Scented love – Glass attends a speed-smelling event at Harrods’ Salon De Parfums

Scented love – Glass attends a speed-smelling event at Harrods’ Salon De Parfums

Picture this scenario. You’re at a speed-dating event. Yes, you find the very idea ghastly, but you’ve been persuaded to attend it by a few well-meaning friends. You surrender yourself to the system, ignoring your embarrassment, fixing that winning smile on your face, shuffling along each time the bell indicates that it’s time to move on. And then, without warning, something clicks into place. You meet The One. You are in no doubt whatsoever. Everything about this person feels right. They are the object of your dreams. You see nobody else in the room except them.

But wait, what’s going on? You’re told you have to step away. You’re instructed to say “Goodbye”, turn around and leave the room, with no hope of seeing your beloved. Ever again. 

Give or take a few embellishments, this is precisely what took place at Harrods’ Salon De Parfums a couple of weeks ago, except that the objects of everybody’s attention weren’t people, but perfumes. Making its UK debut, Speed Smelling – which has been successfully staged in Paris for over five years – is an attempt by its organisers, IFF, to showcase their finest raw materials and the skills of their most talented perfumers.

Scented LoveScented Love £

Although its name may not be familiar to the average fragrance shopper, IFF (International Flavours & Fragrances) is one of the organisations which create the actual scented liquids poured into all those bottles bearing designer logos. Whenever you reach for a spritz of Bulgari’s Mon Jasmin Noir, what you’re really spraying upon your skin is an IFF composition, put together by Sophie Labbe and Olivier Polge.

The same goes for Calvin Klein’s Eternity For Men or Dunhill’s new Icon, both of which were made by Carlos Benaim. And even when you seek out more niche fare, you’re quite likely to encounter IFF’s work: several of Frederic Malle’s scents, including Carnal Flower and Cologne Indelebile, are the handiwork of one of the firm’s most esteemed noses,  Dominique Ropion.

Speed Smelling is an opportunity for these relatively obscure artists to shine. Freed from brand demands, market tests and, crucially, budgetary restrictions, they are invited to indulge their most personal ideas and explore any creative avenues they wish. The results of their endeavours are presented like a speed dating session: every 7 minutes, the curious move from one perfumer to the next, listening to the story behind each scent’s inspiration, sniffing blotters, making notes and, quite possibly, falling in love, before a bell jolts them back into the real world and onto the next perfumer.

What raises the pitch of the event to an especially heart-rending level is the fact that none of these works will be made commercially available. They are all either too expensive or too unusual to be deemed suitable for general release. Once sniffed, they may well be gone forever.

 This is no doubt one reason why the dash from each composition to the next is such a thrill. Then again, there’s also the more prosaic explanation that, by and large, these are truly wondrous pieces of work.

Take Jean-Christophe Herault’s, for instance. Inspired by the scent of mimosas blooming on the Cote D’Azur, he has used violet leaf, iris, beeswax – and, of course, mimosa itself – to fashion an extraordinary rendition of the plant’s odour. Milky, powdery and buttery, it appears to halt the passage of time, as though presenting the smell of its subject in decadent slow motion.

Hoping to formulate an olfactory postcard of a recent trip to southern India, Nicolas Beaulieu used a wondrous accord of cardamom and coffee to construct an evocative expression of spices, lush foliage and even, believe it or not, monsoon moisture with an immediacy which travel brochures could only dream of emulating.

And Austrian Alexis Dadier used an ingenious juxtaposition of notes traditionally seen as feminine (chocolate and blackberries) with more classically masculine materials (fir balsam and woods) to produce a scented representation of his country’s most famous gender-bender, Conchita Wurst.

The ideas don’t stop there. There’s a floral garden floating in a space station.

A far eastern medicine chest. A trip through the canopy of a tropical rainforest. A multi-faceted Arabian rose. Even a descent into the very core of a flower, as seen through the intoxicated senses of a bumblebee. In its own way, each creation is a delight, proving that IFF’s stars are capable of so much more originality and thoughtfulness than the high street would seem to suggest. If only more brands were brave enough to let their artistic impulses run free.

Such are the thoughts that go through your mind when you sniff the final blotter and the bell indicates that the spectacle has come to an end.

 With remarkable prescience – or should that be business acumen? – the folks at IFF have realised that a few individuals simply couldn’t bear the thought of never again enjoying these rich olfactory experiences. So they have put together a strictly limited edition set containing 10ml of each of the perfumes presented in the Speed Smelling session. Sadly, by the time you read this, they’ll probably be sold out. But fear not: there’s always next year. So start working on that winning smile now!

by Persolaise


 is a Jasmine award-winning perfume critic and author

The collection of Speed Smelling perfumes is available  for sale at the Salon, Harrods priced at £100