Former in-house perfume critic to Style.com/Arabia (2015, 2016, Message in a Bottle), Luca Turin has a new book out, Perfumes The Guide (2018), which covers 1200 new fragrances. Co-authored with his wife, Tania Sanchez, Perfumes the Guide is the duo’s third book, following the critically acclaimed The A–Z Guide (2008) and The Little Book of Perfumes: 100 Classics (2011).
The new guide looks at fragrances from large and small firms (roughly half garner only two stars). Turin writes with his signature wit, “Both pretentious mediocrity and talent seem to be about equally distributed throughout the fragrant world.” The book reached #1 in Art Criticism on Amazon even before the release of the paperback. Here, Turin and Sanchez offer Vogue Arabia an exclusive sneak peek inside.
LUCA TURIN The shifting shape of fragrance 1918-2018
“European perfumery had started in earnest around the turn of the twentieth century, and developed apace with the discovery of aromachemicals: coumarin, vanillin, cyclamen aldehyde, the great nitro musks. The Great War left industry and cities largely intact and killed countless males. Many factors then conspired to make the period 1918 to 1939 the golden age of mass perfumery: working women vying for the remaining men, cheap aromachemicals, cheap labor to harvest the naturals, flourishing visual arts and music, the obsolescence of pre-war bourgeois dignity, replaced by irreverence and optimism. François Coty built factories all over the world and the largest personal fortune in France, before he went into right-wing politics and died, a recluse, in 1934. The Second World War destroyed Germany, the great engine of European chemistry. The tail end of German chemistry on the Rhine lay in neutral Switzerland and was untouched, which is why today two of the biggest perfumery houses in the world, Firmenich and Givaudan, are Swiss.
“In those days fragrance composition was almost exclusively French, and France, despite its strenuous efforts to assert the contrary and raise its flag among those of the allies, had in reality lost the war and was a broken country. It is amazing to think that in this dismal economic context, brave souls like Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, and Marie-Louise Carven began fashion houses and produced independent perfumes. The main and indeed practically exclusive supplier of French postwar fashion fragrance was Roure Bertrand Dupont, whose chief perfumer, Jean Carles, started the first in-house perfumery school in 1946. Many other firms were making less exalted stuff. It was needed, because postwar France stank. In 1951, six years after the Libération, only one household in fifteen had an internal bathroom. The Paris Métro at rush hour was famous for its unwashed stench. I am old enough to remember it as such even ten years later. Contrary to popular belief, the distinguishing feature of postwar French perfumery was therefore not luxury but cheapness. Carles himself was very proud whenever he could achieve a good effect on a shoestring.
“Consider as an example the now legendary Iris Gris, composed by Vincent Roubert for Jacques Fath in 1947. Fath died in 1954, and the fragrance vanished. Roubert’s son donated the formula to the Osmothèque, the perfume museum in Paris. The Osmothèque’s founder, former Patou perfumer Jean Kerléo, reconstituted it from the formula. His reconstruction contained a huge slug of aged iris root, one of the most expensive materials around and the very emanation of luxury. I smelled it as often as I could at the Osmothèque and swooned every time. When Iris Gris was recreated recently, Jacques Fath asked me to help. Thanks to a US collector we obtained a sample of the original Iris Gris, unopened, sealed and in its original packaging. Chemical analysis revealed that it contained no irones, the telltale molecules of iris root. Irones do not just disappear; it seems there was in fact no iris in the original Iris Gris, just the far cheaper violet ionones. Kerléo likely recreated the expensive formula Vincent Roubert wanted, not the cheap one he used. The new Iris Gris (called Iris de Fath at the time of writing) is immeasurably better and more expensive than the original.
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“How does a perfume come into being today? Suppose you own some cheerless, expensive handbag brand in Milan and you want to do a fragrance to spread your name and make an extra buck. You go to one of the “big six” oil houses. They know perfectly well that, unless something cataclysmic happens, you will forever be small potatoes, needing, say, merely fifty kilograms of oil per year. But you, negligible Milanese handbag maker, demand a big name perfumer (they have become famous, you saw one profiled in the airline mag) to do your fragrance. You get to meet the Grand Fromage for half an hour, after which your frag is either farmed out to an assistant or taken from the shelf of things that failed to win an earlier brief. You get your big-name pong, they don’t waste any time, everybody is happy. Famous plastic surgeons apparently do the same by scheduling twelve operations staggered at five-minute intervals; they appear in each operating room, gloved hands held up, crease their eyes into a smile above the mask, speak to you kindly, and move on to the next as soon as you’re out cold, leaving you to be butchered by a rookie.
“To be fair, given the hordes of flankers, line extensions (shampoos, creams, deodorants, etc.), small firms, minor celebs and other greedy clueless customers wanting their own fragrance line, perfumers are crazy busy these days, and the more famous, the busier. Capitalism reacts to demand by increasing efficiency. All fragrances made by competing oil houses are analyzed the moment they go on sale, and their exact formulae are distributed to perfumers. Perfume testers are compounded by robots. A perfumer can cut and paste bits of successful formulae on her computer, have them made by the robot and brought up to her desk in minutes, evaluated in hours, and submitted to the client in days. Famous perfumers now compose at least one fine fragrance a month, usually more. Whereas perfumes used to be like novels, they are now more like blog posts, and as such they often recycle information from other blogs. Roudnitska did thirteen perfumes in his lifetime, Jean Kerléo fifteen. Alberto Morillas has done 481 at the time of writing, and is still going strong.”
TANIA SANCHEZ ON TRENDS
– Celebrity perfume is effectively over. Historians of the future, know that the celebrity culture of the first decade of the millennium created a yearning on the part of the public to consummate their love affair with the famous by buying, as a form of tribute, cheap perfumes with celebrity names. The famous got the money; the fans were smelly; people were happy for a few weeks.While it gave us genuine grief to write the obituary for a lost world of fragrance in 2008, it gives us great pleasure to toll the bell for these cynical fame-monetization strategies. As soon as the first guide came out, all anyone wanted to ask us about were Sarah Jessica Parker, Britney, Beckham, etc. Therefore I was relieved to read in the trade news that UK sales of celebrity fragrance had dropped 22% in 2016 alone, and US sales had been dropping steadily since 2011. These numbers are easy to interpret. It means enough time has passed for anyone who bought one celebrity fragrance to decide that she did not want another. More are still coming out, of course—Kim Kardashian, you’re late.
– Oud is the new vanilla. I submit to your attention the fact that this year’s guide contains forty-six fragrances with some spelling variant of “oud” in the name. (You’ll also see aoud and oudh.) This does not take into account all the fragrances that smell of oud but don’t name it. There are a few reasons this admittedly strange note, with its rich smells of wood glue, leather, and adhesive bandages, has taken off. A journalist who phoned up Luca Turin some years ago blamed him for the whole fad, specifically citing an apparently influential article about his search for oud on a trip. (That the first major Western oud fragrance, YSL’s M7, predated this article should let him off the hook.)
– Why sell one perfume when you can sell half a dozen? Launching one perfume is so last century. Most so-called niche brands (niche meaning very limited distribution) seem afraid of being lost in the crowd, and like hikers surprised by a bear, have been advised to scramble to look bigger than they are. See Tom Ford, with his seventy-four fragrances in big blocky bottles, manspreading across the fragrance floor so that no one else fits.
– All perfume costs at least $100 or more, no matter how small the bottle or cheap the formula. It is probably more like $130 and surprisingly often more than $200. We were alarmed to discover an eerie uniformity in pricing among the new brands. Is there a price-fixing cartel, guys? Confess.
– Masculine fragrance now smells more powerful than feminine. Complaining about other people’s smells has been a popular hobby a long time, but the dude offending you with his mighty aftershave had been a less common focus for public ire than the woman who recovering from a cold when she emptied half her bottle on her chest. There has of course been a committed campaign to get men to overuse fragrance, calling it “body spray” and commanding them to cover themselves in it.
– Art perfume is here to stay. By this I mean perfume for collectors, people interested in the different messages it’s possible to get across in perfume, in how wearing it changes the way we live and think. These are people who are uninterested in a “signature fragrance.” These days, perfumes can tell short stories as well as long, can smell weird or even off-putting, can play with timbre and melody, can avoid or play with expectations of gender, can be more daring in what they ask you to consider beautiful.
Note to reader: This list has been condensed and edited