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Chandler Burr Peeks Behind the Curtain of the Fragrance Industry

Posted: January 2, 2008

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In one of the book’s most controversial passages, Burr strongly advocates for making formulas public, and, in fact, publishes the complete formula of an unnamed major feminine commercial luxury scent. Given the effectiveness of analytical equipment,* he notes, the secrecy is merely a relic of a pre-technical age. In addition, the author questions the industry’s public silence on the benefits and beauty of synthetic raw materials, which are not only aesthetically exciting, but often environmentally friendly in replacing endangered natural raw material sources—particularly in the case of sandalwood. After all, Burr concludes, perfumers don’t exist merely to mimic the natural world: 

“… [Jean-Claude] Ellena wasn’t [at Hermès] to create nature. As an artist, he was principally an illusionist … ‘Picasso,” Ellena liked to say, ‘said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth” That’s perfume for me. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality.’” 

It’s here, in his intimate reportage of perfumers’ creative philosophy and processes that Burr’s book shines brightest. Following the creation of Un Jardin sur le Nil from a loose concept (rivers) to a hastily sketched formula in Ellena’s notebook to expertly tweaked mods on a conference table—“The interaction of materials is more instinct than science”—to a finished fragrance, the author leads the layman with clear eyes through the invisible art of olfactive storytelling. 

Says Ellena: “The most difficult sentence to write of any novel is the first.”

Read an excerpt of The Perfect Scent and see our Q&A with Chandler Burr in the March issue of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine (subscribe today).