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Roja Dove’s The Essence of Perfume: A Review

Book cover for the book The Essence of Perfume by Roja Dove

Book cover for the book The Essence of Perfume by Roja Dove

I didn’t know anything about the contents of this book when I ordered it. I respect Roja Dove, I’m interested in perfume, and it wasn’t available for my Kindle; I ordered it.

I could see once I opened it why it wasn’t available for my Kindle; the thing is huge and heavily illustrated. In this case the illustrations are actually a good reason for it to exist in print form: it’s a collection of images I don’t think we get to see very many places, including an awful lot of vintage perfumes (including some truly stunning examples of the art of the flacon from Lalique and Baccarat that alone make the book worthwhile).

But I was disappointed in that I guess I rather thought it would be more of an exploration or explanation of perfume. You know, sort of a “Roja Dove Explains It All” for perfume nerds.

What it is instead is a lovely reference work. It contains a nice explanation of the technical structure of perfume (head, heart, base); a nice index of notes, including some good discussion of the sources of each; and a decade-by-decade history of what Roja Dove considers to be some of the most influential perfumes of all time. Some of the historiography seems debatable. Dove leads into the great green fragrances of the 70s, for instance, with Chamade and its overdose of galbanum in 1969. I don’t think he mentions Vent Vert at all. But that just makes the book more fun. It doesn’t have to rehearse what “everybody knows” about perfume; indeed, why would we shell out if it did? It’s Dove’s own take on the 20th century in perfumery, and it’s undoubtedly me who doesn’t know as much about the relationships and history of the perfume, not Dove.

I enjoyed this book – it’s bottle porn, which I enjoy, and it’s sprinkled with anecdotes about this or that perfume that are fascinating for me to read. Actually the bottle porn is very functional; there’s a good bit of information about Baccarat and Lalique and their relationship to the perfume industry and specific perfumers that was very enlightening as well. The history of some perfumes’ creation is fascinating to me. Roja Dove caused me to go back and try L’Heure Bleue again, for instance, and I think he explained sufficiently that I got a better understanding of it now. The book also generated a list of things I think I need to try now (I’ve been wondering about Ma Griffe from Carven for a while, and now I know I want to smell it; also I need to try Vol de Nuit, and some other things from the 50s).

The inclusion of his own perfumes is understandable but jarring. Dove’s own scents, after all, are not nearly as well known as everything else he discusses. Almost every other perfume mentioned or pictured in the book is practically iconic. My understanding is that Dove’s own perfumes are very well done but they’re hardly ground-breaking, either for the juice or the bottles. I do want to try them more now that I’ve read this book, but it’s a sad example of the book ending up looking more like marketing materials than I think the author intended. (Though maybe not.)

I would have really enjoyed more technical thoughts about perfume phrased for the educated consumer. For instance, I loved his point that pretty much every ground-breaking perfume comes from an overdose of something. Mitsouko has that peach note, Shalimar has its vanilla, Vent Vert has galbanum and so on. His point was that the genius comes when the creator has to re-balance everything else in the composition around the overdose, resulting in unexpected and lovely effects. I would have liked to hear more about this. Which perfumes are purposefully built this way, and how many perhaps aren’t? (We know from The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry by Chandler Burr, for instance, that Jean-Claude Ellena was trying to create something specific with Jardin Sur le Nil – that particular smell of lotus. His composition, minimalist, synthetic, elegant, is built around recreating that thought. How many perfumes are built that way versus the management of an overdose of civet or vanilla? And what are some other ways of coming up with new compositions?)

Dove makes the good case, as everyone does, that great perfumes (like all great art, I would argue) are pushed for by a visionary, not the result of focus groups. So Chanel No. 19 is really the result of Coco Chanel’s determination to get it to market, not any corporate conviction that people would like it. And so on through many, if not most, of the great scents he mentions. The flood of forgettable fruity florals in which we all now swim is entirely the same as the flood of forgettable, repetitive movie releases and copycat music bands: corporate conviction that the only thing that can succeed is what has succeeded before, and the (unfortunately mistaken) idea that one can find out what customers want by asking them.

The Essence of Perfume is a gorgeous illustrated history of perfume and its notes, sprinkled with anecdotes and technical information about different perfumes’ development. Any perfumista would be interested in this one, I think.

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4 comments to Roja Dove’s The Essence of Perfume: A Review

  • basia

    I really love this book for the illustrations and history. My cover is purple, When I first glanced at your post I thought that was a bottle of the original Bijan!!

    • Judith

      I did too! Well, it’s only understandable – how many donut-shaped bottles are there out there? I saw there was another cover for this at – don’t know why (whether they’re international editions or what – there don’t seem to be multiple editions of the actual text). Did you enjoy reading it? Did you make a big list of perfumes to look for like I did? I have to admit it made me very curious about Cabochard Gres!

  • basia

    Your term “bottle porn” made me laugh because I seemed to want the bottles more than the juice!

    • Judith

      Well, yeah! If there’s a reason for such a big, gorgeous book, it has to be the illustrations, right? And it has to be illustrations of the bottles, not the juice (though some of the photos of ingredients were also interesting to me.)

      I had never seen that absolutely stunning bottle for Diorissimo before, and it’s one of my favorite fragrances. So worth it! I don’t collect for the bottles but I do appreciate a good one.

      And I think he had diagrams of how the stoppers on the bottles of Chanel No. 5 have changed over the years that helped me date the vintage bottle I have, too!

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