The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr: A Tiny Blow Against The Dream Empire

The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York tells the story of two perfumes: Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely, and Jean Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin Sur le Nil by Hermes, both launched in 2005.


Lovely was the first case of “celebrity perfume” where the celebrity herself had a final word on the smell. As you will learn in Burr’s book, perfume industry is built, if not on blatant lies, at least on un-rectified untruths, things that consumers are led to believe, and that the perfume houses are happy with them to believe. To put it with the author’s words, the one of perfumes is “an industry suffocating itself on the most immense pile of public relations shit human civilization has ever produced.”


One of these non-truths that are better left that way, is that designers make their own perfumes. Giorgio Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Paco Rabanne, they know squat about perfume making: in fact perfumers make fragrances for them and the designers may give one or two sniffs of approval along the way.


The lie on top of this lie comes out when with celebrity perfumes: although no-one would expect Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber to make the perfumes that carry their names, one would tend to believe that these would at least reflect their taste. Raise their hands who never believed that in the first place.


Now, that is, of course another bullshit. Celebrities get a huge sum of money from perfume licensees, and give their most precious asset in return: not thair taste in perfumes, but their being loved by millions of people.


This mechanism was turned upside down with Lovely, for which, by contract, SJPO was the artistic director.  Burr tells the story of how the actress had a very specific idea in mind at the start, and how a partial change was negotiated and accepted by her along the way.


On the other hand, Ellena’s story was interesting for two reasons: because it was a case of the most prominent perfume maker of his generation being hired by Hermes as in-house perfumer, and for how the idea for the perfume was researched and developed, with  Ellena and the Hermes people actually making a trip to the banks of Nil to smell around, It may look comic, but sure it’s something that is not normally done.


Ellena’s job was not only to make perfumes for Hermes, but also to find a new identity for the luxury brand, perfume-wise, and create commercial hits without compromising its integrity.


Those are the two main topic, but there’s much more in The Perfect Scent, there’s a view on the perfume industry from the words of insiders. Among the other things, there stories about:

1.    the relationship between the different stakeholders in the perfume industry: perfume makers, design houses, brands licensees
2.    the tribe of Grasse (or “mafia grassoise”), the French town with the highest concentration of perfume makers in the world
3.    why many perfumes are built to smell good on paper and not on skin
4.    the differences between American and French perfume industry
5.    perfume makers psychology (“Freud would have a field day in this industry”)
6.    a Cartier party
7.    the embarrassment, omissions and denial of perfume industry about topics like the use of synthetic molecules, or the fact that perfume houses sell the perfume but don’t own its formula
8.    the process of making a perfume from beginning to end
9.    how the author absolutely loathes Hugo Boss perfumes and why
10.    the importance of the bottle

Fascinating even if you don’t care about perfumes in particular. The perfume industry is not very keen on opening its doors to expose its well crafted dreams, so there may not be another book like this in the future.


Interested in the book? Click on the image below to get it from Amazon.


The Perfect Scent By Chandler Burr