Several people (one) of my numerous readership (three) have asked me how I find out about the perfumes that I am interested in, and if there are any good books about perfume out there. I will answer the second question first.
There are a number of good books about perfume but the choice of a book depends very much on what you want to get out of it. For example, Fabulous Fragrance II, A Guide to Prestige Perfumes by Countess Jan Moran is quite a nice book if you like the work done for you. For each of the fragrances selected by the Countess (does that have to be capitalized? I never know), there is a nice description of the perfume and how it came to be made, a list of the notes and, where appropriate, a list of the famous people that wear it.
I am not, myself, a big fan of this book. It’s all la-de-da and ladylike and full of cute insider anecdotes, but lacks some rather crucial information. For example, her description of Chloe (by Lagerfeld) is spot on (if a little fulsome) but she does not mention that it is no longer in production and that there are at least two other, lesser, versions of Chloe out there. She does not even mention that it will give you nightmares if you wear it to bed, but hey, I guess she is not a experimental researcher type like me, so I’ll give her a pass on that.
Just to prove to you that this is not an isolated example of seriously misleading/incomplete information, on the very same page as the entry for Chloe is an entry for Chantilly (originally by Houbigant, later by Dana). Does Moran mention that almost all the available Chantilly, including some that is very vintage, is by Dana and is considered to be only distantly related to the original? Nope. Perhaps the Countess has not noticed, on her weekly trip to Target to stock up on low-fat Pringles, that Chantilly is now a cheap and cheap-smelling noxious brew that you might hesitate to use to deodorize your toilet.
Still, I was prepared to understand that a book can only do so much. Moran chooses to present only the fragrances that she feels are prestigious so all the reviews are gushing with a decidedly “oh, darling” kind of delightfulness to them. I was still gamely pushing on, pretending that I didn’t find the whole thing painfully boring, when I came across the page and a half devoted to her own perfume creation, Fabulous. To compare, Chanel № 5, perhaps the most prestigious and famous perfume of all time, merits just over half a page of Moran’s page space. I want to quote a little something from the entry for Fabulous but 1) I just ate and I don’t want to lose my lunch and 2) there is just so much self-serving pomposity that it is a burden to know what to choose. However, I am a slave to my readers, so here goes:
“How shall I describe the perfume so dear to my heart? Indeed, it is like describing the depths of my heart, of all I cherish and yearn to become.”
Regarding the challenges of bottle design:
“Once again, I listened to my heart. I have a deep appreciation of fine jewelry; I love to design and collect unusual pieces, especially antique works.  I was thus inspired to immerse gemstones in my own fragrance, a rainbow assortment of purple amethyst, yellow citrine, blue topaz and red garnet. Suitable for setting, each stone is approximately one carat and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity”
I’ll just bet that made the fragrance extra yummy. Oh, and while I am on a roll here, prestigious? What kind of word is that to convey the quality of a perfume. Has anyone ever used that word in a sentence that includes an opinion about how something smells such as “Oh my, that perfume is simply prestigious?”
A book that I like much better is Scent and Subversion, decoding a century of provocative perfume by Barbara Herman. Herman runs the Yesterday’s Perfume website and she knows her vintage pongs. What is delightful (the Countess is rubbing off on me, I fear), is that she presents the fragrances of the twentieth century by decade so you can see how the fashions evolve over time. For each entry, there is a short description and a list of notes. There are also lots of really charming pictures of print advertisements that give you an idea of perfume in the historical context of the role of women and women’s sexuality in society. Fa-sci-na-ting. Really.
Herman is in love with vintage fragrances but her reviews do not gush even when she is passionate. For Fille d’Eve by Nina Ricci, she writes:
“There is something very sexy to me about the idea that you would wear a perfume not to mask your own gorgeous dirty smells with aldehydic flowers, but to enhance them.”
Waaay more interesting that Moran, even if Fille d’Eve doesn’t sound like your cuppa tea.
The only thing about Scents and Subversion that I don’t like is that it doesn’t go far enough. I want Herman to team up with a sociologist or a specialist in feminist theory and relate the scents and advertising to contemporary events and the evolution of the feminine image in society. Damn. I need that book.
The last book I need to talk about is the one I am always droning on about: Perfumes, the A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. This book provides reviews for some 1,600 fragrances available at the time it went to press. So, no vintage brews.
I have discussed The Guide previously so I won’t repeat myself, but I hadn’t realized that so many people hate it. The participants of various discussion forums pan its excessive language and vitriol particularly if said vitriol is directed at a perfume that they themselves enjoy. In the land of let’s-all-find-something-nice-to-say, this is a terrible sin. The thing is, the authors love fragrance and give you their no-holds barred opinion. It’s likely that their opinion will not always mesh with your opinion. And this is the thing; its interesting to read the reviews of perfumes that you love and they love but it’s extra interesting to read the reviews where you disagree. How insecure are you if you can’t wear a perfume that is not universally loved? Or is it just that you are so involved in your fragrance that the pain of hearing it criticized is unbearable? This is art, not science, so like what you damn well please.
The Guide is opinionated in the most obnoxious way (one commenter complained about a review that surmised that even if you hadn’t washed for a month and were covered in fleas, you might hesitate to take a shower if the provided soap had a particular fragrance. I’m sorry, I have to paraphrase because I can’t remember which specific fragrance was being reviewed. Probably something by Creed) but it is incredibly funny and, if you can take the heat, incredibly informative.
I’ll admit I was mildly ticked by the review of Y by Yves St Laurent which I did not then own. It went on an on about how if Y were a woman, it would be Danielle Darrieux; if it were a piece of music, it would be the theme to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and so on. “How useful is that?”, I thought. “I have no idea whether or not I am going to like the damn stuff.” As it turns out, Turin was exactly right. That is a perfect description of the Y, a little old fashioned, a little melancholic but oh so very French and quite, quite lovely. So, The Guide and I are BFFs again.
So, to wrap up, there are a number of publications out there. I have read just these three (oh, and The Little Book of Perfumes which is a collection of the reviews for the top-rated fragrances in The Guide) but really, I go back again and again to the internet forums, Bois de Jasmin, Yesterday’s Perfume, The Non-Blonde, MakeupAlley and all the others. When I read something about a fragrance that catches my fancy, I read every review I can get my hands on before even considering whether or not to purchase it. As you read more and sample more fragrances, you start to know which reviewers are likely to have tastes that mesh with yours. And that answers the first question in my opening paragraph. You didn’t think that I would get around to it but I did. Have a little faith.
In other news, today is July 18th. That means there are only 12 days to go until I have my $10 ebay allowance for August. It is a sad reality that I usually spend my allowance on the very first day of the month. Last month, I didn’t get even that far. There was this MIB (mint in box) bottle of Jean Naté (Charles of the Ritz) body and bath spray that was totally irresistible because it was unusually cheap, The auction ended on June 27 but that is clearly within spitting distance of July, right? Also, including shipping, it cost $10.50 so I was over budget too. Sigh.