Favorite Perfume Books to learn about history, science, and techniques

Whenever I’m asked about my favorite books, two parallel thoughts flash through my mind–how much time do you have to listen to me and which are my favorite books. As someone who reads in all genres and on all topics, I have difficulty pairing down my favorites to to a small-talk appropriate list. However, when it comes to perfume books, I have no difficulty answering the question; my most read books are always within reach. Today, I will start with a list of books that I use for reference. I read them cover to cover and dip into chapters at random to learn about perfumery techniques, styles, or the fragrance industry.

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

I first talked to Harold McGee about this book project more than ten years ago, but I believe that it took him even longer to research it. The wait has been worth it. McGee’s erudition sparkles on every page, and you can open the book on any chapter and find something new about aromas, molecules, emotions — and your own nose. It’s a study of olfaction as well as the world as we experience it through our senses. McGee weaves his personal experiences throughout his discussions, which gives Nose Dive its rich, layered quality. If you’re familiar with McGee’s writings on food and the science of cooking, you don’t need me to advertise this book further. Highly recommended.

The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin

A wonderful exploration of the world of aroma-molecules and their scents. Could the shape of a molecule determine its smell? Or is it vibration? Luca Turin explores these topics in his vibrant prose. Of course, for pure fun, Perfumes: The A-to-Z Guide is hard to beat (plus, the reviews by Tania Sanchez are a delight.)

The Scent of Empire by Karl Schlögel

Books focusing on products or brands usually gush, rather than elucidate. In an industry that clutches to the idea of mystique, it’s hard for writers to find useful information and to know when brands are leading them down the garden path. Karl Schlögel’s book focusing on Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow makes for a fantastic exception. Rigorously researched, it’s a glimpse into the 20th century, its aromas and stinks included. Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow represent the scents of polar opposite worlds, the Western bloc and the Soviet Union, but as Schlögel reveals, they share a strong lineage. I have already mentioned this book several times, but it’s worth a revisit. If anything, I wish it were longer and took an even wider perspective.

Please also read the full review of the book.

Scent and Subversion: Decoding A Century Of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman

A great companion to The Scent of Empire and an engaging work in its own right. Herman includes descriptions of more than 300 perfumes, setting them into the context of their era. She also includes perspectives from fragrance creators and artists, and her exploration of fragrances are accompanied by perceptive insights into marketing and advertising.

De la plante à l’essence – un tour du monde des matières à parfums. From Plant to Essence – A World Tour of Fragrant Raw Material by Nez and Simppar

A new collaborative effort in French and English, this book focuses on raw materials. It explores farming, sourcing, and the distilling of essences. Different sections describe specific notes and the effects they produce and include commentary from leading perfumers. An accessible and intelligent treatment of the subject. The book is available directly from Nez.

Scent and Chemistry: The Molecular World of Odors by Günther Ohloff, Wilhelm Pickenhagen, and Philip Kraft
Perfumery: Practice and Principles by Calkin, Robert R., Jellinek, J. Stephan

I grouped these two books together, because they are out of print, but they’re both excellent and essential for any serious students of perfumery. Scent and Chemistry explores the world of aroma-materials and examines the science and art of perfumery based on ingredients. The materials are grouped by families, so chapters features sandalwood, rose, jasmine, vetiver, musk, and dozens of other essences, natural and synthetic. Perfumery by Calkin and Jellinek is somewhat out of date, but its explanations of fragrance construction never lose their relevance.

I recently recorded a video about this same topic, mentioning some of the books from this article, so if you prefer to listen, you have that option too.

Extra reading: on Books and Fragrance Culture

Please share your favorite perfume books in the comments.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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26 Comments

  • Jill: Victoria,
    As always, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and passion for fragrance. Your posts are the highlight of my day! September 10, 2021 at 8:52am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words! September 10, 2021 at 9:24am Reply

  • Wild Gardener: Aphorismes d’un parfumeur by Dominique Ropion is a fascinating read, it’s also now available in English. September 10, 2021 at 9:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, I read it when it was first published, but I wasn’t sure if it’s been translated. September 10, 2021 at 9:24am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this lovely post and video.

    I, too, own and appreciate “The Secret of Scent” and “Scent and Subversion…”. Thank you for providing the names of several others that I can add to my collection, especially the one by Harold McGee.

    As well as the two mentioned above, I have at least 70 other books on fragrance, but my favourites are those to which I have a sentimental attachment, including those that sparked in me some kind of perfume epiphany.

    The first book that opened up the world of perfume categories for me was not actually a book, but my first copy of Michael Edwards’ “Fragrance Manual”, as it was known back in 1989. (I noticed sales assistants using it, requested the publication details from a reluctant but obliging David Jones department store worker, and obtained my own copy after my brother, who lived in the same city as Michael Edwards, phoned the great man and obtained the necessary details.) The night it arrived, I was in fragrance heaven, as I stayed up until the early hours absorbing the contents via a form of reading osmosis.

    In the middle of 1990, I went to stay with my brother in Sydney for a couple of weeks. Waiting for me on the chest of drawers in my bedroom was a welcoming gift – a copy of “Perfumery: The psychology and biology of fragrance” by Steve Van Toller and George H. Dodd (1988). I remember feeling thrilled that aspects of the mysterious world of perfumery could be illuminated for me via the pages of this book, which my brother had so kindly sought out for me.

    In 1995, on holiday up at Noosa with my father and younger brother, I saw in a bookshop window the gorgeous volume, “The Book of Perfume” by Elisabeth Barillé. It cost $100.00, which was a great deal of money for me at the time. Nevertheless, by the time the three of us were just a short distance up the street, I’d already decided that I had to go back and buy it. So, Dad and my brother kindly indulged me by walking back to the shop with me and waiting while I made my purchase. With the book safely in my bag, I couldn’t wait to get back to our motel to peruse it!

    In 1997, my brother gave me a wonderful birthday present – a copy of “The Book of Perfumes” by John Oakes, a fellow Queenslander. Reading about Oakes’ “perfumed past”, and realizing that I was not alone in the way I felt about perfume, was an epiphany.

    The following year, I was happy to part with $150.00 for my own copy of Michael Edwards’ “Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances”.

    In 2006, I obtained an antique copy of “The art of perfumery, and methods of obtaining the odors of plants, with instructions for the manufacture of perfumes for the handkerchief, scented powders, odorous vinegars, dentifrices, pomatums, cosmetiques, perfumed soap, etc. with an appendix on the colors of flowers, artificial fruit essences, etc. etc.” by George William Septimus Piesse (1857).

    I bought the above book privately from a retiring jeweller and cook, along with all of her books on cooking with flowers and other fragrant ingredients. Upon initially perusing it, I was surprised and intrigued to read, as early as the third page, that a Mr Louis Piesse, perhaps a relative of the author, had travelled to Australia, and had written about our national flower, “The Yellow Wattle, when in flower, is splendid, and emits a most fragrant odor.”

    In 2008, the first of the books by Turin and Sanchez leapt onto the scene. Given that I had not as yet discovered Bois de Jasmin, I voraciously devoured the tasty and sometimes wicked delights of the most entertaining and informative perfume reviews that I had yet encountered.

    There are many other perfume books that could receive honourable mentions, but these seven are my current favourites. I suspect that, shortly, a volume by one Victoria Frolova will be added to the list!

    By the way, Victoria, I want to explain my recent absence from the comment section. Early this year, my father experienced a problem with his mobility, resulting in the need to use a walker for a couple of months. As a consequence, I began spending a lot more time helping him. Although his mobility is back to normal, so that he now requires only his walking stick, I still drive or accompany him via taxi him to most of his appointments and, along with my two brothers, regularly prepare meals for him and assist with household tasks. Due to being so busy with Dad, I have found myself too short of time to write comments for BdJ on any regular basis, much to my chagrin.

    As for my father, in just over a week, he will turn 93! He’s still as bright as ever, though. He still reads (and re-reads) voraciously – both fiction and non-fiction (the latter on a huge range of subjects), still regards Jane Austen as his favourite novelist, still heads straight for the cryptic crossword, still listens to classical music and plays the piano, and can still tell me about almost any event or historical figure from ancient times onwards. (And that’s just the topic of history…) I think that you will be like him in many ways when you are older, Victoria – still reading (and re-reading) widely, still engaging with your passions and still knowledgeable and eloquent on a range of subjects.

    As regards catching up with BdJ, I hope, at the very least, to write comments in praise of your “violet” posts. That one on the different types of ionones was especially fascinating and illuminating.

    Oh, and congratulations on turning Sweet Sixteen recently! How time flies…

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 10, 2021 at 9:20am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a pleasure to see you here again. I hope that your father feels better! You’re such a devoted daughter, and you are fortunate to have each other.

      I enjoyed reading about your favorite books. It’s always fun to see what other people read and like.

      Michael Edwards’ “Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances” definitely deserves a mention! September 10, 2021 at 9:29am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Thanks, Victoria. I’m so happy to be back here!

        I am indeed lucky to have such an amazing father.

        Yes, Michael Edwards’ work is seminal in many ways. September 10, 2021 at 9:32am Reply

        • Victoria: The book was updated recently, by the way. September 10, 2021 at 2:12pm Reply

          • Tourmaline: Yes, I read your post about that. I had long been expecting the promised book on American perfumes, so I was rather surprised about the update of the other one. I’m not keen enough to buy the new book for such a small number of additions, however, perhaps I’ll find a secondhand copy on Abe Books at some stage. September 10, 2021 at 2:20pm Reply

            • Carolyn: Oh my goodness, I had begun to wonder if I had imagined Michael Edwards’ long ago announcement about a book on American fragrances which does not seem to have materialised, so I very pleased to see you mention it – thank you! I still live in hope… September 11, 2021 at 8:40am Reply

              • Tourmaline: Hi Carolyn,

                Yes, the idea of the American book seems like a dream to me now. However, like you, I live in hope!

                With kind regards,
                Tourmaline September 12, 2021 at 6:12am Reply

            • Carolyn: Also meant to say, I have the Michael Edwards’ book on French fragrances you mention, & like you was unwilling to spend such a large amount of money on the updated version which didn’t seem to have enough new information to warrant the cost. September 11, 2021 at 8:43am Reply

              • Tourmaline: Indeed, I found the small number of additions puzzling. I hope that Mr Edwards has not been experiencing significant health issues. With any luck, he has just been very busy with the upkeep of his Fragrances of the World – Match My Fragrance website. September 12, 2021 at 6:19am Reply

    • Marianne: Such a beautiful and enlightening post. Loved reading the story around your perfume literature adventure. Thank you Tourmaline. September 10, 2021 at 10:36pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Marianne,

        I’m glad you enjoyed reading about my favourite perfume books!

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline September 10, 2021 at 10:40pm Reply

    • Rhinda: Glad to know you are still with us Tourmaline! September 17, 2021 at 8:58am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Rhinda,

        Thank you so much! Yes, I’m alive and well, just spending lots of time looking after Dad, who turns 93 the day after tomorrow. (I’ll be making him a chocolate cake tomorrow.)

        As Jane Austen is his favourite author, and “Persuasion” is his favourite of her novels, and he loves languages, I bought him both “Persuasion” and “Sense and Sensibility” in Spanish. (He learned Spanish many years ago.) Hopefully they’ll go down well.

        Have a great weekend!

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline September 17, 2021 at 9:05am Reply

  • Marianne: Victoria, thank you for this rich and enlightening thread. Once again I’m reminded that I’m not an oddity, my lovely family and even friends generally responding to my deep interest and love of scent with tolerant mystification! The only book i have is Luca Turin’s The Emperor of Scent. I’ve read it with alacrity even though the science needed my full concentration. Between you and Tourmaline I now have a pathway to delightful learning. September 10, 2021 at 10:31pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I want to read Barbara Herman’s book. September 10, 2021 at 10:58pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Can you believe it: the Harold McGee book Nose Dive is available for € 3,99 in Kindle edition?! I obviously bought it yet slightly sad, that a book with more than 700 pages is sold for € 4, making one page worth exactly € 0,0057.
    Anyway: I shall now cast aside this shadow and enjoy the contents of the book! As I would probably never have stumbled over it, many thanks to you, Victoria, for the recommendation! September 12, 2021 at 4:44am Reply

    • Tourmaline: Hi OnWingsofSaffron,

      Thanks for the tip! The Kindle edition is $19.99 in Australian dollars, which is not bad for a 763-page book. It’s on my shopping list for next payday!

      With kind regards,
      Tourmaline September 12, 2021 at 6:22am Reply

      • Tourmaline: P. S.

        The old book by G. W. S. Piesse, which I mentioned above, is available in a Kindle version for free. “The Book of Perfumes” (1865) by Eugène Rimmel, is available for $9.91. September 12, 2021 at 6:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t understand this pricing either. I bought a hardcover version of the book, since I know that I will use it often. September 12, 2021 at 8:06am Reply

  • Janet: I highly recommend Perfume by Neil Chapman. He reviews many perfumes, both old and new, and groups them into divisions such as “spices,” “green,” “gourmand,” etc. But the best thing here is that Chapman is a hell of a writer and, at times, hysterically funny. I basically stopped everything to finish this book; probably my favorite perfume book of all. September 15, 2021 at 7:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Janet! Neil Chapman is a talented writer. September 18, 2021 at 8:33am Reply

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