Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading is Hard: Episode 1: The Emperor of Scent


I've been reading lately, more than usual. And I think I have something that's worthy to discuss here.

As far as I can tell, there isn't too much out there when it comes to literature concerning fragrance. There are some great coffee table worthy titles that are pretty detailed reviews written in elaborate ye olde encyclopedia fashion, and maybe even a few fun craft and hobby style books about oils, but not too much about the industry through the eyes of the people invested in it. While the fluff books are nice and I am admittedly a sucker for reviews (if they're funny and snarky), a person can't learn much from a bible of reviews. Luckily there are some gems out there and I'm confident with the proliferation of 21st century fragrance there will be many more explorations to come, and not just in books but in all manner of newfangled media as well.

The Emperor of Scent
by Chandler Burr
A 2002 title caught me eye when it was prominently displayed in a small book store: The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr. This awesome tome colourfully illustrates the life of Luca Turin, somewhat of a mad fragrance genius who is both olfactory fashionista and biophysiologist.

What is so great about this book is that it takes the reader, likely somebody interested in fragrance/fashion etc., and forces them to reconcile scent aesthetics with science. The myriad of tidbits about the chemical properties, secrets, sequences, and the labs and technicians who toil endlessly perfecting molecules gives a fragrance enthusiast such as myself a cold and clinical view at the man behind the curtain.

Turin is portrayed as a man on a mission. We're informed that at a young age he was very interested in smells and being from the heart of Europe he grew to know the old, if not ancient, shops and perfumers that dotted the heart of southern France very well. His freakish skill for memorizing the hundreds of perfumers and design houses and ability to identify perfumes just by similar subtleties in differen fragrance stunned shopkeepers, perfumers, and everyone else. He also displays a skill to distinguish when fragrances were created based on knowing when the notes being smelled were likely at play in the market or in labs of the time.

Realizing that his goal was to relate his seemingly divine gift into a comprehensive study of perfume in order to codify knowledge of fragrance, he sets out into the scientific community and becomes thrust into a much larger arena; in the already brewing debate over exactly how our sense of smell functions (something that is still contested today.) Despite his initial inabilities to comprehend scientific method, Turin proves he is a fast learner and becomes embraced by many who believe in his cause. Turin also explains that in the rapidly growing availability of synthetic fragrance molecules, traditional perfumers and their supplies have become too expensive to produce and many of the "true" perfumes created before synthetics were becoming a dying art form. This creates an innate desire to help preserve classic fragrances, and adds to the urgency of his cause.

While the book itself introduces fragrance to readers in a fantastic way by marrying the scientific with the artistic, it is not written in a steady way and will be more challening to digest for people who do not have a basic to intermediate knowledge of the perfume business. Considering communiques and events referenced in the book took place roughly in 1999 and the book was first released in 2002, there was obviously not a very long period of time between book conception, to research, to drafting, to editing, and to the final product on shelves, and the writing shows this unfortunately. The jumping between the name-dropping while expounding on fragrance's tradition and luxurious status and the fleeting and confusing chemical process descriptons and diagrams was interesting aesthetically, but does tend to muddle the bounty of information provided.

All in all, regardless of reservations over writing style, this is a fantastic and possibly revolutionary book with its unheard of point of view looking into fragrance and perfume. Burr has done us all a huge favor, and for you guys who consider yourselves to be more technical and analytical and all Top Gear and stuff, the science behind perfume (and the sense of smell as a whole) will blow your mind and give you a new-found appreciation for how our aesthetics and seemingly arbitrary sense of art forms. I'm mos def not the technical type, and even I was getting into the elementals.

The Emperor of Scent is worth a buy, paper copy or e-book or otherwise. And I have yet to have said that about ANY book about fragrance or perfume.

Just get it.

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