Scent is intrinsically linked to memory. One might struggle to remember the appearance of a childhood classroom, but one sniff of a similar aroma can take us straight back to the Play-Doh and exercise books. Penhaligon’s has always been aware of this as a fragrance house. Its very foundations were built on the power of storytelling, using scent to evoke memories, feelings and fantasies. Now, as Penhaligon’s celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary, the brand is revisiting its 150 Years of Fragrant Tales.
William Penhaligon created his first perfume in 1872. At the time he ran a barbershop, situated near to a hammam on Jermyn Street. Each day he breathed in the beautiful aromas emanating from the hammam: a scent created from steam, heat, water, spices and herbs, and wanted to recreate it in a fragrance. The result was Hammam Bouquet.
At the time, fragrance making was tied to barbershops and Penhaligon’s was one of the finest in town, the choice of London’s aristocrats and royals. William’s customers loved the exoticism of Hammam Bouquet and the way in which it perfectly conjured the feeling of being in a hammam.
It isn’t just places that Penhaligon’s captures in fragrance though, it is people too. In 1902 William’s son Walter worked with the 9th Duke of Marlborough to create Blenheim Bouquet, a scent created with notes of black pepper, citrus and pine to encapsulate the flamboyance of the aristocrat as well as his connection to one of England’s finest stately homes, Blenheim Palace. The fragrance is one of the brand’s most beloved scents and is as popular today as it was more than a century ago.
A more recent example of capturing character in fragrance is The Favourite, released in 2020 and inspired by the Duchess of Marlborough – the favourite consort of Queen Anne – who was portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the Oscar-winning film of the same name. For this perfume, Penhaligon’s sought to recreate a moment from the past, to bring this historical figure and her character back to life with a modern twist. The result blends violet, mimosa and jasmine with sandalwood, amber and musk to create a scent that is regal, elegant, feminine and powerful.
Penhaligon’s has always masterfully managed to capture character and personality in the intertwining notes of a fragrance. In fact, it is this expertise that has led the brand to run a fragrance profiling service through which you can discover one of Penhaligon’s more-than 60 scents to exactly match your own character. For those requiring a bit of extra help to decide what perfume tells their story, Penhaligon’s will even run virtual consultation appointments with their experts.
And in the most recent Penhaligon’s collection, Portraits, the brand has taken what they call “olfactory fiction” into a new world, twisting their usual process on its head. Instead of creating a scent to represent a character, they have created fictional characters and fragrances to suit the scents. The characters sit together in an interconnected family, each with their own story – at the head is gentlemanly patriarch Lord George with his elegant wife, Lady Blanche by his side. Roaring Radcliff, George’s secret son, is one of the naughtier members of the Portrait family along with Terrible Teddy and The Impudent Cousin Matthew.
The fragrance house starts the creative process with the idea of what a story is, and what inspired it, and then searches for the most fitting notes to match it. Sartorial, for example, is a fragrance created to echo the experience of being fitted for a suit at one of Savile Row’s finest tailors, Norton & Sons. To create it, Penhaligon’s perfumer spent time in the tailor’s cutting room to experience the scents in the air among the cloth, thread and scissors. They then distilled those odours into fragrance notes – in this case, leather, beeswax, lavender and tonka bean.
Another fragrance, Iris Prima, was created in partnership with the English National Ballet. For its invention, Penhaligon’s perfumer spent time at the theatre, sitting in rehearsals and performances, taking in the atmosphere of the ballet. The scent was then created from the memory of these experiences, revisiting a place in their mind to relate back to the different smells that existed in the space, and how it made them feel.
Storytelling is an intrinsic part of Britain’s culture and Penhaligon’s is a proudly British brand. Many of the perfumery’s stories are inspired by British heritage and personalities. A sense of whimsy, idiosyncrasy and characterisation – synonymous with British storytelling – comes through in each of the fragrances. Penhaligon’s also prides itself on being literary, reflecting Britain’s long library of storied writers and love of language. Describing scents can be difficult, but the fragrance house has mastered the art of taking customers on a journey of imagination to describe the experience of an eau de toilette.
‘For us, the most important thing is not whether you make a purchase or not, it is that when you visit Penhaligon’s you leave with a good feeling. We want our customers to feel a sense of connection with the brand, the team, the scents and the stories behind them,’ explains Lance Patterson, Penhaligon’s CEO.
This mastery of scent and storytelling has resulted in Penhaligon’s enjoying 150 years of success and loyal customers, including a coterie of Royal Warrants dating from 1903 to the present day. Telling a story through fragrance is a particular artform that is at once personal and universal, and something that Penhaligon’s hopes to continue doing for at least another 150 years.
Penhaligon’s is celebrating its 150 Years of Fragrant Tales online by retelling some of the brand’s most beloved stories – visit the brand’s website to find out more.
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