By Roja Dove
Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
Perfume has been around a long time. The oldest written record of perfume comes from Assyro-Babylonian texts of around 1800 BC. The perfume was called qanu tabu. Canaanite texts from Ugarit, circa 1400 BC, speak of a perfume designated smn mr – a liquid myrrh. The Egyptian queen Hatshepsut had ‘white’ trees brought to Egypt around 1490 BC. From these ‘white’ trees, her perfumers made frankincense, which was the “perfume that deifies.” To the ancient Egyptians, perfume was the medium for wafting the soul to heaven and for putting demons and evil spirits to flight.
Making perfume is part science, part art, and part passion. In his book – The Essence of Perfume – Roja Dove relates how these three seemingly incompatible parts come together to form a fragrance. And the book is as magical as its subject matter.
After providing a brief overview of perfume, Dove moves on to the birth of modern perfumery, which occurred in 1832. That was when J. Mero et Boyveau began using solvent extraction techniques to produce essential oils. This, along with the discovery of synthetic materials, “was the perfumery equivalent of the big bang.”
‘Methods of Extraction’ is the title of Dove’s third chapter. Essentially, this is the scientific portion of perfumery. In it, he explains steam distillation, solvent extraction, expression, enfleurage, and tinctures. And he does so in very simple and very clear language. It’s so beautifully done that it boggles the mind. Only a writer of vast expertise could accomplish such a task.
From there, Dove proceeds to the raw materials, which are naturals, synthetics and aldehydes. Once again, Dove demonstrates his erudition and talent, as he describes the raw materials in charmingly concise terms.
Artistry is the focus of the next section of the book. And it is here that Dove excels himself. According to Dove, the creation of a new perfume is “the result of hard work and a good memory (combined with imagination and – hopefully – good taste). Whilst such skill is certainly something that has to be learnt, one will only be great if blessed with an inherent aptitude for scent.” In other words, it is artistic expression that makes the finished product – the perfume – greater than the sum of its elements.
Dove illustrates how artistry affects perfume. Each perfume has a structure that unfolds as evaporation takes place, revealing what are called ‘notes’ or facets of the fragrance. This unfolding process moves from the top note to the head note to the heart note to the base note to the deep base note. These notes leave olfactory fingerprints, which provide successive impressions. Collectively, the impressions coalesce into a unique perfume.
Arranging the notes of a perfume is similar to writing a musical symphony. Mozart’s Mass in C Minor transports the listener to another realm. Chanel No. 5 does the same thing. Like great composers, great perfumers are exceedingly rare. Both disciplines demand genius and passion. On the one hand, genius means the harmonious arrangement of the notes. On the other hand, passion stirs the soul. Together, the two bring forth enchantment.
Dove goes on to discuss the great classic perfumes of the last hundred and twenty years, from Guerlain’s Jicky (1989) to his own Trilogy (2007), which encompasses Scandal, Unspoken and Enslaved. This discussion is complemented by an overview of the houses responsible for shaping the classic fragrances.
The final section of The Essence of Perfume chronicles the glass creations that hold perfumes – the bottles. Coco Chanel’s words sum it up best: “The bottles are my memories of surrender and conquest – my crown jewels of love.” And indeed they are. For many of the bottles are works of art in their own right. Dove’s photos leave the reader breathless.
Put simply, The Essence of Perfume is the best book ever about perfume. A work of art about works of art produced by artists called perfumers. Roja Dove is to be applauded.
On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (fusty) to 5 stars (divine), The Essence of Perfume smells of 5 aromatic stars.