Chandler Burr is the sort of guy I´d want to sit next to at a dinner party – full of funny stories and interesting facts and insider information. I wouldn´t necessarily want to be his roommate; my guess is he travels a lot, and we´d end up arguing about whose turn it was to deal with the landlord and who ran up a huge bill calling Bolivia on the home phone. (I´m maybe not Chandler Burr´s ideal roommate either, what with my husband and kids.) Burr´s also missing a little of the self-edit mode when he talks, so he can be pretty impolitic, which of course makes him even more fun to listen to.
Having met the man and been given a copy of his recent book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, I started reading it on the trip home from New York and worked through it in the last week or so.
If I were reviewing Burr´s book like I write about a perfume, maybe I´d talk about the interesting contrasts in the composition. Burr is the first person to tell you (in fact, he did tell us) that he´s by training and interest an economics and science writer who fell into the perfume thing through a series of events, not that he´s complaining. The point being: he´s not a massive perfume freak, and in my opinion that distance gives him an interesting perspective from which to write.
The Perfect Scent is full of statistics and for-the-layman explanations of things as various as gas chromatography, perfume marketing and sales structures, and the chemistry and formulation of absolutes. It´s the sort of heavy lifting I´d expect from someone with a background writing for respected magazines like The Atlantic, but I never felt Burr was larding his text with numbers just for show. At the same time, he shares intimate, lovely details from inside the world of perfumers – who can resist the story of Jean-Claude Ellena coming home with the scents requested by his children, from sweaty socks to Madeline cookies, the smell of a cloud, of snow? Burr also details the wonderful story behind Ellena´s creation of a scent based on the teas of Mariage Freres, which after several unexpected plot twists became Bulgari´s blockbuster The Vert.
The book follows two perfume stories – the making of Hermes´ Un Jardin Sur le Nil and Coty´s scent, Lovely, for Sarah Jessica Parker. In the broadest sense it´s a portrait of the modern perfume industry, and while many of the personal stories are funny, it´s here that Burr really aims his weapon and fires. (I´d be interested what percentage of the off-the-record folks in the book recognize their thinly disguised, unflattering portraits and call him up to complain). As someone who, in the best amateur tradition, sniffs a lot of perfume, I´m aware of the dismaying attempts by corporations to make new fragrances generically appealing in a hope to sell them by the truckload, and the sheer number of new releases now is ridiculous. But Burr spells out all the machinations behind the scenes that would disgust anyone with a feeling for perfume (and hence what´s being lost in the mass-market-driven approach). We´re in a situation now where the portion of money spent on the juice in the bottle, as opposed to the marketing and packaging of that perfume, is akin to watching the perfumers commissioned with the job digging around under the couch cushions scrounging for change. Whole lists of ingredients are off the table (too expensive) before the scent creation even begins, leaving the perfumers with, as Burr says only half-jokingly in his book, “Iso-E-Super and some cheap Indian rose essence” to work with. The enormous reduction in the per-kilo price of the ingredients in the perfumers´ budgets was one particularly depressing part of the book. Another interesting, depressing aside: given the way so many consumers now hurriedly select fragrance (off the top notes sprayed on a paper blotter), perfumers are pushed to create scents with top notes that perform appealingly on paper, never mind that they won´t be worn that way once the consumer takes the bottle home.
I understand fragrance companies at the end of the day would like to make some money. But the way they´re going about it seems mighty strange to me. Burr also touches the Third Rail of Perfumery (actually, he kicks it over and over and over, and it doesn´t seem to have killed him) by completely exploding the marketing myth that The Brand Magnate (Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren) is the architect of the fragrance. Another section of the book dear to my heart is his discussion of another verboten topic, the use of synthetics in perfumery, a topic most perfume houses would rather not come clean about because they would like you, the consumer, to continue to labor under the illusion that their high-end fragrances are “natural” — which they most decidedly are not. If I had a dollar for every SA who has falsely touted the all-natural ingredients in whatever fragrance they are shilling, I could buy myself a bottle of (beautiful, synthetic) Mitsouko parfum, or possibly some (stunning, synthetic) Chanel No. 5. Burr does a convincing job of articulating how synthetics in perfumery have given us some of our finest fragrances and are in some cases, such as sandalwood, can be the more environmentally “correct” choice.
Should you read this book? Well, how interested are you in the story behind two divergent scents from two wildly different houses with two different agendas? I´m not a scientist, and I have a greater-than-average interest in the various types of levers that get moved to create a perfume. The story is leavened with more than a sprinkling of gossipy anecdotes and charming vignettes. For me, then, the book´s just about perfect. It´s not dull, and if you want to skip back and forth between the two stories of Sur le Nil and SJP (which is how Burr writes it anyway) you can jump forward pretty easily and then go back and catch up. I´d recommend it for people outside the industry who´d like a clearer idea of how a fragrance is developed, warts and all, told in Burr’s sly, observant, not-particularly-diplomatic style.