Book Review: The Perfect Scent, a year inside the perfume industry in Paris and New York
05th May, 2009
Part boardroom drama, part pop psychology, this is a book about perfume business meetings and the characters who attend them. With a strong journalistic style and an informed and opinionated perspective, Burr conjures a moist narrative from the desiccation of the money-go-round and manages to share a little knowledge along the way.
As the book begins, Burr lets us know how he came to be involved in these stories and sets the scenes. He soon establishes the main structure; The Perfect Scent follows Burr’s observations on the development of two perfumes: Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Lovely” and “Un Jardin Sur Le Nil” from Hermes. The narrative alternates between these two, juxtaposing the perfumer in the small niche house against the celebrity “creative director” (herself under considerable direction) in the huge conglomerate company. Here at the start Burr also reveals his greatest strength and his most profound weakness, the fact that he is not a perfume obsessive. Instead he is a journalist from other backgrounds who has fallen almost accidentally into this project along with his job as scent critic of “T”: the New York Times style magazine.
It reads easily, sticking close to a similar format throughout. Attention shifts from one thread to the other: now the niche, high-end “luxury” house, then the mainstream giant Coty. Now Paris and Grasse, then New York City. From the lifestyle of a television celebrity to that of J.C.Elena, a celebrated “nose” and now Hermes house perfumer. Burr describes the meetings that take place, their purpose and the environments in which they take place. He sketches out the characters involved. Here and there, he digresses and drops in a few bombs in the form of industry gossip, current trends, or revelations such as the myths about natural ingredients or the truth about big name designers not really having anything to do with the creation of their own perfumes.
We progress through these tales of briefs, the selection and rejection of attempts to meet them, contract talks, strategy meetings. On the way Burr acknowledges that both houses had clearly invited him in for the extra publicity it would generate for their products and sets out the reasons these houses agreed to the project by clarifying the market position of each in some detail. Hermes need to raise their market share and the contribution fragrance makes to their profits, Coty take very well calculated risks on the potentially enormous celebrity endorsement market.
The heart of the book continues with a sincere, entertaining and funny description of Burr’s own experience of trying to make sense of his job. In an effort to put more value into his work than a standard celebrity advertiew would contain, he tells Sarah Jessica Parker’s agent that he wants to “smell New York” with her. She takes him up on this idea. He goes on to describe the rehearsal with the photographer during which he is wondering what he let himself in for, and then the actual interview itself. The interactions between Parker, Burr, the photographer and the local populace as they wander the streets of New York reveal little of the perfume industry but do make for a witty and charming read.
Following this comes the main revelatory section where Burr discusses best seller lists for the U.S.A. and France, the plummeting budget which big companies spend on their ingredients, issues of copyright of perfume formulae, the giant owners behind the brands and the various parties involved in supplying, mixing and marketing the materials and products. There is some good solid material here, some of which non-industry enthusiast readers may know in general terms but are unlikely to have access to at this level of specifics.
Burr also freely shares his opinions on various fragrances, houses and ingredients. He compares the seminal Miss Dior to “the armpit of a woman who has not bathed for a week” and Caron’s Yatagan to “a European man removing his underwear in August”. Yves Saint Laurent’s Kouros can apparently get one “thrown out of a restaurant” in the circles in which Burr travels. He is deliberately provocative, but in a self-consciously sweeping, scattergun-aimed-at-everyone way. For this reader at least, he never crosses the line into bad taste. He keeps it all firmly light hearted in the way that only a man who is not obsessed can. However, the juice is all over too soon and the soap opera resumes…
Parker is portrayed as a well-intentioned woman with a genuine interest in perfume that has had more input than most celebrities do into the perfume that bears her name. However, it is possible to infer that this input does not actually amount to much beyond her picking between a small selection of carefully prepared options under watchful and experienced guidance. This may be a reflection of the role of “artistic directors” in general rather than anything specific to this project.
Amongst the pleasant conversations he reports, Burr observes the skill with which Ms. Parker has managed the asset that is her public persona. He does this in such a gentle and respectful way that it never becomes an assault. He is always concerned to think in a realistic and concrete way – he makes it clear he knows it would be naïve to expect a celebrity not to do this. At the same time, he allows the readers the space to question for themselves. What were Parker’s motivations? Why did she express her desire to make perfume through an industrial giant that expertly steered her so far from her original concept? The reader can see that there are other paths she could have taken. For example, she could have gone to (or set up) a niche company to create her perfume exactly as she envisaged it. These questions are never stated, but neither are they headed off.
The story of how Elena got to his unusual position as house perfumer at Hermes is woven into the narrative. He is cast as the unsung hero, inspiring new songs. He becomes the man who may forge a path for others to follow, to change the structure of the business for the better; a man of charisma and gravitas with a revolutionary minimalist style. At the same time, Burr knows he is dealing with a man skilled with presenting himself, and appreciates that skill as being to their mutual benefit.
This is a journalist’s book. From the first, Burr establishes his myth debunking, straight-talking perspective that he believes is largely missing from the highly fashion-driven perfume industry. He argues that despite years of reticence, the industry would actually benefit from revealing more of its secret workings. He describes the absurdity of attempting to keep those secrets when the only container for them is media management. He points out that the perfumers (the artists as he would cast them) get little or no recognition within the mainstream industry while celebrities and nominal clothes designers get theirs names burned onto bottles all over department stores across the globe. He does all this in a lighthearted revelatory style and with some considerable humility.
This is a journalist’s book. Burr has to sell copies. To this end we find that intertwined with the nuggets of hard information are lengthy stories of observations of characters painted in the broadest journalistic pop-psychology palette. These are both entertaining and somewhat vacuous. They are engaging in the same manner as soap operas. However, these are not the worst crass commercial soaps, but the ones that are slightly more responsible, determined to educate a little along the way, to raise issues, challenge perceptions. Also included for good measure are some gratuitous references to genitalia (men’s and women’s for balanced appeal) without which nobody would be titillated properly. The soap, penises and “mistresses undersides” leave this reader considering the struggles that may have gone into the bringing of this book to press. Perfume has been hardly present in journalism; there must have been some earnest discussion amongst those involved in its production about which shelves the book would sell from (this careful market positioning let to the editing out of some excellent material, some of which has been published as excerpts on basenotes.net. – you can read it here).
Burr has given us an interesting insight into the inner workings of a house like Hermes and the impossibility of finding out anything much about those workings in a leviathan like Coty. While the genuinely interesting material about the perfume industry is quite dispersed, digging out the nuggets is an enjoyable and easygoing experience.
Throughout, The Perfect Scent treads a skilful path between jouno-pop and serious investigation. Burr is boxed in from so many sides; he must not totally alienate those in the industry in which he operates (he still needs them to answer the phone), he also needs to sell copies. To this reader’s mind, he retains some of his serious journalistic ideals; he believes that his writing must move things somehow, broaden knowledge and understanding. Within these restrictions, he operates with experienced freedom. He walks the tightropes with impressive balance.
It is the journalist’s job to push ever so gently, to tease while keeping everyone on side. It is to his credit that Burr delights in rocking the boat, however slight the effect of the actual pitch and roll is. He may not be obsessed, but he is clearly engaged.
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