It was with great sadness we learned that John Bailey, former President of The British Society of Perfumers and renowned artisan perfumer of The Perfumers Guild, died on Wednesday 22nd February 2023.
John was one of the kindest and most insightful men in the entire fragrance industry. He was generous with that extensive experience and vast knowledge, too, and could always be relied on to help us with research – often throwing in scented snippets of information that made us gasp. Jo Fairley, who co-founded The Perfume Society, and counted John as a dear friend, commented:
‘John was a life force within the industry, and his passion for perfumery was unrivalled. Those of us who knew and respected him will miss him – and his scented missives! – very much.’
The British Society of Perfumers statement read:
‘As one member of the society put it: ”John was the beating heart of the British Society of Perfumers”. He joined the society in 2009 and was president from 2012 to 2014. He was only the second President to take on two years at the helm after Robert Favre in 1963.
During his Presidency John was the driving force behind the writing and publication of the book celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the BSP. He remained active on Council and organised several recent events including the visit to the lavender farm in 2022.
John was the first to receive the title of Honorary Ambassador to the Society. He took on this role with gusto, giving new members a warm welcome and keeping in touch with friends of the Society. He had a passion for the history of perfumery especially in the UK and researched a number of brands. His career in perfumery included working for Stafford Allen, Naarden International and RC Treatt. This wealth of experience lead him to found his independent consultancy; The Perfume Guild in 1981.
With sorrow for his passing and joy for a life well lived.💔’
You can read our review of that brilliant book in the link, above. It’s utterly essential reading for anyone interested in perfumery, and yet represents a scented slice of his encyclopedic knowledge.
Some years ago, Jo Fairley and I had the great pleasure of spending a day with John at his home, in order to interview him for our #ShareMyStash feature for The Scented Letter Magazine. It was a joyous day of sniffing and reminiscing which we will never forget, and we can think of no better way than for us all to remember John than to share that piece with you, here…
‘Barbara Cartland had me fragrancing her bookmarks and scenting her letters’
‘It’s not about what’s in the bottle – it’s also the stories and the people behind them’
[This feature was originally published in issue 28 of The Scented Letter Magazine]
Celebrating his 90th birthday this year, John Bailey has had an unrivalled professional career – spanning an incredible seven decades of scent. As you might expect, along the way, this fragrance expert, scent historian and behind-the-scenes consultant to leading brands around the world has amassed quite a collection – which he shared with Suzy Nightingale…
Photos: Jo Fairley
There’s nobody quite like John Bailey. It isn’t just the sky blue eyes, still twinkling mischievously as he enters his 10th decade. It isn’t simply the way he lavishly perfumes the handwritten letters he still likes to send (including, regularly to The Perfume Society). And it isn’t just the length of his career which makes John unique in perfume circles, but the breadth. He began as a ‘lowly laboratory assistant’, as John puts it, apprenticed at the age of 14, and worked his way through all the key companies in the perfume world.
Later, he rose to become Dame Barbra Cartland’s ‘personal perfumer’ and found his own fragrance house, The Perfumers Guild, to create bespoke fragrances for a select clientele. More recently, he held the role of President of the British Society of Perfumers. Quite simply, if the British perfume world had a national treasure, John Bailey is it.
And when John sent us a photo of his ‘summerhouse’ (a very precisely-packed shed at the bottom of the garden, filled with his perfume stash), The Perfume Society’s co-founder Jo Fairley and decided we couldn’t wait any longer to hop on a train and see John on his home turf.
From the moment we stepped into John’s car – fragranced by one of his own beautiful blends, wafting through the air filters – we realised that perfume pervades every area of his life. Over tea and biscuits, served by his wife Sheila in an immaculate conservatory (a congratulatory diamond wedding card from Her Majesty The Queen propped on a side table), John chuckled as he reflected on the timeline of his professional life, ‘I think the way to explain it to you honestly is that my career has evolved rather than been planned.’ And evolve it most certainly did…
Humbly reflecting that he ‘wasn’t much good at anything at school… my sister was the brainy one,’ it was John’s parents who gently nudged him to become an apprentice to John Richardson & Co, an old-established firm of manufacturing chemists, druggists and distillers in his home town of Leicester. ‘They made everything, pills, potions, lotions, tinctures, veterinary preparations; lozenges…’
It all began with those humble lozenges – which he spent his days hand-making exclusively for the Brompton Hospital London. ‘The mixture was kneaded and prepared with a specific percentage of the essential oils – things like English peppermint oil – then rolled, cut out and stamped. An apprentice like me would have to re-do that again and again, weighing them exactly. If the weight wasn’t right, it meant the dosage of the essential oil wasn’t correct. Later, I discovered it’s t’s exactly the same technique when you’re weighing out ingredients for perfumes. You have to be accurate.’
Soon it became clear that John’s passion lay in the botanical/aromatics side of the business. As he explains: ‘In those days pharmacies would bulk buy fragrances which they’d pour into their own bottles to sell.’ The chemists shops frequently bought them from the same supplier they sourced lozenges and other medicinals from – and before long, John was learning how to blend perfumes.
The next step of John’s career was ‘very good fortune’, he reflects. He joined a renowned retail chemist, Cecil Jacobs, who’d set up shop beneath the Grand Hotel, Leicester. Jacobs’s subsequent takeover of an ancient apothecary allowed John to be trained in every single aspect of sales, marketing, sourcing ingredients, the merchandising and making of fine fragrances, cosmetics and toiletries. (There’s probably nobody in the entire perfume universe who’s had so rounded a training.) Perhaps his greatest stroke of good fortune was meeting a fellow employee, however – Sheila, with whom he has three daughters.
From there, it was a leap to the old-established Quaker company of Stafford Allen (SAS), growers and distillers of essential oils. ‘I spent months in every single department there before they sent me out as their technical representative. I never stopped learning. It wasn’t like today when to become a perfumer you are required to go to ISIPCA or do specialised training,’ John reflects. ‘This was learning on the job.’
Interestingly, this gives him great respect for the growing number self-taught niche perfumers around today. ‘To my mind there’s no point getting on your high horse and saying, “well these people haven’t been trained at such and such a place” – because that was often the old way, too!’
He clearly remembers the time when the role of ‘evaluator’ was devised – the individuals whose role is as a bridge between client and perfumer, to-ing and fro-ing to ensure the brief is fulfilled to their satisfaction. ‘It was much to the disgust of the perfumers, who thought “who the hell are these people coming in and telling us to tinker with our formulas?”’
From 1979-1981, he then went to work for the fragrance house RC Treatt, setting up a perfumery from scratch. To the distress of John and his team, however, out of the blue the whole venture was axed – and for the first time he found himself out of a job. ‘But it gave me the push to go independent’, John asserts. ‘I thought right, that’s it, I’m never working for anyone again. So I launched my company, The Perfumer’s Guild…’
John’s first bespoke perfume was for the Royal National Rose Society – a quintessential English rose scent, simply called Society, with the first bottle going to Penelope Keith, then to Felicity Kendal and other celebrities who’d had roses named for them.
His next client? None other than Dame Barbara Cartland – she of the pink frocks, the fluffy dogs and the Rolls Royce. (Later, also stepgrandmother to Diana, Princess of Wales, through the marriage of her daughter Rayne to Earl Spencer.) Having read a newspaper article in which the eccentric, bestselling romance authoress bemoaned the decline in standards of perfumery, John wrote her a letter offering to make a scent specially for her. It went down so well that he was retained – like a modern-day Jean-Louis Fargeon to Marie Antoinette, perhaps – to create all the fragrances in her wardrobe. The first perfume he made for Dame Barbara had the suitably Cartland-esque name of Scent of Romance – ‘an Oriental, very decadent and rich. She also had me fragrancing bookmarks and scenting her letters.’ On one occasion, he recalls, he even found himself being announced at a foreign reception at a five-star hotel by a uniformed footman as ‘Mr John Bailey, Ambassador to Dame Barbara Cartland!’
John was one of the first Western perfumers to use oudh – and shows us a magnificent gold metal chest, containing a pile of this precious Arabian wood. Never resting on his laurels, it turns out he was also involved in reviving the prestigious British perfume house Atkinsons, via his friend Michael Edwards (author of Perfume Legends and the perfume industry ‘annual’, Fragrances of the World). Michael introduced him to the new Italian owners, when they’d bought Atkinsons into their fold. ‘He said to me: “These people have lost a lot of their history and they’re not sure what to do with this treasure” – so I became the officially-appointed researcher, before the relaunched. I’m thrilled that they’re now going to open in Burlington Arcade – literally just around the corner from where this perfume house first started.’
But leaving aside his fascinating personal history, we were also here to see John’s collection. So John led us to the summerhouse in which he stores his jaw-dropping stash, glass cupboards and shelves groaning with everything from Potter & Moore Lavender to Esteé Lauder Dazzling Silver, an original Youth Dew, Army & Navy Eau de Cologne, Triple Extract Wood Violet and more. ‘I’ve no idea how many bottles I’ve got. Several hundred I guess. It’s not always about what’s in the bottle – for me the bottles themselves hold a fascination, the stories and the people behind them.’
Back in the house, Jo and I had to ask if Sheila (who fuelled us with tea, biscuits and mini mince pies throughout the interview) was equally into perfume. Her throaty chuckle and candid answer – ‘Well, to be honest with you I’m not that bothered about it, these days!’ – made us laugh, as did her affectionate assertion that John was ‘obsessed with fragrance’.
At first, John attempted to deny this. But then this gentleman and scent scholar looked around the otherwise immaculate house, with its study crammed with what must be every fragrance book ever written, its huge factices (oversized display bottles) and countless perfume flacons from every era on display. (Never mind that shed itself.)
‘Well, alright,’ he finally smiled, ‘I suppose you could say I’m obsessed…’
JOHN’S TOP 10
Or rather, 11. Because after seven decades in the perfume business, it seemed churlish to deny John Bailey an extra ‘pick’…
Atkinson’s 24 Old Bond Street ‘A wonderful relaunch and redesign – they’ve been so clever with the flask.’
Chanel ‘From the aesthetic point of view, their simplicity is absolutely brilliant. All they’ve had to do is tweak the bottle over the years – because it’s perfection.’
Coty (lots of vintage treasures) ‘We have a friend who was a flight engineer for Concorde and he found this bottle for me at a flea market in Ludlow. Very similar to the vintage Molton Brown, isn’t it?’
YSL Opium ‘The bottle designer Pierre Dinand told me many years ago, when I was working with him, that only a few of these original necklaces were produced and so I treasure this.’
Guerlain Mitsouko ‘One of the greatest fragrances ever created.’
Cartier Panthère ‘An absolutely unique bottle design.’
Clarins Eau Dynamiste ‘A very good example of a fragrance perfectly suiting the brand. A tonic scent that’s kind of a twist on Eau Sauvage.’
Jean Paul Gaultier Le Mâle ‘Brilliant packaging and bottles – so outrageous putting it in a tin! The fragrance that launched Francis Kurkdjian’s career, of course.’
Miss Dior Original ‘Such a cherished name. I worked with the perfumer Jean Carles’ son, Marcel, at one time. I think I still have a copy of the original formula for this, somewhere!’
Givenchy Ysatis ‘Stunning bottle – another Pierre Dinand special.’
Perfumer’s Guild ‘Aside from “Society”, we used family names for the perfumes – including those of our daughters.’
John Bailey – In our scent memories forever.
Written by Suzy Nightingale