The second of my ‘special birthday’ treats was a visit to a perfumery called ‘Floris’ in Jermyn Street, London, to conjure up a very personal perfume!
I can remember my first experience of perfumes; there used to be two types on the Woolworth’s counter in tiny little glass bottles, one with a purple ribbon around and a picture of violets and the other, I think, was a red rose? They had a similar smell to the Christmas soaps shaped like Father Christmas!
Our house was not a perfume-orientated home, even though there were seven girls (and one boy, poor thing) and the nearest I came to perfume was collecting rose petals and steeping them in water in a jar and trying to capture the essence, invariably they turned to a foul-smelling mouldy sludge that had to be thrown out.
When I was about five, I became interested in the lavender and rose smells emanating from my Nana’s bathroom. We used to visit her every Sunday and there was always a bowl of roses on the table during the summer months, and during the cold winter season, a blue light from the depths of the ‘back-kitchen’ and a strange smell which I was told was the gas! The toilet facilities were in the back yard, which I remember was a beautiful terracotta red, as Nana used to redden it with’Cardinal red’ Wow, that’s where I got my love of terracotta! The bathroom was at the top of the stairs and the light used to beckon through the etched windows in the door; there was no reason really for us to visit the room, apart from if you asked politely to borrow a handkerchief ( embroidered and folded neatly in the desk drawers with lavender bags?) so it was a treat to be cherished to fill your nose with lavender and rosewater smells.
I then discovered ‘Pretty Peach’ which was a girl’s solid cream perfume in a little container, shaped and painted like a basket of peaches. It was part of the Avon range, when Avon first emerged and it must have been the 60s. Their range of solid perfumes developed into less subtle smells and much more elaborate jars with more exotic names and was it then that the pungent smell of gardenias and lily of the valley made their appearance?
Lemon and orange soaps in wooden containers and bottles of different coloured shell soaps replaced the Woolworth’s brands but I used to keep them for years and just get them out of their containers and smell them and look at the colours, an artist in the making?
I am writing about these memories, as the first thing the wonderful lady in the perfumery asked me, was to recount first memories of smells I had liked and also which perfumes I had used already and which ones I still used. As ‘struggling artists’ there was no money at all for perfumes and my first bottle of ‘Opium’ by Yves St Laurent came as a pressie from my brother in law after a visit to France with his family. He had been buying his wife perfume since the day they met and felt sorry for me! Did I marry the wrong brother I ask myself? He was brilliant, every time he bought my sister in law Coco Chanel or Madame Byzance by Rochas, I had a bottle too, I think my kind sister in law had something to do with the purchases also, bless her.
I loved the bottles and the packaging, even though I knew they cost more than the perfume itself because I am a complete sucker for that kind of thing and I kept all the bottles over the years until just recently when I had to give myself a really good talking to when we moved! I used to hide them in my underwear drawer until my knickers smelt of alcohol! I can remember popping into Rackhams perfume counter on the way to College to spray myself with ‘Samsara’ by Guerlain.
All the old perfumes are much too heavy for me now and I favour Coco Chanel’s ‘ Mademoiselle’ and Dior’s ‘Dolce Vita’. Actually, apparently it is the vanilla I like in the latter; my son was persuaded to buy me ‘Hypnotique Poison’ as a substitute because of the vanilla content, I think he wsa hoodwinked as it is much heavier and smell more like the ‘Opium’ of days gone by! That brings me to an interesting conclusion about children and their memories of mothers’ perfumes: Ruth bought me a little spray of ‘Opium’ in those gorgeous satin bags they come in, to take with me on my honeymoon ( oops, first marriage of 24 years, second marriage, now of 11 years, different perfumes? Good job I didn’t change my husband as many times as I changed my perfumes or EVEN tried out new samples!!!!! What fun I could have had; I was married at 20! I most definitely should have taken a more olfactory angle?
Anyway, I was asked to give a SUMMARY of my perfume experiences, although I so loved chatting with the ‘perfume-designer’ as she was brilliant and great to have an adult female ‘girlie-talk’ but my husband had decided he’d like to stay in for the whole 90 minute experience so I was slightly uneasy about his reaction to this very feminine aspect of me that he hasn’t met yet? (When we were planning our wedding I overheard him telling my niece on the phone how he felt like he was floating on a raft of female romanticism………it has stuck in my mind as we have been friends for 40 years…I had thought he had noticed my female attributes as well as my intellectual prowess… I have a saying now: “You never know your man until you marry him, you never know your man until you buy a house with him and now you never know your man until you retire with him………. there could be more to come………..best bit is always marry a longstanding friend?……..Mmmmmm………someone who shares your 60th treat, smelling perfumes for 90 minutes, becoming involved in the chemistry of the olfactory process………my romanticism will never be crushed!!!!! ………hours of fun ahead……………!
The Visit To FLORIS
I loved the visit and it was an informative experience: I didn’t know that ALL perfumes are distilled in factories to a formula which is written down rather like a recipe with percentages, or milligrams of each ‘smell’ and then sent to each perfume house UNLESS you are FLORIS who have their own perfumery in Devon somewhere and then their shop in Jermyn Street where they make personal perfumes. It is an amazing shop with a plethora of glass cabinets full of antique perfume bottles and boxes and Account Ledgers from eons ago, with the costs of perfume bought by Royalty, and in some cases the entries tell the secrets of past purchasers! ( Actually, I was there on the Tuesday before the ‘Royal Wedding’ and the head ‘perfumerer’ wasn’t available because he was at Buckingham Palace) The walls are lined with apothecary drawers and there is an air of stepping back into the past.
We (hubby as well) were given the base ‘smells’, rubbed onto the back of my hand, to decide which one would be the base for all the other smells to be added. ‘Iris’ was the most expensive (and the one I didn’t like, as it smelt heavily of Gardenias) and White Rose and Tuberose, or it might have been Tudor rose?? These ‘bases’ were already distilled in dark brown bottles and then the extra potions of smells were added when I had decided which I liked. The added smells ranged from Amber Gris to Ylang Ylang to Sandalwood. All were applied to paper spatulas and we breathed on them to allow the alcohol to evaporate before smelling. We discarded the ugh ones and savoured the ooo ones! To clear our smell senses, we opened little silver boxes, which were full of coffee beans, and sniffed to calm our brains, and my decision mechanisms!
It was really difficult to make a decision and the end result didn’t really have enough oomph for me; I had to have some Musk added, or it might have been the Amber Gris, which they used to extract from some revolting white stuff which belonged in the colons of whales, it almost put me off the scent immediately until I was told it was made chemically! Phew!
Well I ended up with a gorgeous bottle of perfume beautifully wrapped, with the ‘recipe’ printed out and its name on the label (you have the added task, as well as trying to discern which smells you like, of making a name for your perfume! A little tip French sounds better than English or German or for that matter Spanish (but I only know a few phrases in Spanish!)
A wonderful experience and it has taken me longer to write it up than when I was there! Oh by the way my husband couldn’t smell sandalwood at all and I thought it smelt like creosote! I used to love Roger and Gallet sandalwood soaps (all individually wrapped in beautifully designed boxes, I still have some!) I won’t be buying those again!