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The best books on Perfume

recommended by Denise Hamilton

The author guides us through the intoxicating world of the perfumer, from ancient Egypt to wartime Paris – and explains what Guerlain meant when he said his fragrances contained a whiff of his mistress's bottom

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Denise Hamilton

Denise Hamilton writes crime novels. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity, Anthony and Willa Cather awards. Previously, she was a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times where she continues to write a perfume column, Uncommon Scents. Her most recent novel is Damage Control, whose heroine is a perfume aficionado

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Denise Hamilton

Denise Hamilton writes crime novels. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity, Anthony and Willa Cather awards. Previously, she was a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times where she continues to write a perfume column, Uncommon Scents. Her most recent novel is Damage Control, whose heroine is a perfume aficionado

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Why have people been so drawn to perfume down the ages? Is it because of the belief that we can make people desire us if we smell a certain way?

Perfume literally means “through the smoke”, from the Latin per fumus. As practised by the ancient Egyptians, perfume was initially religious and ritualistic in nature. It was burned in temples as an offering to the Gods. The resins that made up perfume – rare flower essences, myrrh and frankincense – were very expensive. In the Bible, the three wise men brought gifts of frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. They were on a par with gold. To burn these precious unguents and offer them to the Gods was one of the highest sacrifices and offerings that you could make. Paradoxically, in addition to being a religious offering perfume was also considered an aphrodisiac. There were perfumes made to attract the opposite sex, to make people fall in love with you. So from ancient times perfume has had a dual function.

I think that in ancient times – perhaps when our sense of smell was more important – perfume had a place of higher honour in society. Today, smell is probably the least appreciated and used of all our five senses. Perfume had its heyday in the early 20th century, when big firms like Guerlain, Caron and Chanel were making perfumes that were widely sought after and very expensive. The importance of perfume in society has diminished. But now artisanal, niche, independent perfumers are picking up where the classic French noses left off in the mid-20th century. They are bringing perfume into a post-modern era. They’re using the skills that the early perfumers used, to create perfumes that use a classic base but are also very modernistic.

I’m surprised to hear you say it has diminished in importance. Isn’t this a $10bn industry, and don’t most women nowadays wear perfume?

A lot of people do wear perfume. There has been a rise in drugstore and department store perfumes, many of which use chemicals and synthetics. There has been a backlash against that, because more and more people are allergic. Many workplaces are now fragrance free. But there are now people who are rediscovering the lost art of perfumery, both as creators and as consumers of perfume. There’s a huge online world of perfume blogs. There are sites where you can buy tiny sample vials of 80-year-old perfumes – Chanels or Guerlains that don’t even exist anymore.

“There are so many mediocre perfumes out there that when you smell one that really knocks your socks off, there’s an intelligence behind it that one can grasp.”

Many people don’t know that if perfume is stored properly, away from heat and light, an 80-year-old perfume can be completely intact and absolutely stunning. Perfume has to interact with warm skin and your skin oils. If you smell a bottle of old perfume you may think, “Oh my god, this is rancid, it’s gone, I have to dump it.” The reality is it might still be good. There have been times that I’ve put on a perfume which I bought at an antique shop and thought “Ughh, this smells like vinegar.” Then I go to bed, wake up at two in the morning and think “What is that amazing smell?” It’s the perfume that I thought was no good which has bloomed on my skin, as it moves into the middle and the basenotes. That is when substances like ambergris, musk, vanilla and civet bloom. Some of those substances are very hard to find in nature today.

Ambergris, for example, comes from whales. It’s the secretion of a [sperm] whale’s stomach when it has swallowed something that it cannot digest. It vomits this stuff up, which then floats on the ocean water for years and years, baked by the sun, before it washes up on shore. It’s gelatinous and grey and looks like jellyfish, and it’s worth thousands and thousands of dollars. The problem today is there are very few whales, so there is little natural ambergris. It’s the same with musk, which originally came from Tibetan musk deer. They’re endangered, almost extinct. You’re not allowed to kill them and extract the musk pod, which is located near the anal gland. That’s a good thing. Nonetheless, when you smell these 80-year-old perfumes there is a depth and a resonance to them. When they bloom on your skin, it’s like a genie coming out of a bottle. It’s this glamorous woman from a bygone era who takes shape slowly out of the smoke before you, and it’s absolutely intoxicating.

OK, I’m beginning to see what you mean by the lost art of perfumery.

I do think of perfume as an art form. It’s as eminently worthy of being studied and appreciated as painting, music or sculpture. This is a relatively new idea, but some niche perfumers have become almost like rock stars. When the French perfumer Frederic Malle appears at Barneys [luxury department store], people come. They buy bottles of his perfume – which can be over $200 (£130) – and they have him sign the bottle. There’s a growing recognition that the perfumers really are artists. When I interview perfumers that work today, they talk not about making a perfume but about composing it. They talk about seeing the perfume in their mind’s eye. Then they have to hold that image in their brain and start mixing the ingredients.

A lot of them seek inspiration around the world. Olivia Giacobetti, for example, is a very well known modernistic French perfumer. She talks about going to Japan and taking a piece of incense from a Japanese temple, because she wants to recreate the smell of the wood that was burning. She talks of going to West Africa and picking up bark from a tree and smelling it. Inspiration is everywhere. There are so many mediocre perfumes out there that when you smell one that really knocks your socks off, there’s an intelligence behind it that one can grasp. It’s like following a musical score. It makes sense on an intellectual as well as a creative and artistic level. The one person who has done more than anyone else to create this renaissance of awareness about perfume and perfumers, and to get people to look at it as a true art form, is a man called Luca Turin.

Let’s start with his book then: Perfumes, the A-Z Guide.

Luca Turin and his wife Tania Sanchez wrote this A-Z guide to perfume. Open it up on any page, start reading and it’s just brilliant. It’s funny, it’s snarky. For example, Turin and his wife compare one perfume, “Diorella” by Christian Dior, to a Vietnamese beef salad. He slams on perfumes by Paris Hilton. His one-sentence review of her perfume “Can Can” is “Can it, by all means”. Luca Turin is a brilliant scientist, and has come up with his own theory about where our sense of smell comes from. Because nobody really knows. We know how we see and how we hear, but the sense of smell remains mysterious. And yet smell seems to trigger incredibly intense, emotional memories of the past – of our mother putting on perfume, of aged aunts coming by, of fur coats, even of bad things that have happened to us. Perfume is a memory trigger. I’m fascinated by perfume both as an intellectual study and as a purely aesthetic, hedonistic thing.

How did you get interested in perfume in the first place?

My mother was a White Russian. Her family settled in Nice in southern France, and she grew up there and came to America after World War II. As a proper French lady, she always had a shelf of perfumes in our bathroom. She wore “Chanel No. 5”, “Je Reviens” by Worth, Dior, Yves St Laurent, Madame Rochas and Femme. As a little girl I was fascinated. They were beautiful crystal bottles, and she allowed me to bring them down very carefully and indulge myself by spritzing away. Many days when I was little and wandering around the house bored, I would end up in the bathroom with all these bottles, looking at the labels, spraying, dabbing, taking baths with the bath oils. So from very early on I was fascinated by the richness of perfume. It was a very pleasurable thing, like eating an ice cream cone. It triggered some kind of pleasure sensor in my brain. When I started dating I would steal my mother’s perfume, and eventually I started buying my own. I grew up with perfume. It was part of my psychological, sensual landscape.

But what really made me fall down the rabbit hole into Alice in Wonderland was going to the Goodwill [store] one day. I found a perfume called “Chaos” by Donna Karan. I spritzed a little on my wrist and thought, “Ooh! That’s very spicy and incense, it reminds me of Roman Catholic high mass.” I was intrigued by it, and so I googled it. I found it was a discontinued, highly sought-after perfume which was fetching $280 (£180) per bottle on eBay. I liked it even more after that. I also thought, “I can sell this on eBay myself and make some money.” So I ran back to the Goodwill and bought it, thinking I was going to sell it. I didn’t get around to it. It just sat on my dresser. Every morning I would spritz it, sniff and think, “Gosh! There’s something about this perfume.” I went online and started to read about the notes.

There’s a wonderful site called Basenotes. It tells you the individual notes of a perfume, when it was created, who was the perfumer and whether it’s still in production. People also post reviews, some of which are very erudite. The more I read about “Chaos” the more I puzzled, “What is it about this perfume that people just go nuts about?” On the fifth day I sprayed some on, and I got it all of a sudden. I never sold it. It’s still on my dresser in its little box, because you want to keep it away from the sun. That was the start. Then I started exploring perfumes with other notes.

Another wonderful site is The Perfumed Court, where you can buy tiny one millilitre vials of any perfume, including discontinued, rare, vintage ones. If you’re curious and don’t want to buy a whole bottle, you can buy a sample of Chanel’s “Cuir de Russie”, which is Russian leather and can only be bought at Chanel boutiques. I started buying and swapping perfume samples with other like-minded souls. For a couple of years, that was my secret obsession. I slowly amassed a gigantic collection of perfumes. I don’t even know how many I have. It’s in the hundreds. I read everything I can about it. I read what other people are writing about different perfumes, and that led me to the Luca Turin book. I’ve pretty much memorised it. I can look at a bottle with no label and tell you exactly what it is.

Tell me more about the book. In it he reviews more than 1,000 fragrances?

The book is really a Bible for the perfumista. What I like to do is to dab on something and then read the reviews. I usually start with the review in the Guide. I don’t always agree with what Luca Turin says, and many people I know don’t agree with him, but he is a very important baseline. He brings such a breadth of historic, esoteric and aesthetic knowledge about each perfume, and he gives you the background of it. If you’re interested in perfume it’s a really great place to start, because you can look up your favourites and see what he says about them. It’s like having the Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica of perfume at your fingertips.

Turin is just brilliant. He’s French and Italian, became fascinated with scents and perfume, and would seek out rare and old vintages and write about them. Somehow he persuaded someone to publish it as a book. There’s also a wonderful biography of him, The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, the former perfume critic for The New York Times and probably the second most influential person to publicise perfumery today.

So what would you call Turin? Is he a perfume critic?

He was a scientist, but he had an obsession about perfume and was able to write brilliantly about it, to synthesise in two paragraphs the essence of what a perfume smells like. He’s actually not writing about perfume anymore now. The thing about perfume criticism is that it’s a very new field. It doesn’t necessarily have its own vocabulary. It’s difficult to write about perfume without using the other senses. You can say that a perfume smells like ambergris, or it has notes of cherry almond marzipan, but in writing about the sense of smell there’s a paucity of vocabulary. You’re forced to talk about what it tastes like, or what kind of fruit it evokes. Or that it has a petrol note to it. Luca Turin was the first person to wrestle with this issue and write about perfume beautifully. People argue about his reviews, but he has brought a recognition to the field that is extremely important. He is the tsar of perfume, whether you agree with him or not. But I don’t want to downplay the contributions of Tania Sanchez. They worked together on the book and each did half the reviews.

Your next choice is a novel, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

This is probably the best-known work of fiction about perfume and the perfume industry. It’s a crime novel by a German author which was also made into a movie. It’s a very lush, richly imagined book. It just bursts with sensuality and the smells of Paris in the 18th century. And not just good smells, but also the smell of raw sewage running in the streets, or of horse manure. It’s about a lowly orphan boy who happens to be gifted with the olfactory equivalent of perfect pitch. He apprentices with perfume makers. He’s a very odd creature, and eventually he decides that he wants to create a perfume that will make people do his bidding. It will be so stupendous that it will overwhelm people and he can rule the world with this perfume. What he decides it must contain is the essence of a young virgin that he follows around. I don’t want to give too much away…

Let’s just say he’s driven to murder.

Yes, and in the process we are showered with olfactory images of all kinds. We’re taken inside the laboratories of the early French perfumers. He explains distillation and enfleurage. We go to Grasse in southern France where perfumers grow fields of roses and irises and jasmine. It’s very romantic. Süskind is deft at slipping in the technical processes of perfume-making in a very natural way. We never feel we’re getting a lecture on how to make perfume, it’s woven seamlessly into the story. It’s a wonderfully engaging novel.

I remember the book made quite a splash when it came out, I suppose because it’s so unusual to have a novel so entirely focused on the sense of smell?

It was definitely an interesting twist on the old murder mystery. Also, perfume has always been imbued with magical, supernatural powers. Potions have been sold since ancient times promising that if you wear this unguent, men or women will find you irresistible.

There isn’t much scientific evidence for that, is there? In one of your columns you mention that when they tested out scents on men, the smells they were most aroused by included pumpkin pie and liquorice.

From time to time, scientists do studies. I don’t know how rigorous they are. The study I was referencing in my column was a very small sample, only about 30 people. There was also a study that said if you wear a grapefruit perfume, men will think you’re 10 to 15 years younger than you really are. There’s all sorts of silly studies. I don’t think there’s proof either way. Among the perfumistas of the world, we often joke that the biggest aphrodisiac for men is the smell of bacon. And nobody really wants to slather themselves in a bacon-scented perfume. Although there is one – “Lonestar Memories” by Tauer Perfumes, a wonderful niche perfumer – that does have a barbecue tang to it.

So one idea is that men are attracted to smells that remind them of food. The other is that it’s the pheromones, which in animals attract the opposite sex. But it hasn’t been proven that if you put pheromones into perfume it will attract people. In coming years I think scientists are going to study this more, and it may emerge that it does have some basis in fact. Studies have been done about sweat, and there is something about the hormones that are excreted in sweat that is attractive to the opposite sex. Which brings us to the idea of stinky notes in perfumery – the dirty notes.

Yes, tell me about those.

The classic French perfume houses – Guerlain, Caron, Coty – in addition to floral essences or ambergris or vanilla always added a tiny bit of darkness, whether it was civet or musk. I call it the skanky note in perfumery. Some people call it the poop note. It can smell cuminy, like human sweat. The idea is that when you bake, for instance, every recipe calls for a pinch of salt to heighten the sweetness. It’s the same thing in perfume. It was Jacques Guerlain who famously said that he put a little bit of the essence of his mistress’s backside in every perfume. There is something to that. A lot of perfumes have a bit of an animalistic smell to them that people find compelling. You don’t want it to be too strong though.

So when Lady Gaga proposes making a perfume that smells of blood and semen, that’s going too far?

Yes, and her idea isn’t even new. There’s already a perfume out there that smells like blood and semen. It’s called “Secretions Magnifiques”. Very edgy.

Do you like it?

It’s horrid. But did I want to smell it? Absolutely. If someone says, “I’ve got this perfume that smells like blood and semen,” you recoil but at the same time you reply, “Ooh can I smell it?” I was just at a mystery convention in St Louis, and I brought some vials of different perfumes for mystery authors I know who are also avid perfume people. One was a guy who wanted to smell “Secretions Magnifiques”. He put some on, and then he was moaning about it the whole day, saying “I can’t wash it off! It smells disgusting! I think I got it on my shirt, what am I going to do?” It’s not actually as bad as you might expect. It’s milky, it’s metallic, it’s a little bit rank.

Speaking of mysteries, let’s talk about Ruth Rendell’s The Rottweiler. How does perfume come into this book?

In my latest book, Damage Control, the main character is a perfumista. I talk about perfumes and I made perfume a clue in the book. I thought I was being so clever. I had never read a book that had perfume as a clue. But after I turned the book in I did more research, and to my shock and horror mystery authors have been using perfume and smell as a clue since Sherlock Holmes. In Agatha Christie’s novel Mrs McGintys Dead, the murderer actually sprays someone else’s perfume in the room to throw off the scent of the murderer. So it’s been used many times. I chose Ruth Rendell’s book because it’s a perfect example of using perfume in mysteries. She’s a wonderful, psychologically acute, dark writer, with very clever plots. I don’t want to give too much away, but perfume is a trigger in the book.

Ruth Rendell also really knows her perfume lore. She talks about perfumes that have been discontinued and then brought back to the market. This is something that happens frequently in the perfume world. There are scents that stop being made, because consumers no longer want them, or because they’re too expensive to produce, or the company went bankrupt. Then someone else buys the name and reinvigorates the brand. Often, when they do that, they can’t find the natural ingredients that were in the perfume originally, so they use the same name but create a completely different scent. Or sometimes a classic firm like Dior gets purchased by a multinational, and the accountants look at the balance sheet and ask, “Why are we paying $8,000 for a kilo of jasmine when we can buy it from China for $2,000? Or when we can use synthetic jasmine, which has the same molecular structure?” Well, because it smells different. You can tell.

Back to non-fiction. Your next choice is The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume by Tilar Mazzeo.

This is a brilliant idea of the author’s, to do a biography not of a person or an event, but to look at the 20th century through the prism of this one very special perfume. It’s the biography of “Chanel No. 5” and its creators, Coco Chanel and the two brothers, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who bought the licence to make it. And the perfumer who actually created it for Coco Chanel. It’s about Coco Chanel’s rise from an impoverished village existence, it’s a partial history of World War II, it’s a history of perfume and its golden era. It’s a brilliant arc of the 20th century. It’s about how the perfume went from being just something women dabbed behind their ears to a symbol of impossible luxury and glamour. Catherine Deneuve as the face of “Chanel No. 5” created a mystique around it. It was brilliant to have her as the iconic face of this iconic perfume.

One of the most fascinating things for me about the book was that when World War II broke out and the Nazis marched into Paris, the two Wertheimer brothers, who were Jewish, fled with their families to New York. They were the ones who had the licence to produce “Chanel No. 5”, but the flower fields where they got their raw materials were in Europe. They sent emissaries to infiltrate back into France, go to the producers in Grasse, buy five or six years’ worth of raw material supplies, whisk them out of occupied Europe and smuggle them to New York. For a while, “Chanel No. 5” was made in New Jersey. They were able to continue producing it more or less the way it was produced before the war.

It’s a tale of seduction and betrayal. Coco Chanel was sleeping with a Nazi officer and was clearly a collaborator. During the war the Chanel boutique stayed open, and there’s no way that could have happened if she hadn’t had the approval of the Nazis. Then when the Allies liberated Paris, the one thing the servicemen could buy to send back to their wives and girlfriends was a bottle of perfume, the symbol of French luxury. The dollar was very strong in depressed post-war Europe, so they brought it back and the cult of “Chanel No. 5” spread to America.

Why was “Chanel No. 5” so successful? You always hear the Coco Chanel quote that “a woman should smell like a woman and not a flower”. Was her concept of perfume very innovative? Or was it luck and good marketing?

It was all of those things. There were many other perfumes that were wonderful, but this is the one that stuck. For many reasons. Because Coco Chanel was a personality. Because she had been a club singer, and lived a louche life for the time. She knew a lot of courtesans who wore rich, musky essences that went along with their trade. Back in the days when Coco Chanel was young, it was not proper for women to smell musky and spicy and darkly sweet. What was accepted for young women was to put on a little rose or lavender water, to smell sweet and innocent. Coco Chanel incorporated musk and heavier spices into a floral base. That was very new for the time.

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She did not do it herself, she was not a perfumer. But she was friends with Ernest Beaux, one of the great perfumers of the 20th century. He created “Chanel No. 5” for her. There’s a long story of how he presented her with different samples – numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and the one she picked was number 5. It was actually inspired by another perfume that Ernest Beaux and one of his fellow perfumers had created earlier. It was the right thing at the right time. Coco Chanel wore it herself, she gave it to her friends and to customers who bought Coco Chanel couture. It spread by word of mouth, and wealthy women wanted it because it was hard to get. She was very clever in her marketing of it. Initially it was the exclusivity of it – the idea that it was a very sophisticated scent that had a whiff of the boudoir and the courtesan in it. Now it has become a luxury product that transcends perfume. If you say “Chanel No. 5” everyone knows what it smells like. It’s got this rich opulence, of France, of Paris, of haute couture. It’s like elixir in a bottle. It’s the perfect example of how perfume can go beyond what it smells like.

Let’s get to your final book, The Essence and the Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume.

This is by Mandy Aftel, who is an all-natural perfumer in Berkeley. She comes out of the same movement for the best natural ingredients that created Chez Panisse [restaurant], also in Berkeley, which started the foodie revolution. This is a wonderful, swoony, sensual book. She gives you the history of perfume through the ages, from the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. She talks about how people have moved away from the idea of perfume as a ritualistic, meditative, aesthetic creation. The mass marketing of perfume, which includes a lot of synthetics and chemicals, has taken away a lot from the original idea of what perfume was and should be.

Aftel started her own atelier to make perfumes. She uses natural ingredients, so no synthetics, no chemicals, no fixatives. The downside is that all-natural perfumes don’t last that long, maybe two hours maximum. But she has striven to show that you can make elegant, complex, interesting, beautiful perfumes using all natural ingredients. She holds workshops where you can make your own perfume. The book is really a primer to go back to the roots and the ancient ideas of what perfume is all about. She talks about the meditative nature of certain essences, and notes their healing properties and the transcendental element of perfumery. It’s also gorgeously written.

People have read this book and developed their own interest in making perfume. It’s a seminal, inspirational book that many people cite. Earlier I mentioned the Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer. He trained as a chemist. He told me he read Mandy’s book, and after that he decided he wanted to make perfume. He started experimenting in a home laboratory, just mixing ingredients, and his first perfume was called “L’Air du Desert Marocain”. It was a huge hit. Luca Turin gave it five stars and called it a masterpiece. Tauer is now a highly recognised niche perfumer. He’s not a completely natural perfumer, but he uses up to 50% natural ingredients which is huge these days. There are many perfumes that use just a few percentage points of real ingredients and the rest is synthetic. That’s not to say you can’t make perfumes using all or mainly synthetics. There are some wonderful perfumers out there with very modern takes on perfumery – such as Comme des Garcons – and they have no problem using synthetics.

This book has inspired a generation of perfumers, and it brought people back to the original idea of what perfume was supposed to be. Mandy Aftel is a very spiritual person, who is able to meld the spiritual and ritualistic elements of perfumery with the pure, hedonistic, sensual beauty of it.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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