If you read French, you may be familiar with that excellent series of cheap booklets published by Presses Universitaires de France called "Que sais-je?". Each volume in this encyclopaedic collection covers a specific subject, and the good news is: there's one about perfume too! None other than Edmond Roudnitska is the author of this little marvel, first published in 1980 and simply entitled Le Parfum. Unfortunately there's bad news too: it's not available in English.
Most generic perfume books focus on production methods, raw materials, and the history of perfumery. Roudnitska's approach is rather unique, in that he explores perfumery from an aesthetic point of view: what's the difference between olfactory perception and sensation, or between materials ("matériaux") and matter ("matière") in perfumery? What's the role of taste, imagination, intelligence, and intuition in the composition of a fragrance, and what makes a fragrance a "beau parfum"? These philosophical questions lead to a conclusion that many nowadays seem to take for granted, but that few have ever attempted to formulate convincingly: that High Perfumery is an art.
Attributing artistic status to perfumery has a very practical implication: it allows the classics to be protected from plagiarism under a French law on artistic property. Recent court rulings over fragrance doubles and copyright issues in perfumery seem to suggest that Roudnitska's battle for an institutionalized, legal recognition of High Perfumery is starting to pay off; although there's still a long way to go, these latest developments show how important his efforts were in the first place.
Le Parfum may be a booklet of diminutive proportions, but it's packed with an incredible amount of knowledge and insights: it really takes time to digest it all. And if you thought Roudnitska would be hindered by modesty or shyness towards his own creations, think again: he praises Rochas Moustache as the benchmark of male perfumery (p.122), and qualifies the great Eau Sauvage (his words) as the fragrance that started a new era (p.11). Rather annoying, in my view, is the fact that he makes frequent references to his own publications, whereas he hardly credits other sources: it makes it difficult for the reader to trace back the origins of his ideas, and to put things in perspective.
Nevertheless, Le Parfum should be mandatory for anyone who trains to become a perfumer. It's not an easy read, and there's plently of room for debate on the author's views, but the questions he raises are of fundamental importance. The sixth edition, published in the year 2000, is updated with developments in the industry up to the early 1990s, which means it doesn't feel like a relic from the past. All we need now is a good translation.
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 6th edition (2000)
Paperback, 128 pages
Other publications by Edmond Roudnitska: L'intimité du parfum (1974), L'esthétique en question (1977), and Une vie au service du parfum (1991).
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