Scents and Sensibility: Shopping for Bespoke Perfume in Paris

Scents and Sensibility: Shopping for Bespoke Perfume in Paris

Two hundred years since Guerlain opened his first boutique in Paris, bespoke fragrances are making a monumental comeback. And you no longer have to be an empress to indulge, writes Jennifer Ladonne

Almost two centuries have passed since Pierre-François Guerlain, the father of French perfumery, opened his first boutique on Paris’s rue de Rivoli, where he concocted bespoke fragrances for the Empress Eugénie and offered the first commercial scents, kicking off France’s perfume craze.

Two hundred years and untold aromas later, personalised fragrances are making a monumental comeback in Paris in the form of niche brands and customised or semi-customised perfumes. Though some top perfume houses are happy to create a signature scent for you and you only, the price tag for that can easily exceed that of a new car. But never fear, for a minimal investment you can create your very own fragrance while also acquiring an in-depth olfactory education – with an unforgettable Paris experience thrown into the bargain.

The Paris ateliers presented here are the best for creating your own signature scent. But, if you lack the time or the inclination for that, we have also included useful tips on where to go for semi-customisation and step-by-step guidance in unearthing the perfect niche perfume.

courtesy of Candora


At Candora, clients are given carte blanche to “smell, explore and engage with different scents while learning about perfumes and yourself,” says Emmanuel Frossard, co-founder of the boutique in partnership with his sister, Béatrice Delorme. Veterans of French luxury houses Guerlain, LVMH, Veuve Clicquot and L’Oréal, the siblings pooled their expertise to launch a winning concept: create your own bespoke fragrance according to your memories, desires, experiences and tastes, to express the uniqueness of you.

After working privately for six years, in January 2017 the team opened their airy Marais boutique on a charming street in front of one of Paris’s most atmospheric medieval churches – the ideal spot for inspiring participants in Candora’s 90-minute, made-to-measure atelier (€79). Offered in French or in English, ateliers can be personalised for individuals and families with only a few days’ notice, and each family member will walk away with his or her very own perfume for just €495.

courtesy of Candora

Frossard is a natural raconteur, peppering his introductory slideshow (in perfect English) with historical facts and insider anecdotes while elaborating on the history of perfume in Paris. Participants are then introduced to the boutique’s 17 perfumes, which fall into five olfactory “families” – fresh, fruity, flowery, spicy and woody. Under Frossard’s guidance, these perfumes, all with different profiles – rose, orange flower, herbs, the sea, ginger, vanilla, cedar, vetiver, etc. – form the notes to be combined in any way that pleases you. Using paper strips, fragrances are sniffed, tested, blended, sniffed again and finally mixed in a handsome flacon customised on the spot with your initials or a tiny emblem of your choice etched onto the bottle.

At the end, happy clients leave with their own secret recipe and flacon tucked away in a tidy Candora box (refills of your specific perfume can be ordered and shipped to anywhere in the world). “And,” laughs Frossard, “you can get the very same thing at Guerlain for $50,000!”

courtesy of Guerlain


Actually the price for a customised perfume at the legendary perfumer’s Champs-Élysées flagship starts at $45,000. No matter, since for a mere €130 you’ll be guided by a resident “perfume expert” – in our case the charming Mathilde Pinçon – to create not just one but three of your own Guerlain-inspired fragrances. This is a good thing, since your two-and-a-half-hour olfactory adventure, conducted in a quiet, wood-panelled room tucked away in the lower level of the elegant, historic boutique, is a more complicated affair.

The atelier begins with a presentation of the house’s history, which really is the history of Parisian perfume, since it was Pierre-François Guerlain (1798-1864) who first began to create and popularise bottled fragrances, first for nobles, and later for an expanding but always exclusive clientele.

courtesy of Guerlain

Next, participants are steeped in the perfumer’s vocabulary through the seven “families” – each illustrated by a particular Guerlain fragrance – and the principal characteristics of a perfume. Then, from around two dozen numbered bottles of a single scent perched on a lazy Susan in front of each participant – fragrances such as tonka bean, ylang-ylang, damask rose, vanilla, moss, lily of the valley, leather, tobacco, etc. – a unique perfume is constructed. With paper testers and a card to keep track of the head, heart, and base notes – and how many drops of each single addition are to be used (for a total of one hundred) – you create your first elixir, with a second and third chance to elaborate on, or correct, your first try or, if you wish, to start all over again.

The world of Guerlain perfume being vast, the house’s four ateliers narrow the scope by focusing on a single theme: A Thousand and One Delights, Bouquet of Scents, Once Upon a Time at Guerlain, and The Wonders of Wood, each highlighting one olfactory family. This is a good thing, since this is a lot of sensory information to take in, from the bottles in front of you to the many samples of Guerlain perfume passed around on paper testers for a real-life sample of what Guerlain nose-in-chief Thierry Wasser has himself created with some of the scents in front of you. You’ll also get a whiff of the historic classics – Shalimar, Jicky, L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko – as well as some contemporary Guerlain favourites, with inspiring insights into their olfactory profiles. Three hours later, seven of us emerged smelling divine, hungry for lunch in the boutique café and equipped with a goody bag of samples to accompany our own three unique creations.

Ateliers are in French, but English versions are happily arranged on request, and English speakers are welcome to participate in the French workshops. Be aware that a lot of information is packed into two and a half hours or more of rapid-fire French, so a working knowledge of the language is helpful if you want to get the most from your workshop.

Grand Musée du Parfum. photo: DR Atelier

LE GRAND MUSÉE DU PARFUM Closed as of summer 2018

Opened in 2016, the elegant Grand Musée du Parfum, a block or two from the Élysée Palace (home of the president) across from the luxury hotel Le Bristol, is Paris’s first independent museum dedicated to perfume. The museum’s main agenda is to unlock the mysteries of perfume, from its history, the science behind scent, memory and emotion, and how the master perfumers create a fragrance from today’s raw materials, through fun (if sometimes a little gimmicky), interactive exhibits. The secondary objective is to promote perfume, and the museum boutique is a great place to test dozens of fragrances, scented candles and the like.

This is all excellent inspiration for the museum’s four two-hour ateliers for adults – and a special one for kids – all held in a chic, laboratory-like room on the third floor. Workshops, limited to 18 people, are a busy affair, presided over by a member of the French company Cinquième Sens, an all-female team of perfume experts and consultants based in Paris (who also helped create Candora’s 17 perfumes).

Grand Musée du Parfum.
photo: Paris Byzance/ Paradise Atelier

An opening slideshow briefly delves into the science of perfume and how a fragrance is constructed before introducing the twelve perfumes you’ll use to assemble your signature aroma drop by precious drop. The twelve base perfumes are themselves blends based on a family of scents, with names like Basket of Citrus, Cut Herbs, At the Water’s Edge or A Walk in the Woods, each composed of woods, flowers, herbs, candies, spices, or another category of corresponding odours and classifed as a head, heart or base note.

With paper testers and your personal presentation sheet in hand, participants are guided through the process of sniffing and blending with the paper strips before committing to the actual mixing of the scent in a bottle.

The ateliers are not yet offered in English, though the museum will arrange a workshop in English for groups, but intrepid perfume lovers with a rudimentary knowledge of French will easily be able to manage, since many of the scents you’ll be working with have a common name in both languages and patient atelier leaders – all experienced perfumers – speak enough English to explain anything you don’t catch the first time. Ateliers cost €95 and need to be reserved at least a week in advance.

Ex Nihilo


In Ex Nihilo’s “sensorial boudoir” customers are invited to semi-personalise one of the contemporary perfumer’s signature fragrances, under the guidance of an expert perfumer, by adding from one to three top-quality scents – such as May rose, lily of the valley, lemon, lychee, bourbon and vanilla. Mixed while you wait by the boutique’s Osmologue, a sleek-looking machine unique to Ex Nihilo, you can walk out of the boutique an hour later with your unique signature perfume. Prices start at about €200 and go up from there, according to the ingredients.

Aficionados at the perfume concept store Nose have created an ingenious seven-step diagnostic on an iPad to pinpoint just the right fragrance out of the world’s many thousands, including scores of hard-to-find niche fragrances (conveniently sold here). By tracing your perfume history, an olfactive profile is generated to progressively narrow down the choices, finally zeroing in on your dream perfume.

For those who will settle for nothing less than a signature perfume created by a distinguished Parisian nose, Francis Kurkdjian may be the one for you. Through a series of private meetings, the famous perfumer gradually creates a profile based on your input and his impressions. The resulting fragrance, which will set you back about €25,000, is tweaked via a series of private sessions over a year to 18 months. A visit to the super-chic Maison Francis Kurkdjian boutique, on the rue d’Alger near the place Vendôme, to test his perfumes, noted for their evocativeness and finesse, is a good place to start.

Ex Nihilo


Maison Candora, 1 rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, Paris 4e. Tel. +33 (0)1 43 48 76 05

Guerlain, 68 avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris 8e. Tel. +33 (0)1 45 62 52 57

Grand Musée du Parfum, 73 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris 8e. Tel.+33 (0)1 42 6 5 25 44

Ex Nihilo, 352 rue Saint-Honoré, Paris 1e.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian, 5 rue d’Alger, Paris 1e. Tel. +33 (0)1 42 71 76 76

From France Today magazine

courtesy of Candora

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American journalist Jennifer Ladonne, a Paris resident since 2004, writes regular features on French heritage, culture, travel, food & wine for France Today magazine, and is the restaurants and hotels reviewer for Fodor's Paris, France and Provence travel guides. Her articles have appeared in CNN Travel, AFAR, The Huffington Post, MSN and Business Insider.

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  • Karen Marin
    2018-09-21 11:46:39
    Karen Marin
    Please note that sadly le Grand Musée de Parfum has closed as of this summer, 2018.