The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 19, 2008

Book review: Guide a sweet-smelling primer on fragrances

‘Perfumes: The Guide’

By Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

“Perfumes” is a unique book, a primer on fragrance and reviews of almost 1,500 fragrances. Turin has a doctorate in biophysics and is a leading expert on olfactory science, while Sanchez is a fragrance collector and reviewer and avid fan.

The first 50 or so pages are devoted to the whys and wherefores of fragrance. There is a fascinating chapter on the history of fragrance, explaining the chemistry involved and the evolution of the sources used for fragrances and an explanation of how perfumes are made. The difference between perfumes and eau de toilette and other types of fragrance is outlined and there are sections on women’s and men’s fragrances, including classifications (beyond the usual chypre/Oriental/floral/fougere). The authors are nothing if not opinionated, which is what makes this book so much fun. Agree or disagree with them, the writing is informed and informative as well as witty.

After that first section, there are the reviews. Fragrances are rated from 1 to 5 stars, followed by a two-word “character” note, like “sweet woody” or “smoky carnation.” Some are more than descriptive — they’re indictments, like “floral mess,” “hideous oriental,” “floral abomination” or “Godzilla floral.” I could go on all day with those.

The actual review comes next, and those vary from a sentence or two to a bit over a page for some. I found the reviews terrific reading, although some of the allusions and references (not to mention the French phrases and whatnot) were a bit over my head. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to enjoy negative reviews more, perhaps because they give the writer a lot of room to move. A couple of my favorites: “212 by Carolina Herrera, 1 star, harsh floral. Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut”; and “Cumbia Colors Woman by Benetton. 1 star, sour flower. Ghastly little squeaky-clean stunted floral.” It’s amazing how well they can convey what something smells like with a few well-chosen words.

It was hard to find a five-star review to include here, since it’s easy to be dismissive with a few words but hard to be enthusiastic without being more wordy. So, here’s about the shortest five-star review I found: “Enlevement au Serail by Parfums MDCI. 5 stars, peach jasmine. Despite the silly name (Abduction in the Seraglio, after Mozart’s opera), I love this fragrance, and sprayed it several times while writing this review to rewind it to the beginning and see the title sequence again, for it is stunning. It starts with an intensely animalic floral top note; moves on to a golden, seraphic chord of jasmine and peach in the fifties-revival manner of 31 Rue Cambon (which, to be fair, came five years later); and gradually settles to a classical, well-poised voice with a hint of a spicy-woody rasp. You’ll probably want to spray it on fabric to admire the graceful trajectory in slow motion.”


Following the reviews is a glossary and several top 10 lists (best florals, best women’s, best men’s, and my two favorites — best loud and best quiet) and then the index. Since the fragrances are listed alphabetically in the book, the index is done by star rating, so you can look up all the five star-rated fragrances or, for that matter, the one star-rated ones. Why would you want to look up the one-star fragrances? Maybe if you’re trying to buy a gift for someone you don’t really like (and won’t have to smell).

My one complaint about the book is that there is no reason given for why the fragrances reviewed were included or why others were left out. I know, of course, that not even half of the available fragrances could have been included, but it would have been nice to know why the selections were made. Whim? Sales figures? Who knows. At any rate, whether you wear scent or not, a very interesting and fun read.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.