From Art to Bats: Review of Perfumes The Guide 2018 by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

Perfumes: The Guide 2018 presents more than 1,200 perfume reviews by Tania Sanchez, a writer with interests in perfume, aesthetics and culture, and Luca Turin, a biophysicist, perfume critic and olfaction-science rabble-rouser of The Emperor of Scent fame, and accomplishes its mission to assert perfumery as an art form, worthy of criticism.

I discovered their first guide Perfumes A-Z while researching Aroma Victoriana, where I quoted their admonishment of the perfume industry and its medieval secrecy–a secrecy that has helped to make perfumers invisible and the industry false, while also diminishing its appeal as an art form. As anyone who has spent any time perusing filmmaking sites knows, the more secrets, tricks and tips are shared and revealed, the more people geek out on and become addicted to the medium, which is precisely why such a book as Perfumes is needed to help us crack open the fragrance industry’s fortress of smoke and mirrors, allowing us to sniff with informed and intelligent noses the good, the bad, the ingenious and the dull.

A lot has changed in the ten years since Perfumes A-Z was published, not the least of which has been a niche explosion. I personally think–because this has been my own trajectory–a widespread interest in aromatics and botanicals, from aromatherapy to cocktails, is partly responsible for the rise of the sense of smell and an interest in entertaining and titillating the oft-neglected and much-maligned sense, creating a tinkering and hacker class of perfumers. Likewise, as with so many disciplines in the digital age, the fragrance phenomenon can be attributed to the ease of learning about and accessing materials online. Perfumery can now be learned about and the natural and synthetic materials obtained. Speaking of which, the authors of Perfumes recommend the educational kits at Perfumer’s Apprentice. (FYI, my birthday is coming up next month!)

Thus, a delightfully smelly zeitgeist is underfoot. No doubt, Aromatica Poetica exists as a product and celebrant of the age, but we are not alone in wanting to further the cultural connections of scent, art and literature, and to help break the fragrance industry’s shackles, the stifling corporatization dragged down by focus groups and allergen restrictions. As Sanchez tells it in her introduction, the niche and independent perfumers are beginning to compete with and sometimes surpass the big houses that have dominated since the dawn of modern perfumery:

The Institute for Art & Olfaction promotes independent perfumery via its much anticipated annual IAO awards, of which Luca has been a sometime judge. In previous years, the awards split into separate categories for independent brands, which contracted the services of outside perfumers, and artisans, who compose their own fragrances, to give the amateurs a chance. In the most recent round, as Luca let me smell the blind judging samples, we were startled: the artisans had surpassed the pros. Now it gets interesting.

In her list of trends that have emerged in the past ten years, Sanchez begins with the gleeful pronouncement of the death knell of celebrity fragrance, and ends with the equal but different glee in pronouncing that “Art perfume is here to stay.”

We’re not talking about show & smell artists, not, as Sanchez puts it, “the sort of concept perfume directed by a visual artist who tells big Swiss composition firm Givaudan, “I want a smell like rotting meat and genitals,” with which she scents her disturbing postmodern gallery installation,” but rather perfumers who challenge concepts of beauty, and demand that scent be worn and enjoyed, collected and appreciated. What Sanchez and Turin urge with their critiques is that perfumes be evaluated by informed taste just as people do with wine, film, music, books, etc.

These days, perfumes can tell short stories as well as long, can smell weird or even off-putting, can play with timbre and melody, can avoid or subvert expectations of gender, can be more daring in what they ask you to consider beautiful. The realm of the possible is expanding every day that talented perfumers are working.

The proportion of science nerds in perfumery is encouragingly high

Before moving on, I want to stress that, although you will likely be drooling over the lushness of many of these reviews, and saving your pennies to buy a little bottle of glory, they are not all praise and confetti. In fact, Turin and Sanchez can be harsh and dismissive. A cursory perusal of Perfumes reveals that brevity and brutality go hand in hand, for example this one-liner regarding Follow by Kerosene: “Coffee fragrances do not work.”

Or this one for Donna Margherita by Pantheon: “A hideous fake tuberose with fake narcissus and fake jasmine thrown in.”

And, perhaps my favorite dis goes to Flower By Kenzo L’Elixir: “Strawberry jam and nail varnish remover, together at last.”

The longer reviews describe more highly rated and more enticing perfumes, and they often take meandering walks through the history or chemistry of perfumery. Case in point: Bat by Zoologist, a Canadian niche company whose fragrances are all named for animals (Elephant, Hummingbird, Moth, etc.). Besides giving it a rave review, Turin spins opinion into a mini essay about the significant numbers of scientists in the niche perfume biz and extolls the virtues of a molecule called geosmin.

Bat was composed by neuroscientist-perfumer Ellen Covey who grows orchids, composes fragrances and does really interesting basic science research on processing of auditory signals in the bat brain. Incidentally, the proportion of science nerds in perfumery is (to me) encouragingly high: niche perfumery was, after all, started in the mid-1970s by Jean Francois Laporte, then professor of chemistry at Dijon University. In my unscientific sampling of the industry, I have found many niche firms to be run by organic and physical chemists, a fact which [has no obvious explanation except the time-honored notion that chemistry is the science of stinks.

Aromatica Poetica loves the science of stinks! Elsewhere we discussed the glorious smell of wet pavement with a blind organic chemist. That discussion is not irrelevant here, since, as Turin tells us, it is likely that the wet earth smell of Bat derives from the molecule geosmin–“the smell of earth after rain, also found more prosaically in boiled red beets.”

Beets?! Is it possible to read this without thinking of Jitterbug Perfume? But that must wait for another article… Meanwhile let’s turn back to Turin’s mini lecture on geosmin:

Geosmin is mysteriously powerful and far from easy to handle in perfumery. Perfumers who want an earthy note find it easier to use patchouli, which is less immediately evocative and in addition has camphoraceous and woody characters. The effect of geosmin in Bat is interesting, somewhere between patchouli and a woody-amber: the top note says wet earth, but the fragrance seems lit from within by the earth note all the way to drydown.

As the bat is my totem animal, I ignored the advice of Turin and Sanchez to “please be sure to read the full review and test the fragrance personally before buying,” and purchased the Bat travel spray. It is flying to me from Canada as we speak. Yes, I ordered a perfume called Bat blind, armed only with the excitement of smelling the new “cavernous and mysterious” scent, with the added assurance that The Institute of Art and Olfaction informed Turin that he “gave this fragrance high marks when judging it blind (as a bat would, I suppose), and I smell no reason to change my mind.”