Every year brings us a few thousand new perfumes. When I stand in front of a perfume counter, I’m reminded of something I learnt in my university psychology course – too much choice leads to anxiety. Thankfully, there are people who work tirelessly to make sense of the fragrance market and save us from experiencing choice overload. One such individual is Michael Edwards, whose Fragrances of the World, aka The Fragrance Bible, has been cataloguing and classifying perfumes since 1983. Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez are the other brave souls. Their Perfumes: The Guide 2018 includes more than 1,200 reviews of fragrances, along with tips on navigating that overwhelming perfume counter.
The Guide isn’t their first book of reviews. Turin, a biophysicist with an interest in olfaction, published Parfums: Le Guide in 1994, thus establishing fragrance criticism as a legitimate field, on a par with similar discourses on wine or cinema. In 2008, he teamed up with writer and fragrance expert Tania Sanchez to offer Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. What makes Turin and Sanchez’s book special is its combination of down-to-earth advice, honesty and great writing.
The 2018 guide catches up on the decade that had lapsed since the appearance of their original. The focus is on niche and artisanal fragrances, and the authors feature perfume houses from around the world. “We weren’t trying to introduce people to perfume criticism this time so much as we were trying to introduce them to new perfumes,” Sanchez explains. The niche field has grown beyond anything one could have imagined 10 years ago, and Turin and Sanchez’s book comes just in time.
The authors don’t subscribe to the conventional notion that perfumes are made for specific seasons, occasions or genders. They encourage experiments and approach each fragrance like a message to be decoded. They hide neither their displeasure with badly made perfumes nor their excitement over beautiful ones. As Sanchez comments about Parfums de Nicolaï’s delightful rose solifloral Rose Royale (€125 for 100ml EDT): “Patricia de Nicolaï’s take is a perfect soapy-aldehydic, white-floral froth with facets of lemon and raspberry. If you are the sort of gold-rimmed-teacup-gripping, pinky-finger-sticker-outer who will insist against all advice upon a rose soliflore uninterfered with complicating ideas, here is a beautifully silly one for you. (Note: it might make an irresistible masculine on, say, Drax the Destroyer.)”
One of Turin’s memorable discoveries was Castaña (€150 for 100ml EDP) by Cloon Keen, an Irish indie brand that’s among the rising stars tracked by The Guide. “It is possible to elicit from crème de marrons a silken, lanky art deco wraith of a fragrance, not so different from Vincent Roubert’s Knize Ten (1925) but without the contrast between leather and jam, replaced by a smooth, perfectly balanced bittersweet monochrome of floral notes, woods, smoke and benzoin.” As someone who keeps a permanent stock of Faugier’s decadent chestnut spread in her pantry, I mailed for a sample of Castaña as soon as I read the review. It was as Turin promised: “Superb from top note to drydown, and still great a day later”.
Reading The Guide, I was reminded how fascinating perfumery can be. Its combination of art and science, technique and creativity means that surprises never cease. As Turin puts it in reviewing Le Mat (€230 for 100ml extrait) by Mendittorosa: “It is always amazing how, within an essentially infinite combinatoric space like perfumery, some mathematical attractors seem to exist that guide the hand of the perfumer towards forms that have more force and more meaning”. Even if true gems are rare, every bottle holds the promise of a discovery.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.