Fragrance at Your Fingertips: A Book Review of The Perfume Companion: The Definitive Guide To Choosing Your Next Scent
2022 . 12 . 22 |
Call me old school but I get a distinct pleasure from holding a book as opposed to looking at a screen. I like to turn the pages rather than scroll around, and I might even highlight the important passages out of truly old school habits. It’s why, perfumista that I am, I had to get myself a copy of The Perfume Companion: The Definitive Guide To Choosing Your Next Scent. This hefty tome, co-authored by artisan perfumer and writer Sarah McCartney – the nose behind 4160 Tuesdays - and perfume journalist and blogger Samantha Scriven, is more than a guide: it’s a reference book that provides a brief history on the origins of fragrance, how-to’s for selecting and wearing a fragrance plus easy-to-understand information on composition and ingredients. And that’s all in addition to the commentary on nearly 500 fragrances. Shall we turn the page and take a closer look?
If you’ve left your holiday gift shopping to the last minute and there’s a perfumista on your list, this book will make the perfect present!
The authors start by comparing the act of choosing a fragrance with choosing shoes: some people only wear the same style while others have a wardrobe, some always wear the same brand, and some like vintage. But regardless of how it looks, you have to try it out to see if it fits, and with fragrance, that means you need to smell it and wear it on your skin. They advise the reader to take time while testing in store or at home with a sample, and to change their environment – to get some fresh air – before evaluating a fragrance. They also explain that although fragrance tends to be categorized as feminine or masculine (except by niche brands who are often unisex), there is no need to be limited by such rules. Their message is: wear what you like. They continue by explaining that their guide lists fragrances based on their personal recommendations of what they believe smells good, and that they have selected from a range of prices, from mass to high class to artisanal, and that they have not included any fragrances that are discontinued or that were limited editions.
HISTORY OF PERFUME
What follows is a brief synopsis on the history of perfume beginning with its origins in ancient civilizations. The reader learns that fragrance was first used to protect from illness as well as to adorn the body and smell good, but that for centuries, fragrance was a luxury only the rich could afford. By the Middle Ages, the process of steam distillation was introduced, and monasteries were distilling alcohol to make tinctures with herbs and plant essences for inner and outer cleanliness.
The story continues with a short overview on the complicated story of Eau de Cologne, the aqua mirabilis or “miracle waters” and the controversy over who can claim to have the oldest formula. This segues into the development in the 19th century of synthetics, initially in Germany*, which made it possible to produce large quantities, bringing down pricing and making fragrance more affordable for all. At this moment in the book, they take a strong stance to dispel the misconception around “natural” or “clean” fragrance. To quote the text, “If there’s one thing about perfume it would be great to take away from this book, it’s that nature makes some seriously dangerous materials and that aromachemicals are often safer.” I commend the authors on making this statement and then going into details, in layman’s terms, in the next section.
COMPOSITION & INGREDIENTS
In this day and age of transparency and full reveals, the authors explain, quite simply, that yes, the ingredients are listed on perfume labels, but not the formulas because companies don’t want to be copied by competitors. Further, did you know:
- There are no copyrights or patents for fragrances, one reason why companies don’t want to disclose their formulas.
- Plants make their own chemical blends to protect themselves from insects, from mould and disease, and from a hungry animal. Hence, what is natural can also be harmful.
- To quote the text: “Notes are the output of a perfume, not the input.” Notes describe the way the perfume smells but they do not indicate what ingredients were used to make the smell. A fig note is not made from figs but rather a blend of synthetics to recreate the smell of fig. It is the perfumers job to create the aroma of what is intended.
- The fragrance pyramid is composed of top notes which are are volatile, mid notes that last up to four hours and base notes which may last 8 hours or longer.
- Olfactory habituation occurs over time when you can no longer smell your favorite fragrance on your skin. Solution: have a fragrance wardrobe so you won’t wear the same fragrance every day.
- The alcohol in fragrance is there to dissolve and preserve the concentrated fragrance.
- The EU currently had the strictest cosmetics rules and regulations in the world.
- Shipping fragrances is expensive because it is classified as flammable and dangerous goods (hazmat).
- In the US, “cologne” is the general term for masculine fragrances, regardless of the concentration.
Granted, the perfumista and the industry insider may know all of these fun facts, but the novice may not. This information clarifies many points that a consumer may be too timid to ask, and the explanation is straightforward, never condescending.
In this section, there is a helpful chart listing the various fragrance types, the perfume concentrate percent range and the estimated wearing time. Referred to as longevity in the guide, the authors explain that today’s consumer demands that the fragrance they buy be long lasting, but this begs the question, How can you judge a traditional EDT by the standards of today, when it was never created to project and have the tenacity expected by the general public in the 21st century?
WEARING & STORING YOUR FRAGRANCE
Once again, the authors give pure liberty to the reader: wear what you want to when you want to. Noting that the guide came out in 2021, they do recognize that a positive outcome from the pandemic is that people are using fragrance to feel and smell good, not just to be attractive to others, and not only for social occasions. They go on to state that people have found the joy of wearing fragrance to bed - shades of Marilyn Monroe and Chanel N°5? But seriously, since the brain never sleeps, what you wear at night can help you drift off faster and it can also soothe your nerves if you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place.
Where to apply? Here I found some advice I had never heard before:
- Don’t follow Chanel’s advice to spray it where you want to be kissed because it doesn’t taste good and could sting.
- It’s ok to rub your wrists together (I was always taught it “bruises” the fragrance) because some friction will warm up the fragrance, though it may cause it to evaporate a little faster.
- They recommend a whopping 20 sprays, which they do admit could be a bit much, but hey, if you enjoy it, why not? And you may be followed down the street by someone who wants to know what you’re wearing.
The final advice concerns storing fragrance, which the authors suggest you keep in the original boxes in a dark place. In another snippet I’d never heard, they also state:
- If you don’t open your fragrances, they should last for decades. Once you start using them, air will get in and will react with the volatile top notes, causing the fragrance to change. Once your bottle is two-thirds used, you’re better off using it up rather than “saving it for a special occasion”.
ON TO THE GUIDE!
What follow is a directory by type (selected by the authors, somewhere between family and key note) in which the reader can find fragrances from high end to high street, from affordable to splurge. It truly is commendable to see the likes of 4711, Tom Ford Neroli Portofino and Colonia by Acqua di Parma on the same two-page spread. Creed, Etat Libre d’Orange and Parfums de Marly get equal billing with fragrances from Avon, Yardley and Lush (McCartney wrote for the Lush in-house newspaper for 14 years). Even celebrity fragrances from Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears, Rihanna and others get a nod. Each of the nearly 500 listings includes the fragrance name, a subtext, the perfumer and the price range** followed by a detailed description of the scent itself. The copy is imaginative, easy and fun to read.
The authors have also included additional tidbits of information in this section which demystify some of the terms and ingredients. Did you know tuberose is not a rose? Or that the seemingly innocent white flower emits an intoxicating aroma meant to attract? What does it mean when a fragrance smells green? There is a wealth of knowledge to be had in this book.
THE FINAL WORD
The book closes with a glossary of terms and a list of resources, including books and websites, for anyone who wants to learn more.
It was refreshing to read a guide that wasn’t stuffy or dull, but rather light-hearted while also being educational. Due to the weight of the book, I doubt anyone will take it with them while shopping in store, but the anecdotes and fragrance descriptions may compel the reader to discover a fragrance or can serve as a reminder of a scent smelled on a previous occasion. I also appreciated the call out to the consumer to please buy your fragrance in the shop in which you smelled it.
* For more information see The German Approach to Perfumery: www.essencional.com/en/posts/the-german-approach-to-perfumery/
** Price range is based on the pound sterling (£).