For me, scent is the most evocative of all our senses. It’s amazing how one smell can instantly make certain memories flood back, remind you of a certain something or someone, or make you feel a certain way with just one waft of a fragrance.
For that reason, perfume fascinates me. How do you bottle an emotion? How do you create that intoxicating mix of ingredients that somehow manages to speak to so many different people? And is there a perfect perfume match out there for everyone?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw it all in and become a perfumer just yet! But for those reasons, I was incredibly excited to be invited for a Fragrance Profiling Experience at Penhaligon’s new pop-up shop in Harbour City.
Penhaligon’s is a British fragrance house with a lot of history to its name. Started in 1870 by William Penhaligon (who created their first scent, Hammam’s Bouquet, based on aromas from the Turkish baths next to his original London store), it’s a brand I always associated with heritage, luxury and elegance – despite having never actually tried one of their fragrances!
Their packaging is simply beautiful – heavy old-fashioned glass bottles with beribboned stoppers and vintage-style labels, all topped off with two Royal Warrant badges (from the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, since you ask!). The pop-up store has tucked itself in a quieter corner of hectic Harbour City and feels like an escape from HK’s hustle and bustle, a mini apothecary filled with exotic aromas and exciting scents.
My fragrance profile was done by Joanna Lloyd, assistant manager of Penhaligon’s Burlington Arcade store in London. Unlike the rent-a-body assistants in most department stores here, it was fabulous to actually speak to someone who really knows her stuff – Joanna can take you through any of Penhaligon’s fragrances at the drop of a hat (and even match fragrances for you based on other brand’s perfumes), the result of months of specialised in-house training that has definitely paid off.
After establishing that I was more a light and fresh rather than heavy and woody type of girl (in terms of my fragrances anyway!), Joanna assembled a number of perfumes she thought might float my boat… and I got sniffing away! Even on my whistle-stop tour through Penhaligon’s library, I was still taken aback by quite how evocative many of these scents were. Even before Joanna told me the inspiration behind a fragrance or the notes that made up each perfume, my brain had already started clicking pieces together – Malabah was immediately evocative of rich Indian spices, Douro Eau De Portugal strangely reminded me of rivers (sure enough, the name comes from a river in Portugal), Gardenia was like taking a morning walk through an English country garden, whilst Orange Blossom was more a mellow dusky evening stroll.
My all-time favourite perfume is Chanel No. 5, so Joanna quickly found me a Penhaligon’s fragrance reminiscent of that heady rich blend. I loved her pick of Eau Sans Pareil – although the scent clearly wasn’t the same as the Chanel, its blend of exotic sensual fruits somehow evoked the same feeling of classy expensive elegance. As Joanna said, it’s the little black dress of the perfume world!
However, my perfect Penhaligon’s pairing turned out to be Artemisia– a true case of love at first scent! After smelling lots of perfumes, Joanna made me narrow it down to two to actually try on my wrists… but in all honesty, it was always going to be Artemisia. It’s a beautiful, soft, romantically feminine scent; girlie without being twee and sweet without being sickly, Joanna described it as the ‘cashmere jumper’ of Penhaligon’s. It’s a gorgeous caramel-creamy blend of delicious vanilla, light jasmine tea and golden nectarines, that I immediately declared ‘so scrummy that I want to eat it’ (obviously, don’t try that at home!).
Having found my Penhaligon’s true love, Joanna was kind enough to gift me with a bottle of Artemisia (even the name sounds lovely, right?!) – and even the gift-wrap here is extra special. Every purchase from Penhaligon’s is wrapped by hand without any sort of sticky tape (it’s all about the folding, baby!), with a green and gold ribbon tied in an old-fashioned coachman’s knot (which is how English footmen would carry packages in ye olde days). It’s the little touches that count… and Joanna even stuffed in some beautifully printed drawer liners spritzed lightly over with Artemisia to truly complete the experience!
I also picked up lots of special scent tips from Joanna; maybe I’m just a beauty geek but I found this all super interesting so thought I’d share:
- Spray your perfume a fair distance away from your skin. This gives enough space for the alcohol element to dissipate, meaning you get just the yummy smelling bits left!
- Seen people spritzing scent onto one wrist and then smushing it onto the other? DON’T DO IT! This actually crashes together the volatile top notes of a perfume and confuses the scent.
- Speaking of top notes, let’s deal with some perfume jargon. I hate perfume jargon as let’s face it – I don’t really care about notes, bases or what-not, I just wanna smell good! So here’s an easy breakdown. The top notes are the very first things that hit you when you smell a perfume – these are what initially attract you to a perfume, but they fade very quickly. The heart notes are what come through after the top notes fade – these tend to be more mellow scents that soften those initial volatile top ones. What endure most are the base notes – these bring the depth, richness and longevity to your perfume. The best perfumes have a well-rounded balance of all three elements.
- Don’t forget that perfumes smell differently on paper scent strips than they do on your skin, so after working out which ones you like the initial whiff of, it’s important to actually try them on your body. Perfumes smell differently on different people because of our body chemistry, diets, our skin chemistry and also just our varying perceptions of scent. Perfume really is a unique and very personal experience – so when Joanna got up close by sniffing my arm, she wasn’t being over-familiar but actually getting a whiff of how Artemisia smelt on my skin rather than how it smelt on a bit of paper!
- Spotted pots of coffee beans in cosmetics shops which are supposed to cleanse your palate (or whatever the nose equivalent is) between sniffing? Actually, coffee beans are such a strong complex scent that they can confuse or cloud your nasal passages further; a cleansing drink of water is probably a better bet.
- I was always a bit unsure as to where to apply perfume – on my clothes? Like a deodorant?! Well, the idea is that a fragrance should exude out. Joanna’s recommended sweet spots are the crook of the elbows, backs of the knees, cleavage, ankles and chest. Never behind the ears, as there’s actually a gland there that squashes perfumes!
What also stood out for me about Penhaligon’s fragrances is that they are clearly a cut above. We’re currently in an age of get-rich-quick celebrity scents that clearly have very little thought behind them and even my untrained nose can tell they’re usually thin and one-dimensional, often simplistically sweet or cloyingly strong in their composition. All the Penhaligon’s fragrances I smelt were complex, interesting and intriguing, made up of different notes that could catch you suddenly and take you by surprise; for instance, although Gardenia was primarily a classic floral, it had a really unusual bright freshness to it too (thanks to rhubarb and violet apparently!). These are scents that aren’t afraid to be different; Penhaligon’s is all about creative and innovative fragrances that veer from the mainstream. Their amazing heritage (William Penhaligon’s Hammam’s Bouquet is still part of the line-up whilst they now have a whole Anthology collection based on their archive scents) merely adds to their imaginative mix of fragrance creation!
Joanna also encouraged me to have an open mind, trying both male and female scents and letting me smell them without knowing which sex they were intended for. Don’t come to Penhaligon’s expecting wishy-washy mundane scents; the majority (whether male or female) are strong, heady and potent, which means you’ll probably get your fair share of ‘love it or hate it’ moments (trust me, there were quite a few I immediately balked at!)… but when you do find one you love, that makes your hairs stand on end or causes you to smile dreamily into the distance, it’s all the sweeter.
I also found the fragrances really long-lasting – even if it wasn’t a scent you’d in itself define as strong (like Artemisia), it still lingered beautifully throughout the day – so you definitely get more bang for your buck at Penhaligon’s! Their scents are on the pricey side – a 50ml bottle of eau de toilette will set you back around $950-1500 – but let’s not forget, perfumes tend to last forever, and these ones are definitely dressing table worthy. There are also some nice cheaper options, including a nifty little Scent Library containing small phials of ten Penhaligon bestsellers, and an ultra convenient atomiser, for those of you that don’t want to commit to a full-sized bottle of fragrance, or for decanting your perfume into for carrying in your handbag.
Anyone can drop by Penhaligon’s for a complimentary fragrance profiling session; if it’s anything like mine, I guarantee you’re in for a truly scent-sational experience! I’d recommend it to anyone who fancies taking a little bit of time out their day to go on a fragrance journey and have their senses fired up and sparked off courtesy of Penhaligon’s exotic, unusual and distinctive scents. One minute you’ll be envisaging yourself in a little black dress at a cocktail party… the next, wandering through a dew-soaked garden on an English summer’s day… the next, exploring stalls in an Indian spice market – exactly illustrating the amazing and evocative power scent can have. Here’s hoping you find your Artemisia!
Penhaligon’s Pop-Up Boutique, Kiosk A, 3/F Gateway Arcade, Harbour City, Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; open 10am until 10pm daily.
A Penhaligon’s flagship boutique will be opening in Central’s ifc mall in August.