Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Artisan Perfumery or Being Led by the Nose by Alec Lawless: book review & preview

Perfume books are diverse these days; it all depends on the axis taken when approaching the material: they can aim to be encyclopedic and easing you into being fascinated by perfumery itself (Mandy Aftel’s Essence and Alchemy), they can be fun guides jam-packed with minutiae you might or might not want to check (Susan Irvine’s, Turin’s & Sanchez’s) , they can be glossies with rare flacon collectibles and souvenirs of meetings with the masters (Roja Dove’s The Essence of Perfume), they can be exposés that reveal a heavily-veiled world (Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent) or they can take the witty neo-marketing route of presenting the scientific facts in an easily-digestible way (Avery Gilbert’s What the Nose Knows). The new book by Alec Lawless Artisan Perfumery or Being Led by the Nose surprisingly combines all worlds in one slim and elegant volume of no more than 100 pages, which you can slip in your Longchamp attaché for the morning commute or take to bed for an late evening read before spreading fragrant Crème Splendide on your weary skin and hitting the snooze button.

The author, a colourful personality himself ~judging by the bio included~ is a Psychology BA and trained psychotherapist who seems to have travelled the lengths and widths of the globe as well as a professional wine trained individual; points eminently apparent in his interesting writing. Co-owner of Aqua Oleum (a reputable brand I was familiar with as purveyors of quality essential oils, absolutes and aromatherapy supplies) along with his ex-wife, renowned aromatherapy author Julia Lawless, Alec Lawless has recently founded Essentialy-Me.co.uk, a company with natural fragrances spiked with a minimal quantity of synthetics based in Cotswolds, UK . He has been creating fine fragrance for the latter as an artisanal perfumer and a bespoke creator and we will return to his art at a future date.
For now, I am focusing on his book which is introduced with these words: “For more than 20 years Alec Lawless has been hand-making fine perfume following traditions handed down from antiquity. He explains the origins and use of fabled ingredients such as frankincense, ambergris and attar of roses, essential elements in the beautiful, strange and beguiling smells that haunted the court of Cleopatra and the salons of 19th-century Paris.”

The book is segmented into 8 chapters:
  • Historical Overview: A brief delineation of the emergence of perfumery and fragrance with mentions ranging from the surprising (it's the moth, not the dog, that has the keenest smell of all; the notion of Attila the Hun as a heartthrob) to the predictable (the almost necessary -for a perfume book- inclusion of the Spice Route; the scent love shared by Josephine and Napoleon)
  • Sourcing Natural Raw Materials: This chapter talks at length about the quality standards that need to be met when sourcing natural materials, referencing both the B.P (British Pharmacopoeia) criteria and the intricacies of handling and storage that often result –in the worst case scenario- in “wearing a topee”; the phrase is Delhi street slang for being ripped off! As a buyer of aromatherapy and perfumery supplies, Lawless has been painfully familiar with such cases and recounts them with self-depreciation and wit.
  • Sandalwood: Beyond the title, this chapter aims to offer a glimpse into the richness of any single material, taking the prized scented wood oil as a starting point of our own itinerary. Listing the main geographical sources of sandalwood oil (And Alec includes the Caledonia varieties into this as well, as he explains the tampering of Santalum Album oil supplies with the rather differently scented Eucaria Spicata from down under is more frequent and prevalent than we’d guess). The chapter is highly interesting to the perfume lover who has been hearing about the depletion of sandalwood forests in Mysore, India, the subsequent restrictions to its use, the poaching and frauds ensuing.

  • Natural and Synthetic: The fourth chapter deals with the naturals vs. synthetics debate in a surprisingly level-headed approach which explains the potential pitfalls, as well as a brief explanation of the 4 most popular animal notes of classic perfumery (musk, ambergris, civet and castoreum).
  • Cultivation, Taste and Consultations: This highly illuminating chapter is incorporating the Jean Carles methodology of creating accords into an easily understandable “building” process that follows Alec's own consultations with clients. It is also the chapter most immersed in his wine appraisal expertise which highlights beautifully some frequent thorny issues: Taking the impact on the market of famous wine critic Robert Parker who favours a specific style of drink (intense in taste and high in alcoholic count, a trait that produces a naturally sweeter and brisker bouquet), Lawless asks how much fragrance criticism in print and online will influence the fragrance industry in the end (Now there’s a question for you!) The issue of mental de-coupling from established mental pathways ~especially for the seasoned perfumophiliac~ is also aptly treated in comparison to wine: “Thomas refers to another experiment (Osterbauer et al.2005), which involved adding odourless, red dye to white wine. This fooled even Masters of wine into describing “the nose”[of said wine] in terms usually reserved for describing red wines”! Imagine!
  • A word about blending: Alec goes on into describing the process of blending his fragrant materials with some useful footnotes into maturing and rounding perfumer’s alcohol, giving specific examples of his creations.
  • Using Natural Raw Materials: The 7th champter is the briefest containing some practical info on the natural state of raw materials (liquid, solid etc) and the percentages of essence in relation to finished product (eau de toilette, eau de parfum etc). Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere, but really a minimal part of the book.
  • The A List: Finishing it off in grand style, Lawless goes into listing several natural raw materials grouped in olfactive family profiles (citrus, woody, balsamic, herbaceous etc) giving to the point, concise info on their production method, geographical origin (he stresses this is not conclusive), use in perfumery, as well as safety concerns and intriguing comments -when applicable- to each one of them. Perhaps the most encyclopedic chapter and one that might serve as a counterpoint to Mandy Aftel’s guidelines for fledging artisanal perfumers.
Last but not least, Artisan Perfumery must be the first book that contains a spread sheet of an actual gas chromatography and the way to “read” it: an explanation of trace, report and certificate of Rose Maroc Gas Liquid Chromatography (GLC) Trace, showcasing the emerging odouriferous materials in the rose absolute of Rosa Damascena from the Bulgarian state authorities.

The slim tome is easily paced, a fun read with a few select pictures mainly from India and Southern France (the cover reprises the detail of Perfume Mandala artwork by Fiona Owen which was commissioned by Lawless) and should provide an interesting read for both the amateur perfume enthusiast as well as the artisanal perfumer in need of a few ideas.

Printed by Remus Limited, retail price is £9.99. For our readers, Alec is offering a discount of £10.00 on “Artisan Perfumery or Being Led by the Nose" if you buy a copy of the book and ten perfume samples for a total of £19.99. Purchased online together or seperately on Essentially Me only.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: perfume book reviews

Raw materials pic via konwill.com


  1. Sometime I get really upset after reading some of the posts because they make me spend money. :) Like this one. I would definitely like to read the book - and knowing myself, I'll probably order the samples as well. ;)
    Do I have to enter a code or something so it is obvious this is the site that refered the book?

  2. Hi there honey! How are you? (should pop over to see)

    You shouldn't be upset, as this is a wonderful and fun read! :-))
    There is no code necessary but if you want to let them know you have been intrigued by my review or have any requests for your order you can contact them at: info@essentially-me.co.uk
    I am sure they will be most happy to oblige, they're very accomodating.

  3. In the end, I did contact them - they don't have Croatia listed as a possible destination for their lovely offer, so now I'm waiting to see if they have the availability to send here.

  4. Anonymous14:40

    Another excellent book is The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz. She explains the origin, evolution, and emotional aspects of scent. Her explanations and descriptions of how the sense of smell developed is easy to understand and thought-provoking at the same time.

  5. Ines,

    I hope they respond and accomodate you accordingly. It's always smart to mail directly and ask!

  6. Anon,

    thanks for the mention, I have read Hertz's book and I agree with you 100%: it's excellently written without cheapening the content and it contains some wonderful facts (which dispel a couple of myths).
    I have not hurried myself to review it as it's not new, but it does merit its own space, I guess. A bientot!


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