I basically called my mom for help. Except when I say mom, I mean an esthetician.
I am a sucker for local beauty brands. Yes, chain beauty boutiques are fun, and it’s nice to compare lots of products at once, but the selection feels so homogenized sometimes. I, for one, am firmly nostalgic for brands built from a region, stubbornly un-globalized, and clinging to their identity in the face of much more organized competition.
How much more romantic is it to actually collect memories from the places you visit? And to have unique things tied to a real physical place?
I’m currently in Bretagne, the Celtic region in northwestern France. It’s a wild and green region dotted with seaside resort towns, popular with tourists for centuries, and celebrated for its beaches and pine trees. It is also home to an unusually independent perfumery determined to reincarnate the golden age of French perfume.
Parfums Divine was created by a disenchanted former nose of the L’Oréal Group in Paris. Yvon Mouchel, a lover of classics like Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, desired the freedom to create complex works of art, not just fast and easy seasonal releases.
The freedom he craved was time: the time to craft a perfume and the time to sell the creations slowly and with great care in tiny boutiques. He established his perfume house in 1986 in the northern Bretagne town of Dinard.
Clearly a brand after my own heart, there are Parfums Divine boutiques scattered around Bretagne. I visited the boutique at 7 rue Rubens in Nantes, the historical capital of Bretagne. (Nantes is now technically a part of a different region, much to the dismay of the populace.)
The boutique is very beautiful. It is painted black and white with gold accents and a winding white staircase. The perfume bottles, inspired by the 1920s, line the walls. It is completely silent, and there were no other visitors while I was there.
There are only 10 perfumes in the line. The saleswoman walked me through each one with a set of fragrance cards and told me their stories--one was inspired by the dampness of wood, one was inspired by Chinese jasmine, etc. She told me which one she wears in the winter, which one she puts in her hair. She told me which ones work with leather and furs and which ones are refreshing in summer.
I spent over an hour there and ended up with one perfume on each wrist and one inside my elbow.
The first scent I fell for was L’âme sœur, a rose with aldehydes and bergamot. It smells like romance in a bottle: powdery, floral and feminine.
My next favorite was actually a men’s perfume called L’homme de cœur. It smelled of iris root, lavender, and grey amber, and was as fresh as you can imagine for summer. I wore this one out of the boutique and felt like I was carrying my own air conditioner around.
But the one that won me over was the eponymous Divine, the first scent of the house. I sniffed the proffered paper and involuntarily cried out, "It’s so pretty!" It smells like magic.
I can’t do it justice, so here's the official description: “Divine opens with a fruity note, peach lightly spiced with coriander, passing through a cloud of full and tender flowers finally to reveal a warm and sensual chord of oak moss, musk and vanilla.”
I bought the extract rather than the eau de parfum. The extract has more of the fragrance compounds with less alcohol, so it sits close to the skin and doesn’t have the brashness and projection of the vaporized eau de parfum. It feels more intimate, discreet, and luxurious.
My tiny 20 ml bottle was put in a little black display box, then wrapped in white paper with gold ribbon. It’s the most delightful Russian-doll-like packaging. I also got samples of the entire line. I feel giddy just writing that.
When I was leaving the store, the saleswoman told me about how Gabrielle Chanel got her start in the perfume business. She would never sell her favorite creations: they were given as gifts only to her closest friends. The saleswoman said that the Divine perfume house believes perfumes should be as intimate as Chanel’s once were: a subject for long conversations between friends and secrets passed de la bouche à l’oreille.
So here is my secret: Parfums Divine is a gem of a brand and you should visit its home in Bretagne. But you can also visit their urban boutiques in Paris, London, Berlin, Zurich, Rome, Moscow, and Los Angeles.
And I’m off to flit into the Bretagne countryside in a cloud of peaches and coriander.