I tend to do things backwards. For example, I flip through magazines right to left. In college, I often took upper division courses before the survey ones. I learned to cook from complicated recipes long before mastering the simple techniques that are the real building blocks of that art. It works for me, usually. So, the first book about perfume I read was Chandler Burr’s “The Emperor of Scent,” about Luca Turin and his vibrational theory of olfaction, complete with complicated molecular diagrams and lots of ten-dollar chemical names.
I should’ve read this book first.
“Perfume” came out in 1995. I have no doubt that many of you have already read it, but because it is an old book now, some may not have. If you haven’t, it’s worth the effort to track down a copy. Because if I was to suggest one book to perfume newbies, one volume that gives the reader a clear, comprehensive and accurate background, this would be the one.
I’ve always thought that perfume and cultural anthropology walk in tandem. How could they not? Even in grade school, we were taught about the spice routes of ancient trade. This is where the book begins, with a generous nod at scent and the sacred. Various types of incenses were thought to alter consciousness, used in ritual much as psychedelic plants were also used as gates to the other world, whatever, wherever, that world might be. This simply obliterates so many modern cultures’ thinking about fragrance, that it’s all about the crass come-hither. Far from it!
Irvine explores the West’s nineteenth-century obsession with deodorization in a way that rings with echoes. A reaction to the licentiousness of the eighteenth and, to some extent, the seventeenth centuries; a pendulum swinging and then swinging back; a mania for sanitation and the concept of personal space, that invisible zone whose borders musn’t be breached, even by someone else’s scent -- sound familiar? And that what took a century then might take, oh, a mere thirty or so years now?
This explains so much.
Without going through a list of chapter titles (see notes at the end of this post for those) I can tell you that much was finally clarified for me. For example, what is the exact difference between Rose de Mai and Rose Damascene? And, uh, ok, there IS such a thing as Florentine Iris -- I’d thought that was marketing-copy b.s. How, exactly, is frankincense obtained? How do the various jasmines differ from the gold-standard Grasse jasmine? There is a clear, and fair, discussion of synthetics vs. naturals, and the fragrance families, too, with a fragrance “wheel” that (finally) makes sense.
Other topics are fashion, and how -- and why -- the visual world of the designer and the more mysterious olfactory world of the perfumer became so solidly linked in this century, and of the coutiers most influential (her discussion of Chanel is fascinating, in this light). How history became eclipsed by marketing, how fragrances are made, how they’re sold, how the “spin” came to be so much more important than the perfume itself; all true, perhaps more true now than ever before.
Ultimately, for me at least, it is her speculation about the future of this art that makes me feel a little sad. She speaks of “aromachology,” and how there seemed, at the time, to be a burgeoning of fragrance as a spiritual “mood-drug” for the masses, something like its use in the ancient world. Of possible innovations like scent delivered by skin patches activated by touch. Of biotechnologies used to recreate, and then produce cell-by-cell the scents of flowers or other essences. If any of this has come to pass, it’s news to me.
But lots of things are, when I really look at it.
More than anything, this book humbled me. I’ve been studying and writing about fragrance and the fragrance arts for over two years, pretty obsessively at times, and there are still the big blank spots, things I probably should’ve known, and, guess what -- the inescapable conclusion: I’m still a noob.
In a way I guess I’ll always be one, because this is a big, no, a monumental subject, incorporating art, science, history, spirituality, sociology, psychology, biology, business, fashion: you name it. It’s worthy of years of study. A lifetime of it.
In “Perfume,” not a single word is wasted.
“Perfume,” subtitled “The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances” was written by journalist Susan Irvine, and was originally released in 1995. The ISBN is 0517141590. A hint: it’s available from used book sites such as alibris and other online booksellers, for widely varying prices.
Here are the chapter titles: The Mystery of Perfume, Making Scents, Bottling Allure, Fragrant Fashion, The Sensual Sell, and The Scent of Things to Come.