Purchasing perfume as a gift always frustrates me. Every time I walk away watery-eyed from the trendiest boutiques, assured that I’ve just acquired the latest and most exotic, I am later told in no uncertain terms that I missed the mark by a wide margin. My lady friend, you see, just loves fragrances, and she does not take disappointment lightly. And so when her voice dropped a full octave to inform me that she deserved something special this time, I knew the moment had come to change my strategy.
After a few tactful inquiries, I was given the name of Henry Jacques, a perfumer from the South of France for whom special is a byword. Jacques is noted not only for the quality of his ingredients, but for matching them to the characteristics and tastes of each client. The end of my worries seemed to be at hand.
Jacques’ collection of perfumes is sold in the United States at Henri Baumann, an upstairs salon in downtown San Francisco. Sebastien Baumann, its affable proprietor, and his partner, Kevin Hoskins, received me warmly and were happy to explain to a relative neophyte what made the fragrances so special. Conventional perfume, I was informed, makes use of a carrier, such as alcohol, to bind the formula and diffuse the scent. Most of the ingredients are also chemically reconstituted. The secret to Jacques’ perfumes is that he uses only the highest-quality essential oils and naturally reconstituted ingredients with no carrier, a component that affects the purity of the recipe and causes the fragrance to age poorly. Baumann’s shop has on hand more than 2,000 blends comprising more than 800 different ingredients. If this is not enough to choose from, special bouquets (characteristic blends of very rare ingredients) can be added to customize an haute couture fragrance, which comes packaged in Baccarat or Daum crystal flacons.
Experience and contacts have given Jacques access to some of the rarest and most coveted substances in the scent trade. O’od, an extremely rare essence that costs $2,400 per quarter ounce, is a particular favorite of some of Baumann’s clients. Distill the center of a particular fungus-infected tree and you can obtain the pungent, yet highly prized o’od, whose aroma some may find reminiscent of a goat. It is not something I would anoint myself with, but then there is indeed no accounting for taste.
I was more concerned about how Baumann would satisfy the discriminating nose of my lady friend, particularly given his unorthodox method. “How tall is your friend?” he asked. Frankly, I had no idea how the answer could have any bearing on what she should smell like, but I gamely replied. “And her natural hair color?” It was another odd question, but I trusted that this fellow knew his business. Following his lead, I waxed on about her strong yet sporty ways, including her passion for all things having to do with horses, a detail that gave Baumann pause. He recalled a custom scent with certain “grassy” undertones that he had created for another equestrienne client. I pointed out that any animal that regarded my lady friend as fodder was in for a rude awakening.
My anxieties, however, were quickly allayed when both partners reached for the same vial. “It’s a blend of Moroccan rose, Chinese vetiver, and oak moss, rounded with neroli and orange flower,” said Baumann. “We call it Highness.”
Henri Baumann, 415.982.1500