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Interview: Message in a Bottle

Luca Turin

Luca Turin, award-winning perfume critic

An excerpt of this interview was first published on our sister site,

I rubbed my eyes, surprised to read a perfume review that, uncharacteristically, could be described as actual literature. I read the words again.

Odalisque’s superbly judged floral accord of jasmine and iris, both abstract and very stable, allied to a saline note of oakmoss, initially feels delicate, but in use is both sturdy and radiant. It is as if the perfumer had skillfully shaved off material from a classic chypre accord until a marmoreal light shone through it.

I took a sharp intake of breath and reached for the phone to call my Publisher. “I’ve found our perfume critic. His name is Luca Turin. Apparently he’s a biophysicist? I think he’s living somewhere in Greece. This man is a genius.”

I’ve always stayed an arm’s length away from perfume. It wasn’t until the late nineties that I started thinking about fragrances, and by that time, the industry was already increasingly filled with celebrity perfumes. Meanwhile, the ‘classic’ perfumes by Dior, Saint Laurent, et al. were unabashedly being marketed as tools of seduction. In Yves Saint Laurent’s advertisement for the Opium fragrance in 2000, a porcelain-skinned Sophie Dahl, legs open, wearing nothing but strappy sandals and jewels, offered herself on an altar of black satin sheets. The image, shot by Steven Meisel, went ‘round the world, won an award, and infuriated feminists. It all felt so obvious.

I wondered what Luca Turin, a man who loves perfume thought about all of that. But it’s not his love of perfume that interests me, rather his manner of communicating about fragrance that I find intoxicating. Luca Turin can read perfume—and its intrinsic message—better than anyone.

“Perfume is decidedly not about two things: it isn’t about memory and it isn’t about sex. Perfume is about beauty and intellect,” Luca begins. “A perfume is a message in a bottle—not a smell—and the message is written by the perfumer and read by the person who smells it.”

“Bear in mind, I have been off the radar screen for several years [five, to be precise]. Part of the reason I felt like I had to, you know, get away from it for a while was the tremendously depressing impression that perfumery was a field of ruins,” Luca explains. But, according to him, sex and celebrity marketing only occupied a cramped cabin in an already sinking ship. Over the years, perfumers have also had to adapt molecules and replace perfume ingredients in order to keep up with evolving laws related to an upsurge in concern about allergens.

“On the one hand, the great classics were being systematically destroyed—for no good reason. And on the other hand, the new creations—with notable exceptions, of course—were cut and paste compositions that imitate the competition. It all converged into a sort of blah nothingness. It just so happened that when we wrote that guide [Perfumes, the A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez], it was the end of an era.”

Photo: Chris Clunn

Looking back, Luca tells me that he believes that this was a correct assessment.

“The niche houses have come up with some rather wonderful things. I get the impression that people like Andy Tauer, Neela Vermeire, Slumber House—I am pretty sure that if a lot of aficionados are talking about it [these outfits], then something must be there. It’s not all a disaster, but when you see the great classics… I mean the history of perfume—as an art—has almost been entirely wiped out. We re-smelled them [the classic perfumes] after three years. So many things have been completely buggered.”

I share with Luca that it’s difficult for me to imagine this golden era, that it’s akin to him describing colors that I will never lay eyes on.

“Good, because at least you won’t suffer! Even by the time I got into perfume in the early seventies, the Guerlains were not what they were originally. In order to prevent allergies in five people, regulations have screwed up one of the great arts! Tania and I decided that civilization had ended, that we had created a proper epitaph with the guide, and that it was time to move on and think about other things.”


Luca Turin was born in Beirut in 1953. But only because his Italian father, Duccio, was working for the United Nations Refugee Welfare Association at the time of the construction of the Palestinian camps. A few years later, in Paris, observing his mother, Adela, teach their maid to read, Luca picked it up and by age four, began reading newspaper headlines. Later, at school in Switzerland, during a convocation at the Department of Schools (Adela was trying to get Luca to skip a few years), a man stated that Luca was the most brilliant child they had ever seen.

Like many a great romance, Luca Turin’s first love of perfume was born in Paris.

The Little Book of Perfumes by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez“I had a crush on a friend of my mother. Nadine Nimier, the widow of the writer Roger Nimier—an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She was gorgeous. She was tremendously stylish, very tweedy, short hair, with an aquiline nose, periwinkle-colored eyes, and a pale complexion. And she wore Vetiver for men—the original Guerlain Vetiver. I thought that she was Diana the Huntress! I just completely fell in love with her. I was nine years old and I thought she was the height of style. And she was. That was the first time I even thought about fragrance.”

In the 1980s, Luca began to pick up old fragrances, influenced by his girlfriend’s mother, who was an antique dealer in Belgium and collected perfume. “She gave us old bottles. It cost nothing in those days. No one actually cared about perfume until about ‘99, you know. You could pick up whole boxes, full bottles of D’Orsay fragrances, for five bucks a bottle…and they thought they were selling the bottle!”

While Luca was enthusiastically collecting perfume, a good friend, at whose lab Luca was working, told him, “Man, you’ve got to write a book about this.” At the time, there were no perfume guides at all. So in between jobs, Luca went back to Paris and wrote about twenty perfumes, in French, from memory.

On the process of critiquing perfumes, Luca tells me:

“Like in music, perfumes have a timbre, as well as a tune. From a scientific standpoint, smell is more like a timbre—so for me, it was easy to write about those fragrances from memory because they were my favorites and I had read the message in the bottle so many times that the notes didn’t matter. I knew the tune, I knew the timbre, I knew everything, you see.”

Photo: Kate McElwee


In the Middle East, women—and men—spend five times as much money on perfume as their European counterparts and often shop for two to three bottles at a time. Together with North Africa, the Middle East fragrance market is estimated at USD $4 billion and the figures are only expected to increase.

I ask Luca to describe “Oriental” fragrances.

“The same thing that happened to Middle Eastern fragrance happened to Italian food. Everyone has heard about pizza and pasta and don’t realize that there is a whole cuisine there.”

“It’s not like one should particularly complain about them [‘Arabian’ fragrances] because they tend to mainly be oudh and rose. Oudh is very strange, woody… the best oudh has components of earth and honey—a very rich, complex, rather cold tobacco and earth thing… so that’s the structure. And then a glorious rose on top of that.”

The human nose can distinguish, by smell, a hundred thousand molecules and counting. Most perfumers can identify several hundred, and Luca Turin, despite not being a perfumer, can do the same. Case in point: Luca might smell a perfume and know not only the name but also when it was made, what other perfumes smell similar, and their principal notes. He can then start listing the materials—“Dihydromyrcenol” or “Opopanax,” for example. Once, he even art-directed a perfume [though he believes he is terrible at it].

In an excerpt from The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession by Chandler Burr, a book written about Luca Turin, an episode is recounted in which Luca finds himself in Paris in the office of the celebrated perfumer, Françoise Caron, and is asked to give his opinion on a new fragrance she had created for Escada. He smells the vial and muses aloud, “It is like one of those silks that has two colors to it, depending on how the light strikes it.” Bewildered, Caron hands over the brief to him and Luca reads, “We want it to smell like the silks that have two colors in them, depending on the light.”


In 1992, perfume guides had yet to exist, but when Luca began shopping his perfume reviews around in Paris to various publishers, they all quickly turned him down.

“Then I went to see this dude, a small publisher producing a series of guides about eccentric things. He was very Parisian, kind of a cynical guy, who said to me, ‘You appear to be sincere about this, which is funny because I never thought I would meet somebody like you.’ And that’s how I got to write a small perfume guide in French.”

Perfumes the A to Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania SanchezLuca Turin’s perfume guide was the first of its kind. Ten years later, along with his wife, Tania Sanchez, he co-wrote reviews for some 1,800 perfumes and Perfumes: the A-Z Guide was published. Together, Turin and Sanchez received the adulation that today’s online perfume critics and bloggers can only dream of. “Entertaining and indeed encyclopedic,” hailed “…People who write about smell and taste in any context should use it as an example.” raved John Lanchester of The New Yorker.

I wonder how the major perfume houses, so incredibly secretive and controlling, reacted to being critiqued.
“Not a peep out of them, ever. Amazingly, not even the perfumers. To this day, I have no idea what they thought of it. Though Patricia DeNicolaï [President of the Osmothèque Perfume Conservatory in Versailles and niece of Jean-Paul Guerlain] has said privately to me that she thinks that we have done something important for the industry.”

“The press, on the other hand, was ecstatic. The Brits loved the bitchiness. They loved the appropriation of a whole new territory to criticism, to culture. They liked the fact that we were talking about something that people hadn’t talked about before. The book was appreciated as literature. In America, it was weird. They saw it as a thing for women. It was a practical thing—a “how-to guide” to buy perfume. That’s all very well but I prefer the way the Brits dealt with it. ”

I ask Luca about the French press.

“Not a word. ‘Insular’ doesn’t even cover it. I was brought up in France. I am French, so I can piss and moan about them. I’ve earned it! No, they didn’t give a toss about the guide.”

And the general public?

“Clearly, we have a fan club out there. It helped trigger an explosion about talking about perfume. Internet perfume chat, which has produced a half dozen blogs which are worth reading, if one is interested in that stuff. But the perfume aficion today is totally different than he was twenty years ago. Just by the mere fact that you can make a fairly good living by starting a small perfume firm and selling the stuff the world over. It’s amazing.”

Every single perfume reviewer in existence, in some way or another, walks a road that Luca Turin paved.


I am keen to continue my conversation with Luca Turin. His passion for perfume has introduced me to an art, an art that I want to explore through his mind. But while he may be passionate about perfume, his real interest and profession lies in decoding how the nose works. Because unlike sight and sound, the process of smelling is still largely a mystery.

the_secret_of_scent.largeSince 2011, Luca—Dr. Luca Turin, PhD—has been living in Greece, working as a Research Group Leader in Quantum Biology at the Biomedical Sciences Research Center at the Alexander Fleming Institute. Prior to that, he was building an artificial nose using natural receptor proteins as sensors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (MIT). For ten years, he was also the Chief Technology Officer at Flexitral developing novel aromachemicals for fragrances and flavors using his very own design methods. In 2005, he was invited to give a TED talk about the molecular makeup and the art of smell. Televised documentaries and discussions of his work have been documented by the BBC, Nature Magazine, and the Scientific American.

There’s a lot of fuss about Luca Turin, the scientist, even more so than Luca Turin, the perfume critic, because he explores an entirely new theory on olfaction [of which one can read about further in his book The Secret of Scent]. His theory is widely debated. He explains to me:

“One view is that molecular shape governs smell, but this notion has turned out to have very little predictive power. Some years ago I revived a discredited theory that instead posits that the nose is a vibrational spectroscope, and proposed a possible underlying mechanism, inelastic electron tunneling.”


The story of Luca Turin, the perfume lover, does not end there.

After his five-year hiatus from the world of perfume critiquing, announces the return of Luca Turin as our resident perfume critic. In this role, he will critique regional and international perfumes, and introduce us to niche houses and perhaps some new classics.

This conversation, which he initiated with the publication of the first perfume guide in 1992, will be continued here, on These reviews will be featured in his next Perfume Guide, reviewing what is new from 2008-2014, to be released at the end of 2014.

‘Message in a Bottle’, Luca Turin’s bi-monthly column of perfume reviews for, will commence in August.

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