A first-hand experience of British perfumery Penhaligon’s fragrance profiling service at ION Orchard.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
Minutes before I was due for my scheduled fragrance profiling session at British luxury fragrance house Penhaligon’s outlet at ION Orchard, several things ran through my mind—a multiple choice questionnaire peppered with “yes” and “no” checkboxes leading to a utilitarian process of elimination and ta-dah—the presentation of “the fragrance.” But it was not to be.
Making an immediately romantic impression with its old world wood paneling, bright mosaic floor tiles, fuchsia padded leather walls and glimmering bottles of glass testers in the center, the effect is part Victorian, part alchemy and part luxury. Two royal warrants from His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and HRH the Prince of Wales hang high up above the cashier counter—I was half expecting to be served by staff in starched collars and butler gear when Mike appears, looking like he belongs behind turntables rather than testers.
He sits me down with a quick history behind the brand, which starts way back in 1870 with the eccentric genius of barber-turned court perfumer William Penhaligon. I could already tell it was going to be an entertaining afternoon.
Tapping on the emotive power of scent, he quizzes me on my favorite fragrance and what I liked about it, etc. before establishing my preference—floral, yet not overly feminine, with a streak of distinctiveness.
There are a few main categories of scents, including floral, citrus-y, oriental, woody and aromatic. To begin, Mike picks out a “neutral point” fragrance to decide on the next course of direction—stronger or lighter, cleaner or more enveloping. Without divulging the ingredients, he introduces each fragrance with Shakespearean flair, evoking either Victorian teahouses serving vanilla cupcakes, corporate dens on Wall Street or lush forests with blooming flowers before handing me the tester, and checks my reaction before further toggling.
It all made for very entertaining spiel to the extent that I feel compelled to like all of them but for my more discriminating olfactory glands—some remind me of old cupboards, to be very honest; others are pleasant but not something I feel “connected” with enough to wear. From a mixed bag of skill in product knowledge, body language and throwing out the occasional wild card, he narrows the potential ones down to three after about 45 minutes and 12 or so scents (I’d honestly lost count).
He then tests them on my skin, for three good reasons—perfumes smell very different on paper and skin, they can also smell vastly different on different people, depending on an individual’s natural body oils and moods, and finally, perfumes evaporate the top notes, drying down to the middle and finally the base notes; it’s thus important that the wearer is comfortable with how it smells over time.
Option A was eliminated after it became rather overpowering on my skin, while Option B’s top notes was deemed too “out there.” I finally settled on the Opus 1870—at first sniff, it smells rather masculine, but settles into a lovely floral-woody fragrance as the cedar notes take a backseat to the rose layers in the middle. Clean, still floral, with a touch of surprise.
Finally, some application tips. Mike quotes the mistress of class herself, Coco Chanel, who stated that a woman should wear perfume at the places she wants to be kissed. He also points out that men should apply fragrance before dressing, as men generate more heat, allowing the scent to permeate through the fabric better, and also body oil, allowing the fragrance to hold longer.
It was indeed an educational afternoon, perfect for one who wishes to have a better appreciation of the science and art that goes behind perfumery. The bonus is that you go home with a scent that, in Mike’s own words, “you can wear with sentimentality.”
Penhaligon’s fragrance profiling service is complimentary but by appointment only, so do call ahead to book a slot.