Updated: Feb 27, 2020
originally published May 24, 2019
Berlin has a blossoming fragrance scene that, in my opinion, is characterised by experimentation and personalisation. From new interpretations of old flowers as in Urban Scent’s Desert Rose, to bespoke fragrances at Harry Lehmann, a perfumery time capsule that dates back to the early 20th century, Berlin is a city where time-honoured traditions blend seamlessly with modern concepts and innovative views on what fragrance can be.
My Berlin olfactory journey started at Urban Scents, founded by classically-trained French perfumer Marie Urban-Le Febvre and her husband Alexander Urban. Marie set up her lab at the back of the store, which gives customers a rare glimpse into a perfumer’s world. I was lucky enough to get to sniff around the lab as Marie showed me various coveted perfume materials such as Ambergris.
Urban Scent’s Desert Rose fragrance caught my attention as it’s a reinvention of a classic flower that has gotten a bit of a bad rep in perfumery lately. (And it’s a scent I particularly like tbh.) The fragrance is based on the story of The Little Prince and his single rose in the desert. Besides the obvious rose note, the scent has spicy notes of cardamom and ginger as well as mineral notes, which nod to the desert surroundings.
Dark Vanilla was my favorite scent - I do love a good vanilla scent - but this one was a bit richer, more sensual, complex, and dare I say “darker” that your typical vanilla scent. It is an ode to the vanilla pod itself, and introduces the lovely haylike and red tea note of Rooibos. Marie also collaborates with visual artists and has a little gallery space set up in her store, which is a nod to where Urban Scents got its start - in the back of an art gallery.
Fun Fact: the Urban Scents logo is a propeller because both Marie and her husband have a pilot’s license.
Next I went to Frau Tonis, a brand whose conceptually-based fragrances include several inspired by Berlin. One of my favorite scents, Bogota Berlin, is based on the Bogota Hotel, which, much like the Chelsea Hotel in New York, was residence and studio to several Berlin artists in the 20th century, among them René Burri, Yva, and Helmut Newton.
I’m a sucker for the stories that inspire fragrances. I think scent is a wonderful medium for storytelling and hearing the inspiration for a fragrance while smelling it can conjure up vivid imagery. I really wish I had gotten to visit Bogota Berlin while it was still around but when I spritz this scent on my wrist, I feel as though I am transported to the hotel’s smoke-filled jazz bar, the air abuzz with the creative energy of artists mingling with well dressed socialites.
You can put together your own discovery box at Frau Tonis - and the three scents I chose were Bogota Berlin, obvs; Linde Berlin, a honeyed floral scent based on Linden trees which line the famous Unter den Linden Boulevard; and finally a scent called New York, which is a literal interpretation of the Big Apple. (Very appley!)
Next up I headed over to Lit Lab where I met with founder Mallory Chen. Mallory left her job in tech to open up a shop where customers can design their own scented candle. Not only can you create your own fragrance by combining scents, but you can also choose your own vessel - all handmade by Mallory herself.
If you prefer a more hands on approach and want to try your hand at pouring a candle yourself, Lit Lab hosts workshops for just that purpose. They even have a massage oil candle workshop, which was a hit for Valentine’s Day.
Lit Lab just felt like a really fun and creative space and I really enjoyed coming up with different combinations of candles I would like to make - I think Campfire Marshmallow and Chocolate took the cake for me - gotta love those fireside S’mores!
From the newest shop to the oldest shop, next I went to Harry Lehmann, which looks just as I imagine it did when the shop opened in that location over 60 years ago.
The company itself is 93 years old and has been passed down three generations of Lehmann perfumers. And they are still doing things the way they did when they first opened - fragrances are all sold by weight - and you can bring your own bottle or buy one of the beautiful bottles they sell there.
Lehmann Parfums has always been focused on customisation and they encourage mixing fragrances to create a bespoke scent. I was impressed by the fact that there is no separation between men’s fragrances and women’s fragrances since it was during the 20th century that commercial fragrances began to see a divide between the genders. But despite any cultural and commercial pressures they might have felt to genderise their fragrances, Lehmann Parfums has always managed to keep their scents neutral.
One of the coolest things about the shop is that it is half perfume shop, half fake flower shop. You can buy your favorite floral scent and an unscented flower at the same time! Spray a little fragrance on the flower and it becomes a decoration to scent your room!
The last fragrance shop I visited on my Berlin trip was Birkholz Perfume Manufacture. Similar to Harry Lehmann, there is a focus on customisation at Birkholz - you can combine fragrances to create your own unique blend. But not only can you personalise your scent, but you can also personalise your bottle with a uniquely engraved name plate and a choice of bottle cap colour.
My husband and I met Lloyd who guided us through our fragrant Birkholz journey and helped us each discover our favorite fragrances. He then introduced us to a third fragrance that reminded James and I of our engagement in Ibiza. The fragrance worked perfectly to enhance each of our scent choices and I loved that it was a little something extra that could remind us both of such a happy memory.
Lloyd then sprayed our custom fragrance combinations on paper fans that served as testers to take home. I thought this was a very unique way to try out a new scent.
The final stop on our fragrance tour of Berlin was a cocktail bar called Fragrances in the Ritz Carlton. There is no cocktail menu - just fragrances and you choose your beverage based on the fragrance you like best. I was so impressed when I got my cocktail - a little citrus and vanilla number based on Avery’s White Not. It tasted exactly like perfume! And not in the gross way that perfume actually tastes if you were to take a sip, but in the way that you wish perfume would taste. It tasted like the beautiful fresh, warm and whimsical smell.
After my first cocktail, Peggy, the talented mixologist behind the bar, asked if I would like a cocktail based on my own favorite fragrance. I told her it was Maison Margiela’s By the Fireplace and she whipped up a smooth and smoky drink that gave me the same comforted feeling I get when I put on the fragrance on a chilly winter morning. I cannot say enough good things about Fragrances - I absolutely loved it and think it is a must-go for anyone who loves fragrance because it is a super cool concept and impeccably executed.
We had a lovely time exploring the Berlin scent scene. I think it’s important to note that we only scratched the surface - there are lots of other fragrance brands and scent companies in Berlin and I hope to make it back there soon to discover more. I got the impression that Berlin is about innovation and experimentation and creativity when it comes to fragrance and I’m excited to see what the vibrant and blossoming city has in store for the future of scent!