Have you ever wondered what the Queen smells like? I’m talking about her fragrance, obviously.
Me neither. That is, until I set foot inside Floris, the perfumer to the Queen based in London’s St James.
At present, it holds two royal warrants – one from the Queen as perfumers and one from the Prince of Wales as manufacturers of toilet preparations.
It means, potentially, you could walk into the shop and buy a perfume that the Queen is currently wearing, or stock up on soaps that Prince Charles is using in his home.
Given how tight-lipped Floris are about their royal connections – having been a royal warrant holder since the 19th century – it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out what the royal family actually buys from them, at least not from the perfumers themselves.
The rumour is, though, the Queen likes to wear the fragrance White Rose.
But I digress.
The reason I ventured to Floris was to see what the fuss around their bespoke perfume making service was all about.
Their full bespoke perfume service, which takes six months with three separate consultations, costs a whopping £4,500. You get six bottles of your own perfume at the end though, so there is that.
I signed up for the shorter perfume customisation service, which is a fraction of the cost at £450 – albeit still more than 10 times what I normally pay for fragrance.
I know, you’re wondering who pays that much money for perfume.
According to Penny Ellis, one of the three perfumers at Floris and the person who designed my perfume, a lot of couples come in for a joint session to find personalised fragrances for each other. It’s also a popular experiential gift for significant birthdays.
Essentially, a gift for a really special occasion.
As you get to take away a 100ml engraved bottle, which, if kept in the shade in a cool room, will happily keep its scent for three years, it’s seen as a gift with staying power too.
The magic happens in one of the back rooms at their flagship store, situated in a four-storey townhouse on Jermyn Street.
The building has been home to the Floris family since the 18th century, when Menorca-born Juan Famenias Floris, along with his English wife Elizabeth, founded the shop.
Juan, who was a barber by trade, soon branched out into perfumes and soaps, and in the early days, every step of the perfume making process would have been carried out within its walls.
The family also made fine combs. It was these combs that gave the company its first royal warrant, which came from King George IV.
Today, the upper floors are occupied by the brand’s offices while the shop floor is on the ground floor. And all the ‘manufacturing’ of the raw materials now takes places in Devon. But it’s still family-owned, with the 9th generation of the family, Edward Bodenham, acting as the chief ‘nose’.
Stepping into the brightly lit bespoke perfume workshop was like stepping into a museum.
Glass-fronted wooden shelves lined the room and were filled with antique pieces, from vintage combs to violet-flavoured mouthwashes, illustrating the Floris history.
Central to the room were the leather-bound ledgers. Some held details of monies owed – by everyone from the aristocrats down to the gentry – and what they bought from centuries past, while others contained perfume formulas.
My fragrance would go into one of these ledgers later. It’s written down and noted digitally, to be stored for generations to come, just in case I wanted to come back for a refill.
Penny starts by showing me the different scents available based on some of the fragrances I currently wear.
Perfumes are split into different fragrance families, ranging from fresh and floral to woody and gourmand. And it’s still very much gendered, with some smells considered more masculine and others more feminine.
You can take notes from different families, and by adjusting the proportions, get very different fragrances.
Even to the untrained nose, it’s possible to tell the difference between a perfume that’s complex and one that’s more simple.
A note on perfumes
To make a fragrance, you have to start with different scents, the building blocks, which you blend together in different quantities until you reach your preferred combination.
Some scents last longer than others, which means that the scent will change as you wear it.
It can be simplified to a perfume pyramid.
There are the top notes, which are delicate scents that you smell straight away but that disappear very quickly; the heart notes, which emerges after the top notes; and a base, which forms the body of the fragrance as it lasts the longest.
There are many ways to make the scents.
Traditionally, this has involved extracting essential oils through methods such as steam distilling, solvent extraction or expression. The oils are then suspended in a mixture of oils and alcohol – its carriers – to allow it to be dispersed.
Some traditional scents, such as moss, are now manufactured as the natural process of extracting the scent no longer complies with health and safety regulations. Others, like ozone, have always been synthetic.
At Floris, the bespoke perfume selection starts with different pre-blended scents, which represent different fragrance families.
We began with the lighter, citrus-based blends before moving up through the florals and into the oriental, where the scents were heavier and laden with spice.
Penny gave me a series of paper wicks, each dipped into a different fragrance, and I had to feed back about whether or not I liked them.
You have two hours or so to go through the different fragrance options and pick out the base that will form the bulk of your perfume. With around a dozen different samples to sniff through, your olfactory system gets tired pretty quickly, so it pays to have a good nose and be decisive.
Fortunately, smells can be surprisingly polarising.
Alex Crawley, the photographer who came to take photos of my session, loved the tuberose one for example, but it felt too old-fashioned for me.
In hindsight, it would have been useful to have a pen handy to note down which ones I immediately liked and which ones I just didn’t get along with – because trying to distinguish them after you’ve sniffed through all the samples, especially the ones that were quite similar, is surprisingly hard.
Plus, just because you like the smell of a scent, it doesn’t mean you want to wear it.
Penny got me to pick out two scents that would become the candidates for the base of my final scent. These, she swabbed onto the back of my hand so I could smell them on skin – how a fragrance smells can also change according to your natural scent and the temperature of your skin.
While I deliberated over them, Penny also led me through a few other scents that might work with these bases to make a more complex perfume – that’s another round of smelling.
Again, some were an immediate no while others were more difficult to pick out.
There was a synthetic scent called marine for example, which smelt a lot like my current perfume, and while I liked it a lot, I didn’t want to recreate something I could just buy off the shelf.
It helps to smell these new scents against the base scents on the back of your hand though, so you can get an idea of how they could work together.
When I finally picked out my base note, and the other scents that I would like with it, Penny worked out a rough formula and mixed these into a beaker.
Aside from the less-than-sexy beaker, you get a real sense of the timeless quality of perfumes because the liquid scents are measured out in fluid drams and drops – just as they were centuries ago.
I tested this new blend on another patch of skin and here’s the interesting thing: the initial fragrance was quite subdued on the paper wick, but on skin, it came alive.
There was still a bit of refining to do though – Penny suggested adding a few more drops of passion fruit to liven it up a bit more so we went with that and gave it another test.
I was pretty happy with the results – it’s different enough from the perfumes currently in my collection and more importantly, lovely enough that I wanted to keep going back to smelling it.
My bespoke blend was poured into a pre-engraved bottle, which was then sealed with an atomiser using special tool.
The final part; I had to give my perfume a name, which, along with the formula, were written into the aforementioned ledger and would sit in the Floris archives in the years to come.
In a way, this might be the most special part of the whole experience – my perfume is the first and only one by its name in the 200 plus years of Floris archives, sitting next to the fragrances of royalty and written into historical records.
OK, perhaps all that deep inhalation has gone straight to my head.
The Floris bespoke perfume service:
Floris’s perfume customisation service costs £450 for a consultation of around 2 hours.
You get a 100ml engraved bottle of eau de parfum to take away, along with your personal formula, and you can come back for refills of the same fragrance for £160 a bottle.
In the £4,500 full bespoke service, you get to take away your first bottle so you have some time to decide whether it’s right for you so that in the subsequent sessions, you could adjust the formula accordingly.
That’s quite important actually, because in the times that I’ve worn my personal blend since, it’s smelt differently from what I remember from Floris. And if you have very particular preferences, you may well want to make some more adjustments.
You also get a further five bottles, which can be filled when you’re ready.