The New York Times perfume critic—yes, you read that right—follows the creation of two industry-defining perfumes. While Burr (The Emperor of Scent, 2003, etc.) approaches his beat with healthy skepticism, he’s also capable of flowery language, describing a perfume as smelling like early evening on an island where it is always summer. It’s this mixture of hard-nosed business writing and flights of olfactory fancy that makes the text improbably exhilarating. Split between the twin capitals of fashion, and therefore of the perfume industry, Burr’s account tracks the development of two new scents, each a high-stakes crapshoot. The New York fragrance was celebrity-driven. To create Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely, the actress spent an impressive amount of time with beauty-product manufacturer Coty’s corporate perfumers trying to create a scent that would not only capture her essence (don’t laugh: they actually seem to have done it) but would survive in an increasingly volatile $31-billion market. Un Jardin sur le Nil, the more traditionally designed Parisian fragrance, was revolutionary in its own way. Seeking a higher profile in the lucrative perfume market, Hermès hired Jean-Claude Ellena, one of the professional ghosts who actually make the scents sold under designers’ names, to be its first-ever in-house perfumer. The astoundingly complex struggle to define and refine Nil, first reported by Burr in a 2005 New Yorker article, centered on an ephemeral conceit of green mangoes on the Nile. Lovely comes across here as a far more personal scent, though that might be a subjective judgment—the author seems a little star-struck by SJP. Nonetheless, Burr sharply evokes the intoxicating, often infuriating mix of precise science and artistic vision necessary to create a perfume, aided by his impressively calibrated BS detector and ability to unearth the industry’s many dirty little secrets. An unusually grounded depiction of a business built largely on artifice.
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