“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it.” Jeanette Winterson
That quote about books might well apply to perfume, too. For those poor souls like myself who suffer from both forms of madness, there is a new temptation on the horizon: Roja Dove‘s “The Essence of Perfume.” It is a fantastic book with gorgeous photos ranging from exquisite old perfume bottles to vintage posters. Much more important, though, is the fact that it is incredibly informative with sections that would appeal to perfume lovers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. From the history of perfumery to explanations of all the key raw materials, a detailed breakdown of perfumes by decade, and so, so much more, this is an incredibly useful book to own.
The Essence of Perfume originally debuted in 2008, but a completely updated, re-worked version has just been released in the U.K. and will launch worldwide in early/mid September. I will have a giveaway at the end of this post, giving one of you the chance to get an early copy, but the main purpose of this post is to explore The Essence of Perfume‘s contents in detail. One reason for that is because of my own reaction when first hearing about the book.
In all honesty, I shrugged a little. “The Essence of Perfume” sounded fine and dandy, but nothing in the early press blurb that I read really piqued my interest. Part of the problem is that the last perfume coffee-table book I received as a present left me rather cold. Nice, glossy photos are all well and good, but… eh. Basic stuff on perfumery, or tiny, generic blurbs on some supposedly “cult” niche fragrances like Dipytique are not of great interest to me. And it seemed as though The Essence of Perfume would simply be a glossier, more luxe version of the same. Man cannot live on dessert alone, and the same holds true for photographs of perfume bottles or vintage perfume ads, no matter how nice they may be.
Then, I received a PDF file showing the actual contents of Roja Dove’s book… and everything changed. With every section I read, every photo I saw, I sat up a little higher. By the time I got to a glossary that mentioned synthetics, I was beaming, but the history section had me positively quivering with excitement. Fun factoids and interesting analysis filled this history addict’s heart with bliss. All of it, though, from start to finish was actually useful stuff! It wasn’t yet another book emphasizing appearance over content, or talking for the umpteenth time about Chanel bloody No. 5. This one had looks and brains. And it was a book that I actually did want to tell my readers about.
So, let’s start at the beginning. A new press release for The Essence of Perfume (hereinafter just The Essence of Perfume, without quotes or italics) states:
The Essence Of Perfume by Roja Dove is the Master Perfumer’s definitive guide, offering a rare glimpse into the knowledge, passion, and creativity of a Master Perfumer. Since it was first launched, The Essence Of Perfume has become the benchmark text for perfumery worldwide, and is an indispensable industry reference for many professional fragrance organisations.
Championing true innovation and artistic flair, award-winning perfumer Roja Dove takes us on his own personal journey of scent, from his transformative childhood memories, to the creation of Roja Parfums; revealing scandals of the fragrance world printed here for the first time. Dove explains why it is essential to look to the past in order to create the future, asking ‘What Next?’ If Dove’s prediction is correct, perfumery is about to change forever.
Due to unprecedented global demand following the sell-out first book, this new edition features additional sections about the inspirations behind Roja Dove’s creations; new methods of extraction; a comprehensive list of the exotic raw materials of perfumery; and never-seen-before fragrance bottles. Highlighting classic male fragrances, this new book is one of the first to celebrate men’s perfumery in its own right.
Personally, I always like to see the content of a book with my own eyes, not just read a press description. Thanks to the assistance (and endless patience) of several people at Black Dog Publishing and Roja Parfums, I can give you glimpses into various different sections. By the end of this point, I think you will agree that The Essence of Perfume and its quality speak for themselves.
So, let’s start at the very beginning with the book’s Table of Contents, and then I’ll take you through the various sections:
One of the very useful things about The Essence of Life is Roja Dove’s visually clear explanation of the procedures used to create the foundational building blocks for a fragrance. Here are a few of the straightforward, easy-to-understand graphics that are part of a larger discussion in Chapter 2, “The Methods of Extraction“:
Whether you are just starting out in perfumery or someone are with greater knowledge, I think you would enjoy Roja Dove’s ingredients glossary with its succinct explanations of all the raw materials. And, he doesn’t just talk about the basics like rose, iris, or jasmine, either. He also covers synthetics as well. Here is a look at some of the pages in Chapter 3:
Perhaps you’re like me and suffer with small print on websites, so feel free to click on those images to launch them separately onto another page in order to read the text a little more clearly. In the meantime, here are a few blurbs to give you an idea of what the ingredients glossary is like:
CYPRIOL — MOSS FACET
Cypriol Essential Oil is obtained from a form of papyrus, Cyperus scariosus, which grows in Bengal, India, and Australia. The oil is obtained from a rhizome, which offers a very low yield of between 0.075 to 0.080 per cent, which is why it is rarely used in perfumery. One of the principal components is a Natural Isolate known as Cyperine. It has a very warm, diffusive, woody, mossy odour which is highly reminiscent of Patchouli with undertones of Vetiver, Saffron, Cedarwood, and Olibanum.
JASMINE — SENSUAL FLORAL FACET
Jasmine is one of the most important of all materials used in perfumery. The one generally grown is known as Jasminum grandiflorum. It is at once rich, sensual, fruity, warm, narcotic, flowery and animalic. The finest and most highly prized Jasmine comes from Grasse. It was first introduced in the mid-sixteenth century and known simply as ‘the flower’. The microclimate there gives Grasse Jasmine a distinctive odour, which sets it apart from any other variant. Sadly, there are very few fields left in cultivation, as the price of land tempts the owners to sell for development, which is safer than relying on nature for an income. When combined with the labour costs required to produce a kilogram of this legendry amber-coloured liquid, it makes production generally untenable. It takes some 1,200 kilograms, or five million blossoms, each picked by hand, to produce a kilo of the Absolute. If you think a best picker can only pick around six kilograms of Jasmine a day, then each kilogram of Absolute requires 200 days of labour. Jasminum sambac offers a less refined oil.
Every type of Jasmine contains a naturally occurring molecule called Indole which is also present in high amounts in all the animal notes. Jasmine from Grasse contains the highest concentration of Indole out of all the Jasmines, which is why any perfumer lucky enough to be able to use it will pay between two and two and a half times the price of gold bullion for the pleasure. Like many flowers, the blossoms must be picked at dawn, as the amount of oil they contain diminishes with each passing moment as the sun rises. [Emphasis to names with bolding added by me.]
LAVENDER — SWEET AROMATIC FACET
Lavender Essential Oil is highly distinctive, offering a fresh, sweet naturalness to a composition. Although it sounds unlikely, it used to be grown commercially around Croydon, where production was established by the early sixteenth century, and one of the finest in the world used to come from Mitcham. Today, some of the best Lavender comes from a region near Grasse. It should not be confused with inferior Lavandin, which grows freely all over the South of France.
There are four main types of Lavender:
— Lavender augustifolia, which is known as Garden Lavender or True Lavender. It is used in fine perfumery.
— Lavender latifolia, also known as Spike Lavender, has a more campheraceous feel and is not as refined as Lavender augustifolia. It grows profusely across the Mediterranean.
— Lavender intermedia, also known as Lavandin, or Bastard Lavender, is even courser.
— Lavender stoechas, commonly called French Lavender, grows across France, Spain, and Portugal. It is highly diffusive and highly campheraceous with a pronounced
rosemary-like odour. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
I don’t know about you, but this lavender-phobe had no idea that there was a variety called “Bastard Lavender.” From this point forth, I may refer to all sorts of lavender as a “bastard,” no matter how factually incorrect that may be, simply because I think the name is hilarious. It’s a priceless tidbit that made me even more determined to buy “The Essence of Perfume” when it hits these shores. Bastard Lavender, indeed!
Now, a random look at some of the entries in the synthetics section:
Natural Isolates are obtained by removing one small olfactory element from a natural scented oil. The easiest way to think of it is to think of an egg — if you mix it whole, you can produce an omelette, whereas if you separate, or isolate, the yolk from the white, you can make meringue, or custard. By performing an isolation, the elements offer a totally different effect than the whole. Nature is bounteous; Jasmine alone contains some 900 different component parts, or potential isolates. At present, we are able to isolate around 300 of them. Every now and then, a new isolate is discovered which is so important it can totally change the direction of perfumery creation, which was the case with Dihydrojasmonate, first used by the perfumer Edmond Roudnitska in Dior’s Eau Sauvage. This material smells fresh and citrus-like but, as it comes from Jasmine, is long-lasting and does not have the typical fleeting effect of hesperidic notes — it was every perfumer’s dream. Today, Dihydrojasmonate is included in more compositions than not. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
Civetone is the main Natural Isolate of Civet. Today, it is recreated synthetically and will give warm sensuality, but it needs to be used in very small quantities as it can smell faecal in larger doses.
Coumarin is the main component of Tonka Oil. It is one of the Natural Isolates which heralded the birth of modern perfumery in 1882. It has a warm, almond-like odour which is essential in the creation of Oriental and Fougère harmonies.
The Natural Isolate found in Rose, which gives a long-lasting fruity rose note to a composition. Trademarked by Firmenich.
Isobutyl Quinoline is an important synthetic material which conveys an uncompromising animalic, leathery note.
Methylbenzodioxepinone is the synthetic that gives the olfactory impression of the fresh seashore through its marine/ozone nuances. It is exceptionally intense, overpowering and, in my opinion, insidious; it needs to be handled with care. The ‘sea-breeze’ note with slight floral overtones enabled the proliferation of the Oceanic Accord, albeit that it smells very watermelon-like. Tradenamed by Pfizer as Calone.
Once he’s explained the methodology and ingredients, Roja Dove then proceeds to talk about the perfumer, the birth of modern perfumery, and the great classics. In Chapter 4, he begins by explaining the various types of fragrance families, the nature of perfume pyramids, the different concentrations of perfume, and much more.
What I think is useful for beginners (and for those interested in making their own scents) is Roja Dove’s explanation of why perfumes within a particular fragrance family are made the way that they are. Take, for example, his discussion of the Chypre:
As the perfumer’s knowledge of oils develops, they will start to learn the basic harmonies of perfumery. Certain materials blend well together and form the basis of many structures that have been used for more than a century. For example, the dry warm earthiness of Oakmoss blends perfectly with other dry, woody, mossy materials like Vetiver, Cedarwood, and Patchouli. They are so deep and earthy, however, that they usually need something to counter-point them without smelling unbalanced — this is traditionally done through the inclusion of Bergamot.
Slowly, he takes you through the reasons or ways that the perfume’s note pyramid impacts how a fragrance smells. For example:
Generally, fragrances are split into three primary sections that are referred to as a ‘top’, ‘heart’, and ‘base’. It is perhaps easier to understand this division if one imagines the top being split into two parts (the top and the head), the heart remaining as one part, and the base being split into two parts (the base and the deep base). Therefore, fragrance creation is perhaps best understood as being split into five sections altogether (see illustration). It is essential to bear in mind the evaporation curve or timeline running alongside this structure.
When a fragrance is first applied, the initial impression of its odour is affected by the materials of the composition in the top. These are nearly always citrus notes, which happen to be the most universally loved of all materials. They have a very different olfactory feel to the aromatic materials found in the head. Likewise, the oils which make up the base and deep base have marked olfactory fingerprints that separate them and determine both the family and category, as well as the lasting quality of the creation. Each of these ingredients fall into certain groupings which we refer to as the Facets. The Facets can then be combined to create what we refer to as the Families. For example, when a fragrance’s most dominant Facets are the Moss and Wood Facets then the fragrance family will be a Chypré.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the historical discussion in Chapter 5. It is entitled “The Birth of Modern Perfumery,” and begins with the ancient Egyptians and the Middle East, before working its way from the Roman invasion of Britain to the Age of Enlightenment. It’s filled with lots of fun factoids that made this history junkie sit up and take notice. For example, did you know that Cleopatra “was probably one of the most avid fragrance worshippers of all time?” Roja Dove writes:
She used so much scent on the sails of her barges it was said that her approach could be detected miles downstream — which begs the question, did men really fall at her feet because of her beauty or were they intoxicated and beguiled by the amount of scent she wore?
Then, there is the possibility that King Charles I of England may inadvertently have been responsible for the start of civet in perfumery. I had no idea, so I amused myself for a few minutes thinking of alternative history hypotheses about how the stench of a civet-drenched London may have resulted in the monarch’s eventual beheading and the subsequent rule of Oliver Cromwell. No, it didn’t actually happen that way, but it was an amusing thought nonetheless. What Roja Dove tells us actually occurred is this:
Whilst scenting the body was accepted by the wealthy, washing was viewed with scepticism by the masses, a fact that was compounded in 1630 when Charles I introduced an excise duty on soap, making the stench from the unwashed so strong that fashionable gentlemen found that Civet was the only smell which would mask it. Thus, the civet cat became the sign of the perfumer’s shop in Britain. […][¶]
Civet Paste could be purchased easily in Britain from chemists as early as the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century it was the essential must-have for any fashionable gentleman. It is interesting to think that Civet, with its inherent faecal odour, was the scent of choice for the discerning gentleman. It is most likely the only material that was able to mask the rank stench of the pervasive and bestial emanations of London and those who inhabited it.
From the 17th century, Roja Dove slowly works his way to Mouchoir Pour Monsieur in 1904, Tabac Blond, and all the 20th century greats, then proceeds by decade until it reaches Narcisco Rodriguez‘s For Her in 2003. (It ends there, alas.) I have to admit, my attention was fixated on the 1990s page which showed Diana, then Princess of Wales, in that iconic little black dress:
Many of us are suckers for a pretty bottle or evocative advertising, but I think they really knew how to do it in the old days, as some of these photos from the Great Classics section in Chapter 6 demonstrate:
In Chapter 7, Roja Dove goes on to talk about the various perfume houses, providing mini-biographies of such key figures as Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Coty, Guerlain, and everyone else who ever mattered in perfumery. Yet, he doesn’t talk solely about the early 20th century couturiers or the big maisons. He covers everyone: jewellers like the original Bulgari, Cartier, and Chopard; living designers like Calvin Klein, Thierry Mugler, and Ralph Lauren; and beauty houses like Revlon, Prescriptives, and Clinique.
The Essence of Perfume isn’t only about the past, but tries to look forward as well. Chapter 10, entitled “What’s Next?” looks at where we were, what has changed in the present, and what may lie ahead.
One bit which I particularly enjoyed was Roja Dove’s frankness in talking about the effects of marketing, branding, high turn-over, and commercialisation in destroying classic perfumery. I was positively gleeful and cheering as he slams them all — from the “large multi-national conglomerates, including detergent manufacturers” which have dominated the industry, to perfumes that are put out with just as much care as “produce in a supermarket” :
The industry has always been amoebic, and currently is in the midst of a major reinvention. What had always been considered a luxury item, with that certain je ne sais quoi, no longer reflects poise and refinement. It has been cheapened over recent years as the industry was slowly bought up by large multi-national conglomerates, including detergent manufacturers, who saw that it was possible to make a quick buck by creating scents utilising the marketing models that work so well to launch household brands. [¶]
Where once originality and creativity were the driving forces behind each new scent, now it was all about spin and marketing budgets so persuasive they forced classical perfumery to its knees. The financial power of ‘the brand’ was so strong that all that was important was the marketing image — the scent was almost secondary. Where once it was normal for a perfumer to spend a year, or years, on a creation, now they are sometimes, literally, only given weeks, as scents are often stacked up high and sold cheap, more akin to produce in a supermarket. The ingredients used to create these fragrances are inexpensive, relying heavily on synthetic chemical materials rather than beautiful quality naturals which had been the mainstay of fine perfumery creation. The net results are odours which are both monolithic and lacking in any form of subtlety or refinement, or are vapid, lacking in originality or staying-power. [Paragraph break inserted by me to make it visually easier for you.]
All in all, The Essence of Perfume is wonderfully comprehensive, informative, and wide-ranging in focus. I found it thoroughly engrossing to read, though I do admit that I wasn’t quite so interested in the chapter on gorgeous old perfume bottles. For me personally, it felt like an exercise in masochism. Stunning works of art, one after another, after another, but all out of reach forever. It was a little frustrating, and since I’m far more interested in history than in perfume bottles (yes, I know I’m strange), I merely skimmed that section as a result. Another thing is that I would have preferred a much less “nutshell” approach to many of the biographies in Chapter 7 and an update to the decades section post-2003, but I suppose that is my own obsession with details speaking.
I only have one real criticism for the book: the Raw Materials chapter should have covered more aromachemicals. It’s obvious that aldehydes will be discussed, but if you’re going to mention Calone, then why not discuss ISO E Supercrappy? There are so many fragrances with that blasted ingredient, it’s almost impossible to list them all. Surely, ISO E Super is more common and widely used than the uber-expensive Irone? Yes, Eugenol is major, and yes, it is interesting to know about two types of civet synthetics, but what about one of the many “ambers,” like Ambermax? Then there is Norlimbanol which is in at least six, very expensive, famous fragrances that I can think of just off the top of my head. Even more common perhaps: Cashmeran, Safraleine, or one of the many Mysore sandalwood replacements (Ebanol, Javanol, Sandalore, etc.). These are all notes that I’ve encountered repeatedly in the oriental genre. (Just last week, in fact, in the case of Cashmeran and the new Serge Lutens).
The list did not need to be exhaustive, but I think The Essence of Perfume should have dug deeper into the subject in order to educate readers about both the extent and the nature of the strong aromachemicals used so frequently today. Some of those ingredients may not be a big part of Roja Parfums (thank God), but the average perfumista starts out with very different fragrances, even in the ostensibly “niche” world. Talking about something like ISO E Super or the more hardcore synthetics would have helped anyone who has ever smelled: a Montale fragrance (Aoud Lime is the olfactory equivalent of Chernobyl); the ridiculously over-priced aromachemical bombs put out by designer houses (YSL‘s Noble Leather, I’m thinking of you in particular); all the celebrity scents (the Olsen twins’ much vaunted, ridiculously hyped Black had me curling my lip at its synthetics); or any number of popular, commercial, mainstream fragrances. Regardless of price, almost everyone who has tried a “sandalwood” fragrance is bound to have encountered Ebanol or its kin at least a few times without knowing. Someone needs to educate people about what they’re actually smelling, and who better than Roja Dove with this book? It seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity not to do so. However, other than that one issue, I thought the coverage in The Essence of Perfume was really stellar.
Some of you may own the original “Essence of Perfume,” so I thought I’d spend a moment talking about how the new edition differs. First, I’ve been told that the book has been completely redesigned and reorganized, while existing chapters have been updated, expanded upon, or revised. Roughly 70 pages of content has been added, so “The Essence of Perfume” has grown from 272 pages to 352 pages. Second, a lot of the illustrations, photos, or graphics have been updated. Third, a lot of new images have been added, many of them exclusive to this book. Some of the other changes include:
- A new chapter devoted solely to the creation of Roja Parfums.
- In the “Great Classics” section, I’ve been told that almost every entry has new images, while each decade now has a men’s fragrance section detailing the important masculine scents in that time period.
- Each fragrance discussed now comes with updated text and photos of the very first, original bottle in which it was sold, as well as the contemporaneous poster of the time. For more significant fragrances, the entire advertising campaign has been included and/or discussed.
- The Bottle Makers chapter has been fully redesigned and substantially expanded, with exclusive photos of the original bottles.
- The Bibliography has been expanded, while the Index has been updated.
The Essence of Perfume costs £29.95 and $39.95. It was released last week in the U.K., and should be available at a few different sites. (See the Details section at the very end.) It will launch in the U.S. and probably world-wide in early to mid-September.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & GIVEAWAY:
Thanks to the generosity of Roja Parfums and Black Dog Publishing, I have a giveaway for one copy of The Essence of Perfume. Before I get to those details, however, I want to thank several people for their assistance with this article. All these photos, details, and descriptions that I’ve been able to share with you are due solely to their efforts. First, I really have to thank Camille at Black Dog Publishing, especially for putting up with my endless requests over the last few weeks for “More! I need MORE!” She has the patience of a saint and helped me out enormously, especially since I couldn’t simply pull things from an Adobe Acrobat PDF and needed everything to be sent in JPEG files for uploading. (I am completely Adobe-incompetent.)
Second, I’d like to thank two gentlemen at Roja Parfums, Messieurs Jack Cassidy and Jack Hewitt. They generously offered their time and their assistance when I was starting to get twitchy about not having enough specifics about the smallest of things. They answered my questions with endless grace. Mr. Hewitt went out of his way to get me JPEGs of any pages I was interested in, and then offered some more! All three have my deepest gratitude for their extensive assistance, and also my deepest apologies for being such a bloody nuisance! (None of you can really imagine just how many questions I’ve submitted to these poor people.)
Lastly, I wanted to thank Roja Dove himself for his generosity, but also to let him know that I really learnt quite a lot from “The Essence of Perfume.” The history part was the best! If I ever meet him, I plan on asking every question imaginable about Cleopatra’s perfume obsession. I also want to know: where he discovered that the expression “keeping at bay” stemmed from the Romans’ introduction of bay leaves into the ancient Britons’ bath and toiletry habits; if the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, wore anything other than scented Peau d’Espagne leather jerkins gifted by the Earl of Oxford; and if he knows whether Oliver Cromwell abstained from fragrance for puritanical reasons.
So, onto the Giveaway details, rules, and requirements:
- This giveaway is for the US, Canada, EU, and UK only.
- The entry period lasts until Midnight on Monday, August 25th my time, which is American CST (Central Standard Times) or GMT-6.
- Entry Requirement: Leave a comment about what aspect(s) of the book interested you the most, caught your attention, or would be most useful to you. Any one of those, and you’ll be entered. If you wish to leave a comment for Roja Parfums, please feel free to do so. There is only one entry per person, no matter how many comments you leave.
- The winner will be chosen by Random.org, and announced on Tuesday, August 26th or so in a separate post. The winner has 3 days after that to get in touch with me with their address. My email address is: AKafkaesqueLife at gmail dot com. (All one word, and obviously not spelled out like that.) Failure to contact me by August 28th will result in “The Essence of Perfume” being given to the next name on the list.
- The prize will be sent directly from Roja Parfums in London, so depending on the winner’s location, it may take a little time. Neither Roja Parfums, Roja Dove, Black Dog Publishing, or I are responsible for any customs issues or accidents that may happen in transit.
Good luck, everyone, and may all your days be fragrant.