On the Scent of a Winner

An inside peek at the development of two new fragrances from Hermès and Coty

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A memorable inside peek at how new fragrances get developed

The Bad: The author stumbles when his narrative turns to a Coty Inc. celebrity perfume

The Bottom Line: A quirky and irreverent look at one of the least-known global luxury businesses.

The Perfect Scent:A Year Inside the Perfume Industryin Paris and New York

By Chandler BurrHenry Holt; 306pp; $25

In May, 2004, a French perfumer named Jean-Claude Ellena checks into the legendary Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt. For the next few days, he wanders around sniffing things—flowers, fruits, spices, the Nile—and jotting down chemical formulas in a notebook. It sounds idyllic, but Ellena is so tense that he can't sleep.

Two executives from his employer, French luxury house Hermès, follow him on his daily walks, as does a crew shooting a promotional film. Hermès has already chosen a name for a new top-of the-line scent: Un Jardin sur le Nil. Now, Ellena has to invent it.

Ellena's quest forms the central narrative of The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York. As described by author Chandler Burr, a scent critic for T: The New York Times Style Magazine (who knew such a job existed?), the $31 billion perfume industry is "one of the most insular, glamorous, strange, paranoid, idiosyncratic, irrational, and lucrative of worlds." Burr stumbles when he tries to blend Ellena's story with a second narrative about the development of a mass-market fragrance by Coty. Still, the author's quirky and irreverent approach makes for a memorable visit to one of the least-known corners of the global luxury business.

Humans have been perfuming themselves for thousands of years, but the modern business started just over a century ago with the invention of synthetic molecules that yield fragrances not found in nature. Dior's Eau Sauvage, for example, contains "methyl dihydrojasmonate, a molecule that smells beautifully of clean, pure light," Burr says. Practitioners such as Ellena not only have exquisitely sensitive noses; they also spend years studying chemistry and learning to manipulate the thousands of synthetic and natural aromas that make up the modern perfumer's toolkit.

And, like Ellena, they are under tremendous pressure. The perfume business—for reasons that Burr, frustratingly, never fully explores—is in a bad way. Sales have been flat for years, and while a few megabrands such as Chanel No. 5 roll along unscathed, most perfume makers fight desperately for a spot on the best-seller list.

To illuminate the commercial scramble, Burr weaves in the story of Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely, one of the "celebrity" perfumes Coty has introduced in the past few years. It's a world where perfume makers run focus groups and pay young women to spritz their products on customers walking into Macy's (M). But alas, here Burr goes astray, rambling on far too long about Parker, detailing everything from the kind of pizza she likes to what colleagues say about her acting skill.

A more compelling figure is the intense, intellectual Ellena, the son of a perfuming family from Grasse, the French town where most of the flowers used in high-end perfumes are grown. Burr shadowed Ellena for more than a year, watching as he transformed an inspiration from his Egyptian trip—the aroma of a green mango found on an island in the Nile—into a chemical formula. The author then sat in on Ellena's meetings with Hermès executives as they gradually refined the perfume and its elegant packaging.

Also fascinating is Burr's trove of perfume lore, such as the fact that some fragrances contain synthetics that mimic human body odor. In doses so tiny that most wearers can't distinguish it, the smell becomes pleasantly sensual. Perfume makers, no doubt, would rather not advertise such facts. But Burr argues that the industry's secretiveness has contributed to its malaise. He believes Ellena and other perfumers could become celebrities by talking about their creations, just as top fashion designers do.

Maybe. But perfume's problems go deeper than that. It has always been treated as a second-class citizen of the luxury-goods world, an entry-level product sold through different channels than the high-end merchandise. And perfume as a status symbol is at a distinct disadvantage to, say, a Louis Vuitton bag, because it's invisible when worn.

Still, Burr's description of Un Jardin sur le Nil may send you to a perfumery: "It is the smell sunlight makes coming out of a blue sky, the air scented with the tang made as the light warms the smooth unblemished peel of the greenest mangoes hanging from the branches of the young trees, just out of reach." Mmmm, who could resist that?

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