1st. Metro: Pyramides/Opera.

Guerlain, 68 ave des Champs-Elysees, 8th. Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Caron, 90 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, 1st. Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Annick Goutal, 14 rue de Castiglione, 1st. Metro: Tuileries.

Parfums de Nicolai, 28 rue de Richelieu, 1st. Metro: Palais Royal.

JAR, 24 rue de Castiglione, 1st. Metro: Tuileries.

Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, 5 rue des Capucines, 1st. Metro: Opera.

Colette, 213 rue Saint-Honore, 1st. Metro: Tuileries.

IUNX at Hotel Costes, 239 rue Saint-Honore, 1st. Metro: Tuileries.

Salons du Palais-Royal Shiseido, 142 Galerie de Valois, 1st. Metro: Palais Royal.

Frederic Malle, 37 rue de Grenelle, 7th. Metro: Rue du Bac.

The Different Company, 10 rue Ferdinand Duval, 4th. Metro: Saint-Paul.

Etat Libre d'Orange, 69 rue des Archives, 4th. Metro: Rambuteau.

A selection of niche perfumes are also found at Le Bon Marche (24 rue de Sevres, 7th. Metro: Sevres-Babylone) and on the ground floor of Printemps de la Beaute (64 Boulevard Haussmann, 9th. Metro: Chaussee d'Antin).

Comments