Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Book Review)


My in-house reviewer, Jake

Perfume reviews would not create a buzz if they it didn’t ruffle a few feathers. Critics of The Guide lament its lack of objective descriptions, along with the occasional lambasting of a cherished scent. True, the book does not offer scent pyramids for each fragrance. True, it does not include catalog descriptions for the archives. True, the authors do not hold back symphonic praise or fiendish criticism. The book is neither an encyclopedia nor a shopping guide. To me, it serves more as a companion to sampling, discussing, contemplating and enjoying perfumes.

The Guide‘s elegant reviews condense acerbic wit, enviable knowledge, and contagious passion, via bright narrative vignettes. Facts abound, but Turin and Sanchez steer clear of a pedantic approach. Instead, scientific discovery, the history of perfumery, social commentary and philosophical reverie unfold almost organically with the reviews. Each entry contributes to The Guide‘s impressive mosaic of information and evaluation. We meet the Quest molecule Karanol in “Une Rose” (Frédéric Malle), where Édouard Fléchier daringly pairs raw materials with synthetics. “Arpège” supports the theory that perfumes become more masculine over time. The “Floret” (Antonia’s Flowers) entry provides information on living flower technology. “Safari for Men” jostles the memory, evoking the (heretofore repressed) image of Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug.

I appreciate edgy and heartfelt criticism in all areas–food, movies, plays, perfume. That’s what Turin and Sanchez deliver. The book is surprising, but not because of its tone and subjectivity: it is surprising because the tone and subjectivity are applied to perfume. And that’s a good thing. The Guide raises awareness about perfume. It shows that perfume is worthy of scrutiny, debate, passionate opinion and discussion; that perfume is funny; that there is more to perfume than that signature scent; that perfumes change and opinions change.

Above all, The Guide normalizes the obsession of formerly closeted perfume nerds like me.

Full disclosure: I read the first edition of The Guide from beginning to end, in a series of stolen moments at bedtime, on the porch, or curled up on the couch, as if it were a juicy novel or a poetry collection.  I think of each review as a little prose poem in celebration of fragrance and language, and their elusive connections. From this perspective it doesn’t matter so much if my favorite scents receive two stars or four.

Turin and Sanchez could not have published their first edition (2008, hardback) too soon. Perfume was falling out of favor in the US. Fragrance Free Zones were (and still are) on the rise. The authors revived interest in old chestnuts and mainstream scents. They also shed light on the less traveled world of niche houses, indies, and vintage fragrances. I would guess that their book has raised interest (and sales?) in all of the perfumes mentioned–not just the winners.

The second edition (2009, paperback) adds 451 reviews and additional “Best of” lists (including “Best Strange Fragrances” and “Best Bang for the Buck”). While some old favorites remain to be sniffed (think: “Bal à Versailles”; “Jean Louis Scherrer”), the quantity of perfumes reviewed is remarkable.

The Guide is a must-have for any perfume library. You’ll feel vindicated when your signature scent turns up highlighted with five stars. But be ready, Fragrant Reader,  to discover (as I did) that you spent half a decade running around smelling of  “jasmine diaper.” Ouch! It’s all part of the fun.


Perfumes: The A-Z Guide

New York: Penguin  (2009)

Paperback, 640 Pages

A thoughtful take on this book (with excellent links) at

Would you like to see more reviews of perfume books?
Click here for my book  reviews at Now Smell This
Click here for many more  NST book reviews by Marcello

6 thoughts on “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez (Book Review)

  1. Thank you for this concise and thoughtful description of the unique merits we Guide lovers cherish about this work.
    I especially appreciate your observation that the applied study of perfumes (of the connoisseur) is not represented to the casual reader as a pedantic system; and it's not demonstrated via mechanical systems of observation, like broken-down note pyramids. Rather, the reader encounters the by products of deeper appreciation of scent casually; they are revealed, as you said, in the context of their relatable, anecdotal reviews, for the reader to take inspiration from… or simply leave behind as as exhausted entertainment.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Oh, and I am glad to see your doggie like it!

  3. I need a copy of the newer addition – I was just going through the 2008 one, and checking every single perfume I have sniffed. I need to make more checks so I need that new edition! 😉

  4. bloodyfrida, I love doing that methodical sniff checking,too. I bought the new edition when it came out, but haven’t found time yet to get lost in it.

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