Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent

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.

  • TRex says:

    You can classify me as an interested layman. I’m about a third of the way into it now and I keep wanting to stop and go to a perfume shop and smell things as we go along so I know what he’s talking about. It’s a wonderful book, though, and I am savoring it slowly, sometimes stopping to re-read or call a friend and read a passage aloud to them.

    • March says:

      Glad you are enjoying the book! It’s not for everyone, but I think he tells a great story. And I also think it would be fun to sniff along.

  • Sariah says:

    Thanks for the review March, I’m looking forward to getting mine in the mail. I just devoured Emporer of Scent.

    Did you read his recent article in the Times on Chloe? It was a great no-holds-barred diss of the “creative team” behind it. I was thinking that the folks at Chloe may feel a bit singled out for doing something that seems to be pretty common in the industry, but I’m glad he did it because that’s probably way more effective in actually getting the “creative teams” to listen.

    • March says:

      Um, we *smelled* Chloe at his little book luncheon. Apparently their team was none too happy (huh!?) with his review, and he wanted some more opinions. I thought it smelled like oven cleaner. I think someone else said “bug spray.” It is just that nasty. I mean, so nasty you’re wondering if someone made a mistake with the vial.

      OTOH he gave one star to YSL Elle too. While that thing’s not winning any awards for originality, it’s an inoffensive thing that to my nose is a slightly sweeter, powdery ripoff of Light Blue. It was my preference of the three (we also smelled Juicy Couture, which he loves and which makes me retch.)

      • sariah says:

        One woman’s oven cleaner is another man’s fabric softener.

        • March says:

          Has it even been released yet? Hmmmm. It has this … horrid, indescribable synthetic note. I don’t mean as opposed to something “really” natural. I mean some weird note that could be interesting from CdG, but this is one they’d have discarded. It’s not bad in a Pink Sugar/Baby Phat Goddess, too-sweet way. It’s wretched in a get-that-away-from-me way.

          IMHO of course.;) I’ll have to go read his review.

  • Louise says:

    I loved Emperor of Scent, and am excited to read “Perfect”. I am purely lacking in the entire end of perfume creation and marketing, and expect a great ride with this one, as well.

    Burr is being interviewed this afternoon (according to a MUA thread) on All Things Considered. Check your local listings (and/or replay on March-maybe a good time to rent a movie?

    • Louise says:

      Ah! Honors to Dr. King.

    • March says:

      Oh, thanks for the tip! I would love to hear his interview.

      I do have a quibble about the jacket design, looking at the book on the shelf at B&N yesterday it gets completely lost, they should have made the type bigger on the ribbon.

    • March says:

      PS Ugh, cold enough for you?

      We were just watching Jaws (the original) on cable. Is there something wrong with me, how funny I find that movie?

      Of course I laughed all the way through VeggieTales with the kids at the movies yesterday.

      I probably shouldn’t write things like this on the blog, should I?

  • Carol says:

    I have to admit I gave up on the Emperor of Scent, but can’t wait to get this one… thanks for the review!

    • March says:

      The smell theory portion of the Emperor was some pretty dense reading, and I admit I, uh, speed-read through a fair amount of that, getting to the good parts. This doesn’t really have long sections like that. Even the marketing/sales strategy stuff, which could have been a total snooze in someone else’s hands, I found interesting.

  • Patty says:

    I enjoyed the book as much as you did and highly recommend it. I keep thinking of the mass market scents out there now as the Velvet Dogs Playing Poker of the perfume world.

    Chandler is entertaining. I’ve read a lot of disses of him recently, but he does not lack passion for his subject, nor a great sense of humor, and he does not appear to take himself too seriously, which is really all I require of any human being. 🙂

    • March says:

      Yeah, what is all that about? I have no idea whether all his facts are straight — I am sure you can find people to argue with his perspective. And I can see how he and his writing might grate on some people. He’s like the PJ O’Roarke of perfume writing. Although it’s not like Luca Turin’s the art of diplomacy either. I find him very funny.

      • March says:

        Did I just mis-spell that? O’Rourke? No, that doesn’t look right either…

        I could just say “Don Rickles,” I can spell that.

  • donanicola says:

    Loved The Emperor of Scent and enjoyed Helg’s interview on Perfume Shrine. (I think I’ve heard somewhere that there’s some edited out material on Basenotes? Maybe I’m imagining that.) Anyway, I agree. He makes the science bits as approachable as he seems to be himself so I’m looking forward to reading this.

    • March says:

      Nope, apparently there’s some XXX-tra gossipy stuff on Basenotes I need to go check out. If you like his previous writing you’d like this.

      BTW — is it just me or is the blog taking FOREVER to load this morning? :-w

  • Helen T says:

    Clicking onto Amazon as she types…

    Can’t wait to read it, I’m always up for an alternative voice. Lets face it, it’s perfume not the sweat of a god. Darn it, I bet there’s a fragrance comes out called that!

  • Anne says:

    I have a trip planned to the bookstore for this and the first in The Golden Compass series. My girls tell me it’s better than Harry P.

    Also, I’m bursting at the seams to share this. I missed the Top 10 of Winter post but I’ve discovered something beautiful. I layered L’air de Rien and Fleurs de Sel. Doesn’t really feel layered, but more like 2 puzzle pieces that were meant to fit together. Beautiful!

    For those getting the MLK holiday, enjoy the day!

    • March says:

      Anne, that sounds like a great layering combo!

      I’m slogging through a four-day weekend with the kids, which would have been more pleasurable if it weren’t 8 degrees with the windchill yesterday. Brrrrr. We’re trashing the house and baking cookies, pretty much in that order.

      • Louise says:

        Bake first, trash later. Time to run them at the mall?

        • Malena says:

          i love the golden compass series – the first 50 pages or so, i wasn´t sure & even thought about stopping to read, but then it absolutely grabbed me. IMO it´s very different from harry potter, better i´d say.

  • Lee says:

    It’s a quick and enjoyable read isn’t it? Never gets too bogged down in its own detail. Engaging, lively, and fuelled by enough reformist zeal to keep me smiling.

    • March says:

      As I leafed through the book, looking for bits that interested me and deciding what to include in this review, I thought about what a nightmare this thing must have been to edit. I get the impression that he probably had reams more material that had to be edited down and tightened up. I really appreciated his ability to present complex topics (like the constructions of the perfume formulae) in a more understandable way that still gives the salient details. I think that’s a difficult skill to master and I admire it.

      • Joan says:

        Basenotes printed 5 parts of deleted scenes from “The Perfect Scent” that Burr’s editor decided to take out of the book. Veeeery entertaining.

    • March says:

      Hey, check out Anne’s layering combo below, sounds like something you’d wear.

      • Lee says:

        I need to get my head round the clary sage aroma of FdS first, but I’ll definitely try this out…

        • March says:

          Sorry, for some reason I was thinking you were a big fan of Sel… I myself am not imaginative enough to appreciate its beauty, nor that of Rien…:”>

          • Lee says:

            Sel de Vet honey… That Different Company beauty. The Miller Harris line doesn’t fit me too well for some reason, though I like the barnyard.

  • Elle says:

    Thanks for this post! Frankly, I’ve always thought he seemed like he’d be a blast to know and have been looking forward to reading his book for some time now. Oh, and I would like to have him as a roommate. 🙂 DH would have to deal.

    • March says:

      I think you’ll like this. Hey, let’s all move into his NYC apartment…:-?

      You know what I realized I like about it? I have some other books like Perfume Legends, and they are (appropriately) reverential of their subjects. But the whole presentation is Perfume As A Sacred Art. That’s great. However. I feel like there is room for an alternative voice, and this is it.

  • Maria says:

    Thanks, March, for the review. I read an interview of Burr on Perfumeshrine recently and found him to be frank and no-nonsense, which I appreciate. The book is now on my to-read list.

    The marketing-above-all drive of the big corporations is why God created independent perfumers–and the classics.

    • March says:

      Maria, it was a really fun read. I don’t know if you read The Emperor of Scent, but it gives you an idea of his writing style. Which I can see some people finding irritating, but I find funny. He’s a storyteller. His breezy irreverance suits me fine, although if I were an interview for a potential book of his I’d be pretty careful about what I said! I think he made the potentially deadly-dull parts of the topic (ie some of the chemistry) understandable and interesting.