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The surprising reason Maria Callas relied so heavily on her signature scent

penhaligons hammam bouquet
History of the Hero: Penhaligon's Hammam BouquetBettmann

Maria Callas is evidently having a posthumous moment – from Erdem’s AW24 show dedicated to her glamorous on-stage style, to Marina Abramović’s conceptual, celebratory 7 Deaths of Maria Callas project – the late, lauded opera singer is making it onto moodboards across the creative industry.

But one brand can boast a Callas connection that travels further back than any other: the century-spanning British perfume house Penhaligon’s lays claim to her signature scent.

It’s said that the late American-Greek performer wore Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet: the fragrance house’s very first fragrance (the only one made by William Penhaligon himself) and still a bestseller today. The intense floral perfume is indeed befitting of a soprano as dramatic as Callas: with notes of sandalwood, orris and rose, it’s the kind of confident, commanding trail that demands attention.

penhaligons hammam bouquet
Courtesy Penhaligon's

Created in 1872, the scent’s story starts in the Turkish baths of Jermyn Street in London’s Mayfair, where William Penhaligon worked as a barber. Inspired by the soapy, steam-filled rooms of the baths, he created what would become the first scent of the Penhaligon’s empire. With heady floral notes of lipstick-like rose and herbal lavender over powdery musk and woods, it’s a decadently of-its-time scent.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, and the perfume industry had shifted enormously. As mass production was opening up the burgeoning ready-to-wear fashion market, perfumes shifted from being artisanal and exclusive to accessible and easy to wear. White florals came with fresh spring appeal, while dark notes of amber and spice defined popular evening scents such as Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew. But at Penhaligon’s, the popularity of the unapologetically nostalgic Hammam Bouquet remained.

At this time, Callas’ rise to global fame was underway: in 1951, she made her debut in Italy’s most prestigious opera house, Teatro alla Scala, and by 1956 she was opening the Metropolitan Opera’s season with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. But Callas’ success was marred with issues: her fiery temperament stilted headline bookings, while she is reported to have suffered a long list of health issues, including extreme near-sightnedness that meant she struggled to stand on-stage alone. To combat this, she employed a technique befitting of a true diva.

“Let's take it back to 1950,” says Julia Koeppen, global general manager of Penhaligon’s. “Maria Callas, esteemed opera singer, prepares to perform at the Royal Opera House. While her voice gathers the adoration of thousands across the world, her eyesight starts to fail her. But the show must go on, of course: Callas scents silk handkerchiefs with Penhaligon's very own Hammam Bouquet [her firm favourite, clearly], and leaves them at each side of the stage. Following her nose, she makes her way to the spotlight to perform.”

penhaligons hammam bouquet
Courtesy Penhaligon's

In olfactory terms, Hammam Bouquet remains the most transportive scent in the Penhaligon’s line up: a time capsule straight back to the turn of the 20th century, it’s a truly indulgent powdery floral, almost gothic in its intensity. But it’s not the only perfume in the collection that boasts a rich history: the spritely, citrus-spiked Bluebell was a favourite of Princess Diana, while the Prince of Wales reportedly still wears Blenheim Bouquet: a scent created in 1902 for the 9th Duke of Marlborough, and still every bit as popular today.

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