Cult Perfumes by Tessa Williams ~ perfume book review

Cult Perfumes by Tessa Williams

When I mentioned to a friend and colleague that I was reading Cult Perfumes: The World’s Most Exclusive Perfumeries, she thought it a pity that the book isn’t a scratch-and-sniff (or, more practicably, accompanied by a set of sample vials). If you’ve ever smelled a Lush store from a mile away, you can see the quirky appeal: the atmosphere within — or roiling out of — a fragrance shop is quite telling.

Even so, Cult Perfumes tells a lot for a book that is technically meant for the coffee table. Author Tessa Williams, a British journalist whose byline has appeared in Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, catalogs the past and present of 26 “extraordinary niche perfumeries throughout the world,” with quick nods to 15 more in the back. Gorgeous art is peppered throughout, including historic advertisements, snapshots of the shops, and, of course, lots and lots of gorgeous bottles.

If this sounds right up your alley, before hitting “buy” on your Amazon cart just note that the title’s “cult” really does mean “boutique” and take a quick peek at the 26 featured perfume houses.1

Some truly were pleasant surprises. I’ve never heard of Angela Flanders, a former costume designer whose Victorian-style East London shop is only open on Sundays during the neighborhood’s flower market (I want to go there).

But overall I find myself scratching my head a bit at the featured selection. Old houses with apothecary lineage are in full force with Penhaligon’s, Grossmith, Houbigant and Santa Maria Novella; but as for the new vanguard, only a short blurb on Le Labo in the back? Nature-friendly Miller Harris but nothing on Aftelier, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz or Honoré de Prés? Frédéric Malle, the patron saint of auteur fragrances, but again just quick notes on Andy Tauer and Kilian Hennessy? The fashion-first Robert Piguet, but no nod to the boutique leanings of Hermès, Chanel, Cartier, or Van Cleef & Arpels?

Granted, any short list is inherently subjective, and in this case the point of view is Williams’. It’s worth noting that she’s writing for a British audience first, which goes a long way in explaining why so many seemingly redundant, London-based houses made the cut while Antonia Bellanca of Antonia’s Flowers is the only featured American. Who can objectively say that Williams didn’t gracefully navigate some tough decisions?

So while my own selection would have been quite different, that doesn’t detract from Williams’s excellent work. It does, however, bring the $49.95 price tag into the equation — especially if you would expect to see a particular favorite or two in lush, glossy print. Otherwise, objective lovers of all things niche can’t go wrong.


Cult Perfumes: The World’s Most Exclusive Perfumeries
By Tessa Williams. 191 pp.
Merrell, 2013. $49.95.


1. Featured houses include Amouage, Angela Flanders, Annick Goutal, Antonia’s Flowers, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Carthusia, Clive Christian, Creed, Diptyque, Floris, Frédéric Malle, Grossmith, Houbigant, Jo Malone London, Krigler, Lorenzo Villoresi, Lubin, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Miller Harris, Parfums de Nicolaï, Ormonde Jayne, Penhaligon’s, Robert Piguet, Roja Dove, Santa Maria Novella and Serge Lutens.

Shop for perfume

Parfums Raffy


Leave a comment, or read more about commenting at Now Smell This. Here's a handy emoticon chart.

  1. azil627 says:

    I have the book and it was a very overview of the niche “cult” fragrances from Europe. It was also nice to see this in a coffee book format. However, I do agree my selection would include other artisan perfumers that are tailored for the niche market.

    However to be honest most people don’t really know whom these perfumers are. It would be truly devoted connoseurs of indie, niche and natural perfumery that would understand and explore this tremendous industry that is ever growing.

  2. Marjorie Rose says:

    If I were to make a list of “cult” perfumers, I would want to be sure to include Laurie at Sonoma Scent Studio for her high quality niche line. I also would include Etat Libre d’Orange, since they are clearly focussed on their image as boundary-pushing (whether or not they succeed with individual offerings).

    I am pleased to see Ormonde Jayne, even if it weren’t a British author, I think the line belongs in the list!

  3. songeuse says:

    I’m also surprised JAR isn’t included… or does it not count because they do jewelry as well?

    • Marjorie Rose says:

      Oh, I think JAR is a good call, too!

  4. Joviana says:

    I subscribe to a blog called “Spitalfields Life” and it is mostly about the people, history and businesses of this East London neighborhood. A few weeks ago the author visited Angela Flanders’ studio/ shop and there are some wonderful photos of her in her “laboratory” and a nice interview too. Check it out if you are interested…

  5. nozknoz says:

    I’d also want to include La Via del Profumo – it doesn’t get more cult than a Frenchman who has converted to Islam living in Italy and creating some of the best natural perfumes along with Sufi calligraphy.

  6. raluca says:

    If Penhaligon’s and Houbigant are included, why not Caron as well? It is a boutique line with a history of high class creations. As for the exclusive perfumeries, there are many newer ones omitted, such as MDCI, Profumum Roma, Montale, Etro, not to mention the American houses.

  7. austenfan says:

    Living in Europe myself I can understand why most small American houses have been omitted. It is incredibly expensive to get perfume shipped here. These days I do not even bother trying the American Indie lines. Too much hassle. Mind you, it has become more difficult to get bottles from one European country to another. The Channel seems to suddenly have become much wider and deeper!
    Even though the title of the book is perhaps a bit misleading; all in all it does sound quite an interesting book. I myself would have chosen different houses but one cannot really argue about taste. Thanks for the review!

  8. Rappleyea says:

    Even with the omissions, it sounds like a good book and one I’d love to add to my collection of perfume books. Good review! Thanks, Aleta.

  9. basia says:

    I treated myself to this book and don’t regret it. It’s a good addition to my perfume bookshelf.

  10. bluegardenia says:

    Love this book too. And I happened to stumble upon Angela Flanders last year in London when I was at the flower market on a sunday. It’s a great shop, and Angela is really cool. We talked about tuberoses for a bit and I really liked her Tuberose scent. When I wear it I’m reminded of the minimalist Tubereuse by Annick Goutal.

Leave a reply