In Search of 'The Perfect Scent' In his new book, The Perfect Scent, Chandler Burr follows the developments of two perfumes: one by actress Sarah Jessica Parker; the other by French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. Burr is perfume critic at The New York Times.
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In Search of 'The Perfect Scent'

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In Search of 'The Perfect Scent'

In Search of 'The Perfect Scent'

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

When Chandler Burr doesn't like a perfume, he doesn't mince words. Here's one acid appraisal: a cologne most appropriately worn by electrical appliances. Or: This is a scent for a woman who has no taste, and absolutely no interest in having any.

Chandler Burr is the scent critic for T, The New York Times' style magazine. And he's quite enraptured by the two perfumes that he writes about in his new book "The Perfect Scent." It's an insider's peek into the perfume industry.

He tracks the creation of a perfume for actress Sarah Jessica Parker, called Lovely; and a scent being developed by the French luxury house Hermes, designed to capture the essence of a garden on the Nile.

OK: OK, you're such a great perfumer. Make me the smell of sweaty socks.

CHANDLER BURR: (Reading) (Speaking foreign language) They would say to him, write us a story in smells. She asked him for the smell of cloud, and he created it for her. We asked him for bizarre things. We ordered up the smell of winter, of the snow, because we lived in the south of France - where it rarely snows.

(Reading) When he got home, and with a flourish unveiled for them this magical scent of snow, she got the idea, she said, that she could do anything, that there were indeed no limits because here, her father had gone and created a scent of a thing that had no scent. You had the story, the story of snow and the (foreign language spoken) say. You simply went and found the elements to tell your story.

BLOCK: You tell the story of Jean-Claude Ellena going to Egypt with his team from Hermes. They're trying to find the story line, basically, the smell that will be this garden on the Nile that he's going to create, and put in a bottle.

BURR: Right.

BLOCK: And they're having a terrible time finding it. They look everywhere, and they can't find this smell that they have somewhere in their brain.

BURR: They got - they had decided: We're going to create the smell of a garden on the Nile. And they got off the plane in Aswan. There was a huge garden there, called Kitchener Garden, which was created by some colonial Brits. And they thought, you know, they were going to have wonderful stuff. They went in, and nothing smelled. And they were on this island; and Ellena looked up, and he realized that this dusty, little desert street in this tiny, little village on the Nile was lined with mango trees. And it was just before mango season, before ripeness, so they were still green. And he reached up, and he smelled one. And he said, that's our perfume.

BLOCK: And what is it about the green mango that it was so iconic for him?

BURR: It's an absolutely astonishing perfume. I'm going to spray this for you, OK?

BLOCK: OK. You brought a bottle of Un Jardin sur le Nil.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFUME BEING SPRAYED))

BLOCK: It's very green. Even if I didn't know the bottle was green, I would say that's a green smell.

BURR: Absolutely. And it's...

BLOCK: It smells citrusy.

BURR: It's not a perfume in any classic sense. It's really a scent. And you can see how when you put that on, it melts into your skin. It becomes you, and you become it.

BLOCK: The fascinating thing about how this works chemically is that Ellena goes back to his lab in the south of France, and he's not extracting anything from a green mango. He's taking synthetic chemicals, and combining them in a way to get what he remembers as being the smell of a green mango.

BURR: Right. He says - very much - when I create, I do illusions. I do not re-create the smell of a green mango; that's relatively easy. Just in the way you would never re-create the smell of a rose - it's boring. That's not perfumery. It's not art. He does art, and he used a collection of synthetic molecules.

You know how a mango has that sort of resinous, very thick quality that you get between your teeth when you eat it - you know, to get that, he used a natural distillation of baby carrot.

BLOCK: There's a very different process that goes on with Sarah Jessica Parker, which is creating her signature scent - her first signature scent, which comes to be called Lovely. And it turns out, she's someone who has very strong feelings about scent, and had very strong feelings about what she wanted this perfume to be. And it turned out that the perfume that's created is nothing like what she intended.

BURR: Exactly.

BLOCK: She wanted something really dirty and gritty and...

BURR: Body odorish...

BLOCK: Body odorish.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFUME BEING SPRAYED))

BLOCK: Sugary, maybe?

BURR: ...She doesn't like florals. It's not - I think it's sweet without sugar, which I think is what's so fascinating about it.

BLOCK: But she had to get her mind around the notion that the scent that she thought she would be creating - which would be this gritty, sexy, dirty smell - wasn't going to be.

BURR: Yes, it wasn't going to be. And I think it was very - and we talked about it. She and I talked about it, actually, at a lunch we had one time. And she reconciled herself to the idea that she's not going to create exactly the perfume she had in mind. It was a collaborative process. She's a movie star. She works in the movies. Movies are a collaboration all over the place. You pick battles. You win some, you lose some. And she came out with a perfume that worked for her.

BLOCK: You've brought in with you today two kits from scent manufacturers, containing all sorts of little things inside. What's in there?

BURR: These are beautiful raw materials. These are two kits from Givaudan, which is one of the main scent and flavor manufacturers. Givaudan is Swiss- based. Let me open these up. And you see here all these - the synthetics in this one, and all the natural raw materials in this one. And you have everything from tuba rose(ph) to mandarin oil, elemi resin. There's geranium oil, from Africa. These are the naturals. And in the synthetics, we have wonderful molecules like hexanol 3-cis(ph), coumarin and methyl anthranilate.

BLOCK: You write quite a bit about the notion that the illusion in the perfume world is - given out to customers is that these things are all natural when in fact, nothing could be farther than the truth. These are synthetic scents; they're made in a lab. They're not flowers snipped off of a sunny field somewhere in the south of France, mostly.

BURR: Let me treat that only by - basically, that's correct. The average - and I've, obviously, asked several people in the perfume industry today - what's the synthetics-to-naturals ratio? They say basically, 80-20 synthetics to naturals.

Now, I'm going to show you this. This is a synthetic molecule called hexanol 3- cis. Smell that - and this is a nature-identical. So you can find it in nature, but it's been isolated and created in a laboratory.

BLOCK: Hmm, very - grassy?

BURR: Exactly. Fresh-cut grass with a slight green banana angle.

BLOCK: I didn't get the green banana.

BURR: But smell it now. Do you get that now? Slightly fruity?

BLOCK: OK, maybe.

BURR: OK. This is used to create the green scents, and it's a beautiful green, absolutely wonderful. But there're tons of greens you can use. You also have a material called galbanum, which is a natural. And that also is a green, but it's a more old-fashioned green.

So you have at your disposal, as a a perfumer, all sorts of raw materials with which to create your olfactory painting.

BLOCK: Is that the advantage of synthetics? Is that why people should embrace them and not turn up their nose? Mr. BURR: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes.

BLOCK: Literally. (Laughter)

BURR: Yes. Literally, not turn up their nose. It's - and there's a movement, an all-naturals movement in perfumery, which is completely crazy. It is anti-scientific. It is anti-empirical. There is no more reason to create perfumes with all-natural products - which completely limits your palette; it's completely inappropriate for modern perfumery - then there is for building a skyscraper out of thatch and mud and wood.

BLOCK: Chandler Burr, thanks so much.

BURR: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Thanks for bringing in all these amazing bottles of things.

BURR: My pleasure. Your studio is going to smell good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC))

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