Most people can only dream of having a perfume made just for themselves. Celia Lyttelton saw that dream turn into reality when she approached Anastasia Brozler, the founder of London-based Creative Perfumers, and asked her to develop a unique, personalized fragrance. Brozler is a former head of perfume marketing at Estée Lauder and L'Oreál in Europe, and was a sales director at Crown Perfumery before she opened her own company in 1999. She helped Lyttelton in selecting the ingredients, and then assigned the project to perfumer Norbert Bijaoui, who took care of the actual composition. Meanwhile, Lyttelton embarked on a trip around the world to learn more about the materials of her choice. Together with her husband Stephen and their young son Tarquin, she followed the trail of her bespoke perfume on a long journey to France, Morocco, Turkey, Italy, Sri Lanka, India, and Yemen. This book is her travel diary.
Much like Jean-Paul Guerlain's Les Routes de mes parfums (2002), Lyttelton guides us through these countries to explore the art and craft of perfumery. Each chapter features one or two ingredients, and leads to a different region. The "perfect perfume" we're dealing with has notes of neroli, petitgrain, nutmeg and ambergris in the top, mimosa, damask rose, iris, and jasmine in the heart, and vetiver, frankincense, and myrrh in the base; these notes represent the beacons of her voyage. Among her mentors are famous people like Frédéric Malle, Serge Lutens, and Lorenzo Villoresi, industry insiders like Robertet's director Henri-Joseph Roca, and a host of other colorful characters.
Although Lyttelton's expedition is by all accounts extraordinary, she made sure to record the more mundane events in her life as well. The result is a type of "ego document" that may not be to everyone's liking. Personally, I quite like the idea of mixing "detached" facts with personal anecdotes, as long as there's a connection between them. Going back to Tuscany, for instance, was not just an opportunity for the author to learn more about Florentine iris; being the region where she grew up, it triggered many intimate memories from her childhood, and revealed meaningful details about herself. By contrast, I couldn't figure out what to make of her journey through India, where she hitched a ride on the back of an Enfield, and almost got mugged at a marketplace. What kept the diary appealing in those cases, were the frequent references to raw materials and perfumes. Jo Malone, Diptyque, and Serge Lutens are some of the author's favorite houses.
A serious problem with this book is that it contains too many factual errors and inaccuracies. Some are downright silly, like the comment that "Marcel Proust's favourite scent was Jean Patou's Vacances" (p.19). Proust died in 1922, Patou started creating perfumes in 1925, and Vacances was launched in 1936; it takes about half a minute to find that out. Similarly, Guerlain Jicky was not "the first scent to combine natural and synthetic materials" (p.9); that honour goes to Houbigant's Fougère Royale. And it gets worse if we look at some of the names that appear incorrectly in the book: IFF apparently stands for International Flowers and Fragrances, and Coty's Chypre is referred to as 'Cyprus' (with poor François being subjected to a sex change on p. 294). Laura Tonatto sees her last name changed into Tonnato (like the famous Italian dish), and a similar mishap occurs with the author's very own perfumer. Granted, she didn't get to meet him in person (allegedly because he was "too shy") and Bijaoui is a difficult name, but it doesn't leave a very good impression. The glossary in the back is best avoided, too.
Lyttelton doesn't hide the fact that she is a novice in the field, but the lay reader won't always be able to spot her mistakes, and risks being misguided in some areas. Well-informed fragrance enthusiasts, on the other hand, may find themselves disappointed by the author's unfamiliarity with the perfume industry. For instance, she had the fortune of being introduced to the notoriously reclusive Serge Lutens on her visit to Marrakech; yet their encounter didn't add much to what is generally known about his work or personality.
My copy of The Scent Trail was published by New American Library in 2007, and has the light blue cover pictured here. As much as I hate to mention this, I came across many spelling errors (I'm thinking of words like 'distillation' and 'distilleries', which are consistently written with three l's in the first half of the book) which could have easily been avoided. Not only do they become tiresome after a while, but they add to the silly mistakes mentioned earlier, and take away part of the enjoyment this book has to offer. All in all, The Scent Trail is likely to appeal to fans of travel books, and to perfumistas with a forgiving temperament.
Celia Lyttelton is an independent writer and editor based in London. She wrote two specialist books on design: The Now Art Book (1996) and Floating Worlds (2001).
The Scent Trail: How One Woman's Quest for the Perfect Perfume Took Her Around the World
New York: New American Library (2007)
Soft cover, 320 pages
Cover price: 15 USD