Danielle Wright finds refuge from Melbourne's city street smells at a perfumista workshop.

It's a dreamy experience entering Fleurage, an elegant Art Nouveau-inspired perfumerie in South Melbourne founded by master perfumer Emma Leah. As soon as you walk through the door, the fragrances take hold of your senses and all thought of the outside world diminishes.

Surrounded by pretty perfume bottles set out in dazzling displays, Emma provides the only workshop outside France teaching how to create a French perfume using the same ingredients the master perfumers in the 1700s would have used.

"We have a romanticised version of perfumery but there's a lot more to it," says Emma, as she collects a handful of ingredients for us to make a perfume she calls Bouquet de Montpellier - a floriental-style perfume steeped in history from the era of the perfumed court.

As she makes complicated calculations - confessing she failed chemistry at school - she explains that the French town of Grasse had the perfect climate to grow all the ingredients needed for perfume-making. However, it was Montpellier - the university town - that really was the birthplace of French perfume because of the town's expertise in pharmacy and chemistry.

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Around the world, perfumes were equally influenced by local availability and trade routes, so each developed a distinct set of ingredients and style of formulation.

"The oldest culture to use scent was Egyptian and their set of aroma was quite different again. They used resins, wood and heavy florals such as lotus flowers in oil rather than alcohol.

"Indians used perfume extensively as part of their rituals, for worship as well as for beauty," says Emma.

"The French country garden shaped French perfume with crops of rose, lavender, light jasmines and orange blossoms."

Create your own perfume workshop at Fleurage perfumery in South Melbourne. Photo / Supplied
Create your own perfume workshop at Fleurage perfumery in South Melbourne. Photo / Supplied

It wasn't just local availability that had an effect on French perfumery. The close association of perfume houses with high fashion and aristocracy - particularly during the reign of Marie Antoinette - was another factor.

"Perfume trends could change almost daily over that period," says Emma. "What was in one day, was out the next and perfumers had to work with a limited set of ingredients to create different fragrances, resulting in complex chemical structures."

Emma opens her bottles of ingredients to show me the three elements - base notes, heart notes and top notes.

The smell of natural ingredients is more intense than the synthetic versions we're used to and it's a bit like chocolate-tasting: you are hit with a flavour at the start, different flavours in the middle and different ones again at the end.

The same is true of perfume. The base notes form the foundation smells and have heavy scents that stay on the skin, heart notes are the core smells and top notes give the perfume a lift but disappear quickly.

"Traditional French perfumery didn't work with top notes. They were more interested in the luscious scents," says Emma. She admits today's perfumes work in the opposite way - a heavy emphasis is placed on the top notes but this disappears easily so we will reapply frequently.

I watch Emma count the drips of fragrance to coincide with her formula. Creating fragrances is a science and an art. She says she has created many scents for her customers, ranging from recreating favourite perfumes no longer in production, nostalgic smells people want to replicate and requests to increase allure.

"Perfume does have an effect on a person's allure. It's about making you attractive, but scent can be attraction and repulsion. We have a primal reaction to scent: this smells good, let's go towards that.

"Our tastes also change with time - when we are young our taste is quite sweet, it's quite plain, it's quite simple then, as we age, we start to accept a wider range of tastes and broaden our palate," says Emma.

"From around age 50, we have a really expanded and sophisticated palate where we are more willing to experiment. We then like stronger, deeper scents with a little more to them."

Between each addition of fragrance, Emma dips a key - or "sniffy stick" as she calls them - into the perfume to produce a "perfume fan" at the end. The fan shows the progression of scent towards the final product, which is a rich honey colour - so much darker than modern perfumes - and has the smell of a vase of flowers in an antique shop - woody, musky with a hint of floral.

As we finish the session, I admit I'm at a bit of a loss for words trying to describe my surroundings. Emma tells me it's not unusual because when one sense is overwhelmed, the others stop working so well. I ask her to describe South Melbourne.

"You know, it's one of those places in the city that feels like a country town. There are so many artisans working here in peace and quiet creating things - we're all hidden away," says Emma. "There are hat makers, quilters, jewellers - we can relax here and get the work done surrounded by beauty. It's a gorgeous oasis."

It seemed the perfect description of Fleurage, too. The workshop was a lesson in perfume-making,and a fascinating insight into perfume history, providing "a gorgeous oasis" from the crowded city.

Book a perfumista workshop

See fleurage.com.au. Workshops range from beginner to apprentice perfumer.

Read all about it
The Perfume Bible by Josephine Fairley and Lorna McKay will help you find your scent family and learn the basics beforehand. For more on the intriguing history of French perfumery, pop a copy of Elisabeth de Feydeau's A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer in your luggage.