Long before his appointment as the world's first professional perfume critic, Chandler Burr had made a name for himself as a perfume journalist with a bit of an edge. His excellent New Yorker article on the creation of Hermès Un Jardin sur le Nil, which gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of this secretive industry, was followed by his regular contributions for The New York Times on the current state of perfumery, in which he wrote passionately about his aversion against the mystification, the anachronistic traditions, and the unspoken rules in the perfume trade. The vastness of his contacts is the envy of most perfume bloggers, and sometimes I wonder if he made more enemies than friends in the past years — which I mean as a compliment, of course. Hardly surprising then, that his latest book was so highly anticipated by many, including me.
If scientific controversy was a central theme in The Emperor of Scent, The Perfect Scent takes a swing at the maladies of the perfume industry. Burr uncovers its deeper mechanisms, from the dilemmas faced by manufacturers who are forced to accept assignments without contracts, to the pointless secrecy in which perfume formulae are still enveloped (pointless since they all use gas chromatographers and mass spectrometers to keep a sharp eye on the competition). Two relatively recent stories on perfume creation (Un Jardin sur le Nil and Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely) are the anchors of the book: Burr takes us back and forth between the board room, the perfumer's drawing table, and the technician's lab, and introduces us to the main people involved in the process. The concept is not unlike the 'making of' bonus features on DVD's, and I'm always a bit wary of them — they're often as well-directed as the movie itself, and everyone on the cast got along great. Fortunately, Burr stays clear from the corporate butt-kissing (despite all those talented young dreamboats crossing his path), but there's something disconcerting about his otherwise commendable report. I'll get back to that later.
The first narrative thread is based on the eight months he spent with perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena and the marketing people at Hermès. Burr followed them from the city of Aswan to the Hermès headquarters in Paris, and then to Ellena's hometown Grasse, where most of the fine-tuning was done on the three essays for le Nil. The lack of a clear Hermès signature proved to be something of a challenge; it was the first time that the house committed itself directly to a perfumer (Ellena worked for Symrise when he did Un Jardin en Méditerranée), and it was an important problem to tackle. Fans of Ellena's work will enjoy his eloquent reflections on the art of perfumery, and on his personal and professional growth: he recalls that for the creation of First (Van Cleef & Arpels) his writing was extremely complex, because he was still trying to understand the market; by contrast, Un Jardin sur le Nil was all about “making” the market. There's also a cameo appearance by his daughter Céline, who took his place at The Different Company and created Burr's favorite Sel de Vetiver; she shares some wonderful childhood memories with us.
The second thread in the book is a followup to Burr's New York Times article on Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely. What I expected here was an account of the creation of her first perfume, but as it turns out rather disappointingly, the story starts when Lovely is ready to be launched by Coty. The process we get to follow is the next best thing: the making of Lovely Sarah Jessica Parker Liquid Satin, a scented body product that needed new input from Sarah Jessica and the rest of the creative team. It's an entertaining and even interesting read, in which we discover the meaning of industry terms such as “flanker” (a new version of an existing perfume) and “spiffing” (the payola given to beauty associates by big brands like Coty for each sale they make — it costs them a good deal of money, but all they want is to get on top of those dreaded sales lists). Yet somehow, I couldn't help feeling a bit cheated at this point. The doors were open, but the party had clearly ended. In fact there's little novelty to this story when you've read Burr's original article: we already knew how committed Sarah Jessica Parker was to the project, and we knew about her clear visions and charming personality (I don't mean that cynically). Although he admits to being a pawn in Coty's media circus from the start, I had hoped for more than that. The man who gave us so many insider reports from the fashionable outskirts of perfumery, was now kept at bay by one of the big players. It obviously confirms what Burr has always argued and rebelled against — that the perfume industry is a Medieval fortress, an industry “suffocating itself on the most immense pile of public relations shit human civilization has ever produced” (p.136) just to keep up appearances. Getting unlimited access everywhere would have been a paradox.
Don't get me wrong: Burr's observations are sharp and witty, and in The Perfect Scent he gives proof of his skills as a good reporter with a very extensive network in the perfume industry. He remained faithful to his style, cutting corners here, filling pages there, meanwhile imploring God and Jesus and telling it like it is; I'm sure many people enjoy that. He's no fly-on-the-wall type either — the persona Chandler Burr is very present in his writings, and so are his opinions on perfumes, as always. But while The Emperor of Scent was a thoughtful book with an interesting plot and a certain level of suspense, The Perfect Scent doesn't build up to a climax, and may not impress the hardcore enthusiast who's already read all his columns: in the end, there is little substance in this new book. It leaves you with the feeling that there would have been so much more to tell, if only they had let him in.
Chandler Burr is The New York Times's perfume critic and author of The Emperor of Scent (2005) and A Separate Creation (1996).
The Perfect Scent: A Year Behind the Scenes of the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York.
New York: Henry Holt & Co., LLC (2008)
Hardcover, 306 pp.
Related reading: see an interview with Chandler Burr from 2005, a review of Jean-Claude Ellena's recent book, Le Parfum, and a recent Q&A with Chandler Burr at Basenotes. For more perfume book reviews, see The Perfume Books page.