The World of Perfume is the sort of book that covers walls in discount bookcenters: it shares the shelf with illustrated books about birds, guns, trains, and fishing equipment. I bought my copy almost a decade ago, and it's been a while since I last browsed through its pages. Time to revisit this forgotten gem, and to set aside some prejudices about affordable coffee-table books.
Like most books in this genre, The World of Perfume is meant to browse through. Countless images of vintage perfume bottles adorn its pages: from common artifacts to unique, highly collectible pieces. With such a multitude of photographs, it's easy to forget about the written parts in between.
The book covers five main themes: the history of perfume, perfume manufacture, perfumery as a profession, prominent perfume brands in the 20th century, and a collection of rare perfume bottles. Don't expect too much in terms of reading pleasure: the last three chapters in particular are heavy on captions, leaving little space for plain text. Which is a shame, because those topics really do deserve more attention.
The chapter on perfume manufacture is like a quick reference guide, with various fragrant materials dicussed in separate paragraphs: it's actually not bad at all, and I'll definitely revisit this section more frequently in the future. It gets even more interesting in the third chapter, where Jean Kerléo and Olivier Cresp share their personal views on the perfumer's profession: it's a brief look behind the scenes of the perfume industry, commented by some of its main protagonists. The photographic collection of perfume bottles (in that same section) is also worth mentioning: the smartly aligned bottles are arranged according to the classification of the Comité Français du Parfum, meaning that perfumes displayed on the same page belong to the same fragrance family. The historical sketches of perfume houses (penultimate chapter) contain some original anecdotes, but most of it is beginners stuff.
Now about those prejudices. Cheap hardcovers are sloppy in terms of content, printed on ugly paper, and stuffed with horrible inaccuracies. The World of Perfume is none of those things: with all its limitations, it's a very decent and affordable read for the budding perfume enthusiast. Experienced readers will find it too generic, but the fact remains that it's a well-produced work, based on proper sources and solid research. I'm not aware of other perfume-related books by Fabienne Pavia, but this title is still largely available in Europe: it was translated in several languages, and issued by different publishers. Expect to pay around $20-25 for a new copy.
Fabienne Pavia has edited several photography books. She is co-founder of Le Bec en l'Air, a French publishing house.
The World of Perfume
Original title: L'univers des parfums
New York: Knickerbocker Press (1996)
Hardcover, 141 pages