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…
The Book of Perfume
The Book of Perfume, by Elisabeth Barillé and Catherine Laroze. Out of print, but gloriously illustrated – a real wallow in fragrance history. (And if all history books were this seductive, we’d have concentrated better in lessons.) It follows the story of ingredients from around the world, field to flacon, exploring the sense of smell, perfume bottle design – and a section on perfume imagery in advertising and marketing. As a finale, a practical section: how to wear perfume, the fragrance houses/families/great perfume stores. A touch out-of-date, but one for the birthday wishlist or ‘Dear Santa’ requests.
The Book of Scented Things – 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume
The Book of Scented Thing, edited by Jehanne Dubrow
The culmination of a unique aromatic and poetical experiment – an anthology based on this original concept of deliberately provoking with perfume and collecting the results. Hence we discover poems of deeply personal childhood memories, that relate directly to a sense of place and more deep-seated philosophical longings. We all know that fragrance can regularly provoke such feeling within us, but generally it’s left to the beauty press and perfumistas to wax lyrical about – and fascinating to read the results of poets being directly influenced in this way. Editor Jehanne Dubrow expands on the creative process in the introduction. ‘We were surprised to discover how many other poets already recognised the fleeting, narrative pleasure of scent.’ Describing how many of the poets already identified themselves as ‘perfume nerds’ and that even those who had little knowledge or previous experience of fragrance could see the potential of the project and were pleased to be involved. We really enjoyed reading so many of the poems – the contrasting voices and styles, and especially those little lightning bolts in recognition of a shared feeling or idea about the ever-changing contextual nature of smell, and what that provokes in all of us…
Publisher: Literary House Press
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, by Jean-Claude Ellena. A slip of a book, this, by one of the world’s most revered perfumers – now the in-house nose at Hermès. (His most celebrated creation is probably First, for Van Cleef and Arpels.) A quiet and thoughtful man who works in his own hilltop atelier well away from the hustle and bustle of the commercial perfumery world, this chronicles Jean-Claude Ellena’s thoughts, inspirations and global travels while working on new launches. Most fascinating to us is the short section at the back in which Jean-Claude shares some of the harmonies and accords he’s perfected over the years: his aim is to create a specific scent with the minimum of notes. Who knew that you could conjure up the scent of sugared almonds with just vanillin, benzoin and benzaldehyde…? (Although what’s clear from this book is that haute perfumery is anything but simple, actually…)
The Essence of Perfume
The Essence of Perfume, by Roja Dove. Ex-Guerlain, now with his own Haute Parfumerie in Harrods, Roja’s is very much a coffee table book covering everything from extraction methods to bottle-makers, the sense of smell to classic scents, raw materials to fragrance families - each subject brought alive with glossy visuals. Lovely shots of historic perfume bottles – and for the true perfume geek, a massive bibliography/reading list at the back of the book which would probably occupy you for a lifetime. We’ve a hunch it’s going out of print and you may need to track it down on a secondhand site, nowadays.
The Little Book of Perfumes: 100 Classics
The Little Book of Perfumes: 100 Classics, by Dr. Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. This is the shorter version of Perfumes: The Guide, if you can’t stretch to the full, hefty book, focusing on what they consider to be the 100 greatest fragrances of all time – from Chanel No. 5 to Guerlain’s Jicky – although frustratingly, some of the featured scents aren’t available any longer, even if you Google them. (Including Coty’s Emeraude, Chypre, or Jacques Fath’s Iris Gris.) If you do own the original book, don’t bother with this – it’s simply the five-star reviews which featured in that.
The Natural History of the Senses
The Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. The title doesn’t do this justice: Diane Ackerman’s writing is exquisite – we’d call it poetic, actually - exploring and explaining not just the sense of smell, but all the senses. In the first chapter – Smell – she looks at scent and memory, at roses, at sneezing, at the way our health (and what we eat) impacts on our body odour. You’ll learn answers to questions you never knew you had, and though this book is over 20 years old, it’s timeless. Really, one of our favourite, favourite books on the subject – and the other four chapters are a ‘gift-with-purchase’.
The New Perfume Handbook
The New Perfume Handbook by Nigel Groom. A true textbook – and priced accordingly; it’s out of print and sniffing out a copy on the web might is a real investment, and only (we’d say) for the really serious perfume obsessive. (Though of course there’s always the library…) But if you do get your hands on one, it’s especially useful for info about ingredients (natural and synthetic), ‘perfumespeak’ terminology and fragrance brands. (Though of course we do cover a lot of that territory on this very site.)
The Perfect Scent
The Perfect Scent, by Chandler Burr. Chandler Burr was for a time The New York Times’s own perfume critic, and this is his ‘year in the life’: a sneaky peek behind the scenes over the span of a year, in which he’s given ‘above-top-secret’ access to the world of fragrance creation. On one side of the Atlantic, he gets an insider’s view of the relationship between Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker and Coty, while launching her acclaimed debut scent Lovely. On the other, he’s invited to spend time alongside Hermès’s (then) newly-anointed in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, while he works on Un Jardin Sur le Nil. Chandler Burr’s an arch observer, with a terrific turn of phrase that brings scent to vibrant life.
The Perfume Bible
A beautifully illustrated guide to the world of perfumery, by The Perfume Society‘s Founders Jo Fairley and Lorna McKay - The Perfume Bible brings together everything you need to know about fragrance, from scent families, fragrant facts, the fascinating history behind much-loved perfume houses and independently run niche brands only previously known by a select few industry-insiders - we may be biased, but it's a must for every fragrance-lover (as well as being a fabulous gift). It’s an encyclopaedia of all things fragrant – from how to go about building a perfume ‘wardrobe’ to a line-up of the '100 perfumes to try before you die'. Seeking to intrigue and de-mystify the more confusing aspects of perfumery - how many people know exactly what a 'Chypre' perfume actually is? - you’ll discover the journey of ingredients from field to flacon, a run-down of the best perfume shops in the world and the history of scent – 192 pages of our favourites shared with those curious to begin their own fragrant journey, or perfumistas already well on the path...
It’s available to our VIP Subscribers at the special price of £16.25 – and to non-subscribers for £25 (including postage & packaging)
The Perfume Guide
The Perfume Guide, by Susan Irvine. Categorises into fragrance families 200 of the world’s best-known fragrances (at the time of publication, which means many have now disappeared forever), with information about families, perfumers, and the stories behind some of the real classics. A worthwhile addition to a bookshelf if you find it in a secondhand bookstore – or Amazon usually has discounted copies here.
The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent
The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent, by Denyse Beaulieu. Denyse is a highly-respected perfume blogger Grain de Musc - who writes quite beautifully here about how her childhood passion for perfume became a life-long quest, enticing her to Paris and a career as a fragrance critic. At the heart of this story, though, is how a conversation with L’Artisan Parfumeur perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour turned into a collaboration to produce an actual perfume, Séville a l’Aube – a divine orange-blossom-fulled Oriental. A truly excellent read and a great insight into the art of fragrance creation.
The Scent of You
The Scent of You, by Maggie Alderson.
'I experience the world through smell – I always have.’ So begins the latest novel by Maggie Alderson, and we couldn’t agree more. Maggie was inspired to write this novel by spending time in our own Perfume Society office, attending launches and meeting perfumers, learning the history of perfume and developing a burning passion for it along the way. Central character, Polly, is a perfume blogger who loses herself in the world of fragrance while her own world falls to pieces around her – something many of us can empathise with. We love the fact Maggie was inspired to name her after falling madly for Vilhelm’s perfume, Dear Polly, and that she even created a blog and Instagram account for Polly to share her perfume reviews. Polly, having grown up surrounded by the beautiful perfume bottles of her ultra glam (ex-model) mother, and learning to explore the world by sniffing ‘…everything!’ she is now distracting herself with, among other things, ‘Guy, the mysterious, infuriating and hugely talented perfumer.’ We’re rather wondering who this may have been based on, as that description doesn’t sufficiently narrow it down… Completely gripping, the story of a life in crisis and wonderfully observed, it's a perfect holiday read for anyone who also experiences the world through smell (that'll be most of you, then!)
Publisher: Harper Collins
The Scent Trail: A Journey of the Senses
While on the quest for 'the perfect perfume', author Celia Lyttelton had a bespoke fragrance made by Anastasia Brozler in London, an encounter that set Lyttelton off on a tour of the world to trace the history and provenence of the ingredients used. From a collection of precious oils contained in an old wooden box to the growing, harvesting and distilling of the materials and exploring cultural responses and mythological beliefs surroung scent, this book is a must-have for anyone who wonders where, exactly their perfume originated. And what a tour to take! With new scent adventures beginning with sentences such as: 'We arrived on a plateau of dragons' blood trees and desert roses...' you will doubtless be Googling far flung fragrant climes, just as we did, while reading this (and now knowing exactly what you'd do following a Lottery win!) Beautifully written, and full of the insightful, utterly fascinating pieces of fragrant history that she collected along the way, this book is a deep-dive into perfume ingredients that will have you packing your travelling bags and setting off into the scented sunset... Save a seat for us!
Celia Lyttelton The Scent Trail: A Journey of the Senses, Bantam Books amazon.co.uk
The Scents of Time: Perfume from Ancient Egypt to the 21st Century
Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this wonderful book explores perfume from the (fabulously titled!) first chapter of 'Scent in the Fertile Crescent', through the Classical World, following the fashions for fragrance around the globe and through the ages – we were especially drooling over the Jazz Age chapter, though really every single one is full of fascinating historical snippets and the most lust-worthy bottle and advertising pictures. If this were one of those whopping great tomes it could be called a Coffee Table Book, but at this smaller size it's perfect for actually reading without taking up a gym membership to carry around. One of those books you'll want to keep around to dip in to and sigh with the gorgeousness.
The Scents of Time, Edwin L. Morris amazon.co.uk
The Secret History of No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume
The Secret History of No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume, by Tilar J. Mazzeo. For 90 years, Chanel No. 5’s been the world’s best-known and bestselling fragrance – but the story behind it is more complicated than is often let on... Chanel-o-philes will want to add this to their bookshelf: it’s part-biography of ‘Mademoiselle’ (whose own extraordinary story is interwoven with that of No. 5), and part an exploration of the countless facets of the fragrance immortalised by Marilyn Monroe as ‘the only thing I wear to bed’, and by Andy Warhol in the silkscreen which appears on this book’s cover. Throw in a bit of information on the art of perfumery itself, and what you have is a book that made many Goodreads reviewers want to go out and buy a bottle itself.
The Secret of Scent
The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, by Luca Turin. Luca Turin writes so beautifully about fragrance: he’s one of the writers best able to conjure up a smell in words, and this is partly his personal journey - from working as a biophysicist through to working in the fragrance industry, using his theory of smell (or olfaction) to design entirely new fragrances and molecules. In this book, Luca looks at many raw materials and explains the science of smell in an accessible way that cleverly brings the subject alive for anyone who flunked chemistry at school. If you’ve ever wondered how smell works, he has a darned good try at cracking the code here.
The Smell of Fresh Rain
The Smell of Fresh Rain, by Barney Shaw
Going in search of the meanings of smells (and how they help shape our lives), author Barney Shaw went on a journey of exploration for this book celebrating 'The unexpected pleasures of our most elusive sense.' From describing petrichor (the actual smell of fresh rain) to researching the scent of fresh paint, frying bacon and pondering the question of what three o'clock in the morning smells like, it's a fascinating ride to be part of. And part of it you most definitely are, as merely reading this book expands your mind to the possibilities and scents you take forgranted every single day. We especially loved the observation that 'Unlike sight, smell does not travel in straight lines, so it is valuable in environments when sight does not serve well...' Something we teach as part of our How to Improve Your Sense of Smell Workshops (see EVENTS listings) – because as Helen Keller said, smell truly is 'the fallen angel of the senses.' We may not use it to seek out a sabre-toothed tiger or find food anymore, but the ability is there, or emotional reactions are built-in, unbidden. An excellent book for anyone interested in exploring their senses further (for flavour is so interconnected to smell, as we know, and addressed within the book); those who write about perfume or smell in any respect will be especially pleased by the chapter On the Tip of My Nose, which looks at the language of smell, and what we can do to improve our communication skills. Completely fascinating from start to fragrant finish!
Publisher: Icon Books