Scents and sensibility

<strong>Perfumes: the Guide

</strong>Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

<em>Profile Books, 384pp, £2

Luca Turin is a biophysicist and a street fighter in scientific academe. He has been a whistleblower on neurophysiological experimental malpractice and is the proponent of an olfactory theory which, while initially denounced as rogue science, is now increasingly acknowledged as the new orthodoxy. He is also a consultant "nose" to the perfume industry, though one who is sufficiently bolshie to bite the hands that have fed him: this is always a good sign.

His wife, Tania Sanchez, is described as a "perfume collector and expert, and a journalist". I guess I might describe myself in the same way, though the "expert" component is a loose fit. Still, there are 34 perfumes in my house as I write this, ranging from regional obscurities such as Écume d'Arcachon and Sent Bon de Bayonne to classics: Jicky, Mouchoir de Monsieur and Pour un Homme - all three of which meet with Turinia's endorsement.

I cannot tell you how much that means to me, for this highly excitable couple have set themselves up as The Measure, The Ultimate Arbiters. They aspire to be perfume's Parker, Pevsner, Pudlo. And, yes, they absolutely adore alliteration. It constellates in their oeuvre along with outré simile, hyperbole, quasi-synaesthesiac prose, in-jokes, arcane scholarship, unwitting mock-heroism, tireless exuberance, and a self-referential hermeticism that sites perfume at the very centre of the world.

They are not totally enslaved by their nostrils. They know there are things out there other than perfumes: things such as "luxury goods", and expensive cars, and premier cru this, and high-end that - and bitters, of course. Serge Lutens's Arabie is compared to Unicum (a Hungarian analogue of Averna or Picon that is the base of the cocktail called Money Shot) and, on the next page, Carthusia's Aria di Capri recalls "Lavorato had over ice with a view of the Duomo in Milan". The sheer chutzpah and effrontery of the brand-name and place-name snobbery are impressive. But I sometimes wear Arabie and have tasted Unicum, and fail to recognise any correspondence between the smell of the one and the taste of the other. It doesn't prompt confidence in the congruence of Aria di Capri and Lavorato, both of which I am unfamiliar with. Still, 150 garrulous pages further on, we come to another Lutens perfume, Miel de Bois. Turinia are spot-on and describe this aberration as "like honey in dilution, like urine in concentration". It is the first time I have seen the link between honey and urine made in print. This strikes me when I taste mead, fermented honey, whether native West Country grot, Lithuanian midus, Polish miod or Breton hydromel. To me, they all taste the way horse piss smells - an admission that is liable to prompt incredulous derision. And which thus raises the question of whether I smell, say, lavender or pitch as you smell them and they smell them.

The authors claim that, broadly, yes I do. In which case, the best that can be said of much of the perfume-buying public is that it lacks discernment and sprays itself with lotions that are the equivalent of airport novels. Helpfully in this regard, Danielle Steel has "her own" perfume, Danielle, which is "only a few bucks away from being cheap enough for wall-socket air care [but] is not all that bad". Céline Dion's and David Beckham's perfumes are equally deemed passable. Not so Paris Hilton's range: the eponymous number is "aimed at ditzes"; Heiress is a "hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches"; and Just Me For Men is dismissed as "ideal for her kind of guy". Many celebrity perfumes bear the names of celebrities I have never heard of: who are Chanelle Hayes, Alex Curran, Sean John, Eva Green, Hilary Duff? One of the more fascinating perfumes of this sort, Svetlana Stalin's Svetlana's Breath, was regrettably discontinued soon after her father's death in 1953, and so is ineligible for scrutiny here.

What is eligible is not obvious. Turinia sniffed their way through 1,500 perfumes to compile what ought to be subtitled A Guide, rather than The Guide. All the famous names are here: the heavily advertised and shriekingly packaged gear that can be found in Sephora, Marionnaud and Douglas; the mostly higher priced, supposedly exclusive, though widely available, smaller houses such as Annick Goutal, Diptyque, Nicolaï, Acqua di Parma, Lutens and Creed (whose Paris boutique staff are sullenly insolent and whose prices are absurd, but whose perfumes are not as lacklustre as Turinia claim).

Beyond these are a few tokenistic niche products that might have been chosen to demonstrate how zealous the authors' research has been. For instance, "the best lavender soliflore on earth" is made by the Cistercians of Caldey Island, off Tenby, at their arts and crafts monastery. Jewellers such as Theo Fennell and Pascal Morabito are included, and so is a man rather patronisingly described as "an amateur parfumeur". If the man sells the stuff he isn't an amateur.

However, the bias - initially well disguised but eventually apparent - is towards perfumes that are likely to be available in the United States. After all, the book is not going to shift units in that market if it devotes valuable space to European artisan houses such as Ortigia or Santa Maria Novella at the expense of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford and Revlon's ineffable Charlie, a cheap and hideous cocktail of the mid-1970s which belongs to the history of suggestibility rather than to that of perfume - but then so, too, do so many others. Charlie's kindred contemporary Blasé - the mature choice of the David Essex fan - does not get a look-in.

Maybe it no longer exists. Turinia observe that manufacturers withdraw perfumes overnight and, worse, that they will amend a formula while retaining a name. None of the mesmeric interbellum perfumes manufactured by Myrurgia - Flor de Blason, Maderas de Oriente, Embrujo de Sevilla - is today available. They scented a nation. For reasons that are not too difficult to grasp, they disappeared soon after the end of Franco's dictatorship, together with shocking roads, murderous policemen and pseudo-French cooking. And a revenant from, say, recently liberated Paris would improbably recognise the stuff that calls itself Bandit as the perfume that Germaine Cellier created for the fashion designer Robert Piguet: the reason in this case being that Cellier used now unobtainable bases, that is, pre-prepared mixes, in her compositions - which is rather akin to Raymond Blanc being caught bang to rights using bouillon cubes.

There is much here besides an opinionated guide for consumers. Ma Griffe, which my mother wore when I was a child, turns out to have been "famously composed by the great Jean Carles after he had lost his sense of smell"; we wouldn't make a kindred dig at Beethoven. Turinia plead that perfumery should be regarded as an art rather than as a branch of chemistry. Will craft do? And the authors suggest that perfume has little to do with sexual attraction. "If you want to get laid wear a tiny skirt, big hair and a perfume detectable by a potential beau who has just sunk six pints of lager." This is invaluable counsel that I shall be sure to act on.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power