Burr takes readers looking for new "Perfect Scent"

January 16, 2008 7:28:08 PM PST
"The Perfect Scent" (Henry Holt and Company, 320 pages, $25), by Chandler Burr: The multicolored bottles beckon from boutiques and the fragrance counters of department stores. "Smell me," their labels might as well read, and smell luxury, glamour, romance, sunshine on the beach, a garden in full bloom, exotic resorts, illicit affairs, haute couture runways. Celebrity names claim to be both the inspiration and the chemist behind each scent.

The open secret is that the celebrities and designers whose names sell each bottle aren't really involved. They smell money in perfume sales, but nothing more.

New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr sniffed out one celebrity truly passionate about perfume. In "The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York," Burr follows actress Sarah Jessica Parker as she launches her first perfume, Lovely, and its companion scented lotion for Coty Inc.

Burr contrasts Parker's perfume creation in New York with the development of a new scent for the Parisian luxury brand Hermes. Master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena is hired to create Un Jardin sur le Nil, a garden on the banks of the Nile to challenge the dominance of the Chanel perfumes.

"The Perfect Scent" could have read like a sweetly cloying press release, but Burr's reporting almost makes for perfume noir. Far from well-lit store displays, Burr winds his way deep into the secretive, dark high-stakes world of perfumery where following the scent can be hazardous to your career. Will Parker and Ellena survive? Will Burr ever quote anyone on the record?

Success doesn't smell too different on either side of the Atlantic. Both the family owned, boutique design house and one of the world's largest perfume producers expect high sales figures to match the money spent on perfume materials and packaging.

The "Sex and the City" actress and the French perfumer, Burr finds, are kindred spirits trying to create fleeting, liquid art. Both know the secret to a great perfume is a great story. Parker and Ellena use emotions, landscapes and characters as the ingredients in their perfumes, not just chemical synthetics.

Burr regards Ellena as a man who should have Parker's celebrity, were there any justice in the world. His children ask him for the scent of a cloud, and he whips up a concoction in his lab just for them.

The question of "what smells good" comes up throughout the book. Burr isn't shy about what he thinks smells bad; he hilariously lists the many ways that the entire Hugo Boss line, in his view, smells of disinfectant and insecticide.

Parker's "Lovely" is "the lightest olfactory party dress of powder and sweet." Ellena's Nile garden smells of the "smooth unblemished peel of the freshest, greenest mangoes hanging from the branches of the young trees, just out of reach."

Throughout the book, Burr equally nails in words what makes classics like Chanel No. 5 so revered. He smells the story in each bottle.


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