Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Perfect Scent

I'm a sucker for journalistic narratives of quirky topics, like Michael Lewis' The Big Short or Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  Or even not-so-journalistic, such as the fun and flighty Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello.  Understandably, then, I jumped right in to Chandler Burr's informative and captivating book The Perfect Scent.

Published in 2008, this book kept my interest despite flaunting more chemical compounds than I've seen since my unfortunate encounter with organic chemistry more than 10 years ago. It is actually two stories in parallel - one, Hermes hiring Jean-Claude Ellena as their in-house perfumer and the development of Un Jardin sur le Nil; and two, the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's fragrance Lovely.  The first story takes place in France, the second in New York.

It is probably not a surprise that I preferred the Jean-Claude Ellena part of the book. One, I already know a bit about him and own one of his perfumes. Two, that part takes place in France and since I'm currently living here, I'm just partial to those parts.  Finally, there is something romantic about the idea of the perfumer sitting in his lab, carefully, purposefully putting specific molecules together, tweaking and finessing until finally capturing the ephemeral idea of whatever challenge has been laid before him.  Chandler Burr not only takes you inside Hermes' meetings and Jean-Claude Ellena's lab, but practically inside Ellena's head.

What I got from the SJP part of the book is that one, SJP has eclectic tastes in perfume and two, SJP was actually involved in making her perfume unlike most celebrity perfumes.  Great.  I haven't smelled Lovely, so maybe that would bring the story full circle.  But it wasn't particularly captivating, not like the journey involved in creating Un Jardin Sur le Nil. It's possible that some of my preference for the Jardin portions of the book is a result of, as Burr points out more than once, Ellena's astounding ability to talk about perfume in a way few people do or can.

Burr gives us some fantastic lines from Ellena. "Picasso said, 'Art is a lie that tells the truth.' That's perfume for me. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality."  Another great one is: "There are two great poles of perfumery. Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Seduction and hygiene. The Latin wants to seduce; he says, 'See how sexy I am, I'm coming to you.' The American says, 'See how clean I am, you can come to me.'" And this last one helps bring some of what attracts to me to perfume into focus: "They say cooking is an art and pastry is a science. Perfume is a math, specifically an algebra."

For the perfume rookie, The Perfect Scent is a wonderful introduction to the industry as well as to the artists.  There is commentary on so many perfumes - while sometimes it made me think, "I get it, Chandler Burr, you know a crazy amount about perfume. So stop showing off!", at other times I appreciated the references as it has helped inform my ever-growing list of perfumes to track down and smell. I also finished the book with a smile on my face, a desire to visit Grasse, and a feeling of anticipation for continuing to learn more about the world of fragrance.

Next up on the reading list: Essence and Alchemy, Mandy Aftel. 

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