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For the picky people on your list, go for tailor-made gifts

One of the biggest challenges of the holiday season is finding a gift for that friend or family member who is, ahem, particular. In some respects, they make prowling for presents easy, if only because so much can be ruled out. But when a garden-variety gift just won't do, options become limited and originality is tested: How, for instance, do you top last year's membership in the Bacon of the Month club?

For 2010, the answer lies in creative customization. We do it when we order pizza or when we buy a shiny new car. Now, there are more and more ways to personalize gifts, from cufflinks to chocolate to scents, in much the same way.

There's nothing new, of course, about customization at Christmas, but a number of new businesses (some not even a year old) are offering a bespoke-like experience that goes beyond engraving jewellery or monogramming clothes. Using them is the anti-gift-card approach: Rather than giving someone carte blanche within a prepaid dollar value, gift-givers play a direct role in the design and makeup of the final product.

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Take Chocri, a Berlin-based online company that's a dream come true for Willy Wonka wannabes. Like the fictional candymaker, you can fashion your own individual chocolate bars by choosing one of three chocolate bases (dark, milk or white) and up to five possible toppings from a list of more than 100 (among them are goji berries, gummy bears and, yes, bacon). All of the chocolate is fair-trade organic chocolate from Belgium. You even name the bars - which start at $6.50 (U.S.) each - yourself.

"Because of the recession, we've seen that [consumers]don't want to spend as much money but still want to give a nice gift," Carmen Magar, chief executive officer of Chocri USA, says by phone from New York. "To give a bar of chocolate with someone's name on it and pick what friends like has a value attached - it's personal, thoughtful and unique."

Since every Chocri bar is made on demand, the company was prompted by its growing orders recently to partner with Germany's Ritter Sport, another maker of chocolate bars, to expand production. It also has a rival, U.S.-based Chocomize, which follows an almost identical template.

For those who like being on the receiving end of something shinier, Toronto-based Greenshag offers a wide range of potential cufflink combos, while U.S.-based Persona specializes in customizable charm jewellery. Visitors to the latter firm's site can choose from leather or sterling-silver necklaces or bracelets (from $40 to $125 each) and a variety of charms including crystals, stones and beads ($20 to $50 apiece).

"I think there's a great desire by people to express their own individuality, whether through jewellery or the food they eat," Persona president Neil Travis says from Malibu, Calif. "You can buy someone a charm that they will have forever."

But can too much choice be overwhelming? "In general, you have to really know the person to be able to do it," says Alison Lawler-Dean, whose blog, Gifted, surveys gifting trends. "You also put in some effort to do it, but I think you can really nail it because it can draw on memories and emotions."

Torontonians Kirsten Menkes and Ashlee Firsten understand that the arcane nature of fragrance notes makes giving perfume tricky. Through their year-old business, Aromachology, they've developed five scents based on personality types (Sophisticated and Sensual is a floral, Bold and Brisk is woodsy) and encourage the addition of up to three top notes from a range of 15 (these boast names like Courageous, Optimistic and Peaceful).

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People can also give their loved one an empty, refillable bottle, which the recipient can bring in, with the giver, to create her own scent combo. "It's an excuse to come in together and create a memory," Menkes says. Whichever option is chosen, the price of a custom scent is $160 ($120 just for the base fragrance).

"People want to have ownership in something," says Firsten, who notes that the personal aspect makes Aromachology as much about sentiment as scent. "They're attracted to things that are value-driven."

Magar's advice for anyone who might want to give a custom bar of chocolate for the first time? Opt for toppings that seem more exotic than they taste, such as candied rose petals. Chocri also offers a variety of ready-made seasonal combos (Santa's Favorite, for instance, is topped with a decorative array of real gold flakes, cinnamon, roasted almonds and toffee).

Just as Chocri was forced to accommodate increased demand, Travis of Persona expects a busy holiday season.

"I'm afraid we don't have enough inventory," he says, realizing the upside. "I'm looking forward to empty shelves in the new year."


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Place your orders at the following sites by the dates shown below to ensure that they'll arrive

for the holidays.

CHOCOLATE Order Chocri bars at by Dec. 10.

CUFFLINKS Customize Greenshag cufflinks at by Dec. 10.

FRAGRANCE Create a bespoke scent at Aromachology,, by Dec. 17.

JEWELLERY Assemble your own Persona jewellery through by Dec 13.

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