I understand the subtitle of Neil Chapman’s1 new book Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent. Bookstore browsers will weigh the book’s satisfying heft and eye its vaguely 1970s-does-Deco cover and gold-edged pages. They’ll think, “I’ve always loved perfume, but I’ve never found The One. Anaïs Anaïs was great for senior prom, but maybe it’s time to find a perfume to express the real me.” They’ll leaf through the book’s beautifully designed pages with their two-color images, scan a few dreamy descriptions, and plunk down a credit card.
Then they’ll be overwhelmed. Perfume is a book for the initiate, for someone who understands fragrance basics and wants to read about scent the way music lovers peruse opera scores. Most people like us gave up the signature scent idea a long time ago.
Perfume begins with a few mini-essays on fragrance 101, then dives into the book’s meat: brief fragrance descriptions, some categorized by major note and some by mood. The book's major categories are green, citrus, flowers, the classics (floral aldehydes and chypres), spices, gourmand, eros (including powdery orientals, booze, tobacco, amber, musk, leather, and fougères), woody, meditative, oceanic, and anti-perfume and futuristic. I didn’t always agree with each of Chapman’s categorizations — Guerlain Vol de Nuit as a powdery oriental? — but I enjoyed reading the categories and finding my favorites.
Each fragrance’s entry shows a stylized graphic of the bottle and lists the year of its release. The description that follows sometimes picks up a story from Chapman’s travels or life in Japan. Fragrances are described less by note, history, and data on perfumers than they are with a story or baroquely written description.
One red light to the perfume newbie is Perfume’s inclusion of discontinued — sometimes long discontinued — fragrances. The reader entranced by Chapman’s description of Schiaparelli Shocking as “full of cigarettes and nighttime persuasions” (I agree!) will be hangdog that it hasn’t been on the market for thirty-plus years. Chapman writes of Penhaligon’s Ostara that “if you want daffodils, this is the one.” Pity the daffodil lover who tries to track down discontinued Ostara at their local fragrance boutique. Internet sleuthing will turn up a bottle or two, but not for long.
Chapman’s approach is less the critic than the inviting host who keeps refilling your glass. Chapman doles out his perfume descriptions with complex sentence structures, bouquets of modifiers, and extra whipped cream. For me, it’s comfort after a hard day’s work, but not everyone will agree.
Any book of perfume reviews today begs to be compared to Luca Turin and Tanya Sanchez’s Perfumes: the Guide A – Z and last year’s Perfumes: The Guide. Instead of critiquing perfume as Turin and Sanchez do, Chapman aims to introduce readers to fragrances he admires. He writes from the perspective of ardent consumer rather than as an expert and insider. I doubt many readers will bow at Chapman’s feet, but they’d heartily enjoy coffee and a long chat with him about their fragrance favorites.
So, you’ve been reading Now Smell This for a few years, and you’ve amassed a nice collection of fragrances. You know Jean-Paul Guerlain from Rodrigo Flores Roux, and no one has to explain to you the indignities Miss Dior has suffered over the years. Do you need a copy of Perfume? Probably not. But I bet you’d enjoy it as much as you do your Old Fashioned after work on Friday. It’s not a necessity, but it's a stimulating indulgence.
Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent by Neil Chapman (Hardie Grant: 2019) is $22.99 for the Hardcover. (As of this writing, it is $15.31 on Amazon.)
1. Neil Chapman blogs about perfume at The Black Narcissus.