As the evenings are getting colder, the prospect of staying in becomes much more attractive, especially when one can look forward to curling up under a blanket with a great book and a steaming cup of tea. For someone who is interested in the inner workings of perfumery and the creative process behind fragrances, books written either about perfumers or by perfumers themselves provide an extraordinary glimpse into the complex world of scent. The latter are rare, because as master perfumer Guy Robert explains, “Real perfumers create perfumes. They have neither the time, nor the inclination nor the desire to tell all.” Thankfully, there are some notable exceptions. The selection of four books below is based on several criteria: first, they are books I personally love; second, while being accessible to a beginner, they offer a wealth information for an advanced fragrance lover; third, they are written by experts whose enthusiasm and passion for scent are almost palpable, which lends a special appeal to the finished work …
Les Sens du Parfum by Guy Robert (only in French). Osman Eyrolles Multimédia (Nov 9 2000). ISBN: 2-7464-0187-8. Available from Amazon.
I have been interested in Guy Robert’s fragrances ever since I discovered Madame Rochas and Hermès Calèche. His ability to create harmonious arrangements possessing luxurious heft as well as soft radiance is fascinating. Among rare books written by the perfumers, Les Sens du Parfum by Guy Robert stands out for its direct and accessible style. While writings by Edmond Roudnitska are a must read primarily for those who are seriously interested in fragrance, there is nothing to prevent a beginner from appreciating the work by Robert. Certainly, a fragrance connoisseur will learn a fair bit as well. Robert relies on personal experience and fascinating anecdotes to lead the reader into the world of perfumery. Unfortunately, the book is available only in French; however, one can only hope that this might be rectified in the future.
Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances by Michael Edwards. Crescent House Pub (June 1999). ISBN: 0-646-277794-4. Available from Amazon or directly from Crescent House Publishing.
Perfume Legends is another book that is unique in terms of its focus on perfume creators. Its detailed explorations of legendary French fragrances complete with fascinating stories about the perfumers, designers and creators take one to another world. Reading the chapter on Coty L’Origan, I can almost smell the orange blossom and iris laced blend that inspired the entire family of floral oriental fragrances. Flipping to the chapter on Caron Nuit de Noël, I feel as if the tumultuous personalities of Ernest Daltroff and Félicie Wanpouille come to life. It is a blend of artistic inspirations and personal journeys that makes the book special, allowing one to behold a rich history behind each famous creation. Michael Edwards is an author and fragrance expert who is particularly famous for his fragrance classification system that has been the primary tool for analyzing and grouping fragrances for the industry. Perfume Legends should not be confused with the retail oriented Fragrances of the World guides, which contain updated lists of fragrances classified by families. Please see a longer review.
A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau. I. B. Tauris; 1 edition (June 22, 2006). ISBN: 1845111893. Available from Amazon.
Sofia Coppola’s film is placing the French queen Marie Antoinette in the lime light this fall, and A Scented Palace by the historian Elizabeth de Feydeau reveals another aspect of the queen’s personality—her love for perfume and her relationship with her perfumer. De Feydeau draws upon the papers of perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon to paint the scented world of Marie Antoinette including her beloved Parfum de Trianon, a tuberose rich floral bouquet. Reorchestrated by Francis Kurkdjian and named Sillage de la Reine, the fragrance was made available for sale at Versailles. Given the vivid manner of the narrative, I thoroughly enjoyed following De Feydeau through “the perfumed court” of Louis XV’s reign. The explanations of 18th-century beauty secrets and the conventions of the court are quite fascinating. The passion of the author for the subject is one of the most appealing qualities about the book, and despite the fact that I just finished reading it, I want to start re-reading A Scented Palace again. It is quite clear why this book won the Prix Guerlain in France. De Feydeau is a professor at ISIPCA as well as a cultural consultant to various perfume houses. Most recently, she worked with Parfums d’Empire on Eau de Gloire to recreate the fragrance of Napoléon Bonaparte.
Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume by Mandy Aftel. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, Publisher (2004). ISBN: 1586857029. Available from Amazon.
The fragrances of the 18th century were natural, as De Feydeau explains in her book. In the 20th century, Mandy Aftel (interview) was among the first to bring the message of natural perfumery to a wider audience. The natural perfumery movement is based on the premise of using only nature derived materials, and her book Essence and Alchemy is a reflection of this philosophy. It is both a practical guide for natural perfumers as well as an exploratory work on the history of alchemy. While the latter runs the risk of being too new age for my tastes, overall, the discussion is clear and interesting, with a rather original angle. For someone who is interested in either natural perfumery or in obtaining an overview of common raw materials and their uses, Essence and Alchemy is a place to start.
Painting: Ivan Kramskoy. Books Got Her. 1872. Oil on canvas. Ivan Kramskoy Museum of Fine Arts, Voronezh, Russia. From abcgallery.