Thursday 31 March 2011

Back From The Bonkers Fly Drive Trip – Part 2: The Scented Bit (Chicago)

As I indicated in my travel post, the ratio of perfumista hook ups to “proper” meetings on my latest US visit was impressively high – some might say worryingly so, for it was supposed to be a business trip after all. I think it was more a case of work hard, play hard, and only time will tell whether I have in fact got away with it…

The perfume sampling got off to an early start – 8am on the day of departure saw me scoping the duty free at Manchester (International) airport. This preternaturally early sniffage was not particularly memorable: I tried Jimmy Choo (a watery, peony-type floral that delivered a candy floss punch in the guts a bit later), and Estee Lauder’s Adventurous and Wild Elixir, which were neither adventurous nor wild, never mind having the characteristics of a “wild elixir”, though I am not entirely sure what might fit that particular bill. “Special brownies”? A good malt? One of those nasty bitter remedies like echinacea or goldenseal tincture that are frankly worse than the maladies they are meant to prevent? Okay, so Wild Elixir was a watery, sweetish green floral that smelt better than your average Holland & Barrett supplement, but the name remains “wildly” inappropriate.

Later that day I was installed in my uncomfortably fancy boutique hotel in Chicago, planning how - with supreme sleight of Filofax - I could shoehorn as many perfumistas into my itinerary as work commitments permitted. First up, I had agreed to meet ScentScelf on the Sunday afternoon. Sunday was not quite a day off, as you might have thought: I was drafted into a four way Skype conference that morning, which overran by 10 minutes, prompting a frantic semi-jog to Union station from where I was due to catch a suburban line train to ScentScelf Central. I had less than a minute to find my platform, and one glance at the ticket counter queue said I had no time to buy the correct type of ticket either. So I made a split second decision and bought an incorrect one from a machine instead, on the basis that a wrong ticket is better than none, before sprinting on to what I hoped would prove to be the right train.

Right train, wrong ticket, as I had feared. However, the good-natured inspector sold me a new one at no extra cost and I didn’t even have to play the hapless foreigner card that has served me so well on ticketless tram journeys in Germany – only because the machine wouldn’t accept large notes, I hasten to add.

Soon I had arrived at my destination, and as I crossed the tracks, I immediately spied a figure hoving into view who had to be ScentScelf - on the fairly reliable basis that they were the only person walking towards me smiling. As a back up, I had brought a little bag of perfume samples with me and was holding it conspicuously aloft, but I needn’t have worried. On the day there weren’t too many people alighting at this particular halt who resembled my avatar. In case anyone is wondering, ScentScelf in person is not in fact a montage of disparate artefacts, but an attractive whole person, stylishly attired.

Introductions over, we headed to a local mall, which boasted a Nordstrom and a Macy’s. We hit the perfume hall running, as it were, and cruised the counters looking for new launches or scents we hadn’t tried. In my case these included Kiehl’s Original Musk (too soapy), L’Artisan Poivre Piquant (promised to be interesting later, had I only clocked the later when the time came), and Fou d’Absinthe (not a fan of the drink or the scent). We both scored samples of Si Lolita, a peppery sweet pea scent that I preferred to regular Lolita Lempicka, and which I figured would make an acceptable work scent on those days when, regrettably, an end-to-end fumehead-filled agenda could not be contrived.

The main sample coup from Nordstrom’s was a freshly made decant of Creed’s Sublime Vanille. It may have been our fulsome admiration of the presentation puffer bottle that prompted the SA to make so free with the tester bottle, but that was a definite result. Sublime Vanille reminded me a lot of the lighter versions of Shalimar, of Eau Duelle and also of Guerlain 180 Ans de Création – it had that same granular texture and comforting warmth.

After the perfume hall we made a detour to the hosiery department in Macy’s, as I wanted to buy some sheer brown tights to replace the hastily grabbed pairs of scarily pale ones I had brought with me. I agonised long and hard over deniers and degrees of sheerness, over stateside sizing systems and nuances of colour. ScentScelf launched herself into the hunt with me, and demonstrated infinite patience as I flitted from smoke to nude to barely mahogany and back again, settling in the end for a pair of Calvin Klein Cocoa in a size B. They were just the ticket and I wish I had cleared out their entire stock.

Exhausted by the tight-vetting episode, we repaired next to a cosy bakery-style café, where ScentScelf treated me to one of those soup and sandwich combos and a reassuringly hot – and tall! – tea. Which may actually mean “small”, but it looked plenty big enough to me. We chatted about perfume and blogging, and our families and work and goodness knows what else, and it became apparent to me that whether we made it to another perfume pitstop or just ended up here shooting the breeze till chucking out time, I was just enjoying the company of a likeminded, virtual friend who had just taken surprise corporeal form.

As it turned out, we were able to squeeze in another sniffing session that same day – in Barneys in downtown Chicago. ScentScelf was well aquainted with the SAs here, especially Lydia, who was manning the Frédéric Malle concession that afternoon and invited us to stick our heads in the perspex scent tubes (the one I tried had Portrait of a Lady). Lydia was wearing Portrait in fact, and had also – rather incongruously you might think in the case of a FM scent - gone clubbing with it on the night before, and garnered a lot of compliments, apparently. It smelt pretty good on her, I have to say, thought it is not a style I care for normally. Like Agent Provocateur, but more plank than rose. Lydia was very generous to us too in terms of samples: I scored “red cards” of Une Rose, L’Eau d’Hiver and Iris Poudre.

ScentScelf and I also chatted to a male SA who was hovering around Le Labo counter, but wasn’t attached to any particular house as far as I could tell. I smelt the Chicago exclusive, Baie Rose 26 (a peppery rose that was pleasant if not ground breaking). I also caught up with the rest of the Le Labo range that I had not had a chance to sample during my recent workshop in London. I was surprised to find myself quite liking another oud scent, Oud 27, which was soft and mild mannered, not at all the rasping bandaidfest I always dread.

Two lines we spent a fair bit of time testing were Yosh and Chantecaille, and ScentScelf made me a large sample of Ginger Ciao (a big white floral with a spicy kick), deploying the decanting kit she had had the foresight to bring with her (with prior clearance from staff, obviously). The only scent in the Yosh range I flat out disliked was Omniscent (too much of everything bar the kitchen sink!), and several of the others actively appealed, notably Sottile (tea rose and lily) and Stargazer (Kenya lily and ginger). The Chantecailles are a bit of a “girly floral” blur, but I do distinctly recall my reaction to Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau, namely that it was too overtly praliney for my taste, though much as I expected from the reviews I had read. Another SA tried most insistently to press me to a bottle of Clair de Musc, insisting that it was totally “me”, however, it went ultra soapy on my skin and a purchase couldn’t have been further from my mind. I am in fact quietly hankering after a bottle of Piguet’s Calypso, but Barneys did not carry the line, which is probably just as well.

And then before we knew it, it was chucking out time from Barney’s(!), and we headed to a Starbucks round the corner, where we holed up till it got dark, drinking tea - and a milky latte in ScentScelf’s case - if that is not tautology? And I may have misremembered anyway. At 7.30pm we called it a night – ScentScelf had a fair drive home, while I needed to do some preparations for the working week ahead. As luck would have it, another opportunity presented itself for a follow up meeting, namely a two hour window on the final day before I caught my return flight.

This time I had my own wheels, and drove to ScentScelf’s home, the very epi- and nerve centre of Notes from the Ledge operations – the Ledge itself, no less! I met a very affectionate dog and a rolypoly cat in a snowy shade of marmalade; I admired SS’s fridge magnets and eclectic set of candle snuffers; reader, I saw the dress in its entirety, and was also kept intrigued by a leafy leitmotiv in SS's soft furnishings. We had a delicious brunch of freshly baked banana bread, warm pains au chocolat, Greek yogurt and grapes, accompanied by a vanilla-flavoured tea (she has my number!). ScentScelf is quite the tea collector on the quiet, I can reveal...

And then…drum roll…I was introduced to her perfume collection, which was stashed in various locations around the house in a fascinating array of receptacles, which are properly documented here. I saw the egg cups and other "repurposed" items of pottery, the shoe boxes, a drawer full of exquisite minis, a secret bunker in an airing cupboard, a dresser top display and – most excitingly of all - the vintage lipstick holders! ScentScelf’s collection is more classic and retro than mine, with a significant vintage contingent, and a leaning towards the green, the chypre and the “complicated oriental”. I could have poked around and sniffed and rummaged all day, but I had to rip myself away in an untimely fashion from this Aladdin’s cave of scent, and head back to the airport, and home.

Within a matter of hours, I was back in England, and the only proof that I had actually met ScentScelf - let alone been in her home playing with her scent bottles - was the little rope handled bag of samples on my desk (look carefully to the left of the shot). I have had another rootle in it since my return, half expecting a pebble and a feather to fall out...

So what did I learn from my encounter with another fellow blogger? Well, perhaps this: that the shared interest is what brings you together, but what cements the friendship is all the other things that prompted you to share the interest in the first place. I would like to think that, were it not for the distance between us, I would be friends with ScentScelf without a love of perfume in common, and I am grateful to it for having been the catalyst.

In Parts 3 & 4 – meeting Beth of PST and the eponymous Bloody Frida!

PS I haven’t forgotten the 200th post giveaway – now something of a retrospective, admittedly - but circumstances require me to fudge the timeline!

Photo of Baie Rose 26 from, photo of Wild Elixir from, photo of Union Station from, photo of Sublime Vanille from, photo of tights from, photo of Barneys exterior from, photo of Starbucks from, photo of banana bread from, other photos my own.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Back From The Bonkers Fly Drive Trip – Part 1: The Travel Bit

So I am just back from my whistlestop tour of the Mid-West, during which I managed to cram in eight meetings for work and seven for…er…leisure. Yes, between the before, the after and the weekend in the middle of my business trip, I contrived to meet Bloody Frida four times(!), ScentScelf twice and Beth of Perfumesmellinthings (which I have recently realised has only one “g”) once. Such a Grand Tour of Mid-West-based fumeheads deserves a post of its own, so I will confine myself to the travel aspects in this one. Well, I say “one” – my Californian trip in December spawned three separate travelogue-style posts, but we’ll see.

A lot of things were familiar from last time – for though I flew with a different airline, the flight attendants were once again reassuringly middle-aged and their teeth disconcertingly white. They still ran out of chicken within a few rows, and took to calling the pasta dish all sorts of different names in a bid to sex it up: “cheesey pasta”, “tortellini with mushroom” and so on. I overheard one steward observing wearily: “They should know by now just to cater 99% chicken and 1% whatever else”.

As before, the attendants passed through the cabin collecting “service items”, and the tannoy announcements were no less portentous. On the return leg, as we taxied along the runway towards the terminal at Manchester, a disembodied voice intoned solemnly: “This is the termination of Flight 54”, when it might have been more convivial just to have said: “Okay, everybody off now - we’re here!” I noted on this occasion that Manchester Airport has wangled an upgrade and is now known as Manchester International Airport. Now, I distinctly recall flying out of Manchester to former Yugoslavia in 1972, so it is not as though you could only fly to Glasgow or the Isle of Man back then. To dignify the airport with the qualifier “international” some 39 years later strikes me as a bit of an afterthought, but there it is.

While we are on the subject of announcements there is another type that amuses me, namely the admonitory sort, to which crew members have recourse when, in their eagerness to disembark, passengers start to get out of their seats before the seat belt sign has been turned off. Immediately this occurs, the captain’s voice comes through the PA system, ticking people off for not observing the seat belt sign for these few remaining moments of the journey. And that is the funny thing, because every time I have heard a captain intervene in this way, seconds after he has uttered his reprimand the seat belt sign clicks off anyway.

The Chicago subway system also does a nice line in cautionary announcements, come to think of it. I had barely scrambled aboard with my bags at the O’Hare terminus when I heard the following warning: “Soliciting and gambling are not permitted on CTA vehicles.” Bit of a conspicuous place to solicit, I would have thought, with 15 sullen fellow passengers looking on as you hoist the hem of your suit trousers suggestively to reveal a tantalising glimpse of snagged pop sock. And did the ban on gambling also extend to a vague hunch – in the absence of a map - that Washington might be the nearest stop to my hotel?

Hotels. Ah there was some crossover with the mid-range edge of town chains I frequented in California: the Comfort and Fairfield Inns, the Ramadas and Best Westerns, with their serried ranks of pillows and curtains billowing in the updraught of the air con. This time, however, thanks to a last minute deal on the Internet, I also experienced the extremes of four star luxury in a historic boutique hotel, as well as the more basic amenities of a one star motel with no reviews - a decision driven solely by the "luxury" of free on-site parking.

I must say that the overly fussy service that goes with smart hotels doesn’t sit well with me. If I have managed to lug my bags on the subway all the way from the airport for the bargain price of $2.25, why ever would I want to tip a bell hop $2 to take them the 10 paces from the hotel door to the lift? And no sooner are you left on your own in the room when the phone rings – it’s the front desk inquiring if everything is all right with the room. Now how would I know that yet when I am standing in the middle of it with my coat still on? Tomorrow I might get back to you to say the bath water isn’t hot enough (true), or the hairdryer has blown a fuse, but I can’t be expected to know if everything is all right with my room 30 seconds after stepping inside.

Then the next day I came back to the room to find a handwritten note from the maid on my pillow, introducing herself and saying that if I needed anything else I should not hesitate to contact her. She had added a smiley face at the bottom for good measure, and placed a tin of Altoids beside it. Altoids? Is that a hint? Not being a fan of extra strong mints, I thought to myself that if that is representative of the type of extra article the maid has stashed away in her housekeeping cupboard, I would rather pass, thanks!

So on balance, the one star motel with the free on-site parking I stayed in on my last night was probably more “me”. It was the sort of establishment where they take a photocopy of your driving licence the minute you arrive. The man behind me in the lobby as I was checking in turned out not to be a guest but a policeman. He reached past me and flashed a photo of a suspect at the receptionist, adding: “We think this is the sort of place he is likely to have stayed.” The clerk examined the photo with studious care and nodded gravely, before remarking: “Oh, and by the way, that female guest I called about – the one with the bad attitude who was causing all kinds of trouble? She just checked out, so I don’t need you to come get her.”

There are a couple more things about hotels in general that struck me this time: firstly, there is the fact that you can check in at 6pm or 1am and the person on the front desk will invariably hand you your key card and say: “Have a great night!” Now they may in fact mean “Sleep well”, but I have always assumed that this is the US equivalent of the German greeting: “Have a pleasant remaining evening”, except that when you are turning up at 10 or 11pm or so, there simply isn’t that much of the evening left, and ideally you want to be sleeping during the night part that comes after the evening. So this has always puzzled me.

Then there is that strange phenomenon of the proliferating hotel pens - you know, those cheap white ones with the green or maroon tops, and the hotel name and a 1-800 number along the barrel, if barrel is not too grand a word for their slight tubular form. Every time I go on these trips, I happily minesweep the toiletries, yet I always say to myself that I will not take the pens. I don’t need them, I don’t even like them, and I already have pots overflowing with the darn things back home. Yet somehow I have managed to come back with about six of these standard issue white biros, several with their tops already missing. They are taking their tops off and breeding, is what it is.

On the food front this time, there were a couple of disappointments, not least the dearth of Denny’s in the state of Iowa. I saw one lone Denny’s sign at a truck stop near Davenport, but that was the only one in 350 miles of meticulous scanning of the horizon. The strangest dish I had was a barbecued turkey platter at a restaurant, which may or may not be a chain. For the sake of the Iowan dining public, I am rather hoping not. I have decided that the word “platter” is not usually a good omen. It is a close cousin of the “school dinner”, and on more than nodding terms with the base ingredients of an in-flight meal.

Yes, my turkey platter consisted of a heap of cubed - presumably - turkey of the reformed meat variety, a scoop of grey-green beans and one of corn, both of which had both been boiled to destruction. Oh, and a side of garlic bread that didn’t taste remotely of garlic, though I was reliably informed by the waitress when I queried this that the butter is actually mixed with a pinch of garlic powder(!). In case you are wondering what happened to the barbecued aspect, this took the form of a selection of six industrial looking sauce bottles. They all tasted much the same, varying only in degrees of viscosity and acrid smokiness.

My other two gripes on this trip on the food front were the so-called fruit salads at the breakfast buffet composed 80% of melon (two-tone melon if you were lucky, but still melon), and the gelatinous gloop that passes for regular fruit yoghurts. American yoghurt (and I tried Yoplait, which is a premium brand back home) resembles a dessert I recall from the 70s that went head to head with Bird’s Angel Delight, namely Instant Whip. Sheeny-slimy and without a single drooplet* of fruit. (*a technical term for "bits" in yogurt I remember from marketing days at St Ivel!)

A quick word on the roads this time round: there was the usual slalom of HGV tyre shreddings, a fair few potholes and some tar snakes. A particular bugbear of mine on US roads is the SUV with tinted windows – high on the ground and completely obliterating your view and awareness of the road ahead. Also on this trip I was held up a lot by slow trucks taking forever to overtake even slower trucks on some of Iowa’s many hilly gradients. I guess I should be grateful that certain classes of vehicle were not compounding the problem – at the border with Illinois I spotted the sign: “Semis are not permitted in the state.” This may explain why there is a chain of gas stations in Iowa called Kum & Go.

But seriously, I had a great time, if not a great night, quite apart from my meetings with perfumistas - of which more anon. I thoroughly enjoyed the Starbuck’s artisan sandwiches and pumpkin bread, and never tired of the thunderous sound of Chicago’s monorail or the seagulls in Cleveland. In Des Moines I interviewed a man who had gone to school with Bill Bryson, while another respondent invited me to stay with him next time I am in town: “Now the kids are gone there’s only me and the wife and our chihuahua.” After the suffocating service of the boutique hotel at one extreme and the dodgy denizens of the one star motel at the other, the offer of hospitality from an older couple with a tiny dog sounds strangely appealing...

Photo of inflight meal from, photo of CTA train from, photo of hotel room from, photo of hotel pen from, photo of Denny's sign from wikipedia, photo of sauces from, photo of yogurt from, photo of gas station from, photo of dog from, other photos my own.

Friday 25 March 2011

New Post On Ça Fleure Bon - Le Labo Synesthetic Workshop: Scent & The Sense Of Touch - Smelling Me Softly + Draw

Am just back - red eyed and not so bushy tailed - from the Bonkers Fly Drive Trip to the States (travel and scented dispatches to follow shortly!), but meanwhile here is my latest post on Ça Fleure Bon about the Le Labo sensory workshop I attended last month. I proved yet again that my spontaneous powers of scent recognition are woefully lacking, but I found a new perfume love, there was a surprise twist involving Mr Bonkers...and readers leaving a comment about their favourite Le Labo fragrance will be entered in a prize draw to win a discovery set of 3 x 5ml scents from the range (Labdanum 18, Neroli 36 and Rose 31)!

Photo of Le Labo store from

Friday 11 March 2011

200th Post, A Bonkers Fly Drive Trip, And A Giveaway Rain Check!

For my 100th post on Bonkers, I wrote a review of Maison Kurkdjian's APOM pour Femme, a recently discovered perfume love and one which perfectly encapsulated how, in the past three years, fragrance has become an important and integral part of my life - a piece of me, no less.

I fully intended to mark the occasion of my 200th post with a review of another significant scent release, and was going to call it: "200th Post - Going The Puredistance". I planned to team it with a draw for a fragrance blending kit from The Perfume Studio (of which I am an associate), in either the Oriental, Floral or Fresh styles. Each kit contains six different accords pre-mixed in alcohol, which can then be blended in a variety of combinations. Well, I will do both those things in due course, but not today, sadly, as I am packing for another Bonkers work trip to the US and have it - as they say - "all to do". There have been Bonkers Road and Bonkers Rail Trips before, so I am pleased to be ringing the changes on the transport mode front, at least.

While I am over there, I hope to meet up with ScentScelf and Bloody Frida, and maybe one or two other fumeheads, schedules permitting. The work itself and the state-hopping itinerary will be pretty punishing, but I will be sure to take advantage of any retail sniffing opportunities that cross my path.

Now I am sorry posts on Bonkers have been a bit sparse of late, but I have been working UK and US business hours for the past fortnight, knocking off at 11pm and not really managing to do the usual domestic stuff like laundry, food shopping, or even eating. On those few occasions when I have attempted to prepare food from scratch ingredients, I have invariably been sidetracked and the food has spoilt. The abandoned mushrooms in the grill pan pictured are just the tip of the icebox. This catalogue of neglect extends to newsprint: my copy of The Times from 26th February is still sitting on the living room table, taunting me with its pristine pages and increasingly historical content.

So I hope that normal service - and a more substantial anniversary post (with giveaway!) - will be resumed on my return towards the end of the month. Meanwhile, my brain feels how that map looks...

Saturday 5 March 2011

The Ormonde Jayne Perfume Portrait Service: Pulling Out All The Stoppers To Find Your Perfect Scent

I had toyed with calling this post something like "A Sliding Scale of Scent Selection Strategies", and was going to compare all the different ways of choosing a perfume, from blind buys in T K Maxx - "It's cheap, so how bad can it be?" - to being advised by sales assistants intent on pushing the latest DKNY flanker in the largest unit size possible. But I have already written a post about Ormonde Jayne with a form of the verb "slide" in the title, and decided two slidey posts might be pushing it.

So anyway, my meeting with Linda Pilkington last Friday was not to be, owing to a "signal" lack of crew on my scheduled train, but I said I would drop into the new store near Sloane Square on the Saturday instead. It proved to be a bit of a challenge getting across town from my hotel in St Pancras, partly due to my own incompetence and partly to a few rug pulling stunts on the part of Transport for London.

For starters I took the wrong branch of the Northern Line - via Bank instead of Charing Cross - though I later discovered that this was because the Charing Cross line had been closed, and everyone looking for the Northern Line was automatically steered down the remaining branch. Once on a train, I quickly realised it was going well out of my way. I got off at Moorgate and was about to take the Circle Line eastbound, when I heard an announcement about engineering works at Tower Hill, so I jumped on a tube heading west instead, insofar as compass directions are meaningful in a loop scenario... Are you keeping up so far? : - ) : - )

This circuitous route eventually took me to Sloane Square. I stood in the rain outside the station and rummaged fruitlessly in my handbag for the store details. In their absence, I was reliant on the combined knowledge of several passers by (none of whom were local), a sales assistant with Internet access in Ortigia(!) and three separate members of staff in Peter Jones, including their Customer Services Manager, who walked me to a window of their arty cafeteria and pointed down at the street below. "Okay, so it's not that street there, but Pavilion Road is sort of up a bit and to the left." Having just about absorbed these aerial directions, I promptly got lost looking for the "florist exit" of the store, before emerging blinking into the street, none the wiser now that I was on the ground.

By now somewhat bedraggled from the drizzle, I dived into a Chanel boutique, where two assistants pored helpfully over my 20 year old street guide, as loose pages fluttered softly onto the glossy hardwood floor. At the heart of the problem was the fact that Pavilion Road was on the fold of the book, which was not helped by the tiny print and my failing close sight. I am fast getting to that desperate stage where I have to annexe a young person every time I want to read.

Now in narrating this sorry tale I am not saying that the new Ormonde Jayne store is particularly hard to find - granted, it is tucked away in a little alley, but it is still only a stone's throw from Sloane Square. However, my initial failure to bring the address, coupled with the curved balls served up by TFL, my decrepit A-Z and dodgy vision all conspired to make the journey more arduous than was necessary. I should probably have taken the Clear Pill, for which there were numerous advertisments in the underground. If I took it every day, I'd be "LIMITLESS" apparently, able to unlock my potential and "become the perfect version of myself". Clearly, a better map reading version of myself would be a good start.

Unfortunately, the Clear Pill seems to come with a lot of baggage in the way of side effects, to wit: "paralysis, psychosis, amnesia, extreme sexual appetite, brain damage, irreversible coma, homicidal blackouts and sudden death."

So in deference to Monica and Bona, the staff of the Ormonde Jayne store, who were lovely and welcoming when I did eventually make it, it is probably best that I wasn't taking this pill during my visit - I don't suppose they'd have thanked me if I had had a homicidal blackout on their premises, especially if I had selected one of them as my victim moments before the attack.

Oh dear me...that was a bit of a longwinded introduction, and I realise that I may have shed a few readers somewhere around Paddington on the anticlockwise section of the Circle Line, but for anyone still reading, MY PERFUME PORTRAIT EXPERIENCE STARTS HERE... The store itself is a triumph of elegant design, featuring the orange and black livery that is the unmistakable calling card of Ormonde Jayne. There was lots of gleaming black marble - or gleaming black something - on the display surfaces and the walls. The lighting was discreet and twinkly; the product reverentially displayed. The sense of awe and wonder I felt in this sleek temple to high end scent was on a par with the feelings evoked by a visit to an upscale jeweller's or a prestigious art gallery. I could also liken my response to a grown up version of my childhood excitement at visiting Santa's grotto in our local department store - also with gift (for girl aged 50-55), as it turned out...

I was invited to sit down at a big counter and offered a selection of Ormonde Jayne's own handmade chocolates and a cup of jasmine tea with a real jasmine flower in it. You were supposed to wait for the flower to open fully before drinking the tea in which it bobbed. It was a novel take on my customary infusion method of mashing the tea bag against the side of a mug with the back of a spoon, and though the delicately fragrant tea was very refreshing, I joked with the staff that I couldn't quite rise above the sensation of drinking a rockpool through the tentacles of a sea anemone.

Then Monica, the store manager, kicked off by explaining the idea behind the Perfume Portrait service, namely to invite clients to sniff a selection of raw materials to identify which ones they liked or disliked, thus narrowing the choice of perfumes from the Ormonde Jayne range which they would be invited to sample. Key preliminary questions focused on the occasion this scent was intended for, perfumes the client had worn in the past, and any other information they could provide about their tastes in fragrance.

So then we started testing the various individual fragrance oils, on the end of black lacquered stoppers impregnated with each scent. These were arranged in seven families: "Hesperidic", "Delicate Floral", "Intense Floral", "Balsamic", "Oriental", "Woody" and the intriguingly named "Atmospheric" category, but I preferred not to know what each oil was - or even what family it belonged to - as I proceeded to smell each in turn.

Now I don't wish this post to act as a "spoiler" for anyone who might be planning to try out the Perfume Portrait service themselves, so I will just give you a flavour of how my blind testing went. Predictably, I was pretty rubbish on the whole, though in fairness, at this level of concentration it can be difficult to recognise certain odours, even very familiar ones.

Out of 21 fragrance oils I correctly guessed just two on the first attempt: mandarin and vanilla! The vanilla extract was white and crystalline and so scrumptious-smelling that I would happily have sucked the stopper like a child's dummy (pacifier)! Several oils I got on the second attempt, like gardenia and tonka bean, and I was often in the right general ballpark: for pimento I said cloves, and for pepper I guessed spice or woods.

Bizarrely, I got freesia and iris root round the wrong way, which makes me realise that I am probably only familiar with the more austere scent of the iris flower. I also didn't recognise the champaca note at that concentration, which surprised me as I know how it smells in the OJ perfume of that name. And when I smelt hemlock (arguably OJ's signature note, being the first company to use it in perfumery) and also moss, to both of those I am afraid I just said "nasty!"

So that was all a lot of fun, and quite instructive: I emerged from the process with some clear likes and dislikes, but also some in-between notes, which I decided I might enjoy in small doses. It now fell to Monica, who had been logging my comments along the way, to tot up my stated preferences within each family of oils, cross match that information with the families into which each Ormonde Jayne fragrance is classified as belonging - also bearing in mind that some perfumes fall into multiple categories - and make recommendations from their range of 12 scents.

Before this experiment, I would have said I had pretty broad tastes, but if I could only have two styles of perfume in my wardrobe those would have to be citrus (for daytime) and probably woody oriental (for evening wear). Looking at my score card, I have come out as squarely in the Hesperidic camp, closely followed by Delicate Floral, Oriental, Woody and Atmospheric on an equal footing, all of which feels about right. My least favourite fragrance style came out as Intense Floral (true). (Ormonde Jayne don't do any ragingly civetty scents, or those would doubtless have come out bottom, as it were.) Some intensely floral scents I do actually like, but don't really feel are me. And then my response to resinous fragrances was a bit mixed, which is also true. I do love some incense scents, but they shouldn't be overtly resinous in the sense of "piney". The only thing that puzzled me about the way the oils were grouped was "frangipani", which is classed as a delicate floral, and which I think of as quite intense - though I do happen to like the note, as I do ylang-ylang - in moderation, anyway.

From her analysis Monica shortlisted five perfumes: Osmanthus, Frangipani, Orris Noir, Ta'if and Tiare. This was a pretty canny selection, because unlike most clients who will go through the Perfume Portrait process, I came to it already knowing my favourites from the range, namely Orris Noir, Ta'if and Tiare, and was curious to see if we would come back to these by starting from first principles and identifying my preferences amongst the base ingredients. Additionally, I own Osmanthus Interdite by Les Parfums d'Empire and Ajne Calypso, a frangipani and jasmine scent, so I do dabble in these other fruity/floral directions.

At this point, Monica offered me my choice of fragrance to take home, a generous gesture that caught me completely offguard! With spring round the corner I opted for Tiare - one of the releases from the past two years that has most impressed me. We also talked about Ta'if, the most strongly indicated fragrance from the Perfume Portrait exercise, and a big favourite of mine for winter. Apparently it is a popular choice amongst Middle Eastern clients, including as a men's fragrance.

So what conclusions would I draw about the Perfume Portrait service as a method of orientating clients towards the perfect scent? Couldn't they just sniff all twelve OJ perfumes rather than the 21 base oils, you may be wondering? Well, sure they could, but this is so much fun! Now I don't think the exercise is totally foolproof, given that some of the oils are a bit intense and may put people off at that level of concentration - whereas they might like them well enough in the more attenuated strength at which they would typically end up in a finished formulation. However, I definitely think that the service is broadly indicative, and that the chances are that the shortlist that comes out the pipe will include at least one fragrance the client will like a lot - it my case, it was all three of my favourites!

Beyond that, there were two other great aspects to the Perfume Portrait service in my view. The first was the educational value of smelling oils blind and guessing what they were. I believe that that process alone could tip some ordinary perfume consumers into becoming full blown perfumistas. And given the pleasure that we fumeheads derive from fragrance, the possibility of converting even a few souls through a practical sniffing exercise could only be A Good Thing.

And then there is the whole pampering aspect, for, quite frankly, the care taken by the staff to understand your taste in fragrance, together with the beautiful store environment (not forgetting the chocolates and novelty tea), is as relaxing and therapeutic as a spa treatment. So, Santa's grotto, a spa, it comes to much the same thing. This experience could not be further removed from the "spray and pray" method of scent selection that obtains in your average department store - the staff at Ormonde Jayne have a thorough knowledge of their product line and the fragrance market in general, and clearly care about matching you with the right scent, as opposed to foisting one upon you that they are supposed to promote.

And yet - complimentary bottle aside - I wouldn't have felt pressured to make a purchase at the end of the session, and the one friend I know who has also had her Portrait done said the same. So from the consumer's point of view, as retail experiences go, it doesn't get better that this. And one thing that is also worth mentioning is that I didn't feel at all uncomfortable either in this stylish store - despite my dishevelled appearance and casual ensemble. I was even wearing a pea coat from Asda(Wal*Mart!), and when one of the girls helped me on with it, I swear she didn't visibly flinch. : - ) I remember feeling more awkward in Space NK in Bath, which is a bigger and more mainstream chain. The sales assistant there clearly resented me using the testers.

To sum up, I had an interesting and most enjoyable time, and left the store in a far less frazzled state than I had arrived. If you are not familiar with the Ormonde Jayne range or think you know your tastes in scent but fancy having these hunches "subjectively verified" by sampling individual components, the Perfume Portrait is well worth a shot.

PS I must also apologise for getting Monica's and Bona's names mixed up at one point. Both names feature "on-a" after all, and the black uniforms fuelled my confusion. Now what was that freephone number for the Clear Pill...?

Ormonde Jayne's blog features the new store here.

And here is a link to Ormonde Jayne's website.

Photo of tube map from, photo of view from Peter Jones from, photo of Clear Pill ad from, photo of exterior of store and of Tiare from Ormonde Jayne, photo of spa from, other photos my own.