Monday, 25 March 2013

A mesmerizing look inside the secretive perfume industry in The Perfect Scent

From The Week of March 18, 2013

Where there's wealth there's luxury. From the tribal leaders who collected gold and baubles to the corporate executives who accumulate diamonds and beach houses, this has been true for thousands of years. After all, what better way to signal one's importance, one's power, than to possess worthless trinkets and then ascribe value to them, to their scarcity? It is a means by which to express success and nothing more. And yet, thanks to capitalism's power to create wealth, luxuries are today a booming industry, aspirational brands that together are not only worth billions, but that have the power to announce one's arrival upon society's stage. Fine hats and expensive bags, priceless coats and be jewelled watches... These are today's gold goblets and steel-tipped arrows. These are our trinkets. For all of our enlightenment, our education, this trick still works. This lesson underpins Mr. Burr's excellent and entertaining work.

Of the many expressions of luxury, few are as potent as perfume. Considered a key weapon in the arsenal of the numerous secretive luxury houses that dominate the western world, it has been produced in a dizzying array of packages and compositions, from the innocent to the sexy, from the stayed to the eccentric, all in an attempt to obtain the perfect distillation of power and style that will not only cause humans the world over to surrender their wealth to possess it, but signal to those within range of its wearers that they are something special. Its seductions are predicated upon the evocative clout of the human sense of smell which, when activated, has an unparalleled ability to conjure up memories both new and old and, through this momentary connection, transport wearers to other places, other times.

In 2005 and 2007, first in Paris and then in New York, Mr. Burr was allowed a unique perspective of this secretive industry when, as a writer for the New York times, he was invited to write profiles of two very different perfumes. The first was Nil by Jean-Claude Ellena, a second-generation French perfumer, who was attempting to give Herme, the storied luxury house, a successful perfume to add to their other product lines. The second was Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker, an industry hit that grew out of the Sex-And-The-City star's desire to realize a dream, to bring to market a perfume that expressed her own sense of sexuality. Through these two experiences, Mr. Burr ventures into the mysterious world of perfume, a 25-billion-dollar industry whose secretiveness is legendary and whose old-world practices seem decidedly out-of-step with modern reality and economics.

Though at times unflinchingly raw, The Perfect Scent is nonetheless a delightful expose of the world of perfume. Mr. Burr, who balances his fondness for his two subjects (Parker and Ellena) with searing critiques of the industry in which they toil, is an engaging guide into a world most of us know nothing about. Step by meticulous step, he details the industry's practices and biases, revealing not only the creative genius poured into dreaming up these exotic scents, but the stodgy management that decides which of them will go to market and which will be condemned to waste away in some forgotten cupboard, never to be savored by the people who invest so much money in these strange but evocative distillations of our world.

Though Mr. Burr's characterizations of Parker and Ellena leave the reader enchanted with their humility and arrogance, confidence and vision, it is the process by which perfume is created that steals the show. The author describes in fascinating detail the degree to which perfumery has been reduced to an alchemical science, leaving vivid in the minds of his readers the image of a lonely master unpacking the various components of a half-remembered scent and committing its ingredients to paper, measuring their weights, shooting this chemical breakdown off to a lab where these scribblings are given form, molecules precisely combined and returned to the perfumer for the examination of his nose. This singular hunt, to actualize an idea and then to perfect it, makes for a mesmerizing read, one that sports few imperfections. For though Mr. Burr may at times evince a certain infatuation with Parker and Ellena, this never strays into the kind of obsequiousness that would have obscure the truths present in his entwined tales.

Enchanting work made all the more powerful for providing the reader with knowledge of an otherwise unknowable world. One of my best reads this year... (5/5 Stars)

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