I often wondered if people on perfume boards had anything else in common beside their love of fragrances. After years of collecting data, comparing statistics, and plotting ingenious 3-D graphs, I finally found the answer: perfume addicts are avid readers. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, true perfume lovers seem to read day and night. I know many of them pay frequent visits to NST as well, which is why I decided to revive the old “Building a fragrance library”-concept. Last December we made a list of five “must-have” books for beginners, ranging from Süskind’s Perfume to Burr’s The Emperor of Scent. This time, the focus is on reference books.
Let’s start with a title closely related to the subject of perfumery: The Chemistry of Fragrances, compiled by David Pybus and Charles Sell. I have to admit I don’t own this one (yet), but I was fortunate enough to browse through it very recently. It covers all aspects involved in perfumery, giving wonderful insights into the stuff that modern fragrances are made of, and how they are marketed. As has been said many times before, chemistry plays an essential role in the art of perfumery; this book makes it clear that science and creativity go hand in hand. Note: this David Pybus is not the bass guitarist from Cradle of Filth.
David Pybus, Charles Sell
The Chemistry of Fragrances
London: Royal Society of Chemistry (1999)
Another book I don’t actually own yet (bear with me) is Perfume Legends by Michael Edwards. It’s widely accepted as the ultimate perfume book in English: it’s impossible for me to get around this one. The author gives an overview of the classics of modern perfumery, complete with technical details and historical background. Although I was very disappointed with Edwards’ Fragrance Adviser (54 pages in calendar-format at a staggering $125, worst blind purchase ever), I know I will look for a secondhand copy of Legends eventually (list price is $130 on Amazon). The excerpts I’ve read looked promising indeed; NST will review this book very soon, so keep an eye on these pages. Update: as promised, here is Marcello’s review of Perfume Legends.
Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances
La Quinta, CA: Crescent House Publishing (1998)
I love to read about technical and historical aspects of perfumery, but I find the relation between smell and culture equally fascinating. There are three books in this category I can warmly recommend: the first one is Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott. It’s an exploration of the social history and anthropology of smell, that basically revolves around one simple question: how do people give meaning to odor? I’ve raved about this book on many occasions, because I think it’s the best introduction to the culture of smell available, and it’s surprisingly accessible too. Click on the link to the title above for details and a complete review.
The second book in this category is Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant. It’s a historical study on the “stench of the city” (18th century Paris) in relation to the emergence of hygiene, sanitation, and healthcare in the Modern age. Perfumery doesn’t play a big role in this book, but if you wonder why certain people are so fussy about “scent-free” (deodorized) public spaces, this work gives you the appropriate historical background. A tough read for all its philosophical content, but definitely worth the effort. Click on the link to the title above for details and a complete review.
Last in this group is Michael Stoddard’s The Scented Ape. It’s a study on human olfaction from a zoologist’s perspective, with a very interesting chapter on perfume. According to the author, the use of perfume is rooted in biological phenomena: fragrances had a functional significance to extant primates. The basic premise in this book is radically different from the previous two, giving a very different outlook on the culture of smell. If you’re interested in olfaction and human evolution, make sure to put this one on your reading list.
The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour
New York: Cambridge University Press (2003)
This is just a short compilation of reading suggestions to get you through summer. If you have other titles in mind, hit the Post a comment button and share them with us!
Note: the image shows the painting “Couple Reading Under a Tree” by Warren Dennis, via Carlton Gallery at Creekside.
See also: the Perfume Books page.