Top positive review
16 people found this helpful
Fact-filled and fascinating
on 5 November 2009
170,000 bottles of perfume are sold in France every single day. Chanel 'No.5' is known to some in the fragrance world as 'le monstre' because of its unshakeable hold on bestseller lists. Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy are owned by the same parent company, LVMH, which incidentally, also owns Sephora, Louis Vuitton, Moët and Hennessy. If you didn't know these facts - and if such things interest you - then you really ought to pick up a copy of 'The Perfect Scent', Chandler Burr's fascinating and thoroughly engrossing account of the creation of two very different perfumes.
On America's East Coast, Sarah Jessica Parker - standing at the front of a surprisingly large team - is the public face of a convoluted process which eventually results in the production of the well-regarded 'Lovely'. Meanwhile, in France, one of the undisputed masters of the craft, Jean-Claude Ellena, starts mixing his fragrant potions to put together what becomes 'Un Jardin Sur Le Nil' for the house of Hermès. Burr is granted complete access to all the key meetings which lead to the creation of these two very different scents and uses his insights to tell the story of how an idea eventually becomes a packaged bottle on a shelf in a department store. He intersperses this tale not only with well-summarised and readable accounts of the industry's history, but also with discussions of the merits of chemical ingredients versus natural and an examination of the current structure and state of the perfume market. Needless to say, he finds time to throw in a fair amount of glamour too, with acerbic descriptions of glitzy parties, lavish launches and deliciously eccentric characters.
Burr certainly makes a very knowledgeable and trustworthy guide through the elusive, fiendishly difficult-to-describe world of scent and this book is a must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in the liquid poems that millions of people around the world spray on their skin. His prose is well equipped to convey the olfactory sensation of experiencing perfumes, especially when he's describing those he doesn't particularly care for, like all of Hugo Boss' products: "If a cat had morning breath, then ate kibble, then licked its ..., then licked your hand, it would smell like this." However, his ability to create unusual imagery does sometimes lead him astray and there are several ill-judged descriptive passages, not least one in which smoking rooms in French workplaces are called "filthy little Dachau gas chambers." More importantly - and this is a problem which Burr tacitly recognises - he doesn't always remove himself from the story as much as he should. His set-pieces tend to work better - and are less nebulous - when he adopts the stance of a fly on the wall, but when he indulges in lengthy descriptions of his own activities - as in the case of a pointless account of arriving at a Paris hotel - he loses sight of the fact that we're much more interested in the subject than in the writer.
One could also argue that the story of 'Lovely' isn't necessarily typical of celebrity fragrances: Sarah Jessica Parker was - unlike other famous names - genuinely interested in the creation of her perfume and had firm ideas about its construction. But 'The Perfect Scent' contains enough intelligence and clear-thinking to render this problem unimportant. From start to finish, it is an absorbing dissection of a little-known world where the tension between artistry, chemistry and economics frequently manages to produce ravishing, memorable beauty.