The French Quarter is home to one of the oldest perfume shops in North America
Originally founded on Bourbon Street in 1843 by French perfumer August Doussan, the shop has changed hands and shifted into different storefront locations in its 175 + years in business, though a commitment to quality and consistency has remained at the heart of its legacy. It’s one of the oldest continually operating perfume shops in New Orleans and North America.
Over the summer, with lots of COVID restrictions still in place, I was trying to think of something fun to do for my birthday. My travel plans had been canceled and it didn’t feel smart or safe to even have a small gathering. Then I remembered that one of my old favorite French Quarter shops, Bourbon French Parfums, had a custom perfume blending service. I’ve long been a fan of their single-note Tuberose Eau de Toilette, as well as several of their signature perfumes over the years, and now seemed like a good time to take the plunge and get my own unique scent. The store still wasn’t reopened to the public at that time, but I was able to make a private appointment for this very special treat, and it did not disappoint.
A little history
Originally founded on Bourbon Street in 1843 by French perfumer August Doussan, the shop has changed hands and shifted into different storefront locations in its 175 + years in business, though a commitment to quality and consistency has remained at the heart of its legacy. It’s one of the oldest continually operating perfume shops in New Orleans and North America. Owner and lead nose Mary Behlar bought Bourbon French Parfums in 1991. It has been at its current location at 805 Royal St. since 2005. Over the years, the business has been visited by luminaries as diverse as Steven Tyler, Kathy Bates, and Dick van Dyke, just to name a few.
This classic fragrance boutique mixes up all of their perfumes, colognes and bath and body products in small batches by hand the old-fashioned way. They’ve maintained all of their original formulas over the years, which keeps loyal customers coming back for their favorite scents. Whether you’re selecting a fragrance from the store’s regular offerings, or having a custom perfume made just for you, your favorite “recipe” is always available any time you go back, or place an order online or by phone.
Keeping the old while blending the new
I asked Behlar what goes into making a new fragrance at Bourbon French.
“We try to add one every year, just because trends change. We’re in kind of a soft, fresh, floral phase right now. We were in a citrus phase, and then before that everything was kind of woodsy,” she says. “We’ll see what the trend is, and then if we’re making it for the store, I usually just kind of meditate on it and try to figure out what direction I’m going to go in, and then I’ll just start mixing until I find the one that I feel is right. Then we start letting friends and family and different people try it. A couple of times we’ve had contests to name it. It’s something fun we do. We’ll get submissions in for names and then we’ll pick it, and the winner usually gets a wardrobe of fragrance or something like that. So that’s how we do it for the store.”
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The process for helping to create an individual custom blend is a little bit different.
“We sit down with you – like we did with you – we go through a series of questions, we find out perfumes you’ve worn in the past, flowers you like the fragrance of. Sometimes, somebody might want something for evening, or daytime, or summer or winter. We try to find out all of those things, and then we mix from there. We of course put it on your skin, because that’s going to tell us whether you like it or not. And we mix it until we get it,” explains Behlar.
Making your own scent
I had a great time going through the process of selecting the different fragrance notes to go into my custom blend. I knew I wanted something with a vintage twist. I went in expecting to choose something that more prominently featured florals, but as our session progressed, I leaned more heavily on powder and incense, with just a small hint of jasmine and a little fig. The end result is something with some depth that’s still light enough for me to wear every day. I love that it’s different than most of the perfumes I’ve worn in the past, even though it has elements of other scents I’ve always enjoyed.
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On a day-to-day basis, Bourbon French Parfums has a broad range of customers. Before the pandemic started, most of their business came from tourists. They’ve always had business by phone and from their website, but the COVID closure forced them to step up their online presence. And for a little while, their shoppers’ habits changed a bit. “What we saw, especially at the beginning, was a huge amount of bath products,” recalls Behlar. “Bath salts, bath bombs, shower gel, bubble bath. Everybody was home and they just wanted to kick it! It was very interesting, watching that change right at first, but now we’re kind of in our same mode of – they’re buying the lotions, the powders, the shower gel…the usual things.”
Behlar also says that lately, they’ve seen more locals than tourists.
The store reopened to the public earlier this October on an abbreviated schedule, Friday – Monday, but there are lots of ways to shop with them, even if you’re remaining socially distant. You can order online and have your items shipped by mail, or order by phone and pick up in person. There are products for men and women, as well as vintage-inspired gifts, such as artful perfume bottles, decorative hand fans, and jewelry.
Their most popular fragrances are two of their oldest: the original Kus Kus – a powdery, vintage rose and vetiver scent along with their classic men’s Eau de Cologne. Prices for individual bath and body products and fragrances range from $5-$78. If you’re not sure where to start, there’s an affordable travel-size cologne available in any fragrance that’s a great way to get acquainted with a new scent before taking the plunge and buying a full bottle, or opt for one of their gift sets of mini fragrances in best-selling scents. Try the talc-free body powder, which is great for staying cool and fresh in this humid New Orleans weather.