Issue Date: September 15, 2008
Scents and Sensibility
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I attended a Fragrance Foundation event in New York City. The foundation is an industry-supported organization based in New York City that aims to advance the image of the fragrance industry; it does so in part through educational programs.
The event included a discussion by perfume consultant Michael Edwards about ways in which marketers can "elevate a fragrance." I was intrigued by his assertion that "perfume is pleasure; it is liquid emotion." So of course I thought, on the basis of no particular knowledge whatsoever, that to evoke an emotion, a natural fragrance had to be better than a synthetic fragrance. Edwards, who has a few books of his own to his credit, such as "Fragrances of the World," told me that I assumed incorrectly. Synthetic chemicals are the workhorses of the fragrance business, he told me.
I filed that answer away in my head. It was the one really substantive bit of information I picked up at the Fragrance Foundation. I couldn't get beyond the hype of that evening's presentations until I read Chandler Burr's "The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York."
About a third of the way through the book, I found the explanation I was looking for: "The industry as a general rule is blindly and adamantly convinced that the public will only buy perfumes it believes to be 'natural,' " Burr writes. "Since on average perfumes contain 80 percent synthetics, the industry lives every day terrified that the client won't like reality, which thus needs to be suppressed at all costs."
Burr skillfully illustrates this fear that consumers will not like the reality behind the synthetics the fragrance industry relies on. He weaves two separate stories about how, on the one hand, the Paris-based luxury retailer Hermés handles the development of its latest fragrance called Un Jardin sur le Nil, and how, on the other hand, New York City perfume marketer Coty develops its latest fragrance called Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely.
For its part, Hermés calls on the talents of master French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena and charges him with the task of developing a fragrance to rival the industry's longtime bestseller Chanel No. 5. Coty executives take a different tack, engaging "Sex in the City" television star Sarah Jessica Parker to lend not only her star power but also her own sensibility and work with International Flavor & Fragrance perfumers Laurent Le Guernec and Clément Gavarry to develop Lovely.
Burr is the perfume critic for the New York Times and a contributor to the New Yorker. Stories that he wrote for each of these periodicals contained the kernels of what would become "The Perfect Scent." He has a degree in international economics and credits the "haphazardness of life" for bringing him to the Atlantic as a science journalist. Burr thus brings an outsider's viewpoint along with a reporter's skeptical instincts to get to the heart of the perfume business. But he employs a variety of novelistic techniques to tell the stories surrounding the development of the Hermés and Coty perfumes.
Narrative passages, for instance, switch back and forth between the development of Un Jardin on the one hand and Lovely on the other. He describes his antipathy for some and admiration for other people who play a role in the perfumes' development. And his descriptions of smell can be positively lyrical. He calls a molecule known as Hedione, a synthetic derivative of a molecule from the jasmine flower, "a gorgeous molecule, a man-made beauty with an ethereally unidentifiable scent, like olfactory halogen light in a liquid form."
It is difficult to capture an odor in a word or phrase. Burr mostly succeeds, but sometimes he does not. I have no idea, for instance, what "the scent of the stratosphere" is when he describes a perfume made for the fragrance line of Frédéric Malle. At other times, his descriptions of certain odors seem intensely personal and more meaningful to Burr himself than to his reader. In some cases he references human or animal smells in ways that are not exactly obscene but are unprintable here.
Burr writes about the fragrance business with a certain charm that puts in perspective his reporter's frustration at dealing with the industry's duplicity. "Reporting on scent is akin to a rocket's launching," he writes. "You expend your greatest energy fighting free of the public relations muck. Once that's done, if you actually find any substance, the real work is (comparatively) weightless."
He hates, for instance, the public relations releases and product packaging that describe new scents with verbiage such as "Cleopatra wore this" or "it has notes of distilled wild all-natural Martian fungus harvested by French virgins on the third moon of Pluto." And he asserts that were the industry more open and less secretive about the art of mixing molecules, industry sales would pick up.
Burr's admiration for the perfumers, the men and women who assemble complex mixtures of memorable and best-selling fragrances, is boundless. He describes perfumers such as Ellena, Le Guernec, and Gavarry with the same sort of reverence certain moviegoers reserve for film industry auteurs such as Orson Welles or Woody Allen. The actors and the perfume ingredients are the bit players, admired for the roles they play in the final product and not for themselves alone.
JUST ABOUT any chemist should appreciate Burr's history lesson. Synthetics were just the sort of actors that made it possible for perfumers to become the artists they are today, he notes. Until 1882, natural perfumes were the rule. In that year, a synthetic molecule Burr identifies as coumarin, which has a scent of marzipan, entered commerce. Other synthetics followed and "freed" the perfumers to begin creating art.
From a business perspective, I was fascinated to learn that it's the fragrance developers such as Estée Lauder, L'Oréal, and Coty that are the commercial forces behind new fragrances introduced to the market. The large manufacturers of fragrance molecules such as International Flavors & Fragrances, Firmenich, and Quest bid for the developers' business in hopes of developing a lucrative outlet for their ingredients should a fragrance succeed with the public.
I must say I found two things about Burr's book annoying. First, throughout the book, Burr quotes many French speakers in French. To his credit, he does supply a translation of the French passages. But I do not expect or want to read an English-language book filled with French to show me how quintessentially French the Hermés executives and perfume experts are.
And second, Burr occasionally slips in esoteric references that are inconsiderate of the uninformed reader. For instance, he tells his reader that the "rich gourmandy vanilla molecule" at the heart of the fragrance Shalimar is also known by "its IUPAC name 3-ethoxy-4-hydroxybenzaldehyde." He never stops to inform the reader what chemists already know but the general public does not. IUPAC is the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry and is the world authority on chemical nomenclature.
Those nits aside, "The Perfect Scent" makes perfect sense of a business full of elegance, snobbery, lots of bombast, more than a little chemistry, and a great deal of art. It is a fascinating read and well worth seeking out at the local bookstore.
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