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This niche perfume boutique located in the heart of Belgravia has a nose for selecting undiscovered scents that later become iconic. Seth Rowden explores their shelves to find out if he can learn the art and poetry behind ‘tasting’ perfume
It is Monday morning and it is raining. I make my way through the heart of Belgravia to Elizabeth Street where I am due to meet Maria, the most experienced ‘nose’ at London’s finest perfume boutique. Some say that Les Senteurs is the oldest perfumery in London. Most agree that it is the best. In an effort to avoid making a faux pas, I had decided not to wear any fragrance to my meeting with Maria. I was here to learn about the good stuff.
As I shake the rain off of my umbrella and step inside the small boutique, I am immediately greeted with warm smiles from the staff. Of course, I had walked past Les Senteurs before, but I had never dared to venture inside. It has the allure of a chocolate shop, and shares many similarities, minimal but earthy and real. The shelves are full of perfume bottles, and I feel an immediate spill of excitement as I realise that I want to smell them all. Les Senteurs feels more like a home than a shop, and I am already surprised by the absence of the two things I most expected: pretentiousness and the smell of perfume. Of course, there are plenty of bottles on the shelves, but I can only catch wisps of the scents. This is a very different experience to shopping in a department store. In case you have walked past Les Senteurs before and dismissed it as just another perfume shop, think again. Allow me to offer a glimpse through the window.
It is under the warm glow of lights within Les Senteurs that I meet Maria. She is an elegant lady with a kind smile, and speaks in a European accent that is as hard to identify as some of the fragrances she is about to show me. As we begin to talk, her enthusiasm for perfume occasionally breaks through as she explains the art of perfumery to me without condescending. On the contrary, it is as if she is excited to be able to talk about fragrance with somebody who knows absolutely nothing. There is no snobbery here — she is simply in love with perfume.
As my eyes scan the shelves of ornate bottles, I realise that most of these are brands I have never heard of. Maria says, “If we think it is an exclusive perfume, then we will buy it. It’s a long procedure. We like to have exclusivity. This is a niche boutique, so we like to have something a bit different,” and then, as if reading my mind, she adds, “These brands don’t need publicity. People who know perfumes, or have a bit of knowledge, read about it. They don’t have to hear about it on the TV.”
I want to be one of those people who knows about perfume. As a starting point, I ask Maria if she can talk about some of their more popular brands. “Well, I tell you, the best of all is Frédéric Malle. I can’t deny that.” Hanging on the wall above the selection of Frédéric Malle perfumes are ten framed photographs of the famous perfumers behind this brand.
Frédéric Malle coined the term, ‘editeur de parfums’. Like a conductor of an orchestra, he works with a select group of well-known perfumers, giving them access to the rarest raw ingredients and the freedom to create scents from the far reaches of their imagination. He is so serious about showing what is really involved in making a perfume, that he even published the book, On Perfume Making.
“Perfumerie Generale is,” Maria says, “also very good. There is only one nose behind it. A very talented young man.” The nose is Pierre Guillaume, a perfumer committed to offering a true alternative to mass-market products. With a background in fine chemistry and a philosophy of simplicity, he is already developing a loyal following.
There are also some English perfumes. Of course, they stock Creed — although, this is now technically French. They do stock at least one brand by an English perfume maker though. James Heeley was originally born in Yorkshire and is the nose behind the young and emerging brand Heeley. This is considered to be a very exclusive perfume. Although, like many perfumers, James Heeley now lives in Paris.
I wonder how these perfumers ever started out, and so I ask Maria if somebody is able to develop a nose for perfume. She tells me that you cannot develop a nose, as such, but you can learn to identify notes. “There are customers who spend a lot of time here. It is like wine tasting . . . they enjoy it because it is relaxed. They are not pushed or hurried, so they take their time.” I agree that it is very similar to wine tasting. I can almost hear the pop of the cork as I take the top off of each bottle. I ask Maria how much perfume people should apply. She says, “You don’t need to bathe in a perfume. There is no need to if it is a good perfume.”
We talk about whether there is a connection between the perfume and the personality of the person wearing it. I imagine that she can look at customers with the expert eye of a tailor, as if she can glean information merely by looking at them. Maria says, “Perfumes are related to poetry; to background. Sometimes you remember something in your childhood. It can remind you of something, and then you like that one. That’s why it is very personal. It’s like a tie, for a man. You can’t buy a tie unless you really know that person.”
The more time I spend in Les Senteurs, the more I am convinced that perfume is absolutely related to poetry. Brands such as Eau d’Italie have even tried to bottle the scent from Positano, the town of its origin. However, if there were one brand whose story really is tied up in poetry, it would be Juliette Has a Gun.
Juliette Has a Gun is a young independent French perfumery. The nose behind the perfume is Romano Ricci, grandson of Nina Ricci. In the creator’s mind, Juliet Capulet, Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, is transposed to the 21st Century . . . with a gun. The gun, which is a metaphor for perfume, empowers the young heroine to go wild.
Often described as the ‘offbeat dandy of the perfume world’, Romano Ricci is extremely young for a man of his talents. He was only 28-years-old when he launched his brand, and seems to be almost theatrical in his manner and style. His website describes his own feelings towards perfume: “How come your fate, your genes or whatever name you want to put on, can catch up and make you become what you were meant to be? It’s a story of style, perfume and family tights.” My hunch is that this brand will seduce many more perfume lovers over the next few years.
Les Senteurs have a history of trusting their own noses. They were the first shop in the UK to stock the complete ranges of the now famous brands of Annick Goutal, Creed and Diptyque. This means that if you shop at Les Senteurs, you really can’t go wrong; it just comes down to your personal preference.
Maria asks me what fragrance I like to wear. I tell her that I like Vetiver, and she kindly fills up some sample bottles with Creed and Frédéric Malle Extraordinaire. “Some people don’t even know where to start. You just have to look at the person and see more or less what they could wear, and try to advise them. Then eliminate the ones they don’t like. That way, you get to know the person.”
I had never experienced anything like Frédéric Malle Extraordinaire, and immediately felt drawn to it. I ask her how you know when you have found the right perfume for you. Maria smiles and says, “You think: My God! This is my perfume.”