Les sens du parfum by Guy Robert ~ perfume book review

Les Sens Du Parfum by Guy Robert"We are like painters: some use simple colors, others prefer sophisticated ones. It's the result that matters". With over half a century of professional experience under his belt, Guy Robert knows what he's talking about. He grew up among perfumers, trained many talented noses throughout his career, and created a few brilliant fragrances of his own. His book Les sens du parfum reads like a straightforward, down-to-earth tutorial for novice perfumery students: what does it take to master this difficult craft, and where does one start? Besides providing a fascinating insight in the world of the modern perfumer, this book also serves as a practical guide for perfumistas. (French-speaking perfumistas, to be precise.)

The first three chapters of the book cover perfume history, the sense of smell, and fragrant raw materials. Interesting subjects of course, but hardly discussed at length, so don't expect to learn a great deal from these pages. Chapter four is where the author's professional expertise comes into play: this is the part dedicated to perfume creation. In my view, it's the best section of the book. It revolves around a concept known as the perfumer's palette, a set of specific notes and ingredients favored by each individual perfumer. Robert demonstrates the creative differences between François Coty, Jacques Guerlain, Ernest Daltroff, and Henri Alméras by comparing their personal preferences, and proposes a simplified version of a more generic, 'classic' palette to be used by novice perfumers.

Besides these individual palettes, there are also different ways of writing down perfume formulae. There is no universal language or 'scripture' in perfumery, which leads Robert to distinguish three types of noses on the workfloor: first are those who manufacture their own perfumes, like Coty, Alméras, Paul Vacher, Pierre Dhumez, Paul Parquet, and possibly Jacques Guerlain. They used to write their formulae in accordance with the production sequence, as efficiently as possible. The second group consists of people like Jean Carles, Henri Robert (Guy's uncle) and Bernard Chant, who took a more schematic approach: they grouped notes and accords by their respective fragrance families. And finally there are those who refuse any type of orderly method, preferring to work in complete chaos instead. Allegedly, Ernest Shiftan was one them; "and yet he was an outstanding perfumer".

All these different methods can be a nuisance at times, even for experienced perfumers like Guy Robert. He has always applied the classification method developed by his uncle Henri, and confesses that other people's formulae are sometimes hard for him to grasp:

"Having used this system for over 54 years, I admit that when I read a formula written in a different sequence, I can only imagine and understand its odor by rewriting it in my own way. Only then will I 'smell' the product, like a musician who 'hears' a piece of music by reading the score." (p.80)

While it's important for young perfumers to learn from their predecessors, Robert argues that simply studying the original formulae by Coty, Guerlain or Daltroff is not enough. "To fully understand these giants, you'd have to stand next to them at work." Here's the irony: while today's novice perfumers are blessed with a state-of-the-art perfume school, it's nearly impossible nowadays to find a reputable perfumer who sees any benefit in taking on a young apprentice.

In conclusion, one can only hope that people like Guy Robert will continue to walk this earth and share their knowledge for many years to come. Les sens du parfum is a generous gift to the perfume community, which definitely deserves to be reprinted, and then translated in English if possible.

Les sens du parfum
Guy Robert
Paris: Osman Eyrolles Santé & Société (2000)
Softcover, 224 pages

Guy Robert is an ex-chairman of the Société Française des Parfumeurs, and the nose behind Madame Rochas (1960), Calèche (1961), Monsieur Rochas (1969), Equipage (1970), Dioressence (1979), and Amouage (1983), among others.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    What a fascinating review! I hope this book shows up in English soon, although it sounds so good I'm tempted to give it a try with my rusty French. Thank you!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the review! This sounds like something I absolutely must read. Once again, I'm mystified as to why all the languages I chose to learn are relatively worthless when it comes to perfumery. I will have to try to muddle through w/ my shockingly pathetic French, but I do hope that someone translates it. I'm also now extremely curious about Ernest Shiftan. Had never heard of him before.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am sure M will be along to answer you eventually, but just wanted to copy this little tidbit out of Classification des Parfums et Terminologie (another book M reviewed in the past), from a section on “Creators Disappeared” (the whole thing is badly translated, I'm afraid):

    “The list mentions the names of perfumers who are no longer with us…They are here because we owe them a posthumous homage for the work they have left to posterity….others like Shiftan, Hardy, Regoul, Chevron, Georges Fraysse, Jordy-Pey, etc, an important contribution although they remain anonymous in the creation of many perfumes. All of them were pioneers, forerunners.”

    The next page has a list of perfumers and their creations, Ernest Shiftan is listed with his date of birth & death (1903-1973) but no perfumes are listed next to his name.

  4. Anonymous says:

    you're welcome, Angela! As far as I know the book is no longer in print, so you may have to look for a second hand copy. Amazon (US), Fnac and Museesdegrasse.com gave no results, I'm afraid.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Elle! Ernest Shiftan was Sophia Grosjman's mentor at IFF in the mid-'60s, when she had just moved to th US. According to Octavian Coifan (http://1000fragrances.blogspot.com/), Shiftan was also the man behind the “American” style in perfumery. I'll have a look in my books tonight, see if I can find out some more about him. If I come across anything interesting, I'll let you know.

  6. Anonymous says:

    thanks, Robin!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Robin! I actually have that book (got it after reading Marcello's review) sitting in a stack of books I keep meaning to get to. Am going to go dig it out now.

    I can't bring myself to contemplate going back to get another degree at this point, but I'd love to see someone write their doctoral dissertation – or just write a book period – on those “Creators Disappeared.” Lesser known artists and musicians often get that sort of attention from doctoral candidates – would be wonderful to see the same sort of attention given to perfumers.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks! How fascinating that he was Grosjman's mentor! If she's ever interviewed again, I hope one of the questions will be about him. As I mentioned in my comment to R, I would love to see these lesser known perfumers get more attention. I always want to know as much as possible about my favorite painters and their creative process and feel the same way about perfumers, only there's much less written about them. Your posts on books have always been extremely welcome and helpful.

  9. Anonymous says:

    You're welcome! And btw, I misspelled Ms. Grojsman's name (again). It's “js”, not the other way round. Darn… I keep making that mistake.

  10. Anonymous says:

    And I copied straight from your spelling. :-) I always hesitate about the spelling of her name, but, hopefully, now I have it committed to memory.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Just wanted to say that the title, Les Sens du parfum, is a pun: it's pronounced the same as L'Essence du parfum (The Essence of Perfume).

    I love all of the author's creations. This book must be fascinating.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is so good of you to include this precious book here. It is indeed fascinating to contemplate who all those pioneers worked.

    And concuring on Bela's comment that the title is very witty as well. :-)

  13. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if the author came up with that title himself… in his writings he does come across as a witty man with a good sense of humor!

  14. Anonymous says:

    thanks, Helg!

    Btw: the next book I'll review is in English, and widely available too.

  15. Anonymous says:

    No problem for me as I do read French, but widely available sure is interesting for all readers eager to feed on perfume info.

    Keep up the good work. :-)

  16. Anonymous says:

    That's quite possible. 'L'Essence du parfum' actually makes more scents than 'Les Sens du parfum'. I would guess the latter came later. LOL!

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