One of the great storytellers in contemporary perfumery is Arquiste. I’m conscious of the gravitas a description like this carries, particularly now that a lot of perfume brands are marketing their greatness without any tangible measures. Describing themselves as the most luxurious, the most exclusive, the most artistic and using only the finest raw materials, these self-proclamations often go unquestioned. But I feel completely at ease with my description of Arquiste being one of the great storytellers in contemporary perfumery having talked about the creative process with Arquiste’s founder Carlos Huber on a number of occasions, and I have published several interviews with one of the two perfumers Carlos monogamously works with, Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Givaudan New York’s Vice President of Perfumery. There is clearly a lot of passion and skill behind the Arquiste brand.
Carlos draws from his experience as an architect and historic preservationist to meticulously research the stories that inspire his fragrances. Each one is like an amorous rendezvous with a point in time. Boutonniere No.7 places its wearer in the foyer of the Paris Opera in 1899. The Architects Club evokes dark wood and leather, a hotel fumoir at the height of London’s Art Deco period. It is an approach to perfume making that Arquiste has become known for. Carlos wants to create a cult brand “for all the right reasons,” and his perfumes attract loyal followers from around the world. His work has also attracted the attention of other brands. After founding Arquiste, Carlos collaborated with historic French candle maker Cire Trudon to create a limited edition candle that tells the story of a Mexican empress visiting the city of Merida, Yucatan in 1865. Last year Arquiste collaborated with American apparel juggernaut J Crew to create two fragrances inspired by America’s first all female modern art show that was curated by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943. Describing scent as having the ability to be a marker in time, Carlos says that although the nature of scent is evanescent and does not possess shape or physical form, “they [perfumes] are always in our memory attached to a specific place and a specific time.”
Last month I had another chance to talk with Carlos and Rodrigo who were in Florence presenting at Pitti Fragranze. Arquiste was showcasing its new scent Nanban, which I discussed with Carlos when he was visiting Sydney late last year. Still under development at that time, Carlos described Nanban as the brand’s first oriental perfume, preferring to classify the cocoa-infused spicebomb Anima Dulcis as “proto-oriental.” Pitti Fragranze was also selected for the launch of Arquiste’s first line of candles, Mexican Baroque, Dark Galleon, and Art Deco Velvet. The Australian and New Zealand launch of the candles and Nanban is set for November.
That weekend in Florence I was invited to a dinner hosted by the St Regis hotel in honour of Arquiste’s latest collaboration, the luxury hotel’s signature scent. St Regis is not the first hotel to create a signature scent but it could not have chosen better advocates; Carlos who would study the hotel’s history in search of the perfect snapshot he could translate into scent and Rodrigo, the perfumer capable of painting ideas and dreams in vivid olfactory colours and textures on his canvas, in this case a candle and a later a room spray. Candles may not have the finessed reputation of haute parfum but creating a candle to the same standard is not as straightforward as I imagined and the project took a year and a half to develop. Months were taken to develop and trial the scent to a point where Carlos, Rodrigo and the St Regis were satisfied, and additional months were needed to formulate and trial a wax base that could maintain the integrity of the scent in both cold and hot state. Carlos talked about the technical challenges of working in this medium last year. He admitted, “It’s a very finicky job. We went through four different wax blends, which alone took two or three months of trials. There is the scent throw and the absorption. Then there is the tweaking of the scent in the wax, which is complicated. It’s not as easy as just grabbing the mouillette and going like that,” Carlos motioned his hand across the table signalling a task that is easily and quickly completed.
Technical challenges aside, Carlos and Rodrigo had a great story to tell. The St Regis is one of New York’s most beautiful hotels. Constructed in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV, the hotel is a fine example of New York’s Gilded Age. At this time Manhattan’s gratin had begun to socialise in hotels like the St Regis and the Plaza Hotel, a shift in habit from the previous generation of aristocracy who rarely socialised in public. The Astor family represented New York’s old wealth and the family’s matriarch, Caroline Astor, or Mrs Astor as she was known, was by large the self-elected protector of this society and its etiquette. Mrs Astor became the muse that would inspire the hotel’s signature fragrance more than a century later.
Carlos explained, “Caroline’s Four Hundred, the signature St Regis scent is inspired by a ball held in 1904 by the Mrs Astor, Caroline Astor, who was the St Regis matriarch, and the mother of the founder. She would have these yearly balls, where she would invite four hundred people only. I found the list and the description of all the floral arrangements that she would use to decorate the space. So American Beauty roses, yellow daffodils, white lilies, violets, carnations, all of these flowers became part of the experience of the ball.”
Just as Mrs Astor’s annual ball was a highly coveted guest list, it was a treat for me to be included on Arquiste’s dinner guest list at the St Regis in Florence of which I am a fan. Two years ago I visited the St Regis in Florence for Chandler Burr’s Scent Dinner where I had the fortune of experiencing the world-class St Regis service with Michelin-rated cuisine. For Arquiste, the hotel’s Executive Chef Michele Griglio once again created a bespoke menu for his dinner guests. Although the dinner was a celebratory occasion, it was also a demonstration of the hotel’s traditions and expertise in crafting special events, which hark back to the days of Mrs Astor and the inspiration behind the Caroline’s Four Hundred scent. The evening began with a champagne ritual dating back to Napoleon. It is a time-honoured tradition the St Regis is famous for. The sound of metal on glass reverberated as a sword was used to saber the cork from the neck of a champagne bottle, after which, drinks were served with aperitivo giving Carlos’ guests a chance to mingle and exchange our own stories. This was done in the library before we moved to the hotel’s private wine cellar where dinner was served. Executive Chef Griglio designed a menu of four courses matched with wines showcasing fine Tuscan produce. Being vegetarian I had an adapted menu but I took note of the steak that was served, a Florentine delicacy the Milanese journalists on my table were proud to point out as being Italy’s finest. My highlight was the unexpected presentation of strawberries in a savoury dish with gnudi di ricotta. The pastry chef’s dessert also presented an interesting contrast of flavours using chocolate, bitter liquorice and fruit sorbet.
While our taste buds were being catered for, the hotel’s new scent wafted in the background. Rodrigo mingled with dinner guests and spoke about the architecture of the scent. I eavesdropped as he spoke about the deliberate placement of greenness around the floral notes. Carlos says, “The main notes in Caroline’s Four Hundred are American Beauty roses, quince, apple, cherry blossoms, and we also used some exotic woods from the marquetry in the house. We also had the fact that she liked serving champagne a lot, so the scent had to have a little bit of like a crisp, bubbly part to it.”
Now that I am back at home in Sydney writing this post with Caroline’s Four Hundred burning beside my desk, Carlos’ comment about perfumes always being “attached to a specific place and a specific time,” rings crystal clear and I understand from a strategic point of view why hotels like the St Regis invest so much time in developing a signature scent. Certainly in my life, not every day is like being at the St Regis, but Caroline’s Four Hundred is a small piece of potable luxury I can call my own, a memento of good times had.