Some scents are olfactory icons. You've smelled them wafting from over-enthusiastic ladies in elevators, at department stores among islands of glass bottles, and on too many of your friends. These are the powerhouse perfumes that take the world's senses by storm. Then there are the more obscure scents, made by small manufacturers and sold mainly through the companies' boutiques. The popularity of these fragrances has blossomed: now it's hip to be aromatically enigmatic. Here are some of the best perfume boutiques in the United States and Europe, all with shops worth visiting.
Amélie et Mélanie The Provençal town of Barjols is famous for its ancient tanneries, its 23 fountains, and its fondness for huge topiaries. The shop's perfumes are sold in aluminum flasks and include such inventive blends as Marine-- a fresh, bracing, citrus scent-- and the musky Muir Sauvage. The shop also sells toiletries, such as oval soaps in egg cartons and Vanille Café bath oil in bottles with coffee beans and sticks of vanilla. Allée Louis-Pasteur, Barjols; 33-4/94-77-15-79.
Annick Goutal When she began making perfumes, Annick Goutal used ivy to adorn the bottles because she couldn't afford anything more elaborate. Today her four Paris stores are still decorated with ivy-- but now it's gold-leafed. Among her ten heady fragrances is the unisex Du Sud, a blend including grapefruit and mint that was launched this year. 14 Rue de Castiglione, 16 Rue de Bellechasse, 93 Rue de Courcelles, 12 Place St.-Sulpice, all in Paris; 33-1/42-60-52-82. Also at Barneys, Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Czech & Speake Founder Frank Sawkins got into perfumery through the bathroom door. He started out in 1979, designing elegant bathroom fixtures reminiscent of the Edwardian period. As they gained popularity, Sawkins developed a complementary line of toiletries. Over the past 15 years, the company has introduced seven fragrance lines, including its best-selling perfume, 88, a complex, spicy elixir of sandalwood, vetiver, and cassie, from the shrub. 39C Jermyn St., London; 44-171/439-0216. Also at Harrods.
Floris In 1730, homesick barber Juan Famenias Floris fulfilled the destiny of his surname and began importing floral oils and essences from his native Spain to sell in his London barbershop. The shop is still at the same address after 267 years, but today there are no haircuts to be had. Instead you'll find fragrances for men and women, including some of the founder's original recipes, such as Moss Rose, a mixture of rose and geranium, and Zinnia, made with that flower plus violet, rose, iris, ylang-ylang, and vanilla. 89 Jermyn St., London; 44-171/930-2885. Also at 703 Madison Ave., New York; 212/935-9100.
Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella Once the home of chemist-friars, this 17th-century Florentine abbey has marble floors, vaulted ceilings, and bronze candelabra in the form of vestal virgins. Many of the natural fragrances and compounds for hair and skin are prepared according to formulas developed by the friars for Catherine de Médicis in the 1500's. The perfumed powders are made with ground iris rhizomes harvested in the hills around Florence. If you like to know where your soap has been, take a tour and watch it being produced with 19th-century machines. 16 Via della Scala, Florence; 39-55/216-276.
Fredericksburg Herb Farm In the Texas Hill Country, on 14 acres shaded by live oaks, is a compound of rustic buildings and lavish plantings whose mission is to engage the senses. The labeled gardens are designed for visitors' lingering and learning pleasure. The tearoom serves peppermint fudge brownies and other herb-laced delicacies, and one cottage is dedicated to spa treatments. The selection of fragrances and skin products-- devised by owners Bill and Sylvia Varney and made and sold on-site-- includes Parfum Bluebonnet, which captures the sweet essence of the Hill Country's most famous flower. 402 Whitney St., Fredericksburg, Tex.; 830/997-8615. Also at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
Grandiflorum In 1994 this company began with two women-- a psychotherapist and a lawyer-- cooking up flowers, fruits, and barks in a Berkeley kitchen. Three years later, in a store laden with antiques, they sell 15 natural fragrances. The names, such as Absinthe and Blond Tabac, suggest Paris in the twenties, as do the labels, with floral engravings and woodcuts. It's easy to picture Lady Brett Ashley slipping one of the etched tins of solid fragrance into a beaded purse. 1792A Fifth St., Berkeley, Calif.; 510/486-0200. Also at Bergdorf Goodman, Fred Segal, and select Neiman Marcus stores.
L'Artisan Parfumeur One might assume that this Madison Avenue shop, with its cut-glass bottles and 19th-century-style furniture, is old-world. The scents also evoke an earlier era, from the sandalwood-infused Premier Figuier, named for Adam and Eve's wardrobe after the Fall, to L'Eau du Navigateur, with its scents of coffee, tobacco, and spice. But this French perfumery, which also has boutiques in Paris and London, has been in business only since the seventies. Still, it's a sensational step into the past. 870 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y.; 800/848-6835. Also at Henri Bendel.
JEANNIE RALSTON is a contributing editor at Allure.
Where can you find the world's most complete collection of chemical-free fragrances?Not in Paris or New York, but in Portland, Oregon, at the Perfume House. This boutique doesn't make its own scents, but it's a great antidote to those department-store-counter headaches.
The International Perfume Council deems owner Chris Tsefalas one of the 26 best "noses" on earth, an honor earned only by those who can identify every essence in a spray of perfume before the mist hits the ground. His offerings range from fragrances by Jean Patou and the Paris classic D'Orsay to the more obscure Amouage, made in Oman. A frankincense-and-myrrh scent modeled after the Wise Men's gift to Christ, Amouage was delivered to the boutique by the sultan of Oman himself. After sitting proudly beside a display of the hand-cut crystal bottles for two full days, he headed home, feeling no need to take a detour to, say, Saks Fifth Avenue. After all, the Perfume House is a complete experience. 3328 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, Oreg.; 503/234-5375.
-- JESSICA DINEEN
The following artisanal perfumes evoke worlds worth traveling to. But if you can't go away, go mail order:
Antonia's Flowers Two exquisitely packaged freesia-based fragrances (508/420-2191; also at select stores).
Essential Aromatics Products with therapeutic powers, from cleansing pine oil to lavender eye pillows (800/211-1313; not sold in stores).