Scents in Time

Fragrance fads come and go – the Victorians wore perfume to mask bad smells, today people wear it to smell like J Lo. It has become as fickle as fashion, with designers churning out a new scent seemingly every week – and also experimental, with scents that smell of cheese or which correspond to one’s blood type. Yet despite all this, some fragrances possess a certain magic which people keep returning to, a century after they were created. Here are some of my favourite pieces of perfume history.

Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet –1872 William Penhaligon’s first ever scent was inspired by the Turkish Hammam baths that were popular in Victorian London, where people went to socialise and do business deals. Several also played host to scenes of extreme debauchery (some things never change). Warm and musky with an exotic heart of Turkish rose, Hammam was a complete departure from the floral and citrus colognes that were common at the time; people began to realise they didn’t have to smell like a flower shop – or a lemon.

Joy by Jean Patou – 1929 Using two of the most precious ingredients in perfumery, namely Rose de Mai and Grasse jasmine, perfumer Jean Patou described Joy as being to perfume “what Rolls Royce is to motor cars.” Even today, the bijou little Baccarat bottle with gold twine wound around the square stopper together with the word “Joy” is enough to stop anyone’s heart as much as a Tiffany necklace or a pair of sparkling Louboutins.  With 10,000 jasmine blossoms and 336 roses in every 30ml, who wouldn’t feel special upon receiving a bottle? (My boyfriend better be reading this…)

Guerlain Shalimar – 1925 Oriental fragrances were highly popular in the 1920s, a time when the West was fascinated by anything remotely “exotic”- so Guerlain were bang on the money when Shalimar was created. Inspired by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal – in whose honour he created the famous Shalimar Gardens of Lahore (lucky girl!) this seductive blend of vanilla, iris and tonka bean was as famous for its curvaceous fan-shaped bottle, as for its contents. Since then the iconic perfume has had several facelifts – including a second version Shalimar Parfum Initial for younger customers launched last year – and has remained Guerlain’s flagship fragrance.

Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet – 1902 This classic scent remains Penhaligon’s bestseller among women buying for their husbands or boyfriends. A crisp bite of citrus oils, spices and woody notes, it delivers a distinct, decided freshness with musky undertones that one can imagine went down well with the stiff upper-lipped gentlemen of Edwardian England. Covent Garden Store Manager Richard Clayforth describes Blenheim as being for the type of guy who “may not be the most romantic but extremely loyal – he’ll never let you down.” Anyone have his number?

Narcisse Noir by Caron – 1911 If Gloria Swanson demands the set of Sunset Boulevard to be sprayed with your perfume before she can get into character, you know you’ve hit upon something extraordinary. Like a black floor-length cocktail gown that clings in all the right places Narcisse Noir is a sexy, bewitching scent that is still flying off the shelves as soon as boutiques get it in stock. Its fresh, floral notes of orange blossom, rose and jasmine are juxtaposed with a musky woody base resulting in a fragrance full of contradictions. Over the years it hasn’t lost its power to enrapture – I myself have never smelt anything else quite like it.

Text originally written for Penhaligon's Adventures in Scent