Fans of unique, elegant, and even bespoke fragrances will likely find Paris to be a dream: some of the world's most prestigious and expert noses work there formulating scents that often become global bestsellers. But that doesn't mean that it's a purely corporate endeavor: the French capital, along with the southern city of Grasse, has been a thriving center of a perfume-making tradition that goes back centuries to the medieval period when fragrance was mostly used for medicinal purposes.
Today, the most prestigious perfume shops in Paris—some classic and world-famous, like Fragonard and Guerlain, and others niche and trendy, like Serge Lutens—may not offer scents at bargain prices, but you can be sure that you come away with something of exceptional quality. At these coveted scent shops, you are also guaranteed excellent service and attention from the highly trained staff, whose expertise can go a long way in helping you to find the perfect fragrance for you or a loved one.
You might note that many of these coveted shops are clustered in the first arrondissement (near the Palais Royal and Opera) and in the trendy Marais near Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, so it might be a good idea to choose one of these areas and browse several shops for your scent hunt.
A truly classic name in the French "art du parfum" is Guerlain, launched in 1828 by Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain as a single shop on Rue de Rivoli in Paris, and now a globally renowned brand. The house's signature scents are often cited as embodying French elegance—mixed with a touch of sexiness, of course. There are several boutiques around the city, including in the Marais and the Champs-Elysées neighborhood, so no matter where you're staying in the capital, you likely will not be too far away from the heady, intoxicating scents that proudly stock shop shelves in ornate glass bottles.
When most people think about traditional French perfume houses, they are more than likely to conjure up the name Fragonard. Established in 1926 in Grasse, Fragonard has built its reputation on classic, elegant scents blended with tradition firmly in mind. If you are feeling nostalgic or are looking for a gift for someone with decidedly classic tastes, this might be the ideal house to beeline to. Also, check out the Fragonard Perfume Museum near the Opera Garnier for a fascinating look at the history of scent-making and the complex development of perfumes from the period when the synthetic molecule was developed. From that period onward, chemistry became an essential component in the modern formulation of fragrances and forever changed the future of perfume-making by merging botanicals with modern science.
A longstanding star in the niche fragrance business, Serge Lutens made his name by creating nearly 80 distinctive unisex scents based around nostalgic and whimsical themes. One that's particularly alluring for anyone with a taste for warm, spicy, sensual fragrances is "Five o' clock au Gingembre," a warm, invigorating scent with strong gingery notes and a hint of citrus.
The vast, opulent boutique at the Palais Royal offers 28 exclusive fragrances in addition to the brand's full collection of available scents, so a trip there is well worth it if you are looking for something exclusive and special. Designed to look like a magician's apothecary or even an astronomer's lab, there's a dreamy yet elegant quality to the shop. You can sample as many perfumes as you wish on paper swatches, and the staff there is happy to help you select a perfume that suits a particular mood, personality, or occasion. You may even come away with more than one.
A newer arrival on the boutique fragrance scene, Annick Goutal and its boudoir-style, romantic aesthetic sensibilities made the "girly frou-frou perfume" hip again. Bestsellers from the brand include signature scents such as Eau d'Hadrien, Petite Cherie, and Tenue de Soiree—ranging from deeply woody to romantically floral scents, all sold in old-world bottles that look as if they may have been passed down through the ages. The boutiques also peddle the brand's signature lingerie collection, so this might make an ideal stop for gift shopping ahead of Valentine's Day.
Launched in 1961, Diptyque is a French perfume house that helped usher the entire business into modernity offering unisex scents and home fragrances in sober, elegant bottles, and with an emphasis on subtle, complex, and fresh notes. Their collection of scented candles and home fragrances is also wildly popular, so this is a stop to make if you are looking for gift items in addition to personal scents.
This oh-so-British perfume house founded in London has managed to win over the French (who often claim to hold a semi-monopoly on quality perfumes) with its collection of elegant, mostly unisex colognes. Organized by scent families (woody, spicy, floral, light floral, fruity), these fragrances make strong use of botanical and naturally occurring scents (vanilla, tonka bean, vetiver, rose, and green wheat). This has won the now-iconic brand accolades from fans, since the fragrances in the collection offer both personality and cues from nature, never veering toward the overtly chemical.
At the tender age of 25, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian concocted the bestselling men's fragrance for Jean Paul Gaultier, "Le Male"—and launched his career as a superstar nose. He has since been responsible for the creation of well-known staples such as Guerlain's "Rose Barbare" and Armani's "Mania."
These accolades allowed him to strike out and create his own range of scents for men and women, beautifully presented at his new boutique. A favorite is APOM (A Piece of Me), featuring a heady yet subtle combination of cedarwood, orange blossom, and ylang-ylang, and offered in both men's and women's versions. For those who can afford the lofty price tag, he also concocts entirely bespoke scents for clients.
Another highly traditional Parisian perfumer (and glove-maker, as its name betrays), Maître Parfumeur et Gantier offers classic women's and men's scents in old-world bottles made from heavy, decorative glass with opulent golden caps. Fragrances in this iconic Parisian collection tend toward the heady, bold, and romantic with strong and classic floral or spicy notes.
Not far from the chic and once-literary Saint-Germain-des-Pres district, you'll find the flagship boutique of one of France's most beloved modern noses, Frédéric Malle. Launching his unisex scent line in 2000, Malle has created fragrances featuring strong spicy, floral, or "oriental" notes; his musks for both women and men are particular favorites.
Finally, if you don't have the time or energy to visit the aforementioned fragrance boutiques individually in search of the perfect scent, a trip to one of the city's cream-of-the-crop department stores or grands magasins will allow the convenience of browsing several luxury and artisan fragrance brands under a single roof. Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marche on the Left Bank offer particularly wide selections of scents from both internationally renowned fragrance houses and more artisanal, local but high-quality perfumers. Au Printemps is also a very good bet for fragrance-hunting as are many Paris concept stores.