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The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York

The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York


The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York

ratings:
3.5/5 (25 ratings)
Length:
12 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Apr 13, 2008
ISBN:
9781400176571
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

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Also available as bookBook

Description

No journalist has ever been allowed into the ultrasecretive, highly pressured process of originating a perfume. But Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic, spent a year behind the scenes observing the creation of two major fragrances. Now, writing with wit and elegance, he juxtaposes the stories of the perfumes-one created by a Frenchman in Paris for an exclusive luxury-goods house, the other made in New York by actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Coty, Inc., a giant international corporation. We follow Coty's mating of star power to the marketing of perfume, watching Sex and the City's Parker heading a hugely expensive campaign to launch a scent into the overcrowded celebrity market. Will she match the success of Jennifer Lopez? Does she have the international fan base to drive worldwide sales?



In Paris at the elegant Hermès, we see Jean Claude Ellena, his company's new head perfumer, given a challenge: he must create a scent to resuscitate Hermès's perfume business and challenge le monster of the industry, bestselling Chanel No. 5. Will his pilgrimage to a garden on the Nile supply the inspiration he needs? The answer lies in Burr's informative and mesmerizing portrait of some of the extraordinary personalities who envision, design, create, and launch the perfumes that drive their billion-dollar industry.
Publisher:
Released:
Apr 13, 2008
ISBN:
9781400176571
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook


About the author

Chandler Burr is the New York Times scent critic and author of The Perfect Scent, The Emperor of Scent, and A Separate Creation. He has written for the Atlantic and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.

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3.7
25 ratings / 22 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (3/5)
    As the New York Times perfume critic, Chandler Burr was able to spend a year behind the scenes watching two perfume firsts unfold. First, Sarah Jessica Parker wanted to be involved in creating her own perfume, far more than most celebrities or brands that get their names put on a perfume. Second, the famous perfumer Jean Claude Ellena was about to make his first perfume as the head perfumer at Hermès. Both had many reasons for wanting to get their perfume just right and this book is one of the first looks at how perfumers go about designing the perfect scent.

    Well, the hype about how interesting it would be to see into the perfume industry was (surprisingly!) not overstated. It was very cool to learn how much making a perfume is both an art and a science. The culture is rich with tradition and the people involved in the industry had funny, ironic, insightful, and though-provoking comments about the way the perfume industry functions. As an outsider, I liked that the author was also an outsider. I think hearing everything from his perspective, as someone who enthuses about scent rather than obsessing over it, made the story easier to relate to. At the same time, it was clear that time spent working with perfumers had rubbed off on the author, who described scents and places in vivid detail.

    For the most part though, I didn’t think the author lived up to his subject. I would have loved to get to know all the characters he introduced in connection to the two stories. Instead, so many people were introduced and so little back-story was provided for any of them, that they all quickly blurred together. The perfume industry was an enthralling subject all by itself, but like the characters, the story arc connecting the chapters often disappeared in broader comments on the perfume industry. Or worse still, the story got buried under the author’s lists of chemical components; pedigrees of who made which perfume; or snobbish rants about perfumes the author didn’t like.

    Finally, his descriptions deserve a paragraph to themselves. Some were wonderful and he did do a good job describing scents. But others were obscure (such as comparisons to particular artists or architects); some were bizarre (a person described as having “a supple character”); and others were potentially offensive ( a perfume described as being “as self-assured and direct as the gaze of an African woman” or a person who was like a “slightly sleepy Jewish grizzly bear”). Let me just ask, what on earth is a supple character? And how is comparing someone to a Jewish grizzly bear supposed to be different from a comparison to just a grizzly bear?

    So since that blows my three paragraph limit all to pieces, I’ll wrap up. The bottom line is that this book covered an incredibly interesting topic and while I was disappointed in the way it was written, I liked the book and would still recommend it. I just needed to rant a little about it first :)

    This review first published on Doing Dewey.
  • (3/5)
    unexpectedly fascinating.
  • (3/5)
    Excellent business story. I was looking for the details of revenue, costs and profitability of luxury goods ... and they are sprinkled throughout a bit, but rather indirectly.
  • (3/5)
    The book is excellent, but the narrator’s constant mispronunciations of French words and phrases is very distracting. I recommend reading the ebook unless you don’t know any French and won’t notice this. (I’m not a native or fluent speaker; it’s just that bad.)

    **EDIT: It’s not just French he mis-pronounces. examples: “Amyl,” as in amyl salicylate, becomes “AY-mul.” Lilac is “LIE-lock”. Neroli is “ne-ROLL-rye”. It’s so grating!

    5 stars for the content, 1 star for the narration.
  • (2/5)
    As the very long title suggests this is a nonfiction account of the perfume industry discussing everything from the conception of the famous No. 5 to the process from beginning to end, of getting a perfume into the marketplace. It follows the new Sarah Jessica Parker fragrance. Despite the fact that some parts are very “chemist technical” I found the book an interesting read, with a few juicy tidbits of information thrown in about those famous fragrances (men’s and women’s) that we know so well.
  • (3/5)
    What could have been an incredible story turned out to be hit or miss, for me. To put together this book, Burr combined and expanded two interesting and well-written reportage pieces — one written for the New Yorker and one for the New York Times Style Magazine. As a result the continuity of each story suffers, and the reader tends to lose track of some of the subsidiary characters, which is a minor shame. But the real problem comes when he pads those stories with long, personal screeds on the perfume industry that become unpleasantly rant-y. Less would have been more.
  • (4/5)
    I enjoyed this immensely. It's one of those books one carries around reading aloud from. Full of fascinating chemistry tidbits as well as the slightly less fascinating celebrity/designer ones. Burr's scathing, off-the-cuff assessments of current perfumes are hilarious, as are his other asides. Here's a favorite quote:

    "Perfumers are deeply strange people simply because their sensorial perception of the world is so highly trained. The educated olfactory capacity makes spending time with them not unlike spending time with talking Labradors."

    Well written and engrossing.
  • (4/5)
    I'm not quite sure why I find his books so fascinating--is it the subject matter or his writing? Either way, I finished it in one day, and immediately went online and ordered a bunch of perfume samples so I could find out what he was talking about.
  • (5/5)
    An absolutely amazing book--it's just the right mixture of gossip, science and information. Burr's writing style is eminently clear and readable, and he presents what could be stultifying and confusing elements of the science of perfumery and the structure and marketing of the perfume industry in such a way as to make them understandable to the reader without being patronizing.

    I also loved the interjections of his own opinions on famous and not-so-famous perfumes.
  • (4/5)
    This was a more enjoyable read than I'd been expecting. It's been on my TBR list for a few years, but I'd hesitated to read it because I wasn't terribly interested in the products described; I'll admit that I've not yet sampled SJP's Lovely but I found Covet to be truly vile and, while I can intellectually appreciate J.-C. Ellena's work, I generally find it too bitter to be wearable. However, while I sometimes found Burr's writing style to be occasionally irritating, the content was quite entertaining and very informative about modern perfumery as an industry. For perfume as an art/science, I'd recommend Luca Turin's work first, though.
  • (4/5)
    The March 2005 New Yorker article by Chandler Burr on perfume (The Scent of the Nile) was so intriguing that I was delighted to read a more detailed explanation on the creation of a personal scent. The Perfect Scent is charming, interesting, gossipy, and informative. The science of scent is made as interesting as the art of it; Mr Burr, who writes Scent Notes for the New York Times, knows his stuff, but he keeps it light and accessible. Even individuals who cannot wear perfume (or be around strong scents) because of allergies should find something to enjoy in this book. Highly recommended.
  • (1/5)
    I usually enjoy non-fiction, especially "Histories of X" or "A Year in Y"... but this book was an utter failure for me. It seemed more interested in recounting celebrity gossip and fashion than talking about the industry. It jumped around from Paris to New York and back again, but not in an engaging way, it was just confusing. I was utterly uninterested and couldn't even finish the book. I went back to it a couple of times over the course of a few months, but could only ever read a few pages before giving up.
  • (4/5)
    I don't read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure, mostly because I read so much of it for work. Maybe I should change that, because I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Burr, who also wrote a book I have sitting in my unread stack from Midwinter, is a really engaging writer. The book tells the stories of the creation of two different perfumes: one is Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely, the other is a commission for Hermes. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between a celebrity perfume that would be mass marketed and one for a luxury brand that would be sold in much more exclusive markets. He explains the intricacies of both the way perfume is created and the way the industry works without getting so detailed as to be technical and boring.The personalities of the people he met really come through in the story. Little details like what they wear and how they speak help flesh them out as real people, rather than caricatures. SJP seems like really smart and opinionated busineswoman, which isn't necessarily surprising, but it was a different side of her than we get to see when she acts. I also liked learning about peculularities of communication among the different groups of people--the French, PR people, perfumers, executives. Very human and funny stuff.
  • (4/5)
    Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent follows the development and marketing of two perfumes within the walls of two major players in the industry: Hermès and Coty. The fast-paced story bounces between Paris and New York. Jean-Claude Ellena provides a thoughtful and intimate account of the development of "Un Jardin sur le Nil" for Hermès. In New York, Coty worked with Sarah Jessica Parker to create "Lovely."The perfume industry is highly secretive and speculative with an aura of glamour. Readers will be treated to mounds of information about the business and science of perfume. While the development of a formula involves "techie" chemistry, Burr is able to present the details without losing readers. He also has a superior ability to describe scents in words. The description of natural musk (muscone) is a fine example:"Muscone is found, at a concentration between 0.5 percent and 2 percent, in something called Tonquin musk, a richly stinking secretion mixing hundreds of molecules that comes from a gland inside the male musk deer. Extract the rich secretion, separate out the little bit of muscone from it, and by itself this one molecule has the warm, sensual, rich scent of clean warm skin. It’s only this molecule (not the full, richly stinking, animalic Tonquin musk secretion) that perfumers call the scent of musk."Here is Burr’s depiction of L’Eau d’Italie’s “mesmerizing, shadowy” Bois d’Ombrie:"… putting it on was like slipping on an organza silk shirt. You saw the material―the silken, shadowy wood smell―it had immense, gorgeous form, an yet it was transparent, if not invisible, and you saw every bit of skin underneath. Bois d’Ombrie was an olfactory garment. It sat on you like the most gorgeous Givenchy haute couture piece, and yet it became part of you somehow."I found the comments of perfumers particularly interesting. For example, Ellena notes: "They say cooking is an art and pastry is a science. Perfumery is a math, specifically an algebra. All these interactions."I enjoyed the book. There are memorable characters, excitement, historical insights, and wonderful descriptions of various locations, including Egypt. Quite frankly, I had never given much thought to perfume. I am paying attention now! The nuances of illusion that perfumers create are fascinating.There are a few caveats. The book could be somewhat shorter. There are sections that feel patched together, possibly from previously published articles. I found the use of French in the text distracting. Those who can read French will naturally examine the English translation that follows the French to find out if it is translated correctly. Some of the translations are banal: “She paused again, then said, ‘Non, je ne pense pas.’ No, I don’t think so.” Lastly, the index is shallow. Proper names and nouns are included, but there is very little analysis of the thematic substance of the book.The Perfect Scent provides a delightful introduction to the multi-billion dollar perfume industry. It is a “good read” and full of information about the power of scent.
  • (4/5)
    An info-packed book about the making of two very different perfumes. Burr has the connections to take the reader inside meetings with the higher-ups of Hermes and Coty. He also has the education to know all the scientific terms for what we are actually smelling in a fragranceBurr's writing style is two-sided. He writes with attention to the most minute detail, which is great when describing a boat trip down the Nile with the perfumer from Hermes. Not so great as we are forced to attend the umpteenth meeting in a little conference room as people take turns positioning leaves on a piece of plastic for a display stand. Do we need to know the comments and opinions of each person in the room?Burr can be witty as he describes famous scents he hates (Hugo Boss in particular) and he is good at describing the scent of various synthetics. But be warned that "anus" is his favorite word and he uses it describe many innocuous scents. I would recommend this book to someone who had a real interest in the actual making of a fragrance. I could do without Burr's fawning over the people he meets, and the too detailed descriptions of the many, many meetings read like the notes of a highly conscientious court stenographer, so for that reason I wouldn't recommend it to someone who just wants a casual read.
  • (4/5)
    I have a passing interest in perfume, so when this book popped up in the Early Reviewers group, I thought I'd give it a shot. Sure enough, this was the book I snagged.As it turns out, The Perfect Scent was a pleasant surprise. The book flips back and forth between the creation of two very different perfumes: one, the luxury house Hermes' Un Jardin sur La Nil, and the other, Sarah Jessica Parker's perfume, Lovely. It's not just a straightforward telling, however. As Burr himself warns us in the prologue, "The years I spent following these two stories were mapped in scent...and I recall its chapters by their smells." True to his word, much of the descriptive language used is entirely olfactory. Also, but perhaps not as intentionally, just like a scent, the narrative tends to drift and float slowly towards its conclusion; there are some slightly self-indulgent pit stops in restaurants and parties and street corners in Paris and New York both. Unlike some other reviewers, I found this to be more enjoyable than not. The key is to recognize that the subtitle of the book lies a little in this regard; The Perfect Scent is not just a story of the perfume industry, it is the story of the author following the story.Personally, I favored the portions of the book that focused on Hermes and its perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena. It is in this section that Burr digs into the archaic industry that is perfume, as well as the modern way in which it is made. As he follows Ellena, we get a very good view not only into centuries-old perfume tradition, but also into the labs and warehouses where perfume is created today. As some have noted, Burr does use a lot of French in these sections, but I never found it bothersome in the least. Nor was I put off by copious molecular descriptions (I found it all fascinating), but I can see how some people would be. The other half, which follows Sarah Jessica Parker and her committee-like posse of directors through the creation of her own scent, is not quite as interesting, perhaps because it is infinitely more recognizable. The French perfume industry has been a cloak-and-dagger affair since it began, but an office building in New York City? Nothing particularly mysterious about that. Still, it's a good look at the million dollar industry and the social presence that celebrity perfumes have become. I'm also take the portions in which Burr actually interacts with Parker with a grain of salt; he makes it pretty clear that he had to jump through hoops to get this gig, and I'm willing to bet he's not going to jeopardize it by describing it even remotely negatively. All told, I got the sense that The Perfect Scent was almost but not completely honest; it doesn't tell the reader everything, but gives them a nod and a wink, asking them to read between the lines for themselves. Nonetheless, it is a terribly interesting look into the secretive world of perfume. Definitely recommended.
  • (4/5)
    I was surprised by how much I liked this book. This book covers a year in the life of the production of two perfumes, one ultra luxury scent by Hermes and the other a celebrity scent by Sarah Jessica Parker. Mr. Burr had an inside view and takes the reader along. I love perfume, but hate the price. Mr. Burr does a very good job of explaining everything that goes into the process of creating a scent and wow is it expensive! :o) I was amazed by how complex the creation and marketing of scent really is, and how very French it all is. Mr. Burr is a wizard of description, and his descriptions of the different perfumes and all of the individual scents that go into them was absolutely delicious . . . when it wasn't nauseating. You will be amazed by how disgusting some of the scents are that go into very popular perfumes. The author keeps the pace brisk, with a few small exceptions (do we really need to know ALL of the details of Paris Hilton's perfume contract?), and he holds your interest throughout. He is kind to all of his subjects and I appreciate that while he doesn't portray any of these people as perfect he has an appreciation for their humanity and highlights their positive qualities. This isn't a book that takes the usual easy route of dishing on or being contemptuous of celebrities or rich people. Instead the writer does a rare job of exploring the job of creating luxury and its place in the world that is respectful of these people and the art they are trying to bring into the world.This is a fascinating tale that is in its own way hearfelt and moving. And I learned some things I didn't know, which I always consider to be a plus. If you're interested at all in perfume, you'll enjoy this book.
  • (3/5)
    Briefly, this book describes the development of two different perfumes, Un Jardin sur le Nil from Hermes and Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker. It reads almost like two separate books. The "Hermes" book is fascinating - we follow the perfumer from initial concept through the various iterations. It is in this section that Burr goes into detail about scent - we learn about the compounds that make different smells, and what perfumers actually do, and natural vs. synthetics, and the whole creative process. It is wonderful. I could read 300 pages of this. Because the focus is on one perfumer, the details about his life and history are important to help us understand where he is coming from, and where he gets his inspiration. This section would get 5 stars from me.The "Lovely" section is basically just a celebrity puff piece, and if I were cynical I would suggest that it is a marketing ploy to help sell more bottles of Lovely. SJP is so natural! So real! So interested in scent! Really! She is not at all like those other celebrities! Whatever. If this section was a stand-alone book, I'd have thrown it aside after about 20 pages and given it one star. Therefore, I split the difference and gave it 3 stars.Quibbles: He does use a lot of French. Which would be fine, but then he insists on translating it in the very next sentence. Look, we understand that the person speaking is French. NO NEED to stick in "C'est dommage!" to remind us of the fact. It is distracting. There really is far too much personal description. Padding the book, maybe? I don't care that a perfumer looks like a "sylvan faun". What does that have to do with chemistry?This book could have been great, but wasn't.
  • (3/5)
    A non-fiction book that looks at the inside world of perfume making. Burr tackles both American (New York City) and French (Paris/Grasse) methods. He tracks two perfumes as they go from concept to a range of test scents to market. The American perfume is Lovely by Coty, a celebrity perfume for Sarah Jessica Parker. The French perfume is Jardin sur le Nil for Hermes.The writing is good and there are patches where the book is very interesting. Unfortunately he tries to cover too much ground, and he seems to include everything that passes before his eyes. He spends too much time on people who are not really important to the story. We learn about their clothes choices, their sexual orientation, their personal history and sometimes that of their grandparents ! I suspect he is trying to make interesting characters, and not being a fiction writer, doesn't know how. He seems to mention too many people too often, as though he is currying favor, paying off debts or building up future goodwill he can trade for favors. He is the Perfume critic for the New York Times, so these people are his bread an butter in terms of access. I get the impression he actually wrote this, not for the public, but for the handful of people in-the-know in his industry. It strikes me as a name dropping fest and not just for Sarah Jessica Parker. He almost can't mention her without listing her people. though he makes her out to be a replica of the blonde kook she played on TV: Everyone loves the smell of body odor, but is afraid to say so. He goes on and on about how wonderful she is, how thoughtful, how involved in the actual scent creation. The subject itself bounces around from business meetings, labs, marketing ideas, packaging, testing of the fragrance, options for delivery of the scent, chemical composition, store placement, launch parties, and sales results. Its just too broad. I never felt the book tied anything together, because he was darting here and there, then from America to France and in some spots he went back in the time line. Very muddled, and lacking in focus: is it the people, is it the business, is it the chemical, is it the marketing illusion? He might have been able to pull it off, if he kept to a straightforward time line, picked only one country/perfume, and trimmed the name dropping. The other issue is there is way too much French in the book. He mentions all the time he lived in France, so he has whole sentences, which are sometimes translated, and sometimes not (and not always accurately). Its very annoying because the names are already heavily slanted to the French. Just too much work for too little return.I can't say I would recommend this, and I will probably not read any more of his books. In fact if this wasn't an Early Review book, I probably would have given up on it before the end. The final horror was the book came with a scented book mark. It was the perfume Lovely, which smelled like Industrialized Lawn Clippings. It really should have come with a machete.
  • (3/5)
    I read it across the street from a Neiman Marcus, in order to storm the gates for spritzes of "Jardin sur le Nil" and "Infusion d'Iris" and "L'Heure Bleue."

    It's rarely described in words, but Chandler Burr really tries; he's a NYT journalist who recently found his niche in writing about scent and perfume. His earlier book, "The Emperor of Scent" (on the trail of Luca Turin, a gregarious neurophysicist and perfume genius), chronicled the biological side of odor, a corner of human experience largely mysterious to scientists and untouched by writers.
    Chandler's new book focuses more on the craftsmanship and business of making two big-name perfumes in 2006 (one is Sarah Jessica Parker's unorthodox and lively perfume direction; the other is an Hermes perfume about an Egyptian garden). Art, science and commerce, together forever at last!
  • (4/5)
    very interesting and engaging look into a very private industry. for me perfume is the intersection of art, science and business; a combination of three topics that intrigue me.
  • (5/5)
    Well written from a journalist's perspective, this book chronicles a year in the perfume industry from two sides - the launch of Sarah Jessica Parker's _Lovely_ and its line extension, and the launch of Hermes' _Un Jardin sur le Nil_. Chandler writes about perfume confidently, and in such a way as to educate those of us that are scent heathens. The book flowed with an easy rhythm and taught me about the perfume industry - its business practices, its heroes, its demons - and yet still remained accessible. Well recommended to anyone who is interested in this arcane business, or who likes the business of scent.