According to advertisers, nothing spells 'love' as powerfully as flowers, chocolates and a bottle of perfume. So although I'd never dream of dissuading someone from buying a fragrance for their Valentine, I'm going to leave the scent recommendations to others this year and instead suggest that you may like to consider spending your pennies on perfumed prose. At this juncture, I ought to be able to pull off a graceful segue into my own book, but as its first print run is now officially sold out - and as the publishers haven't yet told me about their plans regarding a second run - I don't think I should dwell on it today. All I will say is that if you'd like to buy a copy, now is the time to start hunting for any stragglers kicking about here and there.
Four fragrance-related books have been released in recent weeks, and of these Rare Perfumes - penned by Sabine Chabbert and Laurence Ferat - is perhaps the most coffee-table-friendly. Inspired by the growing respectability of niche brands in France - a market notoriously resistant to non-mainstream scents - the elegant tome is essentially a series of mini-profiles of various firms, from obvious choices like Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens to somewhat more esoteric fare, such as Les Nez and Carthusia. It's certainly handy to have all these biogs in one volume, but the translation leaves a great deal to be desired. My French is by no means perfect, but even I was able to work out that certain words and phrases had been grossly disfigured along their journey to English. Had the text originally been written in some near-extinct language spoken only by three tribespeople in the deepest Amazon, it would have been easy to forgive the odd bit of awkward expression. But as there are plenty of people fluent in both English and French, the shoddiness is hard to excuse. A real shame.
Equally glossy is British Perfumery: A Fragrant History, published to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the British Society Of Perfumers. This hefty piece of work is brand-focussed too, but not exclusively so. Here, the emphasis is on perfume as the product of an industry: for every entry on a Penhaligon's or a Grossmith, there's a mention of a Givaudan or a Unilever. The result is an interesting - if rather specialised - examination of the role of Britain in the perfume world, a role which is perhaps more significant than the average high street customer might imagine. The photos are especially noteworthy, as they depict a world inhabited not by angst-ridden artists daydreaming in fields of jasmine, but a quintessentially English realm of people operating complex equipment in labs or enjoying the questionable pleasures of committee meetings. The historical tidbits are priceless too. For instance, in his Foreword, Michael Edwards points out that in 1963, the year which saw the birth of the BSP, only three (yes, that's right: three!) new perfumes were launched: Diorling, Penhaligon's Extract Of Limes and Kiehl's Original Musk. Such restraint on the part of brands is impossible to imagine now.
Karen Gilbert's Perfume: The Art & Craft Of Fragrance is a dangerous book. I mean that as a compliment, because it is precisely the sort of release that might cause the unwary punter to cross the threshold which divides the world of perfume consumption from the perilous territory of production. Slim, concise and visually sumptuous, it guides the reader through fairly obvious, albeit crucial, sections - a brief history of perfume, different fragrance families, an overview of key ingredients - before presenting a series of fundamental perfume formulae. However, despite its pastel-pretty exterior, it doesn't shy away from the realities of fragrance creation - it tackles the subject of synthetic materials head on - and it isn't afraid of becoming technical when it needs to. Inevitably, it draws comparisons with Mandy Aftel's Essence & Alchemy, but in the final analysis, the connections between the two are tenuous. For one thing, their design couldn't be more different - Gilbert's, with its abundant use of colour photography, makes a more obvious gift - and their content varies as well. Aftel's is more detailed, more pensive and, dare I say it, more prone to new-agey, Californian mysticism, whereas Gilbert's is more succinct, more accessible and much more tone-neutral.
Barbara Herman's Scent & Subversion is arguably the most obvious Valentine's Day choice for a card-carrying scentusiast. As it's basically a collection of reviews of vintage scents, it's sure to tickle the list-loving fancies of most perfume lovers, even if it does raise tricky questions about what constitutes 'vintage'. To her credit, Herman addresses this issue, and several others, in her introduction, thereby displaying a willingness to acknowledge that 'vintage-ness' isn't a fixed quality and that it exists on an increasingly murky spectrum. This particular conundrum aside, the book is a handy reference point both for creations which are no longer to be found on department store shelves and for those which don't resemble their original incarnations any more. Readers hoping for punchy, stridently dogmatic assessments - a la Turin and Sanchez - may be disappointed, but there's no denying that Herman's love of her subject comes through in her words. Guerlain's Djedi is likened to a "secret pagan ritual going on under cover of darkness." Diorella is redolent of "not-yet-going-bad garbage that someone has thrown a pile of flowers onto", a description Herman calls "an endorsement". And Bulgari Black is "an updated Shalimar for romantic types who frequent leather and latex fetish bars". Finally, it's worth mentioning that the closing sections of the book feature articles on the potential future of perfumery, as soon through the eyes of Antoine Lie, Christopher Brosius and Martynka Wawrzyniak.
A happy Valentine's Day to all!
[Rare Perfumes is published by Terre Bleue and the Osmotheque; British Perfumery: A Fragrant History is published by the British Society Of Perfumers; Perfume: The Art & Craft Of Fragrance is published by Cico; Scent & Subversion: Decoding A Century Of Provocative Perfume is published by Lyons Press.]