Book Review The Ghost Perfumer by Gabe Oppenheim- The Emperor Exposed

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I’ve written about perfume for over ten years. For all that time I’ve been aware of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspect of the brand PR machines. An endless litany of BS encapsulating supposed celebrities who wear the fragrance. Or long pedigrees all the way back through every king and queen since Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Blah, blah, blah, yadda yadda, yadda, who cares; just let me see what the perfume smells like. Where I draw the line is when the perfumer, the artist behind the juice is hidden to inflate someone else’s ego. This type of dishonesty is whispered about behind the scenes, but nobody has been strong enough to point out these would-be Emperors are naked in public. That changes with the publication of the book “The Ghost Perfumer” by Gabe Oppenheim.

Gabe Oppenheim

Mr. Oppenheim takes writing about perfume in an entirely different direction. For the first time an author takes on the darker side of the business. Now twenty years on after the revolution in thinking about perfume it is long past time for truth-tellers to begin examining things. The Ghost Perfumer starts this with an explosive expose on one of the biggest perfume brands in the world Creed.

Creed has been one of the leading luxury brands of fragrance. The putative story is they are a brand which has been worn by celebrities while also being “royal perfumers” for over a century. For anyone who cared to, that kind of nonsense was easily exposed if anyone thought about it. That is not what this book is about it is the con game run by the man behind the brand which drives the narrative.

For as long as I’ve written about Creed the story has been Olivier Creed is the whole deal, creative director and perfumer. When I’ve e-mailed asking for confirmation of this that is the story they tell me. It always seemed unlikely. Mr. Oppenhem exposes it as a sham.

The book tells the story of M. Creed and how he created the concept of Creed fragrance. The more important piece of this book is the perfumer behind the perfumes which established this mega-brand is identified, Pierre Bourdon.

Olivier Creed (photo:Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times)

If there is anything about the last twenty years of perfumery the ability of perfumers to take their rightful place as artists and authors has been emblematic. M. Creed took the concept of a silent perfumer a.k.a. a ghost to an extreme. He took advantage of a creative mind who didn’t believe in himself in M. Bourdon while taking credit for it all.

Mr. Oppenheim tells the story of these two men from their beginnings until today. He writes in an engagingly easy to read style. When I received my advance copy, I couldn’t put it down. His chapters end like your favorite streaming shows. He leaves you saying, “I’m going to read just one more chapter” until you find yourself at the end.

For anyone who loves perfume and owns any of the Creeds this is a mind-expanding story. Thoroughly researched to completely explain the personal and perfume dynamics of these two men. It ends with the sale of Creed for $1 billion in March of last year. Olivier cashing in on his grift. The coda takes place as Mr. Oppenheim and perfumer Shyamala Maisondieu visit M. Bourdon at his home in France. This is where an artist at peace with his place in this story resides.

Besides the story of Messrs. Bourdon and Creed Mr. Oppenheim shows how the scam continued with new perfumers. The perfumer behind Aventus, Jean-Christophe Herault gave a single interview before being shut down. Julien Rasquinet who composed Royal Oud and others never found the courage to speak with the author. In the end it is M. Bourdon safely retired who can finally have the last word.

Pierre Bourdon (from the book The Ghost Perfumer)

There is a passage towards the end of the book which encapsulates my thoughts after finishing it, “But I like to imagine the dynamic thusly: Since Olivier’s installation in a kind of fragrance industry throne was the result of his own agitprop, its debunking will force his metaphorical step-down- will thereby render his long reign in that chair mere seat-warming, a preparation for the rightful occupant to assume the spot. It will be Pierre’s seat…because it always has been.” This is the real punchline here. M. Bourdon’s reputation is enhanced while the ersatz Emperor seeks the egress albeit with a $1B check in his pocket.

Since the title page says this is “Part 1” I believe we are going to have this new vital perspective Mr. Oppenheim brings to the observation of the industry for a few more installments. We need a voice willing to do the legwork to expose the other Emperors while elevating the Artists. He seems poised to be that.

Disclosure: This review was based on an advance copy supplied by the author.

Mark Behnke

Book Review: Perfume Legends II by Michael Edwards

I was busy queuing up my Labor Day weekend binge viewing when a delivery truck arrived. Little did I know the next two weeks I would be binge reading what was in the box.

For perfume to be fully embraced as the art form I believe it to be we need to have the history of modern perfumery chronicled somewhere. I have always known it existed within the mind of Michael Edwards. Having had the fortune to hear him speak as well as spend time with him he has been the conduit to much of what I understand about the art of modern perfumery. I have spent hours listening to him and always left wanting more. He has now granted my wish by publishing “Perfume Legends II”.

Michael Edwards

If you are wondering where “Perfume Legends I” is you missed it, most likely. Mr Edwards published the first edition in 1996. It came out right as the independent niche perfume trends were arriving. Publishing “Perfume Legends II” twenty-three years later has allowed for the perspective of that growth of independent perfumery to also be included. All the content from the first edition has been further researched and elaborated upon. Along with the addition of the more recent legends.

“Perfume Legends II” covers the entire history of modern perfumery from the first modern perfume 1886’s “Fougere Royale” through to 2010’s “Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady”. Sandwiched in between are fifty more perfumes. Each chapter covers the time of when the perfume is released, the composition of the perfume, and the creation of the bottle as well as the reason it is a legend.

It is a remarkable collection of the history of perfume in one place. Each chapter feeds off what came before. It displays the evolution of perfume as a commercial product as well as a reflection of society. One of the most fascinating parts of the book was the history of the bottle. I have said many times I don’t care about the bottle just give me the perfume. After finishing the book I have a new appreciation for the container.

The most fascinating of these was the fraught creation of the bottle for YSL Opium in 1982. Bottle designer Pierre Dinand would be challenged to accommodate changes requested by Yves St. Laurent as they were nearing release. Once you read the story you will never look at a bottle of Opium the same way. It is true of most of the bottles written about. I still care more about the perfume but I have newfound respect for the bottle.

If there is a drawback it is that the volume is focused on French perfumes. It really isn’t one because Mr. Edwards is able to make his larger point within the smaller dataset. It also becomes less French and more global as the Legends reach the 1970’s and beyond because of the global reach of the brands.

I presume anyone reading this blog is a perfume lover. You need to put a copy of “Perfume Legends II” on your bookshelf. It will give you a deeper belief in the artistry behind modern perfumery.

Disclosure: this review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.

Mark Behnke

Book Review: Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel- Essential Oil Reading

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When I reviewed Mandy Aftel’s recent release Palimpsest she mentioned it was inspired by the research she did for her new book, “Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent”. I received my review copy a little over a week ago and spent this past weekend completely enthralled by Ms. Aftel’s new book. This is Ms. Aftel’s fourth book on scent and it is by far her most accessible.

Ms. Aftel starts off with an introduction on how she fell in love with making natural perfume after a number of previous careers. She realized that scent was important to her and that she wanted to learn how to create perfume. She immersed herself in the history of perfumery and after her years as a perfumer she has come up with a simple truism, “Scent is a portal to these basic human appetites- for the far-off, the familiar, the transcendent, the strange, and the beautiful-that have motivated us since the origins of our species.” That sentence encapsulates what great perfume does for me and what it aspires to.

MandyAuthorPhoto

Mandy Aftel (Photo: Foster Curry)

For this book Ms. Aftel decided to focus on five raw ingredients: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each ingredient gets its own chapter. It starts with a history of the ingredient but there are delightful tangents as well. One of my favorites comes from the Cinnamon chapter where she found a set of five rules for perfumers in ancient Constantinople. It directs where the perfumers can ply their trade so the pleasant smells will drift up into the Royal Palace nearby. They are also directed that, “They are not to stock poor quality goods in their shops: a sweet smell and a bad smell do not go together.” I think there are some modern perfumeries which could be reminded of these old rules.

The last section of each chapter is dedicated to experiencing the ingredient as a raw material and it includes recipes for different fragrances and ways to use it in cooking. For an even richer experience for these last sections; on the Aftelier website there is a Companion Kit which has all five of the ingredients to allow you to actually play along as you read. I received one of the Companion Kits and it greatly enhanced my experience. Plus there is enough to allow the reader to choose to use some in whatever way seems apt.

Ms. Aftel’s previous career as a writer along with her experience as a natural perfumer allows for a perfect synergy as the author is also the expert. It is an important distinction when it comes to describing a sensory experience in words. I believe it is Ms. Aftel’s intimate relationship with these materials which allow for her to communicate about them so effectively and beautifully.

There are very few books which can reach outside the small circle of those of us who are obsessed with perfume. I believe Fragrant is going to be a book which does have a much wider reach because it is as easy to read as a true-life adventure. For those of us who love perfume and the raw ingredients within them Fragrant is going to give you new perspective on these ingredients. I learned so much I didn’t know about ingredients I thought I knew a lot about.

The section of my bookshelf which houses the books on scent and perfume that I think are essential is pretty small. With the publication of Fragrant it just got one volume bigger.

Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of Fragrant provided by Riverhead Books.

Mark Behnke