If you’re looking for books about perfumery, I’m here to help. I grew up in the Middle East, the land of attars (aged perfumes derived from natural essential oils) and bakhoor (aromatic wood chips burned in a similar way to incense). Intense scents have always been a part of my world, but I never really understood the science that goes behind the layering of these fragrances that surrounded me on the daily. Since the forms of scents that surrounded us were in their rawest form, my sibling and I would often experiment with mixing multiple scents; blending hints of sandalwood with musk, floral with fruity, it went on.
Since perfumes and fragrances had been so integral to our childhood, we all grew up with the sense that having your signature scent was a rite of passage. How could you not know what you wanted to smell like? To us it was another part of our personality. I can recall exactly what scent I have worn at different stages of my life. These days my scent is white woody and floral. Most of my favorite people also have scents associated with them; my mom with her intense citrus scents, my dad with his intense musky ones, my friends who squirt on their fruity body sprays just before heading out of the house, even my husband and child who smell like nothing because they have eczema and use no fragrances.
It is only natural that I would want to learn more about how these perfumes come to be created, if only to figure out what my next signature scent should be. This time I am taking you along with me as we talk books about perfumery.
Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel
The author of this book is a renowned perfumer herself. This book is a blend of how-to and the history of perfume, which makes for the perfect foray into the world of perfumery for beginners. Aftel does a great job explaining the jargon, the history of perfume and its relation to alchemy while sewing it together with lyrical writing that flows off the page. The how-to part of the book also comes with the author’s explanation of how to build a scent and why the effect of scent varies from person to person.
The Fragrance: The History of Perfume in Arabian and Islamic History by Shaneela Rowah Al-Qamar
This is a short book whose length does not skimp on its transportive effect. Perfumes and fragrances have played a role not only in my personal history, but also in the history of Arabia and Islam’s culture and history. They have also been used to showcase differences in class, phases of life, and mark important moments of victory and success. This book captures all of that history in its pages.
The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume by Tilar J. Mazzeo
Everyone who has bought a perfume at least once in their life in the West knows the bottle of Chanel No. 5. Even if you haven’t ever bought a perfume, Chanel No. 5 has had its story told through so many aspects in television, culture, and literature, that it is impossible to ignore. The perfume industry calls Chanel No. 5 “le monstre” and rightly so. It is and has been for most of its 90 years the best-selling perfume in the world. Why does it remain so? Probably because its formula remains unchanged from Chanel’s original vision in 1923. Find out how the essence of a 1,000 jasmine flowers can be bottled up, and how it has the world wrapped around its finger.
This is a more personal vein as Harad blends the story of her life with the importance of scent and perfume in her life. She teases the smells just right, so that you find yourself longing for it too. Hints of honey and amber and rain permeate the pages with a tender account of her life and relationships. Bound to provide a learning experience as well as an introspective one, it answers the question of what scents have you been taking for granted all along?
In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs
This is another that is in a more personal vein, but isn’t history best learned through the words of those who have lived it? In this read, Tanaïs sets out to build a sensorium of scent and memories. There is much to learn about Bangladesh, past and present, and through their account, Tanaïs sets out to correct the archive that has been known to readers and students up until this point, weaving in the stories of so many femmes throughout history whose names are still new to many of us reading in 2022.
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur by Jean-Claude Ellena
It’s all well and good to live a life inspired by perfumes, but what does it look like when you do it as a profession? Jean-Claude is a professional perfumer, but he might as well be a poet too. He writes beautifully about creativity, craftsmanship, curiosity, and topics related to perfumery like the nature-synthetic debate, quality and market trends. Name dropping of some famous perfume brands also happens, and it is a delight!
Once you have made your way through the entire list, it is now time for an in-depth look of what makes the perfume industry go round. The action focuses mostly around Paris and New York, where Burr is given the opportunity to observe the process of conceptualizing, creating, and launching two rather radically different perfumes. One is Sarah Jessica Parker’s first perfume, Lovely. The other is Un Jardin Sur Nil, a scent created for Hermes by the famous Jean-Claude Ellena (you read that right, the previous recommendation was theirs). He brings to life such an intricate and delicate process making the art of perfumery all the more accessible.
Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet
This is the only fiction title on here, because what experience is complete without the play of imagination? Lizzie, a surgical anatomist, reminisces about her memories of the summer she turned 13 while she dissects rusty, petrified bodies. She recalls meandering the alleys of Cairo inebriated by all its spicy and ancient scents of smoke, pepper, and henna. When one of her father’s friends, Ramses Ragab, the owner of Kosmétérion, a store where he creates the most alluring perfumes, comes to divert Lizzie’s father, she finds her senses awaking at the sight of this fantastic Gazelle man, who opens up her mind to the world of war and exotic scents.
Our sense of smell and the scents that surround us are such an innate part of our living experience that we often forget to take a moment to “smell the roses.” Maybe after making your way through this list, you’ll realize just how precious those roses can be. If you still can’t get enough after reading these books about perfumery, check out this list about books featuring fragrances as a character.