Book Review: Perfumes: A Guide

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good smell. Whether damp soil, lilies, new shoe leather, inland water, church incense, a clean shirt or old books, almost nothing produces as visceral a reaction as scent. It conjures memory, desire, and potential; a lovely fragrance makes everything nicer, an unpleasant odor makes everything worse. So it’s no surprise I was curious to read Perfumes: A Guide.

At first glance, the book has an encouraging heft, with perfume reviews from page 51 to 366. I was slightly put off by the lack of images, but after reading a few random reviews I discovered this volume had something much better: A sense of humour. Within the first fifteen minutes of leafing through this book, I laughed out loud no less than five times. The authors are clever, imaginative, and in possession of a biting wit. Whether I recognized (or cared about) a particular subject or not, I found myself devouring every review as though I was reading a collection of short stories.

I was also pleased to find the ratings economically democratic. The book includes everything from the cheapest drugstore colognes to the most exclusive high-end fragrances, and it was nice to discover they were equally exposed to praise or censure. In a favourable review of David Beckham’s Instinct, Sanchez declares that “snobbery in perfumery is pointless,” and Turin gives Cacharel’s LouLou (a high school favourite) five stars; “Do not be misled by the fact that LouLou, when found, is likely to be cheap. This is one of the greats.” Lady Stetson also gets top marks. On the opposite side, Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport is described as “being stuck in an elevator for twelve hours with a tax accountant,” and their Gardenia as a “loud, airport-toilet floral.” Ha.

One of my favourite pans in the book is for Givenchy’s Amarige: “We nearly gave it four stars… for Amarige is unmissable, unmistakable, and unforgettable. However, it is also truly loathsome…and at all times incompatible with others’ enjoyment of food, music, sex, and travel.” Of course the first thing I did was run out to smell it. (I was skeptical; I had a friend who wore another Givenchy scent – Organza, I think – and it was divine.) I was both horrified and amused to find this was true: eau de Tire Fire!

The volume does have some problems. First, there is no master index, only an index of Star Ratings (lists of perfumes are arranged according to the authors’ approval of them). Reviews in the book appear alphabetically, so they aren’t hard to find if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but if you don’t, you’ll spend a lot of time leafing back and forth. (Who knew Tom Ford’s name gets top billing in his perfumes?) Second, the writers tend to get very caught up in esoteric description at the expense of detail.

Some scents are highly rated but it would be nice to know more about what exactly makes them so – in a non-subjective sense (top- and base-notes). After smelling Beyond Love, a highly rated tuberose by Kilian, I was instantly reminded of the Anais Anais my sister wore in high school. How disappointing to find that, although the latter was included in the book, there was no mention of the florals it encompassed and I had to consult another book to see if my nose was right. This is also problematic if you are drawn to a certain type of scent, for example, chypres, or amber Orientals. As the reviews are not grouped in any scent-comprehensive way, using this guide to find a scent that might be right for you is hit-or-miss venture.

That said, however, the journey is a whole lot of fun.


9 thoughts on “Book Review: Perfumes: A Guide

  1. This review makes me TOTALLY crave this book – I want to look up the scents I wore in High School (Versace Blue Jeans, CK one) and the ones I wore before (remember Tribe? I LOVED Tribe)

  2. “cK One is not so much a perfume as a chemical time machine… In the eighties, this used to be called linear perfumery, and was usually applied to big-hair contraptions that, alas, froze the clock at 11 on a Saturday night. The rest of the time, they worked like heels and a gold lame dress on the morning train. Instead, cK One takes a soapy, fresh top note and fleshes it out… and time forever stands still at 8 AM: the frozen morning of a day full of promise.”
    If I remember correctly, this perfume started an unstoppable trend of “fresh” scents in the 90s. I actually love this stuff (though not as a perfume for myself) and spray it on my sheets when they’re fresh out of the laundry.

    Sadly, Tribe isn’t there (discontinued?) and the only Versace Jeans is the one for men… and they don’t have anything nice to say about it… “Mercifully, it doesn’t last.” Ha.

    I just bought one they HATE. The best thing they had to say about it was that the “bottle looks like a SuperMario power-up,” and I don’t think that was meant as a compliment.

  3. Oooh, which one did you buy?

    That DKNY bottle in the picture – I used to wear that stuff in Junior High. I have nooo idea how or why but somehow I got it into my head that I NEEDED it and my parents bought it for me for Christmas when I was thirteen. I remember being vaguely disappointed with the smell of it. It was possible I just thought it was a very sophisticated thing to have.

  4. The Versace one I wore totally was for men, I thought wearing a man’s scent made me rebellious and sexy. Tribe was brutally bad but ohhhh I loved it. It was by Coty.

  5. Hee hee – Hailey – I’ve been wearing that DKNY pretty much non stop since a woman in my office gave it to me (she got it as a gift but is utterly loyal to a single perfume). I ADORE IT. Amusingly, when I looked it up, they suggested that, though a women’s perfume, it was possibly better classified as a masculine – and the humour of it could be confused with a “lack of warmth”. That made me like it even more…

    Donna Karan used to make a perfume called Black Cashmere which I also loved. I suspect it’s discontinued, which is a terrible shame. Today I’m wearing Charlie – I smell like the 70s!

  6. Did you know that the New York Times just hired its first-ever perfume reviewer? This is huge. Having widely-read critics gives the broader public a vocabulary to work with when talking about smells; I wonder if this will produce a generation of “smellies,” like the introduction of serious food critics made “foodies” more widespread?

  7. Tribe! I have very clear memories of stuffing little sample vials of it in my pockets at the bay… when I was 8 or so. It used to always be next to Exclamation!

  8. My aunt used to buy me Versace Red Jeans for Christmas all the time (for some reason every year she buys me some random perfume even though I very rarely wear any). I do remember actually liking it — do they trash that one too?

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