The Perfumer and His Bear
One of the most colourful characters in the history of modern perfumery is a man named James Atkinson who married a unique talent for blending perfume with an eccentric character. The story told over the decades details that James had a pet bear who was utterly devoted to him. This is the era of traveling circuses that often featured trained animals who would perform for paying audiences at country fairs. So it is possible that James obtained the bear in this manner. There aren’t any records outlining how the perfumer obtained the animal. However he found the animal, it is true that the bear adored Atkinson.
At an early age, James exhibited a passion for developing fragrance and scented soap recipes which he wrote in notebooks that he carefully guarded. Perfume recipes for commercially successful scents were highly valuable and coveted. It wasn’t unusual for companies and rivals to try to steal these formulas. Thankfully, few would try stealing an Atkinsons recipe with a large bear standing in the way. His original star product was a rose-scented bear grease balm.
Having scraped together enough money to open a tiny perfume shop at 44 Gerrard Street in London where he blended and sold his fragrances, James immediately caused a stir. He brought his pet bear to work with him each day. One customer at the time described the shop as, “that marvellous perfume shop with the most terrifying bear” It was brilliant marketing as everyone flocked to the boutique to see the bear and smell the fragrance concoctions. Business was so brisk that James’ brother Edward would join the company. They would use a bear motif and illustration to brand the firm.
What’s particularly interesting about James as a perfumer is his inspiration to create an English spin on the wildly popular Italian eau de cologne movement. Italian-style colognes featured tart citrus notes with various herbs and leafy ingredients. They were light citrus splashes very popular in France. James invented a “fearlessly English” eau de cologne that retained the freshness of the Italian style but added warm and spicy notes. It was this fragrance that caught the attention of King George IV who first smelled it at Buckingham Palace in 1826. He was so mesmerized by the scent that he immediately declared Atkinsons the Official Perfumer of the Royal Court of England.
In the coming years, Atkinsons would be worn by the most famous names of the time: fashion icon Beau Brummell, Duke of Wellington, Sarah Bernhardt, Lady Hamilton as well as aristocrats in Russia and Italy. It was a clever strategy to cater to aristocrats and high society throughout Europe – particularly during London’s busy social season of fetes and grand balls. His business grew through word-of-mouth. This was an early precursor to the high-end niche perfumery trend of today
Atkinsons moved into a stunning Art Deco boutique at 24 Old Bond Street in 1832 and then opened smaller shops in Paris, New York and Australia. The bear motif was featured in all marketing and fragrance communication.
Today, the brand puts a modern spin on iconic British notes and ingredients enlisting the talents of world class perfumers such as Christine Nagel, Karine Dubreuil and Benoist Lapouza.
It isn’t clear how long James’ beloved bear lived. But from customer accounts, he was very well cared for and indulged in his favourite foods. The Atkinsons’ bear was one of the earliest celebrity scent influencers. His legacy lives on today.