Weekend Reads: Perfume Books We Adore

Books dedicated to perfume are one of the most pleasurable reads a true fragrance lover can immerse themselves into. With several editions appearing on physical book stores, and on the electronic shelves of Amazon and etailers, all the while, it’s difficult to wade through them and pick just the right one for you. Our team have therefore provided a short guide into three editions, of different aim and point of view, to direct you into getting to know more, enjoying your perfume hobby more, and informing your fragrant purchases in the future.

One of the most accessible, even to the novice, yet also deeply informative manuals for understanding perfumery, is Mandy Aftel’s classic Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. The independent natural perfumer from USA has a long history in the revolution of home-made small shop perfumery aesthetics, as well as a rich library on artisan perfumery in her studio back home. Sourcing through alchemical textbooks, historical manuscripts and old recipes by artisan perfumers, she paces the reader through the beginnings of perfumery as a sacred ritual and an offering to the gods and ties it with a very simple and hands-on approach of composing your own artisan perfumes one step at a time, following the Jean Carles methodology, building chords with natural materials you can find at the essential oils shop and hippie store of your neighbourhood (or at providers online, of whom there are many listed in the reference section of the book).

You will learn about obscure and precious materials like animal-derived ingredients, such as ambergris, civet and deer musk (all of them substituted with ethical synthetic molecules in contemporary perfumery), and get awe-struck by the powerful and aphrodisiac qualities of natural essences, which can still be sought out and harnessed in beautiful compositions of today’s fragrances.

Hailed as a cult classic, and the book which impressed Swiss chemist turned indie perfumer Andy Tauer into founding Tauer Perfumes, it’s an unmissable read for everyone interested in perfumery. Small and compact but chock-full on information Essence and Alchemy is a must read and a good reference for the years to come.

Other fragrance books are written by historians who dwell on the intricacies of the olden ways of composing perfumes and the art of the perfumers of those times. Respectable and great for you to immerse in, yet not a heavy read, some of them can be regarded as a real fountain of knowledge.

Elisabeth de Feydau’s A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer reads as a new point of view of the times of the infamous young spouse to the French throne, Marie Antoinette, she of the “let them eat cake” infamy (though it’s not technically an accurate quote).  This era of most brutal and violent days, surrounding the French Revolution of 1789, is unravelled through the telling of the story of Marie Antoinette’s personal perfumer. A story so compelling, that even modern day perfumer Francis Kurkdjian has recreated the queen’s personal perfume, as Sillage de la Reine in a limited edition a few years ago.

An enigmatic personality, Jean Louis Fargeon, the perfumer, is vividly described as a supporter of the Republican cause, yet an employee at the court and a loyal acolyte to the young queen, right up to his own imprisonment and trial during the days of the French Revolution.

Written by an actual historian, rather than a journalist, and a professor at the Versailles School of Perfumers, de Feydau’s book follows Fargeon from his beginnings at the family-owned craft of perfumers at Montpellier, once the epicentre of fragrance production in France, well into his course in establishing his own boutique in Paris, where the attention of the royal court and of the ladies attendant to the queen changes his life for ever.

Written for the layman, as well as for the academic, A Scented Palace informs the reader on just how the tradition of perfumery entered the royal court, and ended up becoming big business for the country, as well as the mores and rituals of the aristocrats with their delicate and detailed toilette. The name refers to the habit of laying down a long piece of cloth (toile) on which to place cosmetics, and, well, toiletries for daily dressing, grooming and maquillage. For instance Fargeon is mentioned “blending eau de vie, benzoin and Brazil wood with an equal portion of rock alum, he produced a liquid that, when lightly rubbed on the cheeks, made it difficult to discern if the person had applied rouge, or if this was her natural colouring.”

A delightful read, de Feyday’s book on Fargeon is only one out of her canon, hopefully more of hers to be translated into English soon.

Last but not least, if you want to have a glimpse into the contemporary world of perfume making, all lacquered furniture, neon lighting and big computer screen Power Point presentation, there is a book for you too.

Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, is written by the former New York Times fragrance critic and current curator of olfactory exhibitions and installations around the world. An accomplished author and journalist with a background in economics, Burr takes us not only into the lab, showcasing us how the sausage is made, the way Aftel does, but is also exposing many of the industry’s secret managerial decisions and testing, as well as the financing of scents and their commercial policy by the Big Five, more or less the domineering materials procuring companies, which get the bulk of the designer fragrances briefs (i.e. requests for a new product) and employ the bulk of commercial perfumers.

Following two different tracks, one in Paris, with perfumer Jean Claude Ellena composing the scent of Un jardin sur le Nil, and following his inspiration and immersion in the brand’s aesthetics, and one in New York, following actress Sarah Jessica Parker assisting alongside the Coty team into the creation of Lovely, a celebrity scent phenomenon, Burr is phenomenal in his treatment of the subject.

Inter-cutting from one story to the other, over and over, he highlights the differences, but also the similarities that lie ahead in the production of a fine fragrance. It’s a fascinating read that will open anyone’s eyes to the truths of the perfume industry and then some.

©2023 Arlette - LKNU Parfumerie.