As sales of celebrity scents decline, the only person we want to smell like is ourselves. Stylist asks Jo Malone the rules for creating your own fragrance
Photography: Dennis Pedersen
Rewind a few years and if you asked a woman what fragrance she was wearing, it’s likely she would be quick to namedrop. Fragrance used to be currency – what you wore was a symbol of who you were. But in 2016, that same question is often met with hesitation – perhaps even a lie, a decoy to stop you buying the same. Fragrance has become an intrinsic part of our personality, and one we’re not happy to share.
While some of us have headed down the artisanal route in search of a unique scent (niche scents have contributed 40% of the total growth of the fragrance market this year*) for others, that isn’t enough. Just as we’ve taken to monogramming everything we own, fragrance is the next area to be hit with our desire to personalise. Whether that’s having your name on the bottle, trying a make-it-at-home kit or hunting out the world’s best perfumers to design your perfect blend, owning a bespoke scent has become the ultimate beauty luxury. And a pretty good Christmas gift too.
Before you pull out the pipettes, we asked the queen of perfumery, Jo Malone, to share a little of her 35 years’ worth of fragrance making knowledge…
Read more: “I dream in perfume”: Jo Malone on how her life has been shaped by fragrance
“When designing a fragrance, start by working out your perfume taste. Fragrances sit in families: citrus (lemon, grapefruit or mandarin), light florals (any sort of blossom), heavier florals (jasmine, tuberose and gardenia), woody (cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver or amber) and chypre (woody notes peppered with spice). I think the best way to work out your taste is to look at the fragrances you own and imagine the scene in which they would be set. Are you transported to a dark apartment filled with heavy jazz music? For me that’s where woody scents belong. Is it the taste of sweet dessert wine, the sound of violins? You’ll like heavier florals like jasmine.
You can now pick the notes – the individual component smells that make up your fragrance. We split them into base, middle and top notes. Perfumes can hold hundreds of notes but I would use no more than three. Start with the base notes; this is where the strongest note should sit so make sure it’s something you love. I love the pomelo note simply because of its ability to hold citrus, woods and florals but the tenacity of vetiver, cedarwood and patchouli mean they work well at the base too.
The middle notes should enhance the base and scents within the same fragrance family often sit well together. It’s the same as if painting with colours: if you mix them all together, you always end up with brown. And top notes are a chance to fill in anything that’s missing. Try veering into a different fragrance family to add an unexpected quirk. Often by just using a drop of citrus you can dilute a woody note that’s starting to overpower the composition, or if your fragrance is starting to feel flat, sultry amber can warm it up.
When I’m designing fragrance, before mixing any perfumed oils together, I use an artist’s brush to paint each note onto watercolour paper. I even use a brush to paint perfume onto my skin in layers every morning as the brush makes it dry quicker. Never place wet fragrance on top of wet fragrance, even on your skin. Wait for each layer to dry before applying the next so the notes sit on top of one another, rather than meld together. It gives you a steer as to how the finished fragrance will smell.
Remember to keep a record of every combination you make – there’s nothing worse than creating something beautiful and forgetting how you got there. Fragrance making should be fun. The more you play, the more you realise what you can achieve. The worst that can happen is it will smell terrible and then, well, you simply start again.”
The bespoke scale
From the easy to the extravagant, Stylist charts the best ways to personalise your fragrance
1. Bespoke bottles
The easiest place to start is the bottle. Le Labo hand blends fragrances to order at the counter and labels each bottle with your name and where it was created (£115, libertylondon.com). Byredo’s Unnamed EDP (£90, byredo.co.uk) – a fragrant mix of gin and evergreen trees – has a blank bottle and letter transfers so you can name it. Boots (boots.com) offers a Christmas engraving service (£3, available online and in selected stores nationwide), which covers almost every perfume, as long as the bottle has a hard, flat surface.
2. DIY at home
DIY kits are a lot more sophisticated than the ones you might remember from your childhood. The Perfume Studio’s easy-to-navigate sets (£40, The Perfume Studio) are a good place for perfume novices to start. They come in three types based on your fragrance preference: warm and spicy notes, florals or fresh, green scents. Each contains six fragrance oils selected for their compatibility with pipettes and an empty bottle, so you can experiment with balancing the notes until you find your perfect combination.
3. Expert workshops
A new raft of fragrance-making workshops have popped up across the UK allowing novices to blend fragrances under the watchful eye of knowledgeable experts. At Covent Garden’s Bloom store (£150, bloomperfume.co.uk) you can learn the entire process of creating a scent – from determining your notes to perfecting the ratio of oils – as you do the whole thing yourself in their in-store laboratory. The Perfume Studio’s fragrance-making workshops (from £29, theperfumestudio.com) are just as extensive and take place nationwide.
4. One-off commissions
She’s developed signature scents for Kylie Minogue, Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter, and collaborated on some of the world’s bestselling fragrances (YSL’s Black Opium, Giorgio Armani’s Si, the list goes on), so if you’re going to trust anyone to create the scent that defines you, make it perfume designer Azzi Glasser. For £15,000, she’ll quiz you on your personality and style before using her encyclopaedic knowledge of notes to translate it into a fragrance. She even keeps every recipe on file so you can always reorder.
5. Sign up to scent school
For the ultimate bespoke fragrance, head to Grasse. This region the French Riviera is home to some of the oldest perfumeries and the place where Chanel still grows the jasmine for its iconic No 5 perfume. The Institute of Perfumery’s two week summer school (£1,873, grasse-perfumery.com) covers everything from the history of perfume to the chemistry of ingredients and you can pick raw materials at nearby jasmine, lavender and tuberose farms before taking the reins at a fully kitted-out laboratory. It’s an ideal introduction to the perfume industry.