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Sweet smell of success

The location of the original Floris boutique, in London's Piccadilly, is not just an advantage because of its proximity to affluent Londoners. Ever since its beginnings in 1730, Floris's location has also proved a distinct advantage when it comes to supplying the local royal palaces.

"Staff can walk round orders to Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, although it's not as easy with Windsor and Balmoral of course," smiles chairman John Bodenham, representing the eighth generation of this family business.

Bodenham may make it sound casual and blasé, but Floris has been serving the British monarchy and the ladies and gentleman of St James's for 279 years. Back in 1820, James Floris, the son of the company's founder, received the first of 16 Royal Warrants granted to Floris. Ever since, the company has always held at least one. Today, Floris holds Royal Warrants from both the Queen and Prince Charles.

As Bodenham leads me up the stairs at the back of the shop, through the offices and into the boardroom, almost every wall is covered with either old portrait paintings of family members or certificates of royal warrants. Looking out of the window from the first floor boardroom, a richly-coloured coat of arms is clearly visible as it hangs above the outside of the shop. This is the symbol of Floris's first royal warrant, which was granted from His Majesty King George IV. 

Today, Floris also regularly supply hotels, a total of 750 retailers worldwide and runs a growing online mail order arm.

Apart from the royals, Floris customers have spanned the gamut from conservative to bling – from Margaret Thatcher to Donatella Versace, David Cameron to the Sultan of Brunei.

In the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino plays a blind character who claims he knows the woman he desires is wearing Floris. Noel Coward was a faithful Floris customer and references Floris in his 1925 London play Hay Fever. Laurence Olivier favoured Floris Malmaison and Carnation while Oscar Wilde sprayed his carnation with it.

The Floris family ancestry began in 1730 when Juan Famenias Floris arrived in London, fleeing his birthplace of Menorca, then at risk of being overtaken by the Spanish. He became the resident barber at the St James's Hotel on Jermyn Street, building up a loyal clientele powdering wigs and shaving.

He soon married the woman of his dreams, who brought with her a handsome dowry, enabling him to set up his own business. He imported hair combs from Menorca, made shaving brushes, hatpins, toothbrushes and fine toothcombs and set about re-creating the aromas of his Mediterranean youth from memory by blending oils and essences transported from Europe.

This was the age of the dandy. Vain and fashion-conscious gentlemen routinely sported bouffon hairstyles, rendering combs essential items. Floris's first royal warrant came in 1820 when the family was appointed as smooth pointed comb maker to George IV.

"This was a time when even if a bomb went off, a man's hair wouldn't budge," quips John Bodenham. 

In addition to the monarch, other Floris customers included Beau Brummell, the ultimate early 19th century dandy and the man credited with establishing the suit and tie as the modern way for gentlemen to dress. Brummell is said to have taken five hours to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne, so his choice of Floris fragrance was nothing if not discerning.

Juan's son, James Floris, evolved the business to include scented soaps, lavender waters for bathing and fragrant brilliantines – hair preparations designed to make hair shine. By the time he procured the mahogany fittings for the shop at the 1851 Great Exhibition, sales of fragrance were fast overtaking the hair preparations business.

Next up was Joseph Floris, who took over the company in his late teens. "Joseph Floris was a bit arrogant. He thought he was too good to be a shopkeeper," says John Bodenham. "He played cards in the gentleman's clubs, but he wasn't any good. He soon amounted huge debts."

Joseph's older sister, Mary Ann Floris, married James Bodenham, great-grandfather of the current chairman, and together they ran Floris until the 1920s. Joseph reappeared only once, claiming the shop was rightfully his and scaring James's son into hiding with his demands. But James Bodenham agreed to pay off his brother-in-law's debts on the understanding he would leave the business to them. 

The business is now in its ninth generation with John Bodenham's son Edward serving as the Floris empire's marketing director, while for the last 15 years John's cousin's son, Tom Marsh, has directed production at the Floris factory in Devon. Prior to this, fragrance was made two floors beneath the original shop, in the five-floor Jermyn Street property.

"Each product may have up to 40 different ingredients," says Bodenham. "We are involved in selecting each one, checking the quality and ensuring we pay the right price for it."

Attention to detail is paramount at Floris, where many traditional forms of etiquette are still employed. When sales staff return change to customers, they place it on a velvet pad before passing it over. The custom derives from a time when it was considered unseemly to touch a customer's hand. 

And now, just when you thought a company couldn't become more entrenched in its own illustrious history, Bodenham is tackling the recession by going back to its roots. The company is responding to an increasing number of requests for bespoke (custom-made) perfume and has introduced its Bespoke Perfumery Service. During up to five consultations, customers choose and understand the essential oils of the scent that best suits them and can even choose genuine antique Floris bottles.

The last time the company clocked this much interest in customised fragrance was in the late 1970s. "We've always done bespoke fragrance, but now more people appreciate being different and owning something others don't have," says Bodenham.

Floris is also re-visiting the pages of its original hand-written fragrance formulation books. On view at the back of the shop in a dimly lit, other-worldly room, these hefty volumes display beautiful hand-written records of ingredients swirled together to blend the perfect fragrance for aristocrats centuries ago, from Russia's Grand Duke Orloff to Horatio Lord Nelson. 

In addition to the order books, the room brims with paraphernalia dating back to the company's beginnings, including original Floris perfume bottles, hair combs and handwritten letters from the likes of Florence Nightingale and Mary Shelley. 

Most other companies would call this their museum or archives. Certain historic jewellery boutiques in, for example, the Place Vendôme in Paris, have special rooms dedicated to showcasing extremely rare antique jewels. Of course, creating fragrance is an entirely different discipline to crafting jewellery, but this would certainly seem to be a comparable tribute - a testimony to the history of the art of crafting fragrance the old-fashioned way. But Bodenham, in his understated English style, rather endearingly refers to this room simply as the family office. It happens also to contain a recent photograph of a meeting between him and Prince Charles.

"We are very discreet about our marketing and PR and that's because we are here for the long term," says Bodenham. "It's taken us 279 years to establish this brand and it could take five minutes to tarnish it, so we are very subtle in our promotion tactics."

Some established British families have enjoyed a tradition of repeat ordering special Floris fragrances for generations. "The Guinness family have always used a burning essence vaporising set, which we continue to produce exclusively for them. The volume of the order means we can justify making it," explains Bodenham.

Those old custom-made fragrance order books include the secret to the most well-known and well-loved Floris scent, Special 127. The refreshing citrus floral fragrance is popular to this day and one of John Bodenham's own favourites. Bringing together the leaf, flower and fruit of the orange tree with petitgrain, neroli and orange oils blended with lavender, geranium, patchouli and musk, it was originally created in 1890 for Russia's Grand Duke Orloff. 

"When the Grand Duke Orloff popped his clogs, my grandfather brought it out in larger volumes and it is still hugely popular," says Bodenham.

But Special 127 has long been a favourite of women too. Eva Peron preferred it customised with slightly fresher top notes and regularly had it shipped to Buenos Aires in large containers, while the Duke of Windsor used it to woo Mrs Simpson.

The Floris store routinely hosts talks by head perfumer Shelagh Foyle, to groups of enthusiasts whose interests' range from the history of London to how to choose and wear perfume.

Today, the youngest generation of Bodenham's are all trained in the world's perfume capital, Grasse, in the South of France. With the ninth generation still highly involved in the company, Floris continues to keep the secrets of a traditional perfume experience in the family. 

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