Aphrodesia by John Oehler ~ book review

Aphrodesia by John Oehler, book cover

I fully admit to judging books by their covers when selecting leisure reading. In the case of John Oehler’s Aphrodesia, “sexual frenzy” promises the kind of romance novel content I can really do without. Fortunately, looking at books for this blog is an objective undertaking, otherwise I would have missed this thoroughly engaging mystery novel set in a masterful rendering of the perfume industry.

The story’s protagonist is Eric Foster, the golden boy of the perfumery program at the Osmothèque’s sister school ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire). To the envy — and alienation — of all but three of his peers, Foster is a gifted nose and a creative genius. But to the dismay of his mentor, a master perfumer who holds to the highest industry ideals, Foster’s ambition is to recreate the perfume worn by the Queen of Sheba to seduce King Solomon — an aphrodisiac, regarded as a fool’s errand. Except that Foster’s formula works. But just after his classmates prove the frightening degree of its efficacy, Foster’s key ingredient (spoiler: it’s oudh) is stolen from the school archives and he is expelled…

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A Scented Palace by Elisabeth de Feydeau ~ book review

A Scented Palace by Elisabeth de Feydeau, cover

During the reign of Marie Antoinette, more than 5,000 people lived and worked at Versailles. Given the resulting chamber pot situation, you can understand why she spent a few thousand livres a year on perfumed toiletries.

Like other royal purveyors, Marie Antoinette’s perfumer Jean-Louis Fargeon had an intimate view of the queen’s troubled tenure and the Revolution’s bloody reforms. But unlike the majority of the queen’s circle, which was prone to spending recklessly and engaging solely in frivolous pastimes, Fargeon was a competent businessman and an intellectual who would actively support the Revolution’s aims (if not its executions). Drawing on Fargeon’s papers, historian Elizabeth de Feydeau’s A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer is an illuminating biography of the reviled queen and a rich introduction to the era’s perfumed luxuries.

As a member of the merchant class, Fargeon’s education included the philosophy of the Enlightenment era, as well as the art and science of his skilled trade…

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Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris ~ book review

Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. — Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Over the years, perfumers have had some wonderfully repugnant substances in their arsenal. Some, like jasmine and oakmoss, look picturesque in nature but can waltz into a perfume with manure or pond scum caked on their boots. Others have unseemly origins, like oudh produced by fungus-infected trees and various musks harvested from animals’ rear ends. Ambergris is a bit of both. It is produced in the bowels of just one percent of sperm whales from indigestible squid parts and feces, and expelled (sometimes fatally1) to the ocean’s surface, where it ideally ages for a few years before washing ashore. It almost always smells a bit like barnyard. Like oakmoss and animal musk, it seems to belong to a past age of perfumery. But ambergris has a mystery all its own, a treasure from the sea that can bring its finder a small fortune, an olfactory enigma that is difficult to describe and impossible to create in a lab.2

Molecular biologist Christopher Kemp first heard of ambergris in 2008 when a huge block of ambergris was thought to have washed up in New Zealand, where he was living at the time…

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Glamour Icons by Marc Rosen ~ perfume books

Glamour Icons by Marc Rosen

In the foreword to Glamour Icons: Perfume Bottle Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Harold Koda discusses working with the author, Fifi-winning bottle designer Marc Rosen, on a perfume packaging exhibition (“Scents of Time”, for anyone lucky enough to have seen it in the mid-1980s). He credits Rosen with “a presentation that was at once scholarly and visually arresting.” That just about sums up Glamour Icons as well.

I didn’t know Rosen’s name before I read this book, but I’ve been a fan of his work since I can remember. Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door fragrance was a fixture on my childhood Christmas and birthday lists because of the little gold key charm that often graces the bottle. For grown-ups, of course, the design evokes the signature entryways to Arden salons. I took it as a reference to The Secret Garden, but that just goes to show how perfectly Rosen executed his message: “Here is your key to a private world meant just for you.” The Fifi judges must have agreed, since Red Door took home the award for best perfume bottle of the year in 1990. (My mother saw Vanilla Fields as a more appropriate message for a six-year-old; I never did get a bottle of Red Door…)

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Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance ~ perfume books

Aroma, Mandy Aftel and Daniel Patterson

As far as collaborative projects go, perfumer Mandy Aftel and chef Daniel Patterson totally nailed it with Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance. More of an inspiring manual than a cookbook, the down-to-earth text provides comprehensive information on making fragrance and enhancing food with 27 aromas—from classics like green tea to the intriguing litsea cubeba, distilled from a Chinese fruit.

The brilliance of Aroma is that it provides a good handful of things to do with each featured ingredient, a number of which are readily available at the grocery store. And they’re not all elaborate, hours-in-the-kitchen concoctions, either. In addition to basic dressings and sauces that can be kept for weeks or months, each section begins with simple suggestions for using a fragrance “in the everyday kitchen.” Adding a few dashes of rosewater to frozen strawberries, vodka and seltzer is a particular favorite…

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