on February 23, 2008
First I read "Emperor of Scent", but this is totally different from 'Burr's prior work on the world of fragrance. This one is an easy quick read (I finished it in a single day), but also addictive - you bounce back and forth from Paris and Jean-Claude Ellena's story of Hermes' "Jardin sur le Nil" and New York, where Burr see first-hand how Coty works with Sarah Jessica Parker to create "Lovely". Francophiles will delight in the liberal use of French phrasing and direct quotes (always translated), which gives a wonderful sense of place to the Paris/Grasse side of the story. The New York story is a mini biography of SJP herself - who turns out to be an incredibly likeable and compelling woman with a great sense of self.
I was also intrigued at the idea that fragrances were all unisex until the early 20th century - prior to then, men and women wore what they liked, rather than what was 'marketed' to them. And finally, finally! I understand why the majority of American fragrances smell the same to me - because they ARE the same (common ingredients in standard proportions)... and also why French perfumes are so vastly different.... and most interestingly, perhaps, is a wonderful and insightful discussion of "naturals" vs. "synthetics" in fragrance, which has forever altered my perspective on what is a 'quality' ingredient.
The only reason I gave the book for stars instead of five is honestly because the very end of the book felt rushed - felt incomplete. Given that it started life as an article in the New Yorker, I'm not surprised... articles and books have different requirements for endings. But I was very sorry to see the creative process that brought Parker's latest fragrance, Covet, to market in 2007 given only a paragraph in the end (though the origins are clearly visible throughout the early creative process and then meetings where IFF is trying to discern Parker's scent preferences. It would have been a nice coda to the original story, or perhaps to weave the Covet story throughout.
I bought the book on the strength of Burr's earlier work, and those who used it (as I did) as a virtual shopping list of fragrances to try will find this book an even better resource. And for the record, Jardin sur le Nil is one of my favorite fragrances, along with Jardin Mediterran and the newly-released Kelly Caleche. I am not a big fan of Lovely - but Parker's personal favorite scents are some of my own, and I also wear Covet on a regular basis... and now I will look forward to her next release, which I hope will have that 'dirty' feel she's been wanting to put out there from the beginning...
If you are intimidated by whippet-thin, well coiffed, stylish clerks at the cosmetics counters or simply wish to learn more about an industry that sells dreams, Mr. Burr peels back some of the layers of marketing and spin put out by the perfume industry. Over the course of about a year, he follows the NY-based production of a contemporary fragrance issued under Sarah Jessica Parker's name and the Paris-based building of a "scent image" for the ultra protective Hermes house. He discusses the pros and cons of natural vs. synthetic ingredients, schools you in how fragrances are designed and described and sheds light into the reclusive, spotlight-shunning world of the trained perfumers who build the fragrances that fuel the industry. A bit of gossip, some dish on his disdain for any of the Hugo Boss products, a reveal on that final marketing push to capture the eye and nose of the media and public. A quick read, funny and a good introduction that makes you want to run the gauntlet of fragrance-spitzing women at the local Nordstroms, Sephora or Macy's to see what he speaks of.
on June 8, 2009
I'm of two minds with Chandler Burr. He seems to have unprecedented access to perfume industry insiders, and the kind of personality, perseverance, and patience that it takes to deal with difficult types that seem to permeate the entire field. He can get information out of scientists in chem labs, celebrities, artists, and high-powered executives, so he must be adept at asking the right questions and tolerating ridiculous egos.
He fills this book with so many interesting tidbits about perfume and scent that I have frequently quoted from it when trying to make a point about fragrance to a friend or colleague. I love the bits of science that are injected into this book, the overviews of molecules and their uses in many industries. The information is so fun (and for me, mind-boggling), that I have read the book several times.
That said, his writing style drives me just about batty. I get so tired of his sentences structure, his fragments that are meant to drive home a point, that I have to stop reading every few pages and put the book down. As other reviewers have noted, he is slightly obsessed with describing exactly how each and every individual is dressed (always to the nines, no matter what); on one hand, this can get a bit grating, but on the other, it does help the reader visualize and mentally sort all of the players in these stories. If you speak French, you may be thrilled with the French sentences that are inserted every other paragraph or so. If you do not speak French, you might still find these delightful, as they are helpfully translated. If you are a grumpy person like me, you might wonder if Burr isn't showing off just a wee bit.
If you are interested in fragrance, this book is a must-read. Don't let the fact that Burr has some rather startling pronouncements about smells terrify you - he might be wrong.
on February 14, 2008
I came to this as a fan of Chandler Burr's fragrance reviews already, some of which I've clipped out not because I wanted to try the fragrance, but because the language is both so gorgeous and precise at the same time. So I came to this book with a great deal of anticipation and was not disappointed. It reads like a novel, with great characters and plot, and the world of perfume making is so exotic and unlike anything I can ever imagine that there is something intriguing and interesting on every page. Fun to read, full of great facts (okay, you can use them to impress your friends, I'll admit that) and if you love perfume...or just stories of those who are passionate about what they do...it's a terrific read.
I enjoyed reading the first 100 page of this. I don't buy expensive perfume but instead indulge in niche perfume companies. So it is interesting to me to see how higher end perfume houses work. I never knew that most luxury brands didn't make their own perfumes in house. Hermes does and that is what half this book is about. Many companies don't have much or any hand in the creative process, the same with celebs that slap their name on perfume to make some money. This is what the other half of the book is about. I enjoyed knowing Sarah Jessica Parker's real taste in perfume (vetiver, sweat, masculine notes, resin) very in tune with my tastes and then saddened that Lovely and her other perfumes ended up fresh, floral, light creations that really aren't her taste, but they sell. I found out perfume houses don't make perfume for skin anymore, they put it on paper and sniff. I also learned about the science of perfumery.
Then the second part deviates into gossip about how crappy drugstore perfumes are, what people are wearing (and how good or bad it is), how Americans and the French men have no taste in perfume and how natural perfumes aren't as good as synthetics (he never goes into how toxic some synthetic molecules can be). It is like his voice changed from being a journalist to being the end all, be all judge of perfumes and fashion. All the catty stuff could have been cut out to make a tighter, more serious study.
The twist of The Perfect Scent is that since the market, especially in the US, is geared to the same boring clean scents, the wonderful perfumes created in France that are truly unique are locked away, like jewels in a crown only the perfumers sniff. But this is not their fault. It is more the industry's fault to not accept a bigger variety. So perfect scents are locked up like fair maidens in a tower, seen by very few knights.
on July 14, 2011
Good book with many interesting observations on perfume industry. It lacks broader perspective, though. On the other hand, Burr doesn't promise to offer one (but it would be helpful if he did). Basically, it is what you would expect from the busy reporting journalist who is trying to understand and describe how the business works, but he depends mainly on the information from other people (and doesn't have time or opportunities to make conclusions). Still, he is the first one who tried to get such information from perfumery companies.
Personal note: I found quite irritating Burr's constant admiration of Sarah Jessica Parker (YES, WE GET IT! She is not like the other celebrities).
Kindle version is ok (there are no pictures or tables).
on September 14, 2009
I have been fascinated with perfume in general since the age of 10, and I very much enjoyed Suskind's Perfume: Story of a Murderer, so I was delighted to come across an ARC of The Perfect Scent.
The book was full of information about many sides of the perfume industry, of which the general consumer has no clue. Though I love scent, I had never given much thought to the agonizing process of creating it, naming it, packaging it, and marketing it. I more or less took it for granted that some content team of chemists in white coats mixed a drop of this and a dab of that from cool glass pipettes and voila!
The book tends to drag in the middle third as Burr gets into the scientific technicalities. My eyes glazed over when I got to the lists of ethyl this and benzone that. Somewhere, my high school chemistry teacher is laughing.
The most interesting part of the book for me was SJP's involvement in the creation of her scent, Lovely (which I am now determined to samlple). I had always suspected that the celebrities of celeb perfumes were nothing but a name and picture, and this book confirmed that suspicion. SJP is an exception, and I have a new-found respect for her.
I cringed at times, particularly at Burr's description of animalics (comparing one of them to various odiferous body parts of a man). Though he says "there's simply no other way to describe it," I think surely there must have been. My other beef with the writing style is the repetition and overuse of extremes like "exquisite" and "extraordinarily." These words lose their power when used on every other page.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, feel somewhat enlightened, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the inner workings of the fragrance industry.
THE PERFECT SCENT: A YEAR INSIDE THE PERFUME INDUSTRY IN PARIS AND NEW YORK by Chandler Burr (Henry Holt & Co., 2007) is something of an astonishing, careening ride through the modern world of perfume. Burr, a perfume critic (oh, yes, we do exist) is a rather highfalutin' one who writes for someone or other.
In this interesting, sometimes comical double adventure, Burr writes of Jean-Claude Ellena, parfumeur extraordinaire and his quest for a perfect perfume to launch what would become the Hermès signature scent line. (Famous for using around 20 scent molecules while others use between 100-200, Ellena's latest grand works are the big hit Terre D'Hermès, and his newest lavender beauty, Brin de Réglisse - the feature of Hermès' long-planned line, Hermèssence fragrances.) Interwoven every other chapter is a blow-by-blow account of Sarah Jessica Parker's original venture into the creation of a scent (Lovely, by Coty).
And I must admit: I admire Parker for the fact that she follows and directs every phase of her perfume deign. Fashion designers who put out perfume and cologne, the author notes, have no idea what their scents smell like.
Burr makes this adventure well worth the while on every level. He shatters the mythos that designers somehow create their scents, and Burr shatters with precision. Hence his exquisite profile of Ellena, once a "ghost" parfumeur and now a well-deserved international star. These bloodhound-nosed masters, master chemists and creative engines, are usually kept in a cage, in the dark, locked in the back. This book is a refreshing perfume in itself, exposing how a perfumer (Ellena, no one else would talk) thinks, works, creates and it even spells out the process/materials.
Far less interesting is his jaunt with Sarah Jessica Parker, who in any event comes across as a remarkable and nice person. She has specific ideas for what will become Lovely and as we know, has a few perfumes out there today. It is in this aspect that Burr does his best work, clearly and beautifully exposing the market trends, their study, the strangely archaic thinking of the major houses. When Burr is not gently lampooning them, he is fiercely criticizing sub-par perfumes (and, here and there, colognes).
Jean-Claude Ellena's story is about his hiring into the House of Hermès to become their very own in-house parfumeur - and the nerve-wracking design/building of the dazzling scent that is known as Un Jardin sur le Nil (A Garden on the Nile - the second of Ellena's "Jardin" series and the first of the series now belonging to Hermès). During this part of his narrative, Burr skewers the ridiculous marketing research and development for such a major launch - and most refreshing is Burr's inclusion of other parfumeurs' viewpoints about the whole industry.
One brilliant side of this book - the flip-side of the author's obsession with the smell of cleaning products - is his critique of the most weak, superficial perfumes of the era. He boils this down, complaining that everything is floral, sweet, musk and laundry detergent. He is correct. Burr provides us with the list of the top perfumes for a couple of years, and looking at the latest list in comparison to this book, today we have the new launches of Sensuous Nude by Estee Lauder; L'Essence (the latest iteration of Paris) by Balenciaga; Jasmin Noir by Bulgari, and the one-note wonder, the Calabrian jasmine-scented Acqua di Parma by Gelsomino Nobile.
All fine works, all within the ranges of the criticism you'll find in this book. (My personal favorites: j'adore by Dior and Lovestruck by Vera Wang. It all puts me in mind of the author's evil-minded dismissal of my personal scent, Aramis eau de cologne.)
If I have any qualm at all it is Burr's slightly lacking writing abilities, viz., he writes too often about things which he understands little, and shows certain personal eccentricities which seem unforgivable in a book of this nature. I.e., Burr does not hide his homosexuality and I praise him to the skies for that. However, in writing about certain scents, he goes a little over the top in his descriptions of things that ought not be described in ANY company.
That is just the old curmudgeon in me; the book really is excellent.
Anyone with a true passion for perfume must read this truly entertaining, important work. Burr has done something never before accomplished, and I fear - unless he graces us in future with his collected critique articles - we won't see its like again. A final word: do get this in paperback, because the original hardback edition is so cheap that even now my pages are falling out of it.
For all of my old-man's-complaints I deducted one star.
on May 4, 2011
I have never read anything by Burr before but perhaps if I had, I would have known what I was getting into and thought twice about purchasing this book. I didn't think The Perfect Scent would be about so much about the author. For me, it was too much Burr opinion and story and that took away from the interesting and factual parts of the book. Also, almost every grown man in this book is described as "boyish" and I found that irritating. If I had purchased the paper version instead of the Kindle version there is no way I would have finished The Perfect Scent. Read through a couple of random pages at the book store before buying...
on January 20, 2014
Perfume is a hobby of mine. If I was speaking solely to perfumistas, I would give this book 5 stars just for the information. But I’m assuming this is for the general public who might just want to learn more about perfume. About 60 pages into this book, I said “I can’t take it anymore, I’m done.” I picked it back up and was glad I did. There is wealth of fantastic information I haven’t read elsewhere, for instance: The players in the perfume industry; How perfume is made and how perfumers work; The role of synthetics in perfume; The just plain weirdness / dysfunction in how the industry functions. That’s just a few.
The problem with this book is that it’s very mish mash, going into different directions out of nowhere. There’s also way too much information, stuff repeated that we already heard, or things that needed to be culled to avoid information overload. Also, Burr is a good but not great writer. He’s very smart and it’s impressive how he can move in various unknown (to me) worlds, but he comes off as a little show-offy and indulgent. There are great riffs with Sarah Jessica Parker and fun asides that are modern and quirky, but then there are parts that are just annoying and persnickety. I’m not a big New Yorker magazine fan, and I can see how one of the two parts started off as a New Yorker piece. Too much information and “Hey, look how smart I am!”
I ended up scanning the last 60 pages. This book should have been edited better. Do we really need to know about Sarah Jessica Parker’s next launch, and hear even more perfume formulas/details? One last thing: For a book so about aesthetics, the design of the paperback is awful – laminated cover that goes into a permanent bend, and too-small font I guess to make it seem like a reasonable length.