The Sweet Smell of Success
The mysterious art of writing about perfume.
Some years ago, I dated a French economics student named Ariane, a woman of many charms and qualities, among them a flawless and effortlessly elegant sense of taste. Not so much in men, perhaps, since I was somewhat callous and louche at that age, but in furniture, clothing, jewelry: things like that. What's more, she wore a fragrance so gorgeous—rich, worldly, slightly concupiscent—that I can still call it clearly to mind. It was my first intimate experience of the art of perfume, more specifically, of the supreme magic and high style of Chanel. We all have a catalog of ineffaceable memories: Mine includes the scent of Coco on a black cashmere scarf, encountered on the wintry streets of the Upper West Side. I would wear the stuff myself if I thought I could get away with it.
There are thousands of perfumes on the market. They're as manifold and distinct as wines but far more important to get right. Which, after all, is more likely to spoil your meal: a bad cabernet in your own glass, or a bad perfume or cologne on anyone in the room? Besides, the mystery of wine is mitigated by an enormous wing of writing: histories, guidebooks, magazines, Web sites. Not so with scent; there's almost nothing to steer the novice. At least, there hasn't been until now.
Now there's a book called Perfumes: The Guide, by the husband and wife team of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, which is not just enlightening, but beautifully written, brilliant, often very funny, and occasionally profound. In fact, it's as vivid as any criticism I've come across in the last few years, and what's more a revelation: part history, part swoon, part plaint. All of the other reading I was supposed to do was put aside while I went through it, and it took me some time to finish, in part because I was savoring it and in part because I kept stopping to copy out passages to e-mail off to friends. In the library of books both useful and delightful, it deserves a place on the shelves somewhere between Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies and Brillat-Savarin's incomparable Physiology of Taste. It's not the first book on scent as an industry and an aesthetic, and it's not the most obvious, but it's a real original and almost equal in epicurean pleasure to the substance that inspired it.
Consider, for example, a fragrance by Robert Piguet called Fracas, another scent I love, though I couldn't begin to explain what it smells like or why it appeals to me. The professional vocabulary of perfumers tilts in two directions: the generic (amber, citrus, floral), and the technical (beta-santalol, aldehydes). One is vague and the other is opaque; both are insufficient. By contrast, here is how Luca Turin begins his review of Fracas: "A friend once explained to me how Ferrari achieves that gorgeous red: first paint the car silver, then six coats of red, then a coat of transparent pink varnish…"
Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.