“No elegance is possible without perfume. It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory.” So said Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose landmark creation, No. 5, began pervading the streets of Paris in 1921. Indeed, while the birth of the perfume industry is traced to medieval-era Grasse on the French Riviera – still home to much of the country’s production – it’s the French capital and the energy of its people that often inspire the scents.
Iconic perfume labels such as Guerlain embody a cultural heritage that still lingers in the city. Establishing his first shop in 1828 on Rue de Rivoli, founder Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain created the eau de cologne Impériale for Empress Eugénie to celebrate her marriage to Emperor Napoléon III in 1853. Four generations of master perfumers from the Guerlain family went on to produce over 600 scents before the brand was bought by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1994.
Almost 200 years since Guerlain was founded, on a stroll along the cobbled paths of Île Saint-Louis to the Haut Marais, passing glistening zinc rooftops and centuries-old stone façades – from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Hôtel de Ville – I am conscious that the City of Light’s many storied streets still have the power to awaken the senses.
Imposing wooden doors, skilfully carved and worn by time, lead into enchanting courtyards, revealing a glimpse into the fabled past of this monumental destination. Corner café terraces brimming with locals animate the tangle of streets, while the sweet scent of freshly baked croissants fills the crisp autumn air. On a walk like this, the words of French poet Charles Baudelaire come to mind as I take on the role of a flâneur: “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”.
Today, I am on a very specific quest: to discover Paris as muse and spiritual home for perfume brands and their creators. This sensory journey first leads me to L’Officine Universelle Buly, located on the historic Rue Bonaparte, which runs through the heart of the Left Bank. Entering this grand building feels like stepping into a Victorian apothecary.
Giant glass flasks of coloured liquids fill the dark-wood shelves, while beautiful white bottles line the counters above a striking blue chequered floor. Specialising in all-natural oils, fragrances and bath products, the store is the creation of Victoire de Taillac and her husband Ramdane Touhami. Since this original branch opened in 2014, the couple has gone on to open several boutiques globally.
When we meet for a coffee at Café Tortoni, the Belle Époque-style space located at their second Paris outpost on Rue de Saintonge, de Taillac reveals that the pair took the inspiration for the brand from Parisian perfumer Jean-Vincent Bully who founded his own celebrated beauty emporium in the early 19th century.
Elegantly understated, her skin radiant without make-up, de Taillac goes on to talk about Buly’s latest fragrance collection, created in collaboration with the Louvre Museum. The project saw the couple select eight leading perfumers to each create a fragrance inspired by an artwork found in the Louvre. Or, as de Taillac puts it with a smile, to provide “another perspective on an art piece”. She speaks of the famous Greek statue of Venus de Milo as an example: “This is the most feminine woman on earth. What does she smell like?”
As interpreted by perfumer Jean-Christophe Hérault, Venus de Milo embodies an exhilarating blend of mandarin, jasmine and amber. Meanwhile, La Victoire de Samothrace, the Hellenistic sculpture chosen by Aliénor Massenet, inspires notes of tuberose, magnolia and jasmine with a hint of myrrh; while Jean- Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ painting La Baigneuse exudes a mix of citronella and orange blossom with patchouli and incense, according to perfumer Daniela Andrier.
All these scents can be experienced, along with the original artworks, thanks to Buly’s distinctively designed pop-up shop in one of the museum stores at the Louvre. Until 6 January next year, you can take a fragrant souvenir home with you, thanks to a range that spans scented postcards, candles and perfume.
Away from the crowds of the city’s central landmark, along an unassuming street in the Haut Marais, steps from the Picasso Museum, I enter Histoires de Parfums. This bespoke perfume boutique evokes a contemporary art gallery with its bright pops of colour and artful displays. Within this space, the casually elegant founder, Gérald Ghislain, a tall figure with hair tied back in a ponytail, puts my olfactory sense to work as he introduces me to his unusual line of signature fragrances.
From the visionary author Jules Verne to wartime spy Mata Hari, Ghislain’s perfumes take their inspiration from an eclectic range of sources: a cult book, a painting or a romantic poem – each scent is a story that can be read on the skin. For example, Ghislain’s 1889 fragrance is a celebration of the famous Parisian cabaret show Moulin Rouge. “I imagined a sensual, vibrant, powdered fragrance as an ode to femininity and to the timeless Moulin Rouge woman,” he explains.
In addition to its stories, Ghislain says it is Paris itself where he turns ideas into reality. “The buildings, the sound of the street, the smell of fresh bread, the people – feeling all the senses of the city allows me to focus on my ideas,” he says.
Later, as I wander among the high-end boutiques on Rue Cambon, just up the street from Chanel and the Ritz in the 1st arrondissement, I arrive at the sleek black and gold frontage of Memo Paris. Born and raised in Paris, founders Clara Molloy and her husband John also derive their inspiration from the city. “Paris continues to surprise me,” Molloy explains. “The smell of the bookstalls, the gardens of Luxembourg, the streets after the rain.” Her affection for the Latin Quarter is brought to life in Quartier Latin, their signature scent of cedar, sandalwood and amber, while Eau de Memo is the couple’s ode to the very soul of the Paris that they love.
Of course, a journey into French fragrances wouldn’t be complete without stopping to smell the perfumes at Hermès’ imposing flagship store close by on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. This family company, founded in 1837, didn’t introduce scents until the brand’s unisex signature fragrance Eau d’Hermès was released in 1951. Yet a conversation with in-house nose Christine Nagel proves how tied Hermès is to its scents and the city. “Paris is a city that combines tradition and modernity, past and future, history and culture,” Nagel says. “I think that the Hermès House could only be born in Paris!”
Nagel’s floral and woody perfume Un Jardin sur la Lagune, released in March, took all of 18 months to create. A couple of months ago, Twilly Eau Poivrée made its debut, a vibrant fragrance playfully weaving together peppercorn, rose and patchouli. As one of the few distinguished female noses in what is traditionally a male-dominated field, Nagel lives and breathes fragrance. “It is not a job; it is a passion. It is never possible to turn off my nose,” she admits. “When you sleep, you close your eyes. But my nose is open all the time.”
Jean-Michel Duriez is another nose who possesses an emotional relationship with Paris. After 30 years as a composer of perfumes for fashion labels Jean Patou and Rochas, he founded his eponymous brand in April 2017, with the Paris-sur-Seine collection featuring eight unisex fragrances dedicated to different aspects of the French capital.
His second collection Paris en Mai – consisting of three floral fragrances: roses, tulips and amber – recalls the city’s blooming gardens in the early summer. For example, the rose-inspired Mes Fleurs de Roses blends a Damask rose oil with scents of peony, blood orange and blackcurrant. “For me, Paris is a timeless love story – I wanted to evoke the emotions that tell these love stories,” Duriez admits.
And it is not just the aromas of the city that he finds inspirational – the designs of Duriez’s signature bottles play on Parisian architecture, from the arched doorways of the Neoclassical mansions to the Arc de Triomphe.
With so many intoxicating aromas to choose from, my dilemma is how to select my own signature scent. This quest takes me to the heart of the 2nd arrondissement and Nose Paris, created in 2012. I take a seat at the long counter of this loft-like space, surrounded by bespoke bottles of over 500 perfumes from over 50 brands.
One of the co-founders, Nicolas Cloutier, helps me fill out a short questionnaire and begin my olfactive diagnostic experience. As soon as I mention a few of my favourite scents, Cloutier starts bringing over perfume brands I know nothing about. The scent Intoxicated, from one of these bespoke brands, Kilian, blends a heady mix of mocha coffee, cardamom and vanilla.
Assisted by master perfumer Mark Buxton, they are able to understand the originality and quality of a fragrance. “We curate brands and select those fragrances that add a new stone to the building,” Cloutier explains. Their unique concept is pretty accessible: You can take this olfactory diagnosis online, from anywhere, and for just €10 receive five samples in the mail.
But my fragrant journey of Paris has inspired me to create my very own scent of the city, something that anyone can now do at The Alchemist Atelier. Entering this contemporary sensorial haven, which opened this June, I find myself greeted by vivid images of flowers, herbs and spices lining the walls. One of their three resident perfumers takes me downstairs, where these flowers and herbs are bottled into scents. I choose from their dozens of bases and accords, ranging from nutmeg to lavender, trusting my intuition while being guided by my nose.
Selections made, we then proceed back upstairs to a “scent creator”, a machine which skilfully mixes my fragrance based on instructions from their smartphone application. We then play with the quantities, adding more sandalwood, removing some green citrus and just a hint of soft musk, until my custom perfume, a symphony of woody and spicy notes, is perfectly balanced. What do I decide to call it? Une Journée à Paris.
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This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine