THAT pounds 6,500 SMELL

Chanel No 5 too old hat? Opium too pungent? CKBe too, well, everywhere? For those with money to burn, the alternative is an 'haute couture' perfume - one made specifically for them by the most exclusive perfume houses in Europe. Ian Phillips reports
The laboratory adjoining Olivier Creed's house near Fontainebleau is an olfactory Ali Baba's cave. Over 1,000 natural essences and perfume ingredients line its shelves. There is a rose essence from Bulgaria, sandalwood and tuberose from India, vetiver from Java and citrus essences from Sicily. Every year, roughly 25 clients from all over the world visit this nerve- centre of scents. Each comes on a quite specific quest - to create their own unique fragrance.

For Creed, whose family has made perfume since 1760, is one of the few people in the world who custom-blends personalised scents for his customers. But he won't mix his precious essences for just anyone. "I turn down lots of requests," he says. "My clients have to be passionate about perfume and I refuse people who buy scents like they would a sack of potatoes."

Those who pass the test are following in famous footsteps. During the 1800s, the House of Creed made perfumes for Queen Victoria, Empress Eugenie of France, and Queen Christina of Spain. Earlier this century, it concocted one-off scents for Freud, Hemingway and Matisse. Audrey Hepburn came to buy a fragrance redolent with the smell of green narcissus and magnolia, while, more recently, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone have all made their way to Creed's laboratory.

Creed is not the only one in the singular smells business. In Italy, Florence-based Lorenzo Villoresi has created more than 500 individual fragrances in his studio overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. A former philosophy student, he fell in love with the world of scents while researching in the Middle East - he would bring back exotic oils and spices from his travels and create fragrances for his friends. His business as a perfumier really began, however, in 1990, when the Italian fashion house Fendi asked him to produce a potpourri for its stores. In no time at all, Jackie Onassis was also on his client list.

Today his customers travel to Florence from as far afield as Japan, Australia and the Philippines, especially to buy their own fragrances. On rare occasions, Villoresi has created perfumes over the telephone for those who are unable to leave home, although he admits that this method is "risky".

Like Creed's laboratory, Villoresi's studio at the top of his 15th-century palazzetto is filled with hundreds of bottles. There is civet from Ethiopia, geranium, peppermint and camphora from China, and the most expensive aromatic material of all - iris root, which costs three times as much as the price of gold.

He begins by introducing his clients to various essences and to what are known as the "archetypal" smells. There are 13 of these for women and 12 for men, grouped according to whether their distinguishing characteristics are floral, citric, oriental, spicy and so on. Then Villoresi will ask the client to describe the scent they are looking for. Quite often, they ask for something with aphrodisiac qualities to revive the waning attentions of a partner, but the strangest request he has had so far is for a perfume which smelled of horse sweat.

While Villoresi mixes his one-off fragrances in the space of an afternoon, Creed prefers to create his unique scents during two or three meetings which stretch over the course of a month. "If you make somebody smell too many essences at the same time, after a while they don't know where they are," he says. He compares the first meeting to "a trip to the doctor or psychiatrist". "I make my clients talk," he asserts. He also makes them smell the house's range of regular scents to get an idea of the type of perfume they are looking for, and mixes up a sample for the second meeting. He then shows them a list of its ingredients and arrives at the end product by means of addition and reduction.

Needless to say, this perfume equivalent of haute couture does not come cheap. A 100ml bottle of scent blended by Villoresi will set you back between pounds 150 and pounds 450, depending on the ingredients used. Creed, meanwhile, will only mix a minimum of 10 litres, for which you can expect to pay anything between pounds 900 and pounds 6,500.

You may have to be rich to engage the services of either of these firms, but for the Paris-based Parfums Nicolai to think it's worth making you a completely new fragrance, you also have to be famous. A recent creation was the floral, vanilla-based scent which wafted in the wake of Isabelle Adjani during this year's Cannes film festival. But less well-known Brits take note: husband-and-wife team Jean-Louis Michou and Patricia de Nicolai are moving to London, where they will accept requests to blend one-off fragrances based on their existing line of perfumes. "If somebody wants one of our scents with, say, a bit more vetiver or iris in it, then we will mix it especially for them," promises Michou.

In the meantime, you can opt for a more hands-on approach with the perfume house of Galimard, which gives two-hour perfume-making classes in Grasse, Provence. Groups of up to 24 learn about the structure of fragrances; each person then blends his own scent from a selection of 164 ingredients. But can anyone really make a perfume? "Of course," replies the house's nose, Jacques Maurel. "One of our visitors even managed to sell their scent to a French couturier!"

! Creed: (00 33) 1 47 20 58 02; Lorenzo Villoresi: (00 39) 55 2341187; Galimard: (00 33) 4 93 09 20 00; Parfums Nicolai: (00 33) 1 47 55 90 92.