Thursday, May 31, 2012

Did History End in 2008? Review of The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

Most perfumistas familiar with The Holey [sic] Book—published under the title Perfumes: The A-Z Guide—appear to be aware that the “latest” Turin & Sanchez contribution to perfume writing is largely a reprint of the purple pages, the five-star reviews. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics is diminutive indeed, with a physical size measuring only 4.5 x 8 inches and spanning a mere 107 pages, including the slightly modified but mostly reprinted glossary and ever-so-slightly amended “best of” lists. For the benefit of those readers planning to embark on a three-hour cruise with one or the other of the authors, each has also included a handy list of top ten “desert island” perfumes.

The bulk of this not very bulky text, logically enough, reads as though its entries were literally ripped out of the original and essentially rebound to re-sell—which, of course, they were. So, for example, the review of Cacharel Loulou still ends with the sentence “This is one of the greats,” and several reviews end with the word 'masterpiece', though this is supposed to be a book of only “the greats”.

The good news is that much of the slander and snark, the rampant allegations of plagiarism, along with all of the vacuous negative criticism which never gave any reader any reason for steering clear of the perfumes despised by the authors—beyond the fact that they happen to despise them—have been omitted from The Little Book. As a result, Turin & Sanchez come off sounding more like adults and less like Beavis & Butthead, which is surely a good thing for all parties concerned. The snarling mongrels have been muzzled and the howling hyenas kept at bay in this reprint of reviews of their favorite perfumes, making this slim volume a short list of recommended fragrances which readers will surely be buying—well, except for a few.

Some of the perfumes included in this volume, notably Yohji Yamamoto Yohji Homme and Issey Miyake Le Feu d'Issey, are identified as “discontinued”. This makes the refusal of the authors to review all sorts of other discontinued great perfumes in their former volume somewhat difficult to understand. Apparently when they published The Holey [sic] Book, they believed themselves to have reviewed fresh samples of perfumes in production. Of course, they reviewed only about 10% of the perfumes in existence, but they excused themselves by saying that they had reviewed everything of which they were able to acquire samples. 

It seems that they meant all of the perfumes of which they were able to acquire free samples, as I, for one, can attest that samples are readily available for many of the houses not represented in The Holey [sic] Book (hence its true name...). In any case, although the snark is largely gone—or at least tamed down to a tolerable percentage of the text, with the authors taking aim primarily at the IFRA—the arbitrariness remains.

To her credit, Sanchez explains in the introduction that
The fragrances reviewed in this book are not the greatest of all time—instead, they are those that struck us as far above their peers in quality, inventiveness, or straightforward beauty when we surveyed nearly 1,900 during the writing of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, ignoring all publicity, packaging, and the feelings of friends and neighbors and concentrating solely on the scent.

This caveat does not prevent Turin from continuing to proclaim that Chanel 31 Rue Cambon is “One of the ten greats of all time,” and Guerlain Après L'Ondée “One of the twenty greatest perfumes of all time,” while hailing Guerlain Derby as “One of the ten best masculines of all time.”

Where, pray tell, was the editor during the production of this book? Such claims remind me of people who offer four significant-figure answers to the question what they regard as the likelihood of rain. “I'd say there's an 86.54% chance!”

It is unclear, given Sanchez's caveat, why the subtitle of this book, The Hundred Classics, remains just as misleading as that of their first book, The A-Z Guide. The Holey [sic] Book is not “The” guide to anything beyond the authors' taste ("they" have only one...), which is great if you happen to be interested in that topic, but since most readers will never be sharing a space with, much less marrying, either Turin or Sanchez, the value of that information is rather limited.

It would have been more accurate to subtitle The Little Book (which it really is), One Hundred Classics. Of course doing that would be an admission that Turin and Sanchez are not the world-renowned aesthetic experts their publisher has marketed them as being, and which has had a self-propagating effect, as houses and decanters purveying what is said by the couple to be a “masterpiece” naturally quote them in their marketing materials as “the experts”, and then, because houses and decanters say that they are experts, this must, it seems, mean that they are. A vicious circle of deception, indeed.

To return to the question of arbitrariness, Sanchez pokes fun at the publisher for their having added four perfumes to the ninety-six which received their highest accolades in The Holey [sic] Book:
To make up for our arbitrary, ahistorical approach and to satisfy the preference of publishers for multiples of ten, we add, to the ninety-six top-ranked fragrances from our previous book, four brief writings on long-gone fragrances of historical importance.

That remark was apparently intended to be amusing, but nowhere is the choice of Coty Emeraude, L'Origan, and Chypre explained, although the fourth perfume added to bring the total to one hundred, Jacques Fath Iris Gris, created by Vincent Roubert, is pronounced to be “a possibly perfect composition.” So that's, I guess, the explanation: that Turin likes it.

Of course, none of these four perfumes exists anymore, so they were sniffed at the Osmothèque (where the  painstakingly reconstructed liquids are housed) and reviewed, why, exactly? Perhaps this was another one of the publisher's schemes (along with t.v. appearances, magazine features, etc.) to shore up the claim that the self-appointed experts are such experts that they are allowed to sniff perfumes at the Osmothèque. Which, again, confirms the claims by the houses featured in The Little Book, that its authors' judgments are indeed authoritative.

The Ce Soir ou JamaisEternityJardins de Bagatelle Connection Elucidated

To my mind, the primary value of The Holey [sic] Book lies in its provision of an answer to the question: How many insults can be squeezed into a single syllogism? Here is the answer:

1. Annick Goutal Ce Soir ou Jamais is an “Eternity wannabe”

2. Calvin Klein Eternity is “a copy of something not worth copying, Jardins de Bagatelle

3. Guerlain Jardins de Bagatelle is “the very best of a lousy lot,” created in “a race to the bottom”

Therefore, Sophia Grojsman is a plagiarist with bad taste, and the perfumer who created Ce Soir ou Jamais is an incompetent plagiarist with even worse taste.


Perhaps you did not see the word 'plagiarist' in The Holey [sic] Book, but every authored perfume condemned as a "knock-off" or "copy" or "clone" implies the existence of a named plagiarist. If you missed this the first time around, you might consider heading on over to your local community college and enrolling in a course on critical thinking or elementary logic. You will then discover that Turin & Sanchez commit every fallacy in the book. Literally.

The Little Book, happily, is largely devoid of such nonsense, although Turin labels the members of the IFRA “traitors” in one of his lamentations about a mangled reformulation. He also calls the perfume houses (rather more vaguely) “vandals and thieves” in his introduction of the Osmothèque. But, overall, this book is far less thuggish and ugly than The Holey [sic] Book, as the perfumers and perfumes disliked by the authors are simply omitted, rather than being subjected to the authors' pseudo-righteous ire and toddleresque tantrums. 

Turinia Mathematics: (1 + 5)/2 = 5!

I did find one passage in particular of The Little Book to be rather depressing. At the end of Turin's review of Etat Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques, Sanchez writes:

2011: Smells exactly the same. For the record, there always should have been a dissenting vote from me on this one: one star, absolutely revolting, like a drop of J'Adore on an oyster you know you shouldn't eat. Whatever you do, do not allow any to touch your nose when you smell it off a paper strip. I know Luca is a convincing proselytizer, but trust me. TS

Please correct me if I am wrong in the math here, but I believe that the average of 1 star and 5 stars would be 6, divided by 2, equals 3 stars. So there you have it: a bald demonstration of what some of us suspected all along, that Tania really is just Luca's rib. The books both bear copyrights to Luca Turin, and she has no veto power to his decree of masterpieces. Should we be happy that our suspicion has been confirmed? I have to confess that I was depressed.

Nonetheless, The Little Book is a much more pleasant read, albeit a repetitive one to anyone familiar with The Holey [sic] Book. The reviews have hardly been touched, so it's the same old anecdotes about memories from the authors' idiosyncratic lives which supposedly justify the claims that these particular perfumes are not just the authors' favorites, but truly great.  

I never quite grasped that connection before: Smells like an office Turin used to work in? Or a car that he rode in as a boy? Is a perfume his dad wore? Sanchez experienced an eschatological deliverance during her fourth sniffing?

The problem with those sorts of reviews is that they are valid only for the people who had those experiences and retain those same memories. For others, L'Artisan Parfumeur Dzing! may simply smell like bandaids and dung, whatever the contents of Turin's memory bank happen to be. 

The reviews of The Hundred Classics nearly all relay stories from the authors' past experiences of these perfumes, revealing that they have worn them in some cases many times before—Turin ends his review of Parfums de Nicolaï New York with these words: Reader, I wore it for a decade. Apparently this is supposed to constitute a reason to buy the perfume for readers non-identical with Turin and likely to have divergent tastes from his own.

The autobiographical nature of the contents of these reviews strongly suggests that many, if not most, of the perfumes were pre-selected by the authors for inclusion. How many of the two- and three-star perfumes identified in The Holey[sic] Book left the authors cold or indifferent in just the way that Sanchez explicitly claims she failed to recognize what she came to regard as the greatness of Badgley Mischka the first, second, and even third time she smelled it? Only on her fourth smelling did she “grasp” that this perfume belongs among The Hundred Classics.

In order for this list to have any real merit—beyond autobiographical value—the testings would all need to have been conducted in blind trials. Of course, then the anecdotes would have disappeared, and the authors would have needed to comment on the perfumes rather than sharing memories and stories from their personal lives.

That the judgments were made independently of the packaging and the circumstances under which the perfumes were acquired seems equally dubious. Turin spends easily half the review of Amouage Gold describing his interest in the origins of the house and the packaging of the perfume. About Amouage Homage, he writes:
At the impossibly swank launch in Muscat of Amouage's two Jubilation scents, guests found, upon arrival in their hotel rooms, a limited edition bottle in a plain white box labeled simply Attar; i.e., "fragrance." When sampled, this anonymous thing turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful: at once lofty, tremendously radiant, and dizzyingly rich.

If such factors as "impossible swankness" were not taken into consideration in the evaluation of the perfumes, then why are they included in the reviews? Can anyone, Turin included, truthfully claim that their evaluations of a perfume are completely divorced from their encounter of its presentation in reality?

These favorable reviews, while arbitrary, do have content, which is more than could be said for the bulk of the reviews in The Holey [sic] Book—which follows from the fact that only 96 of the 1800 perfumes reviewed there garnered five stars. Many of the two-, three-, and even four-star reviews from The Holey [sic] Book give the impression of having been hastily dashed-off notes, as though Turin & Sanchez sat down with a pile of paper testing strips and a table covered with perfume bottles and had a sniffing marathon. It is painfully obvious that many of the perfumes were not given the benefit of a single full wear—much less four (or ten years' worth!). One can hardly resist the impression that all of this was a kind of “get rich and famous quick” scam which happened to pan out pretty well.

Perhaps, in the beginning, Turin & Sanchez didn't ever really believe that they'd be taken seriously as art critics. After all, hardly anyone in Western culture regards perfumery as one of the beaux arts. This might explain their sloppiness in talking about perfumes not reviewed in the volume and bestowing star ratings in what sometimes appear to be utterly random ways, driven entirely by caprice and even mood. Turin himself actually admitted as much when he told a reporter from The Independent:
They [the houses] hate my guts, but they know I can get them in the store. Perfumes are public domain, so they might as well get me in a good mood as have me trudge to Harrods in driving rain.
In The Holey [sic] Book, perfumes which garner praise are sometimes rated with only two stars, while perfumes scorned for one reason or another may receive three or even four. Perfumes are trashed for being misleadingly named or too sweet or for not containing natural this or that, but it emerges in other reviews that those “reasons” were only pretexts.

The authors are not really opposed to misnamed perfumes: Ambra di Venezia, they joke, should be named “Tuberose di Las Vegas” and has “nothing ambery or Venetian in sight,” but nonetheless receives four stars. Nor are the authors opposed, in principle, to confectionary perfumes (By Kilian Love, a meringue facsimile composed by Calice Becker, is said to be “brilliant”) or synthetic flowers (Estée Lauder Beyond Paradise—also by Becker—is said to be a masterpiece not despite but because of its “abstract” flowers). It is hard to believe that Turin would have raved so favorably about By Kilian Love, had he tested it blind, without knowing the perfumer's identity, at least judging by the strident condemnation of “candy floss” perfumes throughout The Holey [sic] Book.

In the end, there really seems to be no rhyme or reason to all of this beyond the authors' personal tastes and loyalties, and maybe that's fine. Perhaps that's all that perfume criticism can ever aspire to be, given that the meanings we find in and ascribe to perfumes derive directly from our idiosyncratic histories, our past experience, which is necessarily unique to ourselves. Everything you've heard and read about perfume is true!

The force of the authors' prescriptions—Avoid or Stock up!—presumably derives from their superior taste, or so some naïve readers apparently came to believe, having accepted that Perfumes: The A-Z Guide really was what it claimed to be. The deception campaign continued in the late summer and fall of 2011, when the imminent publication of The Little Book was announced and discussed at all of the fragrance community websites.

On her blog, Sanchez, in an effort to drum up excitement (and pre-orders) alluded to the “new essays” to be penned by Turin for the volume. The hyped new material did not materialize, aside from a plug for the Osmothèque and the four reviews of discontinued, reconstructed masterpieces entirely inaccessible to readers, as far as I am aware.

One odd feature of The Little Book is that the authors seem in the short emendations (post-reformulation) to presume the reader's familiarity with The Holey [sic] Book. Perhaps, this, too, is part of the grand marketing scheme to sell as many copies of these books as possible, before anyone else finds out that much better resources for perfume lovers are now available on the internet—for free.

Are The Hundred Classics The Hundred Classics?

 In the approximately 1,000 word new introduction by Sanchez, she takes aim at the IFRA, and in the short updates on some of the perfumes, the IFRA is blamed, again, for the damage done to some of the perfumes, apparently rendering them less than classic. It's all a bit confusing: are these The Hundred Classics? Apparently not anymore—not even to the authors themselves.

But the creation of new perfumes also did not come to a screeching halt in 2008, as the entries in this volume, published in late 2011, would suggest. The database includes 1,031 perfumes launched in 2009; and 1,169 perfumes launched in 2010. Some of the perfumes included among The Hundred Classics are discontinued; four are reconstructions preserved under argon gas at the Osmothèque, and a few of the former masterpieces are said to have suffered as a result of reformulation. The authors did not remove them, however, apparently because they did not want to take the time to find any replacements to bring the number back up to one hundred again.

All of this gives the impression, once again, that Turin & Sanchez had better things to do—in this case than to explore the possibility of new masterpieces launched since 2008. It's odd, in a way, given that quite a few of the perfumes included in this volume (Guerlain Insolence, Amouage Homage, LUSH Breath of God, Chanel Cuir de Russie, Chanel 31 Rue Cambon, and others)  were launched after 2006.

This would seem to suggest, would it not, that others have certainly been launched since 2008. But no, perfume history appears to have ended on the day when Turin & Sanchez published The Holey [sic] Book, and they seem not to have much more to say. Which is fine with me. Maybe they're too busy dancing and singing around the kitchen table.

I do believe that this text has now surpassed the number of new words in The Little Book, so perhaps this would be a good place to stop.

review of The Holey[sic] Book


  1. There is ONE good thing I can see coming out of both of these books. They have showed that there is a market for books of perfume criticism, which I think was previously in some doubt. I've been bugged by the fact that they ought to have tested blindly, and now am even more bugged by further lack of rigor (and even common sense) that you point out. (Oh, gee thanks, folks, for including things that can only be smelled at the Osmotheque!) What can we do to get a publisher to do it the right way? Do you have any friends in the publishing industry? Or do you think we need to self-publish?

    1. Good morning, PBF! Very nice to read you here.

      My own view on this matter is that we are all much better off surveying the lists of reviews available at online fragrance community websites. It seems clear that people vary radically in their tastes and receptions to perfumes, so we can never know a priori how a perfume is going to work for us. You and I are good example of this, in fact. We often disagree about the most fundamental questions regarding a given perfume. Is one of us right and the other one wrong? The question does not make any sense to me. We are both individual perfume wearers, and our own experience is the ultimate arbiter of our judgments, which are intrinsically valid--for us.

      I find it extremely helpful to see the range of reports from people who vehemently disagree about the quality and general wearability of a given perfume. We have no less reason for believing that the opinions of those people are going to cohere with our own experience than we have for believing Turin & Sanchez.

      It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to christen certain individuals "experts" on the matter of perfume reception, because it is so idiosyncratic and dependent upon a wearer's prior experience, physiology and, above all, taste! So more publications like The Holey [sic] Book are not going to be any more helpful to anyone, it seems to me.

      The best reviews at this point seem to me to be found at The reviewers are intelligent and mature and seem generally to have a great deal of experience with perfume. I hope that more people of that demographic ((-;) will gravitate to the site and contribute their reviews making it an even better resource than it already is...

      Thank you for your comments, PBF. I'll see you soon for Mystery Scent Vial Trial C! (-;

    2. What you say makes complete sense, Sherapop. (And, yes, it is often a marvel that you & I are actually smelling the same thing!) I guess I was just hoping for a bit of perfume fame & fortune...;>)

  2. Well done, Sherapop; I enjoy seeing pomposity popped like a balloon! I can't claim to know these books first-hand, but I've seen them quoted in various fragrance websites by apparently awe-struck reviewers. (Luca said this about it...Luca is right about this one...oy vey!) Ultimately fragrance lovers need to educate themselves, experiment, and check the web. And rely on educated opinion to guide them along. It's a big [fragrance] world out there!

    1. Hello, diane1953, and thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, it's a huge world, and it continues to expand! I think that people fell for the Turin & Sanchez ploy primarily because of the dearth of publications on perfume. It's remarkable, really, how little has been published on the subject. But now that physical books face the real prospect of extinction, the internet offers the best opportunity for keeping up with the rapid growth and evolution of the world of perfume.

      Physical publications such as The Holey [sic] Book become dated very quickly, which makes publishing compendia of opinions a dubious enterprise—albeit a profitable one in the short term. The internet sites, in contrast, renew themselves on a daily basis, with perfumes and reviews and other information constantly being added. Lots of very knowledgeable people have been sharing their experience at these sites and on blogs, and it's great that we can all benefit from such resources.

      Because The Holey [sic] Book was the only such book to be published, it was of course the best. But it was also the worst. (-;

      Thank you so much for your comments, diane1953!

  3. More sloppiness incarnate: in the original book, Turin labels Sean John's Unforgivable as another Cool Water clone. Nothing could be further from the truth: it's another Millesime Imperial clone. Even a high school dropout could tell that, but when someone is dismissive of Sean John and Creed, mistakes like this get made, and then published.

    1. Good morning, Bryan, and welcome to the salon!

      Oh boy, don't even get me started on the errors in The Holey [sic] Book. Any self-respecting intellectual would surely be embarrassed. Hmmm... or maybe not!

      To err is human, no doubt. But to conjoin the fruits of one's own ineluctable fallibility with caustic condemnations verging on slander/libel is to my mind inexcusable.

      One might have thought that the authors of such a book, with such a title, would have felt some obligation and responsibility to fact check their proclamations. Let's see: Marc Jacobs Essence is a knock-off of EL Beyond Paradise—though they smell nothing alike? Bond no 9 Little Italy is ruined by a big dose of civet—which is not present in the composition? Balmain Balmya is a fruity-floral—when in fact it's a coffee fragrance? This list goes on and on and on and on... believe me...

      I regard the pile of errors in The Holey [sic] Book as reflective of a general "I don't give a damn" attitude which I cannot respect. People's careers and livelihoods are at stake in allegations regarding plagiarism, and that is what I find most unfortunate about all of these erroneous charges.

      Would such unsubstantiated charges be allowed to stand unchallenged in any other realm? No, I think that there would be lawsuits. It's just that perfume is so obscure relative to the other arts that no one really knows what to say. How could one demonstrate the harm done?

      Thanks for stopping by, Bryan. I hope to read you here again soon!

    2. ↑↑↑↑↑
      My sentiments exactly. Another whopper - Turin says blithely that Brut is now packaged in plastic bottles that look like mouthwash. Meanwhile, Brut continues to be packaged and sold in the same old glass bottle, with the same old cheesy silver medallion, same as it always was. In fact, the girl at the fragrance shop offered me a massive 40 oz glass bottle the last time I was there, but I bought the 3 oz instead (naturally).

      It boggles the mind that basic errors like this could be published in a book that ostensibly aims to help others make sense of the contemporary fragrance market. An amendment should have been made for Brut - it is indeed sold in a plastic bottle, but also still sold as an EDT in glass.

      There's no excuse for this stuff.

  4. Hi Sherapop, a sentence like "Reader, I wore it for a decade" brings me to the conclusion that Turin read Bronte's Jane Eyre and uses her probably best known sentence from the novel: Reader, I married him (chapter 38).
    What I find interesting is the effect that such books have on people and their choices. I really should read more Turin, but then again I ask myself: Do I really want to know this man's autobiography? Next, I get suspicious. What if it wasn't even that, an autobiography, a journey into one person's likes and dislikes? What if the answer was simply: Another pamphlet to make some company's sales figures rise? (As you showed above, it was poorly edited. This to me, indicates that the editor wasn't really interested. Why's that? Most editors care unless.... )Another proof to show how gullible people are? How little they rely on their own senses? Do I really want another example of how authoritarian mechanisms work? There are so many other good books to read out there ...
    Seriously, the only autobiography that I would read (when it comes to perfumes and marketing and market and how to be successful in this male -- family dominated profession) is Annick Menardo's.

    1. Hello, Girasole! Your hunch about the "Reader" phrase may be right, although the syntax of the sentence is somewhat different. But it is true that Turin is well-read, so maybe you're right... In any case, since most readers will not make that connection, the function of the sentence remains exhortative.

      You are certainly right that these work raise two important questions:

      1) Why should I care about Turin's autobiography?
      2) Is this all just a big fat public relations/marketing scheme?

      Regarding the first question: it seems that a subset of the The Holey [sic] Book groupies are enamored of Turin for his previous writings on perfume. I wish that I had read his blog, for example, before this nonsense. But I didn't, and having read this stuff, I can no longer respect him as an intellectual. C'est dommage. Ou bien pas...

      As for your second incisive question: The high proportion of "masterpieces" authored by Turin's friends under the aegis of a few very powerful companies can only cause one to pause. Perhaps we'll never know the answer to the question. If we were to learn that, in fact, Turin holds stocks in one or more of the companies celebrated in The Holey [sic] Book—companies whose competitors he simultaneously trashed—then we could conclude that this is all a bunch of bunk. But somehow I doubt that Turin is going to be sharing his tax returns with us anytime soon. (-;

      I hope in the not-too-distant future to post a review of Mondovino—a film which treats many parallel topics in the wine industry—at which point we can dig deeper into some of these matters...

      In the meantime, I am going to track down the book by Annick Ménard which you mentioned. Thank you so much for this tip—and thank you again for sharing your thoughts, Girasole!

    2. Dorothy Parker used to directly address her "Reader". This has more of a direct connection with "New York".


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