So where do you find that special pair of socks,some truly sybaritic bath essence, or a tie that really is just what he always wanted? Nicole Swengley asks the experts; Sometimes, the most obvious present is the only one that will suit.
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Kathe Kruse 'Rosemarie' doll, pounds 259, available from Hamleys, 188 Regent Street, London WIR 6BT (0171-734 3161)

Born in wartime, Olivia Bristol had to wait until she was 10 before she had a doll to call her own. She still loves them with a passion. After working in the porcelain department for two years, she became Christie's doll consultant in 1968 and established the first-ever specialist doll sale a year later. Now she is in charge of seven such sales annually. In 1978 she achieved a figure of pounds l35,000 for Titania's Palace, an elaborate doll's house with 2,000 miniature furnishings; in 1989 a Charles II wooden doll was sold for pounds 67,000.

Olivia Bristol has no doubt about her quintessential gift for 1995 - a "Rosemarie" doll by Kathe Kruse. "The design has changed little since they were first made in Germany in 1909," she says. "Their appeal lies in the fact that they look like real children. Though the clothes have altered slightly over the years, the dolls still retain the same naturalistic style. They're very good quality, with hand-painted faces - and it's nice to know the factory will re-paint faces if they get battered. The modern version costs pounds 259, but older dolls can fetch pounds l,500-pounds 2,000. Rarer models can sell for more than pounds 10,000.'


Valrhona Bonbons, 16 choice chocolates available by mail order at pounds 10.95 plus pounds 3.50 p&p, from The Chocolate Club (0171-267 5375)

As well as being a creative designer of interiors, gardens and print material, Peter Sheppard is a connoisseur of good food, fine wines and all things gourmet. That's why he set up The Chocolate Club in 1993; now he sells the world's best chocolates by mail order to around 10,000 members. For his ultimate Christmas stocking gift he chooses this exquisite selection from Valrhona. The price includes a year's free membership of the Chocolate Club.

"These are the equivalent of drinking a grand cru wine," he explains. "No other chocolate tastes as good, and these bonbons are really special as Valrhona is usually sold in carres [squares] which are quite thin and a bit serious. These are beautifully presented in an unusually shaped red-and-black box with gold lettering. Inside are 16 bonbons with a chocolate coating; it's very smooth and creamy, with a great aftertaste. There are 16 different fillings (including Palet d'Or, which is sprinkled with gold leaf)."


Tie made of antique textile from David Ireland at Westbourne Antiques Arcade, 283 Westbourne Grove, London Wll (0171-221 4188). Open 8am-4pm, Sat only

Stephen Calloway - social historian, lecturer, author and assistant curator of prints, drawings and paintings at the V&A - is a modern aesthete with his feet planted firmly in the 19th century. An expert on men's clothing, his preferred style is the dandy of the last century.

To duplicate his ideal Christmas gift - shown in its uncut form in the background of the photograph below - you will need to track down David Ireland (if no one answers the shop phone, try his mobile: 0850 576328). "He has an amazing eye," says Stephen, "and gets hold of everything wonderful, whether it comes from Europe or Asia, Christie's or junk shops. Over the years I've bought loads of glamorous things from him. As I don't like the sort of ties you buy in ordinary shops, my ultimate gift would be a beautiful length of fabric you could make into a tie - and a waistcoat to go with it!"


Clarins Bain aux Plantes 'Relax', pounds 12 (250ml) available from department stores nationwide. For local stockists, phone 0171-629 2979

Angela Creasy, who's 29, has been working in the beauty business for six years. She was brought up in South Africa, where she spent most of her time swimming in the sea or in pools. She is not an exercise fanatic, she says, and would rather unwind in the bath - where she generally listens to the radio and has been known to sing along.

Angela has chosen Clarins Bain aux Plantes "Relax" as her quintessential gift. It's a favourite of hers that she would be equally delighted to give to a friend.

"The run-up to Christmas is completely mad," she says, "especially in the perfumery halls. More than 40,000 people come to Harrods each day and most of them seem to end up in my department. By the end of the day I'm totally exhausted, and all I want to do is relax. The trouble is, when the adrenaline has been flowing, it's not that easy to unwind. A couple of drops of Clarins Bain aux Plantes "Relax" in a hot bath does the trick. Not only does it help to soothe away aches and pains, it also seems to ease away the stress that has built up at work. It beats a couple of vodkas any day."


The Wild Mushroom Hunter's Knife, pounds 15.65, from Carluccio's, 28a Neal Street, London WC2H 9PS (for mail order/nationwide stockists phone 0171-240 5710)

Not for nothing has Antonio Carluccio been called the "King of Mushrooms". Huge baskets of wild mushrooms furnish his Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden in London, but it was in the hilly regions of Piedmont in north- west Italy that his lifelong passion for fungi began. There he was initiated into the mysteries of mushroom- and truffle-hunting as a small child. He carries his trusty mushroom knife with him at all times, which is why his quintessential Christmas gift is an unashamed plug for this dinky little gadget.

"Everything about wild mushrooms is a pleasure to me," he says. "With one or two exceptions, mushrooms defy science's attempts to domesticate them: they retain an element of mystery and wildness. You have to go out and find them - and the wild ones you find will always taste infinitely better.

"This knife is specially made for the specific task of collecting and preparing mushrooms, and I always carry it with me. It is the perfect tool for mushroom lovers in the field because of its sharp curved blade, and later in the kitchen because of its cleaning brush."


Hornby's Intercity 225, around pounds 84.99 from good toy and model shops. For stockists telephone 01843-225555

Transport journalist David Jinks has edited Model Railway Enthusiast Magazine since it was set up in 1993, but swears he never wears an anorak. In his view, the ultimate Christmas train-set accessory is Hornby's Intercity 225. "I fancy this more than a little because it includes the best and latest technology of modern trains reproduced in model form. It runs on 00 gauge and comes with engine, coaches, track and controller. It's very well made and comes from a long-established and well-respected British company, one of the few still making model railways. The train is BR's latest flagship and you can add on stations and extra track to make a proper railway layout at a later date."


Felco Original No 2 secateurs, pounds 38.95 from good gardening centres. For stockists telephone 0116 2340800

Mary Keen is a self-taught gardening consultant, and her skills were acquired through necessity - the result of "living outside London and moving house a lot". She has been designing gardens for 20 years, and sums up the appeal of designing your own plot in terms of its creativity and affordability. "Unlike interior design," she says, "it's a nice thing to do if you're visually literate and don't have a lot of money; and it's much less expensive than arranging rooms indoors."

Scale is paramount in her designs - she's interested in the look of the whole garden as well as individual plants - and her schemes include gardens at Glyndebourne Opera House and Spencer House. As well as being a regular contributor to the gardening pages of the Independent on Sunday, she has written five gardening books; the latest is Decorate Your Garden (Conran Octopus), which will be joined next year by Creating a Garden. She opened her own garden in Gloucestershire to the public on 10 occasions this year under the National Gardens Scheme - "terrific fun," she enthuses.

Mary Keen's ultimate Christmas gift would be a pair of Felco Original No 2s, the queen of secateurs. "A good pair of secateurs is one of the best gardening aids I know," she says. "When things go wrong, any workman can be forgiven for blaming blunt tools. If they are badly pruned, roses will start to die back.

"It's a struggle to cut anything properly with an inferior brand of secauteurs. I took part in a test of a selection of pruners for the Independent on Sunday this year and the Felco came out top, which I knew they would.

"Anyone who has used this Rolls-Royce of pruners will never want to use anything else, and gardeners who already own a pair will be pleased to acquire a reserve. One of the beauties of the Felco is that it can be serviced for a modest sum. Fitted with new blades and refurbished, it's as good as new. A Felco isn't just for Christmas, but for life."


'New Food' by Jill Dupleix, Mitchell Beazley, pounds 19.99, available by post (add pounds 4.50 p&p) from Books For Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 1NN (0171-221 1992)

German-born Heidi Lascelles set up her shop, Books For Cooks, 12 years ago when she was unable to find a cookbook in Britain with recipes from her native land. The shop started in tiny premises in Notting Hill, west London, then moved across the road to its current location, where a test kitchen lurks at the back of the shop. A rota of cooks tries out recipes from the books on sale, and lunch, coffee and cakes are produced daily for browsers to eat at five tables in the shop. "It's the proof of the pudding syndrome," she says. "That's why we know so much about the books we sell. We're proud to say the results have lured many a defenceless customer into lunch and book purchases."

Her personal gift choice for Christmas 1995 is New Food by Jill Dupleix. "This wide-ranging, energetic and inspiring book has been bypassed by other bookshops, partly because it's Australian," says Heidi. "Yet it looks fabulous and is bold and simple in the way it gets you cooking. It presents contemporary food in a very modern, journalistic way and it is full of opinions and articles as well as interesting recipes - you could almost call it a lifestyle book. The recipes are healthy, using good fresh ingredients - but not boringly so - and when people cook from them, they find they work."


Plain cashmere socks, pounds 39, from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (0171-730 1234)

Joseph was born in Casablanca and came to London at the end of the Fifties to learn the art of hairdressing. Quick to explore new avenues, he began to display clothing in his hair salon and established his first dress shop in the early Seventies. Since then, numerous Joseph outlets have blossomed in London, New York and Paris. Today, he is one of the most respected and influential movers and shakers on the British fashion scene. As the designer Helen Storey puts it: "There is something in his heart that always responds to the new.'

Even so, Joseph has a soft spot for the classics. For his quintessential Christmas gift, he has given a boring old standby a twist. This is one pair of socks the recipient would be postiively pleased to see. "Plain cashmere socks look classic, but they feel luxurious and super-comfortable. It's a very personal thing - only the wearer knows they're something very special."


Boxed hand-made cracker, from pounds 25 depending on filling, by mail order from Crackers and Party Paperworks (0171-731 4373). Order by 17 December for pre-Christmas delivery

Antony Worrall Thompson swam the Channel when he was 16 and has been keeping his head above water ever since. His name is associated with a string of successful restaurants in the capital; the newest is Drones of Pont Street and future plans include Thunder Road in Shaftesbury Avenue.

In 1987 he was awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de Grande Bretagne - the chef's Oscar - which is the Academie Culinaire's competition, held every four years, to find the country's most talented chef. He is one of only five chefs to have merited the title so far. His books include The Small And Beautiful Cookbook (1984), Supernosh (1993), Modern Bistrot Cooking (1994) and 30 Minute Menu (1995). Despite a busy professional life he still finds time to indulge an interest in art and antiques, plays tennis and tends his herb garden at his Thameside country cottage retreat.

His ultimate Christmas gift is a gourmet big bang: huge hand-made crackers with a choice of unusual fillings such as wild mushrooms, exotic pastes or Italian chocolate kisses. What is more, they snap and also include the traditional bad cracker joke.

"The best news for cracker fans - no, not the television programme but the ones you pull at Christmas - is these hand-made crackers with gold- sprayed pasta decorations which can enclose any goody you desire. I'm asking for white truffles in one, black truffles in another and chocolate truffles in a third. They're not cheap, but they add that touch of magic."