Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: July 3 to August 24, 2017
Recommended for: anyone interested in perfumes
How could something as shapeless and evanescent as smell have a history and a culture?
For the moment, let’s just say that, like all other arts, perfume should engage our attention to a satisfying end, first creating an expectation and then satisfying it in a way different and better than you hoped.
Perfumes seem to come in various weights and sizes, to have different personalities, to wear different clothes, to worship different deities. Some perfumes are facile and some are complicated; some are representative, some abstract. Above all, some are better than others.
Shots fired. This book gets down to the point quickly, and the authors don’t mince words in their critiques.
As the title says, this is a large reference guide that contains a series of connected essays about perfumery. Before it gets into the reference part, you get history, science, methodology, etymology, explanation of the art and production of perfumery, chronology of hits and misses throughout the years, and a moment of silence for all the discontinued greats. Mostly though, what it is is a collection of reviews by two of the most trusted, respected, and valued reviewers in the industry.
The authors are husband and wife Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, and they are considered pillars of the community. This in itself is a huge deal because the perfume community is quite–what’s the word–snobby. Turin is a biophysicist and Sanchez is a journalist, and reviewing perfumes is their hobby. Their backgrounds lend a scientific basis to this book and each review of the perfumes sampled. Turns out, there’s actually a science to the scents you’re drawn to, but of course it’s not a hard science. More research is needed here.
What I find most interesting about this book is that it’s made me realize I don’t have expensive taste. As a matter of fact, I’ve never had expensive taste. My taste in perfumes, and perhaps in art in general, veer toward simple, clean, and generic. Most of the scents I like are maligned or dismissed by Turin and Sanchez as “simple,” “too clean,” “too generic,” “mass produced”, or “has been done before and done better.” This last one is my favorite, and it’s in reference to DKNY’s Be Delicious–you might remember it as that perfume bottle that looks like a green apple.
While Turin and Sanchez and I don’t have overlapping taste, we do seem to hate the same type of scents, like those “made” by pop stars and 15-minute celebrities. Those concoctions, literally and hilariously called “trash perfumes” in the book, are often sickly sweet, full of synthetics, but ironically don’t last past the hour. Not worth the money and an offense to anyone within smelling reach because the wearer tends to over spray (to make it last longer).
Reading some of these reviews, especially the overly harsh ones, is exactly like reading well-written negative reviews of books I love. There’s a strange sense of enjoyment in the critiques, but it’s not all cattiness and snobbery. Turin and Sanchez do deconstruct the perfumes themselves and analyze each note and layer individually, to determine why it works or doesn’t work. Since they write so well, are consistent, and are themselves critical of the whole perfume industry, I enjoyed this whole book from beginning to end and I learned a lot, especially from the negative reviews of scents I love.
But if you have never smelled a certain perfume before, such as those discontinued ones, it’s hard to imagine what they were like just from descriptions of the notes. No matter how exact Turin’s and Sanchez’s words are, you’ll never grasp what they say unless you’ve smelled that scent before. In that, our language and biology are extremely limiting.
Learning about perfumery is like learning a new language to me, and this book was a good place to start because it’s got everything. While the language of perfume is new and foreign, the ideas are familiar because it’s mostly a language of memory. Therefore, there’s no accounting for taste. Hah hah. I’m only sort of kidding. The scents you’re most drawn to are often connected to pleasant memories.
I’ve never been a fan of perfumes because of the way they smell–not a joke–but I’ve always been interested in their creation–recipes, concoctions, history, happy accidents, years of dedication to make one memorable lasting scent. The combination of essential oils and synthetic chemicals and their results are fascinating to me. I’m not a purist, so I do have an appreciation for the synthetics, mostly for their lasting power. A perfect combination would be mostly organics with some synthetics to make it last, but an ounce of something like that would be worth a cool thousand easily.
The scents I’m most drawn to are organics with fresh clean light fruity notes–“simple” and “generic,” according to the authors. When combined with tea, these notes smell amazing to me. But what smells amazing to you (in the bottle) is not necessarily going to smell as amazing once it’s on you (because of your body chemistry). So I haven’t tried any on myself yet.
While I don’t wear perfumes myself, I do like some on other people, especially when I smell a scent that “fits” the person wearing it. Strange concept, that–a scent that “fits” you. This goes back to taste with the addition of body chemistry. Finding a scent that hits both targets for you is an art in and of itself. The industry should consider putting more research into this, rather than pumping out a new scent every couple of months. If people understand what works or doesn’t work for their body chemistry, they’re more likely to try more perfumes and buy more in general. Just saying.
This book was fun and a nice escape from the world burning all around me. It allowed to go back in time to a time when the world wasn’t burning all around me–how many years ago was 2016?
Anyhow, perfumery will never be something I take seriously because, at its core, it’s still a frivolous luxury past time no matter how you dress it, but learning about the culture and community was a pleasant experience. I liken it to visiting a corner of the world that rarely get tourists. And now the knowledge will most likely take up space in my head rather than be applied in real life. And such is the burden of those who like to learn but not necessarily do.