Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Book Review: The Perfect Scent

Here's the cover I'm talking about. For future, immediate next paragraphs reference.
Here's the cover I'm talking about. For future, immediate next paragraphs reference.
Here’s the cover I’m talking about. For future, immediate next paragraphs reference.

Time on To-Read List: 1 year (5 months on physical pile, given by a friend)

Reason for Still Lurking on To-Read: Not What Fingers Spasmodically Reach For

Motivation For Finally Picking It Up: I read the first few pages (and then didn’t stop).

Man, if you would have told me that I would read, much less enjoy, much less throughly enjoy and insist upon reading aloud from on multiple occasions, what is essentially an industry analysis book, I would have held out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Kelly. Nice to meet you. Since I assume you are mistaking me for some chick you think I look like you met at your Wall Street happy hour that CLEARLY went on for far too long.” I mean, I am seldom biased against any section in the store (okay, that “Sports Memoir” area is unlikely to see except for about 20 minutes a week before my dad’s birthday every year)… but wow would you have to give me a compelling reason to go anywhere near the Business section.

Thankfully, somebody clearly knew this about me. And about the thousands of other people like me who totally should read this amazing book but not in a million years would have if it was packaged and shelved the way it logically should be. They slapped pictures of gorgeous tropical fruit and bright flowers on it, painted it a faded Tuscan tan-yellow and tucked in a picture of Somewhere-on-the-Mediterranean-Coast. Then they used that instantly recognizable NYT font to put the words “Chandler Burr- Scent Critic for T: The New York Times Style Magazine,” right in the middle of it.

WTF? Such a thing exists? And is a real job that someone gets paid for? In the 21st century? And your perfectly conceptualized cover is trying to tell me that that job is as ridiculously amazing as I would expect it to be? Aw, cover designer. You knew I could not resist such a thing. You know, with “don’t judge a book by its cover,” basically being kind of the first password you learn in booknerdland, I feel like I usually don’t have a socially acceptable occasion to toast cover designers or book marketers. But you know what? Suck it! I’m raising a glass to these unsung heroes! One in particular: Well done… Meryl Sussman Levavi. Without you, there is NO CHANCE I would have thought to come anywhere close to the incredibly fun experience of this book.

I’m so glad that this book happened to be the first solo book review I’ll be posting on my blog, because it is a fantastic argument for giving that book you were sort of interested in at one point a try. That book that no longer looks so shiny, or perhaps you feel ashamed that you were interested in. This book overcame any lingering doubts I might have had with very little trouble at all.

Okay, so let me get to the thing itself. Here’s the deal:

The Perfect Scent is, as advertised, an overview of the inner workings of the perfume industry. The action focuses mostly around Paris and New York, where Burr is given the opportunity to observe the process of conceptualizing, creating and launching two rather radically different perfumes. One is Sarah Jessica Parker’s first perfume, Lovely. The other is Un Jardin Sur Nil, a scent created for Hermes by the famous Jean-Claude Ellena (the first in-house “nose” in the Hermes’ history).

Getting this access, we find out, is pretty unprecedented. As Burr notes, “perfume is the only remaining truly French-dominated international industry; and because it is French, the industry is virulently insular, pathologically paranoid, and archaically secretive”. There is some sense to this, of course. The fragrance business, like other luxury industries, thrives off of selling images of mystery and beauty and something ineffable that mere mortals like ourselves can never quite touch (except of course, perhaps, for a moment, if we buy those shoes that gorgeous airbrushed lady is wearing). Few fragrance houses want to show you what’s behind the smoke and mirrors. From their perspective, there’s little incentive, and a lot to lose. If you pull back the curtain and show what the fairy dust they sell is actually made of, you potentially destroy the daydream, and with it, the rationale for the enormous profits that the luxury industry makes every year. This is why it takes Burr such a long time to get people to consent to be a part of this book- it’s a particularly pain-in-the-ass process in France. Eventually, Hermes, consents since they are going through something rather unprecedented themselves (taking in their first in-house perfumer in their history), followed by the team surrounding SJP’s fragrance (though on the American side they seem to be more baffled that someone would be interested in this than protective of the process).

Once he got in, it was fascinating. Let’s start with the American half of the story. I think that with an industry like this, a lot of people automatically assume that something with a French tinge is best. (For which France, to the tune of billions of dollars, thanks you. By the way, comparing the bestseller lists of perfumes in America and France was super interesting- French people tend to buy nationalistically, and Americans do too… but often only if the American produced brand is covered over by some sort of French accent or imagery.) And it is true, the images presented here are far from inspiring. He’s showing the production of a “celebrity” fragrance, which is its own animal, and has a decidedly more corporate tinge. It’s something that inherently seems like it should be a gross product made of the grossest crass commercialism and the desperate delusions of “aspiring” actresses. And sure, there’s some of that. (Someone remind me to tell you how much it costs to launch a fragrance at the Macy’s flagship store in NYC and all the insane reasons why. Never mind the constant discussions about whether some scent or other is “commercial” enough.) But there’s also some stuff was enthralling. SJP herself, for one. She comes off as weirdly humble and afraid of making a bad impression on anyone that she deems as intelligent- kind of smart enough to know that others are smarter than her. But also doing that weirdly self-conscious thing where you can’t quite tell how real it is. Also? Girlfriend likes some pretty weird scents- she basically openly proclaims her love of BO and male deer musky scents. She has to be reined in, with her project manager basically going like, “Uh… is this how we want to present you to the US, post-Sex and the City? You sure about that? Perhaps a little more pink and a few more flowers and a little less masculine underarm hair?”

Also, the way that the creation, “ownership” and ultimate monetary payments for a scent all work is pretty crazy. Ownership of scents in particular. Most often, brands do not create their own perfumes. They put together an initial conceptual description of a scent (which to me sounded like it might as well be a Pinterest board, but sometimes can be as short as “discreet, light and of quality,” an example of a perfume brief that was once sent to Ellena) and send it out to the five “Big Boys” who generally bid on, and get, the majority of high-end contracts. Individual or teams of perfumers who are, in turn, contracted to these companies, submit an opening scent, or a set of scents, that gets them past the initial round. Usually two or three groups work on round two based on the brand’s feedback, and they keep working until eventually the brand selects just one. In NO WAY are the bidding firms compensated for the bidding process, not even once they are past the initial round. All the expense and the risk up to that point is on them. Only once their scent is selected as the final one is there some form of payment. Then it completely switches. So, for example, if Ralph Lauren is paying for the creation of some Ralph Lauren scent… it does not own that scent. Ever. All rights to it belong to the Big Boy company that creates it. Ralph Lauren will never know or see the formula, and they will never produce an ounce of it. What the Big Boy company is selling to Ralph Lauren is the license to market and sell it as their own. The scent producers’ payments are guaranteed at this point- whether the perfume tanks or not, they are making money. They do not pay for any of its marketing, launch, or anything beyond physically mixing the stuff together and putting it in a bottle. Now it’s Ralph Lauren that assumes all the risk and spends all the money. And, by at least one perfume expert’s estimation, it takes a minimum of 18 million dollars to do the initial launch of one perfume in the US. The perfumers themselves, the actual creators of the thing being sold, are like ghost writers. It’s crazy- they barely show their faces. And in meetings, they’re given equal or lesser importance to the person creating the perfume the bottle goes in, or the guy running the numbers on how much a commercial for the thing is going to cost. (Burr writes the name of one of SJP’s Lovely creators in an article in the New York Times, and the guy is absolutely floored, and baffled, to be mentioned by name. The cult of “That’s not what we do” surrounds the whole thing. See below notes on Jean-Claude Ellena.) Also, and this cannot be mentioned enough- the end result of all this is the making of millions and billions of dollars. Fragrances account for some absurdly high percentage of the sales of most luxury brands- some companies, better known for their clothing, would not stay open without the money they make from their fragrances. Exploring where the money goes and why took up a lot of pages, but I never got tired of it, because it never got normal or expected in any way.

On the France side, we spend a lot of time with Jean-Claude Ellena. He is quite well known in the industry, with a few smashing successes behind him. It turns out he’s something of an iconoclast, because he actually does talk to the press about creating perfumes. This makes a lot of his fellow perfumers look down their noses at him and treat him like some guy who doesn’t know which one is the salad fork. He’s breaking the industry wide Code of Silence. But I responded super positively to him. What’s great about him is that he’s simultaneously willing and able to discuss technical aspects of the profession in a way that makes them understandable to others- in ways others can’t (like the fact that he actually puts in the scent of carrots to make what people think of mango and his ability to explain what sillage is, beautifully “the scent the perfumer’s wearer leaves behind in a space… the sense of a person being present in the room after he or she has left… the gauzy veil that envelopes you.”), and also says the amazing, mystical things, gorgeous things that you would expect someone like him to say:

“The Hermes perfume aesthetic is the idea and the simplicity. The idea is fundamental. It is like a drop of water on a leaf after the rain, a sentiment expressed in the eye of the other, a miniuniverse that carries the force of all it has created.”

We also get a pretty cool trip inside the rather closed off community of perfume creators, in Grasse, France. (Described as the sort of place where mothers compare which luxury brands their children and spouses have sold their scents to outside their BMWs as they drop their children off at school- as surreal as you would think it would be.) But I think my favorite part of this section Burr’s recurring and constant argument that he believes that is actually in the perfume industry’s interest to open up and tell people more about what they do. He thinks that exploding a few myths might actually, in the end, be good for the industry. For example, the idea that most perfumes are made of all-natural ingredients plucked from a meadow and mixed together in someone’s wooden bowl. Not only is that not true, it wouldn’t be good if it was. According to Burr, and many others in the industry, it is actually the invention of synthetic scents, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, that allowed perfumes to become complicated, and to have the “top” and “bottom” notes that people talk about. Synthetics are able to produce scents of items that cannot be distilled properly, they last longer, they are usually more stable in their scent, they smell better on the skin, and they combine better with other scents to produce new scents. Burr wants to realign perfume making away from some image of gathering flowers in fields with braids in your hair and towards the science that it actually is for the most part:

 “Explaining a jet engine or the wing of a 787 doesn’t destroy the awesome beauty of flight. It doesn’t break the dream. It does the opposite. The more you understand of science, the more you marvel at the magic of reality, and creating the dream is not the same as perpetuating ignorance… Millions are fascinated by the process by which designers cut, sew and design and agonize their fall collections into existence, but the great creative minds at Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Dior, with the collective brilliance of a single mollusk at low tide, have intuited that perfume- no. Here is an industry suffocating itself on the most immense pile of public relations shit that civilization has ever produced, a literal mountain of verbiage about “the noble materials, symbol of eternal feminine beauty, addictive notes of Cocoa Puffs, she can’t wait to taste him like a Hershey’s kiss, Cleopatra wore this, it has notes of distilled all-natural Martian fungus harvested by French virgins on the third moon of Pluto.” Reading anything they put out about perfumes is like reading a combination of Kafka, only less creative, and Pravda circa 1985. Zero interest. There is almost no recognition that the enforced lack of knowledge is creating boredom and disinterest. The perfume industry is choking itself to death on its vacuum.”

As you might be able to tell from that little rant, the real reason to pay the price of admission to this book is Burr himself. His is exactly the sort of voice I love. He is able to authoritatively walk through novices like ourselves through the basics of the industry, as well as some of its more complex threads. In addition, he is fiercely opinionated, and is capable of backing up those opinions with pages and pages of argument and fact if necessary. (As with his very strong feelings about people who think that perfume is best if it is made of all natural ingredients plucked straight from mother nature, as we saw above.) But by far the best part are his colorful, memorable opinions about perfumes themselves. Whether he loves it or hates it, it’s going to be pretty hard to forget what he says about the scents. For example, Burr absolutely hates pretty much every scent marketed to men that has pretty much ever been created. Here are just some of the glorious things he says about them:

 “The surefire formula for making a best selling masculine seems to be simply mixing together enough dihydromyrcenol (laundry detergent) with the smell of metal garbage can to choke a horse, then topping that with the smell of cryogenically frozen citrus peel dusted with DDT and a whiff of recycled plastic.”

“Number One: Fascinating scent. If a cat had morning breath, then ate kibble, then licked its anus, then licked your hand, and if you then smelled your hand, it would smell like this. (Number One, what, incidentally? The number one nuclear meltdown in a paint plant? Or maybe the one that’s not number two. If the name of this perfume is not Vile and Toasty, it is only due to the lack of appropriate application of genius at the Hugo Boss marketing department.)”

“I know someone who believes that Hugo Boss scents constitute proof that God does not exist. I would disagree- atheism is a rational response to the chaos of life, while the rational response to any perfume by Hugo Boss is to run, screaming, into someone’s parking lot- but the scents certainly do make you think of Agent Orange.”

But he also loves scents sometimes. Sometimes he smells things and even just in memory he lapses into a sort of trance he can’t break:

“What is light to you? This perfume is the scent of the darkness that inhabits the corners of the paintings by the Dutch Masters. You know Rubens’ Self-Portrait? The rich, rich purple, luscious dark that surrounds the illuminated head watching you, that bright white collar floating in the warm blackness. Rubens’ dark is not the cold heaviness of the void- it is the deep warmth of all that is there, but simply, unseen. That is this scent.”

I have a friend who love, love, loves perfumes. She tried to share her obsession with me a few years ago, and while it was a fun sort of thing to explore for a weekend, I couldn’t really get into it on more than superficial level. And a lot of what Burr talks about here sort of makes me feel like I’m right not to, at this point. But there’s something about the way he describes the good work done by so many perfumers, the way his prose comes alive when he sings about it, that also made me want to run out and actually spend real money on perfume, for the first time ever. So, despite his complaining, his love for his subject and his rage that it can’t be as good as he wants it to be, comes through. I feel that. I respond to that. And can I have a bottle of YSL Paris  now, please?

Upcoming Reviews:

Voltaire in Love, Nancy Mitford

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Walk the Blue Fields, Claire Keegan

Currently Reading:

Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust (Volume for of ISOLT)

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt