Scent-sational London

Whenever we refer to the world of perfumes, our thoughts turn to France, with its Provencal factories and the great ‘parfumiers’ on the Champs Elysées. 

But did you know that there are over 300 British perfume brands? A walk around the shopping districts of St James and Mayfair can reveal some fascinating facts. However, it is best to avoid going into too much detail as to where these sublime scents come from – some ingredients, as in the case of animals’ secretions, can be rather off-putting…


Vinaigrette box. Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Smell to survive

Pomanders, vinaigrette boxes…in the past, scents were not always worn for one’s pleasure. In times of plague or poor sanitation, perfumes were used as a way to protect oneself from sickly miasmas and offensive odours, or to ward off evil in case of witchcraft. During long journeys by carriage, the genteel ladies of the Georgian and Regency eras would wear a tiny vinaigrette box around the neck and smell the little sponge within, which would be soaked in aromatic vinegar or perfume.


Lavender Water. Image by Cristina Apostoli

Smell to revive

These same ladies would carry a tiny bottle of lavender water in their reticules (small bags) when they wanted to freshen up during a ball when the air of the packed ballroom became too stifled. You can still find lavender water and even some of their original, late 18th-century products at one of the oldest chemist’s in London, D.R. Harris, on St James’s Street. 


Floris. Image by Cristina Apostoli


Go round the corner and on Jermyn Street, is Floris. They have been selling famous fragrances since 1730 – Floris is mentioned in Moonraker and Ian Fleming himself favoured their No.89 Eau de Toilette, while Winston Churchill preferred No.127 Eau de Toilette. Go to the little museum at the back of the shop, and you will find a bill sent to Marilyn Monroe for six bottles of their Rose Geranium Toilet Water. She may have worn Chanel No.5 in bed, but she also shopped at Floris. 


Perfume bottles. Image by Cristina Apostoli

Fragrant monks

Walk along the beautiful Piccadilly Arcade and you will reach the Santa Maria Novella’s shop. Perfumes were first used in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley Civilization, but in Europe, it was the monks’ knowledge that spread the use of fragrances and the Dominican Friars of the Florentine Santa Maria Novella were among the first. What I buy here are their lovely scents for the home, both the potpourri and the terracotta pomegranate. 


Burlington Arcade. Image by Cristina Apostoli

Exotic scents

It is time now to cross Piccadilly and enter the Burlington Arcade. You will find Penhaligon’s on the left, and although they are not as old as Floris or Creed (a British brand that dates back to 1760, when the founder sent King George III a pair of scented leather gloves), they have been creating  scents since 1872 and they hold two Royal Warrants. Their first fragrance was the exotic Hammam Bouquet, inspired by the Turkish Baths next to their original shop on Jermyn Street. Mr. Penhaligon had started his career as a barber within the Hammam. And if you are wondering, yes, they still sell that fragrance to this day. 


Royal Arcade: Image by Cristina Apostoli

Back to the roots

Our last stop is under the elegant Royal Arcade, where we find the flagship boutique of Ormonde Jayne, whose philosophy is a return to the golden age of perfumery, with the use of rare, exotic oils that are infused for months before filtration. The result is an array of complex, luxurious, and unique fragrances. 


A personal affair

Scents affect our mood because they trigger memories and the emotions linked to them. So they are deeply personal, and that is why I never buy perfumes for someone else unless I know exactly what they use. It is so easy to go wrong. 


I hope you enjoyed this short olfactory journey, and I look forward to taking you in person on a longer, in-depth experience of all things beautiful in London. 


About the author:

Cristina Apostoli is a Blue Badge Guide of London with a special interest in history, art, and all things Jane Austen (you can see her post about Jane in Italian here).