For the true perfume fanatic, Luca Turin needs no introduction. The first edition of his Parfums: Le Guide was published in 1992, and quickly brought him to the attention of perfume fans and perfumers alike. It became the bestselling perfume guide in France, and for many of us, it remains the gold standard of intelligent writing about perfume.
His theory of smell first gained widespread notice through the BBC documentary The Code in the Nose, and was later the subject of Chandler Burr's 2002 book The Emperor of Scent. If you are not familiar with his theory, you can read a very brief background on shape vs. vibration in this
article on Olfaction (link no longer working, sorry!). There is a longer article on current theories of olfaction on the Leffingwell site.
Since 2001, Dr. Turin has been with Flexitral, Inc.
The Emperor of Scent leaves off in 1999. Have your theories about how smell works changed since then, and if so, how?
The state of the art has moved on, though the main points remain unchanged. All is detailed in my article "Rational Odorant Design" which can be downloaded from the Flexitral website. A lot of progress has also been made on the practical (odor prediction) side, particularly in connection with predicting odorant intensity.
Can you comment on the experiments done last year by Vosshall & Keller at Rockefeller University that failed to find any evidence for vibration theory?
Their article is a valuable scientific contribution to the continuing debate as to whether we smell shape or vibration. Their basic conclusion is that untrained subjects cannot tell a particular pair of isotopes apart when smelling them at a particular concentration. This leaves open the question of whether trained observers, different concentrations and other isotopes would have given a different answer, and has to be seen in context of other similar work on animals and humans which reached a different conclusion.
Can you tell us a little about the work you are now doing at Flexitral?
Flexitral uses my methods to create novel perfume and flavor molecules. We reach the desired target two orders of magnitude faster (and more cheaply) than the competition. We have focused on replacements for the molecules restricted in use by the European Union because of their allergen properties, but we also create novel materials.
Many of us would love to know if you have any plans to update Parfums: Le Guide?
I thank all the aficionados for reminding me periodically that this is something I must do one day. It needs time which my research work hasn't allowed me yet.
And are there any perfumes that have been released since the last version of your guide was published that you particularly admire?
Bulgari Black, Osmanthus by the Different Company, Beyond Paradise, Histoire d'Eau (topaze) by Mauboussin, and Shalimar Lite.
If you could bring back any discontinued perfumes, which would you choose?
Fath Iris Gris, Lucien Lelong Elle, Elle, Coty l'Origan, Shiseido Nombre Noir
Sincere thanks to Luca Turin for participating in this interview, which was conducted by email. More reading: Chandler Burr's website includes some of Turin's perfume reviews and other material that was not included in the Emperor of Scent. You can also listen to a 2003 NPR interview with Chandler Burr, and there are also links to a number of articles about smell on the Flexitral website.
He liked Shalimar Lite! (Diet Shalimar, as I've started to think of it.) It's no surprise to me that he likes Bulgari Black, but the Shalimar Lite, that surprised me. I found it sort of insipid, like a lemon drop plus a massive pouf of Johnson & Johnson's baby powder, but perhaps that's a matter of taste rather than appreciation of the perfumer's art.
Incidentally, unless I've been misled, I believe Mr. Turin was responsible for the Secret Absolu line from Fragonard, which was on sale at Takashimaya when I went there on Saturday. I was positively smelled out at that point, having been to Barney's, Bergdorf, and Bendel already, but I found Secret Absolu totally strange when I put it on, like glue. (Don't ask me how I know so intimately the smell of glue.) I don't think I got to the drydown, though, because then I was derailed by John Henry Edington's new pair of scents, and then I went off to dinner, covered in roughly seven different things, so I can't tell you how the Secret Absolu resolved itself.
I am really disappointed that Lord (among us mortals) Turin did not consider OJ's Frangipani a great creation to mention in that same sentence as diet Shalimar!!!
T, I know he did something in collaboration with Fragonard, but don't know what! BTW, how are John Henry's new scents? I only knew of the one, San.
Well, Linda has something on her site saying he chose it as worthy out of a blind test of a bunch of perfumes or something. I know I read an article about it some time back, but can no longer find a link online.
That is what I thought too – I must have have heard it! Hope you are well R! Keep up this lovely informative blog. :))
R, you are just the coolest of cool! I look forward to more fabulous interviews!
This is a great interview, R! But really–Shalimar Lite? Beyond Paradise? Maybe we don't need an updated perfume guide afterall.
Wildly impressed. Vaguely jealous. Extremely interesting. WOW!
Thanks so much for this interview! I 2nd everything mireille posted.
Thank you I!
I sometimes puzzle over his choices too. I am still trying to understand Jacomo Paradox (no pun intended). But his writing is so wonderful, even with my limited French, and he clearly cares about perfume in a way that most of the people writing about it don't really seem to. His descriptions of Shalimar & Dzing on the Chandler Burr website are just brilliant, and the review of Mira Bai is just plain funny.
Thank you M!!!
And thank you E, I appreciate it
I hadn't heard of San! I only know the ones I tried: a winter one, in a little red jeweled bottle (it lies on its side) and a spring one, in a little green jeweled bottle. The packaging is lovely. The scents are pretty good. The winter one wore well on me: woodsy and resinous. The pale blonde SA who ran over while we were testing announced that she loved the green one, which was brighter (and a little too sharp on me). Smellslikeleaves aka Liz was with me and when she put on the green one, it smelled so good on her that John Henry disbelieved it was his own scent until she proved it by putting on more right from the bottle in front of him.
I know. I'm just being petulant! :):) His writing is amazing, isn't it? He has a way of not only capturing the notes of the fragrance, he is able to catch its very essence and soul. Lesser writers, like myself, would be unable to put into words the expression of these fragrances in the way that he does it. Now, if we could get all of those wondrous reviews translated into English, I would be over the moon!
Now I am totally confused, I didn't think these were JH's scents, I thought they were made by his SO, and the first one they released was San? It maybe comes in a pouch trimmed with fur or something.
Or is that something else, and now JH has his own line? Anyway, the green one sounds right up my alley.
Although I called them his in my first comment — I really am confused
I'm eaten up by envy at the moment. He's such a good writer! Lucky you. Good interview, Robin, and good job.
Petulance is allowed
I know some of the women at Perfume of Life have done translations, but I haven't seen the results and I can never get their darn board search function to work for me.
All HAIL Nowsmell this. What an interview coup…oh and he picked Shalimar Legere – aka – diet Shalimar. One of my favorite fragrances esp since I cannot wear Shalimar. Hehe – I bet that choice shocked some people I cannot even imagine what you have next up your sleeve. I certainly hope you know how much I appreciate the information found here. Keep it going…
Thanks for posting this interview. Its great to hear from Mr. Turin.
My area of interest/practise in chemistry is actually spectroscopy and I've followed his work in both the perfume arena and the scientific journals. Very interesting.
Thank you F, I was waiting for you to show up and give a few nice words to diet Shalimar!
Laura, I should have asked you to help me with questions! But then those of us science-challenged peeps wouldn't have understood the answers
Wow, NST, you are a pro!! Congratulations on snagging this interview!! I really do love this blog, but I repeat myself. Verywell, I repeat myself,
Mr. Whitman, You have done such good to me I would do the same to you. Signed, NST
Thanks so much for sharing this. Turin is certainly one of the most fascinating of individuals. I liken his olfactory gift to that of a musician with perfect pitch. Even though he has an amazing gift, it must make life difficult some times (although it seems he hardly has problems with odors that outright stink.)
Yes, you would think it would be difficult, almost like being a supertaster. Chandler Burr also talks in the radio interview about how much more aware he was of smell after writing the book.
Oh, its all gobbeldy gook anyways my dear. You either like the way it smells or you don't. You did a great job!
I think Mr. Turin has no problem with what we consider a bad smell. In the foreword to: Parfums: Le Guide (1994) he writes to explain why so many Perfumers are French: … that the good smells and the bad go together in making something beautiful. He writes of Muster cheese and Sauternes vine. (The first definitely stinks and the second almost) But the taste is delicious.
He goes on to say that perfumes which are composed only of “nice” smells would be “deadly” boring. (ennuieux) and become really beautyfull if the not so good smells come into play.
He cites Civet and castoreum as examples.
Sorry, a good translation would be fun to read. But mine goes from French to German and on to english.
Thank you L!!!
Yes, exactly. That is also what I see as the primary difference between French & Italian fragrances…the Italians tend to be simpler, prettier, none of the “nasty” stuff that gives depth and complexity to a real French perfume. But I happen to like both styles, sometimes, simple & pretty is enough, even if it isn't as impressive a composition.
Thanks so much for commenting, and I understood your translation perfectly.
Why do you only mention Italians?
I think Dr. Turin calls american Perfumes “ATHLETIC” somewhere in his writing.
I suppose I only mention Italians because I wear a fair number of Italian fragrances. I'm sure I wear something American, but I can't think of one offhand. I don't really think of the US as having much of a perfume tradition other than the designer brands, which are mostly made by French noses to suit American tastes. In the US, new perfumes seem geared towards the very young, and athletic is an apt description, although the first word that comes to my mind is sweet.
Does anyone know where I can get a French copy of Parfums: Le Guide? I haven't been able to find a copy anywhere on the web… My French, though quite rusty, seems to get me through the original bits I've seen posted. By the way, as a new reader I'd like to say it's quite the coup interview and a great introduction to this excellent blog!
Hi Tigs, can you email me? My address is under “contact me” on the right column.
If you can't find the guide in digital –
I have copied it from the net about a year ago. But printed it and thrown away the file.
The bookmark now turns up a *nothing*
so if nobody can help you. I can make some copies …
mail me at: parfumster at gmail dot com
All the best – René
Do you know where a North American could get Histoire d'eau Topaze? I've looked and all links lead back to Perfume Connection which only seems to deliver within Australia.
You can find it at imaginationperfumery…just look for the women's Histoire d'Eau (they don't use the term Topaze, but if you check out the Perfume Connection site, you'll see that it is the same bottle).
(Tried to send you this message earlier, don't know if it went thru). Imagination Perfumery has a customs clearance company that was going to charge $30 to get us Canucks Histoire D'Eau. They told me to re-order in two weeks since they were changing companies and I just tried – sold out! Damn that Turin and his breath-stealing prose! His newish blog has that great post on Spices which has done me in, when I am the very essence of “the tropics in winter”. A belated thanks for pointing me in the right direction. Any more ideas?
Drat, I don't see it anywhere else! Did you email them to see if they will be restocking it? Otherwise, I'm out of ideas. If you're interested, email me (nowsmellthis at comcast dot net) and I'll let you know if I ever see it anywhere….planning a couple trips to NY this summer and you never know!
I am very interesting by Parfums : le Guide. Is it still possible to have a copy of this book (in French or in English) ? If yes, it will be fantastic. Please, keep me posted and tell me the modalities to receive it. And if the digital is always working, let me know.
i'm sorry i'm so late to add to this conversation, but i just found your site. after reading 'the emperor of scent” i, too, yearned for an english translation and contacted european used book search services to no avail. then i emailed luca turin — and he very promptly and graciously responded with a pdf containing translations of about 30 of the fragrances from “le guide”. i couldn't believe such a busy man would take the time to acknowledge my email and send me such treasure! maybe this site could get his permission to put up that document, since it's no longer in print in french and was never available in english. might be worth a try. of course he's a real hero of mine, now!
Hi Ellen, and welcome! Did you know that Luca has his own blog now? Click on “Perfume Notes” on the left column, under “Other Fashion, Beauty & Perfume Blogs”. Hopefully some day he will make Le Guide available there, or better yet, publish an updated translation. Meanwhile, he posts frequent reviews on his blog.
Hey R, looks like Histoire d'eau (topaze) is finally back at Imagination Perfumery… it appears to be the right bottle anyway. Now they're only charging US $10 for shipping (not quite so bad as before). Of course, customs will probably try to nail me. Have you ever smelt it? I'll let you know what I think if I ever manage to get it…
Tigs, Thanks for letting me know! I still haven't smelled it, and it is not expensive, but still, too much for me to buy unsniffed given that my taste & Luca's rarely seem to mesh. Do let me know how it is if it makes it through customs…if you love it too, I might have to cave!
The only time he's ever really led me astray was Feu D'Issey which I actually like a fair amount but causes people around me to pass out. I think I really have ruined several people's lunches with it. I have never tried Paradox or some of the other “questioned” choices. I just like the sound of this one, and the description. I notice Le Guide also describes Caron's Farnesiana as like “the south/tropics in winter” even though the notes would seem to be very different. I can't remember how you felt about Farn…
Farnesiana is gorgeous, but so far at least, I admire it but don't wear it. Wouldn't think of it as the south/tropics though. Hated Paradox, hate that Estee Lauder one he loves that won't come to mind right now. I like the sound of the Topaze too, do let me know!
Beyond Paradise I didn't mind – I bought it actually – but I find myself not wearing it very often. I think it's great for its type, but not my type. Too peaceful with a slice of pineapple, I think. I always get compliments when I do wear it though and my husband loves it…
Stories are vibrational.
It was only after reading the Emperor of Scent that I had a focused way to explain why and some time later I refined my concept of a Neuropersona which is a mask comprised of stories and processes.
A person can change masks many times during the day and when they where a mask the ‘vibrate’ according to the vibrations of the stories and processes related to the mask.
Thank you Luca Turin!