Perfume has everything to do with gardens and botany. Historically, perfumes were made entirely from botanical extracts of flowers, plant resins and spices with fixatives such as whale ambergris. They were precious commodities and only the elite had access to such luxury.
French Queen Marie Antoinette was known to carry a custom-made perfume around with her to remind her of her beloved garden - Trianon - in a light-proof, black jade bottle. It was said to have been given to her lady-in-waiting, in the last moments before the Queen met her executioner.
The story of the Black Jade perfume which is made by historic French perfume company Lubin, and other intriguing tales behind fragrances, caught my attention when chatting with Francis Hooper and Benny Castles of World. Benny is noted for his distinctive style and is menswear designer for the fashion house. I was surprised by his passion and depth of knowledge of perfume houses with pedigree. World Beauty stocks a number of special perfumes and it seems there is so much more to these pretty bottles than meets the eye.
Boutonniere no.7 by Arquiste is a fragrance inspired by an imagined scene in the Foyer of the Opera-Comique, Paris in May 1899.
I was taken with Benny's descriptions of the Belle Epoque era when young men wore gardenias on their lapels to lure the ladies in.
Arquiste is a modern fragrance house with a difference. The collection is curated by Carlos Huber, an architect specialising in historic preservation. Its fragrances are designed to transport the wearer to "evocative moments in history". Boutonniere combines two gardenia species, G. jasminoides and G. citriodora, along with notes of lavender, bergamot, Italian mandarin and oakmoss.
Huber visited New Zealand last year and World hosted a small gathering with him for its more dedicated perfume connoisseurs. Perfume obsession seems to be a male thing, says Benny, and Francis recalls an encounter with a determined Filipino man who was in search of one particular batch number of Creed perfume.
Founded in 1760, Creed is one of the most exclusive perfume houses and is a seventh-generation family business. The perfumers sometimes issue information for stockists on batch variations. In one case, the violets used in Love in Black (made originally for Jackie Kennedy) were more strongly-scented than usual because of seasonal changes.
Perfume appreciation at this level can certainly be compared to appreciation of a wine and its vintage. Olivier Creed travels to exotic locations to source pure botanicals such as Parma violets, rose essences from Bulgaria, Turkey or Morocco, irises from Florence, Italian jasmine, and tuberose from India.
Parisian candle company Cire Trudon was founded more than 100 years before the reign of Marie Antoinette. Started by a grocer and wax merchant who supplied candles to the city in the mid-17th century, the family business went on to become the official wax provider to French royalty at Versailles. The candle Trianon was recently designed to evoke the scent of Marie Antoinette's garden and her "country-life dreams". The scent includes notes of cyclamen, hyacinth, rose and musk.
Similarly, Carriere Freres is a candle company founded by two brothers in 1884 whose single note fragrances feature "exotic or indigenous oils" which fascinated botanists and explorers in earlier times. The fragrances for the candles are created in the French city of Grasse, known for its rose, lavender and jasmine plantations and perfume industry.
Mass market perfumes today would be too costly to produce if they were made entirely with botanical extracts, given the mass demand and commercial nature of the industry. Even the most exclusive fragrance houses dance coyly around their wording. US-based Japanese perfume maker Keiko Mecheri says the advanced nature of chemistry these days means the synthetic copy is indistinguishable from the real thing.
Francis says most perfume houses these days make use of modern science. Natural oils are chosen to "wear" on the skin and change over time, while the synthetic notes remain stable, improving the performance of the fragrance.
The team at World travels the globe and comes into contact with fabulous items to bring back for New Zealanders to experience. Using a Star Wars analogy, Francis likens the survival of artisan perfume houses to the "Rebel Alliance against the Death Star" of the giant commercial brands.
Although some of these fragrances might break your budget, their aim is to be accessible, so they offer an eclectic mix to cater for all. Both consider that fragrance is the ultimate accessory.
"You can't see it [perfume] but it's the first thing you notice, and the last thing you remember," says Francis.
Benny: First choice is "Aleksandr" by Arquiste. Inspired by Aleksandr Pushkin the great 19th Century Russian poet. Benny became absorbed by Pushkin's novel Eugene Onegin. (Second choice: 'Boutonniere no.7. Inspired by the Belle Epoque era and a personal memory of a picture of Marcel Proust with a flower in his buttonhole).
Francis: L'Artisan "La Chasse Aux Papillons" (he says it's easier to call it Chase the Butterfly) just like a spring or fresh summer's day.
Special thanks to my neighbour, Phillipa, for sacrificing her best gardenia flower for the photo.