Writing about perfume, and smells in general, is one of the greatest challenges for a journalist/author: how to evoke scents, with words…? But over the years, quite a few have done so very, very successfully. And if you want to build a ‘perfume bookshelf’, to deepen your knowledge of perfumery, start here…
We’ve awarded each title stars out of five, as a guide to which we think are the most important, and the all-round best reads. Nothing less than a three-star book is feataured here, though – so we reckon any of them are a worthwhile read.
As you become ever-more-obsessed (and we know how that feels), you may want to add to your collection – and of course, we’ll add to this section whenever new releases catch our eye…
We’d always prefer you support an independent bookstore rather than One-Clicking on Amazon – these indie stores can happily order most in-print books. However, in a super-busy world, we know it isn’t always practical. (And if you’re happy to buy secondhand – most titles are available via Amazon – this does often support smaller bookstores.)
Looking for out-of-print perfume titles in secondhand bookstores can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, meanwhile. If you’re in a hurry, we generally recommend abebooks.com, which links thousands of secondhand bookstores around the world, while Amazon can be a source for remaindered books…
Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances
Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances, by Michael Edwards. Won the lottery? Spring for this. The blossoming interest in all things fragrant has elevated many out-of-print books on the subject to the realms of ‘When my ship comes in…’ territory. One heck of a weighty, well-researched volume, this – from Michael Edwards, one of the world’s most knowledgeable perfume experts – this goes into great depth on some of the greatest fragrances ever created (all French, as the title notes), since the dawn of modern perfumery in 1882. Think: L’Heure Bleu, L’Air du Temps, Calandre, Coco, Boucheron, Trésor – the trail runs out in 1992 (shortly before the book was published), but all of us perfume-lovers should probably be lobbying the publisher for a reprint and an update.
Perfume – The Art and Craft of Perfume
Perfume – The Art and Craft of Perfume, by Karen Gilbert. Karen Gilbert is one of the British perfumers who runs occasional fragrance-making courses for The Perfume Society. (She worked for fragrance house IFF, and also at Neal’s Yard Remedies, after pursuing her passion for aromatherapy.) And here’s her at-home, how-to introduction to creating your own unique perfume. It looks at the psychology and classification of fragrances, talks about layering – and delves into the distinctions between natural and synthetic fragrances, before sharing the easy-to-follow secrets of blending at home. (With all the requisite safety info, too.)
Perfume: Le Snob
Perfume: Le Snob, by Darius Alavi. Darius is an award-winning perfume blogger (a.k.a. Persolaise, and you can read his writing on this site) – and this purple pocket guide is his first book, which has a ‘Moleskine’-like notebook format. It does live up to its ‘snob’ name – one for the lovers of ‘niche’ perfumery, and a great gift for a scent-loving friend you can’t stretch to a bottle of Tom Ford or Miller Harris for. Perfume: Le Snob for the most part explores the world of lesser-known fragrance brands, with more practical sections from fragrance experts including Roja Dove, Francis Kurkdjian, Linda Pilkington (of Ormonde Jayne) and The Perfume Society’s co-founder, Jo Fairley. It will definitely give you some leads for sensational fragrances to explore on your own pulse-points (even if some take a little effort to ‘sniff out’, location-wise).
Perfume: The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances
Perfume: The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances, by Susan Irvine. Susan Irvine writes so evocatively about perfume, and was so often winner of the perfume industry’s own literary award, The Jasmine Award, that her writing colleagues almost gave up entering…! This coffee table book is long out of print, but worth sniffing out on secondhand book sites (where it’s available very inexpensively). It’s particularly good on natural ingredients, the history of the great perfume houses, and the links between fragrance and fashion.
Perfume: A Century of Scents
Under the premise of 'every perfume has a tale to tell' the wonderful olfactive adventurer, Lizzie Ostrum explores signature scents and long-lost masterpieces while waxing lyrical about the often wildly wacky characters and campaigns that launched them. A long-time friend and all-round fragrance maven, Lizzie is also known by the sobriquet Odette Toilette, under which guise she organises fascinating interactive trawls through the history of scent, and here collecting those often un-told stories of how perfume houses came to be - and the highly personal ways fragrance plays a part in everyone's history. From school changing room memories of lavishly applied body sprays to the most glamorous scents you can possibly imagine - Lizzie tells each tale with her trademark wit, yet filled with fascinating facts. We were glued to the pages from the moment we first held a copy, and this completely charming, totally accessible book is a real treasure trove of memories to savour.
Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent
Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent, by Neil Chapman
Spoiler alert: this is just the best perfume book we’ve read in YEARS – and it definitely belongs on every perfumista’s fragrant bookshelf. Best known as the blogger ‘Black Narcissus’, Neil Chapman divides fragrances by type, ranging from green scents to flowers, taking in the classic fragrance families (the floral-aldehydes and Chypres), moving on through gourmand, sexy scents, woods, incense, oceanic smells and ultimately, embracing futuristic smells. There are chapters called 'The Spice Rack' and 'Eros', and in all, well over 700 brilliantly concise, thought-provoking reviews. Though we think he got the title wrong. Because there’s no way you’ll be able to stick to one signature scent, after reading this.
Publisher: Hardie Grant
Find it at Amazon
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. Wonderfully readable, compelling and sinister all at once, this novel – later made into a movie starring Ben Whishaw – is probably the most successful ever to turn ‘words’ into ‘smells’, in fiction, recreating the world of 18th Century France in all its beauty, horrors and downright fetid odors. A must-read for the perfume-lover (although probably not late on a dark night when you’re alone). Note: At the time the film was produced, Thierry Mugler produced just 300 coffrets of fragrances created to evoke different smells from the book, with names like Baby, Paris 1738, Aterlier Grimal, Boutique Baldini, Virgin Number One, Orgie – and so on. The ultimate collector’s item – and you can read more, terrific reviews at The Scented Salamander and Boisdejasmin
Perfumery: The Psychology and Biology of Fragrance
Perfumery: The Psychology and Biology of Fragrance, edited by Steve Van Toller and George H. Dodd. The Perfume Society has been working with Professor Dodd since the idea for this project first came into our heads: a ‘scatty professor’ straight from central casting, he has a gazillion ideas in his head and a large helping of pure, scientific brilliance. These days, Professor Dodd offers smelling courses for whiskey, wine, gin – and (through his Perfume Academy) perfumes; read more about them here. But having set up the Department of Aroma Sciences at Warwick University, this book built George’s reputation: a collation of scientific papers about smell, from biologists, chemists, physicians, psychologists and sociologists, bringing together the two areas of aromatherapy and perfumery. (Which normally never speak to each other). It looks at how fragrance really can shape our mood, how others view us at interviews, odours and disease, and the science of fragrance selection. This is not the Professor Brian Cox, Wonders-of-the-Universe, bring-science-to-the-masses approach (at times it makes our heads explode!), but it’s riveting stuff – and work that nobody else really seems to have done.
Perfumes: The A-Z Guide
Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, by Dr. Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Originally a biophysicist, Luca Turin became fascinated by the idea that different smells ‘vibrate’ at different frequencies – and became so bewitched by his explorations in perfumery that he left the world of academic science behind, blogging and writing about fragrances. He teamed up with Tania Sanchez (now his wife) for this critique of over 1500 different fragrances – reviewed entirely subjectively, so Luca and Tania hate some, love others, and compose their own shortlist of ‘true classics’. There’s a shortish practical section at the front (about fragrance families and some Frequently Asked Questions) - but the writing’s brilliant in the body of the book, and makes you want to rush out and track down plenty. (While leaving wearers of some of the ‘one-star’ scents feeling a little insulted, perhaps...) Chocolat author Joanne Harris’s review read: ‘I loved it and bought it for all my friends… Very likely my favourite book of all time!’, and we agree: a great book for a perfume-loving friend.