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…"
That is perfect. It's casual and indirect but uncannily precise: a little poem about a glossy scent. There are hundreds of equally inspired passages in Perfumes: The Guide, though not all of them are quite so terse. Here is Turin's full review of a perfume called Sacrebleu: "If you travel at night on Europe's railways, near big stations you can sometimes see lights the size a teacup nestled between the rails, shining the deepest mystical blue-purple light through a filthy Fresnel glass. They appear to be permanently on, suggesting that the message they convey the train driver is an eternal truth. Since childhood I have fancied the notion that it may not be a trivial one like 'Buffers ahead' but something numinous and unrelated to duty, perhaps 'Life is beautiful' or some such. Sacrebleu has the exact feel of those lights, a low hum that may be eclipsed by diurnal clamor but rules supreme when, at 3 a.m., you know you're looking into your true love's eyes even though you can't see them." I don't know what Sacrebleu smells like, but I'll bet he's right.
Those are some of the raves. The denunciations tend to be quick and deadly, like a serpent's bite. One perfume is described as "a shrill little floral that feels like music heard through someone else's headphones," and another begins, "The bathrooms in hell smell like this." And sometimes the authors seem to drift a little, and so much the better. Here is the entirety of Tania Sanchez's notes on Dior Addict—one of my very favorite short reviews ever written about anything: "I liked it very much in Macy's when I went there drunk one day, and told everyone afterward I found the perfect bourbon vanilla with orange blossom, as if it'd been a life quest. Sadly the bourbon was all me."
As with wine, again, perfume worship is wide open to snobbery and pretense. And, yes, it's all a matter of taste, but then, so are many things that matter. I should report that Turin and Sanchez have a preference for Chanel and Guerlain, but that strikes me as a reasonable call; and they decry most celebrity fragrances, but they're not against the idea altogether. Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely earns some real praise, even David Beckham's Intimately gets a few compliments, and Britney Spears' Believe gets a higher rating than Lalique's Le Perfum. (Of the latter: "Vile, cheap, obnoxiously chemical, it sits somewhere between Allure and Amarige. I hope to live long enough to see this sort of faceless dreck wiped off the face of the earth. Nice bottle.") And they hold Stetson, of all things, in especially high regard. ("It's gorgeous," Sanchez writes, "as rugged and masculine as the lingerie level at Saks Fifth Avenue, and about ten bucks per ounce.")
It's hard not to keep quoting from Perfume, but I'll stop here. It's hard, too, to keep from complimenting it, so I'll include one small complaint. The book is organized somewhat haphazardly: Perfumes are listed in alphabetical order, but there's no index to speak of, and if you're looking for an easy way to find, say, all the perfumes by Bulgari, or all the florals, or even to distinguish the men's fragrances from the women's, you're out of luck. I hope this will be corrected in the next edition. I hope there will be a next edition. There are hundreds of new fragrances introduced every year. I have no interest in smelling them all, but I'm looking forward to reading about them.
Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.