Friday, November 8, 2013

"Perfume, The Art & Craft of Fragrance" by Karen Gilbert: book review & free copy giveaway

Fragrance expert, author, teacher and speaker Karen Gilbert demystifies the secretive world of perfumery in a new book, Perfume, The Art & Craft of Fragrance, that inspires readers to explore their olfactory sense and create their own personalised fragrances.
[I am hosting a drawing of one free copy for a lucky reader, so if you're interested read on.]

The market is becoming a bit saturated with books on perfume written in English lately (a far cry from 10 years ago) thanks to the revelation of perfume lovers online, which convinced the publishing houses that there is viable market interest, so finding a worthwhile, helpful one is a task that merits tackling. Gilbert's effort is nuanced, structured, honest and factual, and offers insights that go beyond the pretty pictures of coffee table books, long winded "stories" with little concrete info or just reviews with "notes" mentioned.

Karen Gilbert

Perfume, the Art & Craft of Fragrance is roughly divided into two major parts: one explains the basics of fragrance history, appreciation, psychology and understanding of perfumes, the other guides you steadily yet gently into experimenting with your own blends in inimitable Karen Gilbert style (I'm a fan of her other book too, Natural Beauty, which proposes several easy and useful recipes for homemade skincare). The chapters are divided as follows:

1.The Psychology of Smell
2.A History of Perfumery and Fragrance Icons
3.Fragrance Classification
4.Natural and Synthetics Fragrance Materials
5.Creative Perfumery Techniques
6.Creating Perfume Sprays, Oils and Solids
7.Creating Bath & Body Products
8.Creating Home Fragrances

Obviously the History section is a condensed version of what most aficionados might already know, briefly (no archaeological data included) going from the institution of Grasse as perfume capital to the introduction of synthetics in the 19th century and thereafter delineating the major periods of 20th century perfumery with a handful of mould-breaking fragrances mentioned. So is the Psychology chapter, which is running the basics and suggesting that one needs to experiment to find their own voice in this world. But the rest of the chapters are quite detailed indeed, with emphasis on how to distinguish materials, recognize them and use them effectively.

The book overall is aimed at both the complete novice who is eager to learn and the more experienced aficionado who wants to fine-tune some perceptions, build their knowledge and see how they can set into experimenting themselves. In short it manages to score two birds in one stone. If I were overcritical I might venture the thought that the complete novice would still find a couple of mentions troublesome to grasp. For instance in the pivotal chapter 3 (Fragrance Classification) there is a sub-chapter called Learning to Describe Fragrance which is mighty interesting, but in the Build Your Olfactory Vocabulary list there are such terms as "amine", "butyric", "phenolic", "ozonic" or "aromatic" which are not explained anywhere in the book, leaving the novice a bit perplexed. (Karen does explain later on the terms animalic and indolic well). Obviously a short tome can't encompass everything, so it's good homework at the very least. But Karen's approach overall is to be commended.


Gilbert guides the reader with an aim to inform and to resolve popular misunderstandings, not to flatter their ego or position herself a certain way (she doesn't need to, she has tenured at IFF and runs her own perfumery courses in the UK), which makes the book really useful, something that cannot be said for other books on the subject. Without touting my own horn too much and gaining confidence by the fact that Karen Gilbert herself is a fan of Perfume Shrine (she actually mentions it in the Resources page as recommended reading), I'd say that if you have been enjoying reading this site, you are bound to enjoy her book as well; it offers references and is easy to get what you're looking for without wading through tons of unrelated text.

There are many small gems in the tome, such as the differentiation of aromatherapy and aroma-chology,  info on more than one fragrance classification systems (in fact in the Orientals fragrance family chapter I found myself smiling in recognition while reading the differences between the "ambreine" and "mellis" oriental perfume accord), the Jean Carles method for training your nose, lots of synthetics mentioned by actual name, guidelines in which materials work best in home blends and which carrier makes for a better product in the recipes (this also makes a helpful hint when actually choosing bath & body and home fragrance products online as in checking the ingredients list) as well as where to get supplies. There is also the priceless recognition of the perfume online community in her use of the term "fruichouli". To offer an anecdote, it's perfume lover Mbanderson61 who coined it, I believe over at the chatty Perfume Posse, and if she had a dime for each time this term is mentioned online by us she'd be crazily rich now, but I digress.

I haven't found the time to test most of the actual formulae yet, apart from a couple of perfume oils and solids (because I happened to have suitable ingredients at hand) which turned out very good. I'm holding out for when the holidays come around.

Perfume, the Art and Craft of Fragrance would also make a lovely, decently priced Christmas gift for anyone with a passing interest in scent. The little tome is hardback, beautifully shot by photographer Jo Henderson and has nice, heavy, matte-glossed pages that just feel good to the hand. It's compact and small enough to be carried in a purse and read on the subway or during your lunch break, though you'll want to keep in your study for reference. It is available on Amazon for just 10.92$.
Bottom line: Recommended.

Gilbert, Karen, "Perfume, the Art and Craft of Fragrance", 2013 October,
CICO books, London New York.
ISBN 978-1-78249-044-9

Retail Price 9.99GBP/16.95$US

There is a draw for one FREE copy of the book for a lucky UK-address reader. Please state in the comments whether you're interested.
Draw is open till Sunday midnight and winner to be announced on Monday.


  1. I already own another book by Karen on homemade beauty products and it's just such a useful resource! Hope to win this book on perfumery to add to my collection!

  2. Sounds like a well thought out, interesting book. I like books where you feel you can dip in and out and extract little nuggets of information.

  3. I always like to hear from people who work in the industry. I would love to be entered in this. Thank you very much!!

  4. I like Karen's approach towards cosmetics and all things fragranced. I can't wait to read her book.

  5. Anonymous18:17

    I thin Karen is amazing!! I am already following her and she is a true talent! If I don't win I will definitely buy the book!!

  6. ChristineB19:10

    I have Karen's previous book and have looked with interest at her perfume training courses, so this is a book I would love to win.

  7. Anonymous19:30

    Karen Gilbert's book looks like a good resource so, yes, please include me in the UK-address draw.

    Many thanks,

    Anna in Edinburgh

  8. I'm definitely interested. Happy to hear it's appropriate for a novice, too!

  9. Oh, dear; please disregard. I got so excited I missed the "UK address" requirement. Sorry about that!

  10. Anonymous19:41

    Although a UK resident I had never the opportunity to attend her training courses but please count me in for the draw.I would love toread her insightful views on perfumerie
    Ph Con

  11. You aer so right - alot of those books are just pictures!!

  12. Sounds like an excellent read.

  13. Sounds like a great book! Please count me in the draw :)

  14. I too would like to be included in the draw please.
    I love all and any books that talk about perfumes, fragrances and oils.

  15. Thank you for the draw, that sounds like a splendid read.

  16. Ellen15:11

    I would be interested and thanks for the draw. Sounds like something I would enjoy and from which I could learn.

  17. Ellen05:34

    Just realized that this is for UK readers only. Not moi. Pity!

  18. I would love to read it!


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