I was surprised when I saw, on some book-buying site, a book about perfumery that I hadn’t ever heard of. I think that’s because this is a travel book, conceived, written and probably shelved in the “Travel” section, and it’s a great travel book.
The lucky Ms. Lyttelton, who is the daughter of archaeologist Margaret Lyttleton, grew up on the move, and now has no qualms about nosing around souks and asking impertinent questions. This is the perfect trip. Lyttelton spends two years investigating the ingredients she’s chosen for a bespoke perfume. At the beginning of the book, she meets with a custom perfumer, and they work out a fragrance for her. The ingredients she chooses are neroli, petitgrain, sambac jasmine, mimosa, damask rose, iris, nutmeg, vetiver, frankincense, myrrh and ambergris.
“So I set out,” she writes, “for the places where these ingredients grow, to meet the people who harvest them and to discover at least some of the secrets of perfume making from the perfumers who ‘magic’ the raw ingredients into scent.”
Off she goes, husband, (sometimes) toddler and translators in tow, to mythical places like Grasse, Paris (where she talks with Frederic Malle), Morocco (where she talks with Serge Lutens), Florence, where the irises grow, Turkey for rose, India and Sri Lanka for jasmine and vetiver, and finally Yemen for frankincense and myrrh, and to search the island of Socatra’s beaches and souks for real ambergris.
This book came out in 2007, when Yemen wasn’t quite as dicey as it is now, although it was an uncommon destination for westerners. She speaks of having once gotten lost in the desert with her mother in that country and being rescued by Bedouins. Clearly, she’s comfortable wherever this trail leads.
Lyttelton makes some assumptions that aren’t always true (“once you’ve smelled something for the first time, the next time you encounter that smell you can immediately identify it”...uh, I can’t) and she also speaks of clearing the nasal palate with coffee beans, which is currently being disproved, but I’m splitting hairs here. (Can’t help but wonder what Sephora plans to do with all those beans, though.) She’s done her homework -- lots of it.
“The Scent Trail” is a very entertaining book, full of primary information about how the natural ingredients for perfumes are obtained. She touches on the subject of synthetics, but not much -- things were a bit different when this book was being written (“Buddah,” she says, “is in, and boudoir is out” -- this before the tasteful Marc Jacobs/Tom Ford print ads, I assume.) What has happened since then, with the reformulations, the no-scent movement and the over-regulation of ingredients made reading about all this history and mystery a sad experience; I can’t help but think about what might have been, and what the perfume business has become -- all business.
I’m increasingly grateful to the suppliers of these ingredients, because I’m not planning a trip to Yemen anytime soon (Paris maybe; one can always hope!), but know that if I really want a tiny bit of ambergris tincture or jasmine absolute, I can find them, and smell them and think about what she called “magic-ing” these storied raw ingredients into scents.
Lyttelton credits the perfume she had made with tremendous power, to draw others closer, and, most importantly, to transport her to all the places she went to in her effort to understand this art. “My scent,” she says, “encapsulates distant lands, and its aromatic composition is filled with stories.”
“The Scent Trail” is available in paperback. The ISBN is 978-0-451-22624-2.
The book’s cover design is by Oceana Gottlieb.