Perfumes are difficult to describe. So is Artisan Perfumery. Alec Lawless has a slightly unconventional background for the perfume industry – I don’t know anyone else in that line of business who has worked on an oil rig for instance – and he has written a very unconventional book.
Alec’s business is formulating bespoke fragrances based primarily on essential oils. The book is basically a pot pourri of the ingredients that go to make up what he does for a living. We hear about essential oils. How they are made and how they are traded. Arthur Daley would be at home in the world of close to the wind deals that Alec describes. We also hear some of the romantic and intriguing stories behind so of the raw materials he uses. You do have to read all the captions on the photos. A lot of the gems of information in them don’t appear anywhere in the text.
The best photograph is of Teddy the donkey carrying a delivery of lavender. Not just any old lavender mind you. This is grown at a secret location. You have to be blindfolded for the last 20Km of your visit to pick it up. It is only picked at times specified by a clairvoyant in Glastonbury. The best flowers are hand selected. The archaic mode of transport is picked to make sure the plant material is acclimatised to its delivery point when it arrives. avoiding the shock to the system caused by fast movement. It must be quite some stuff when it finally gets to the end user. The book is full of stories like this.
We also hear a lot about the theories he uses to explain, understand and create his fragrances. They are interesting and eclectic and like the raw materials themselves seem to come from all over the place. There’s a bit of psychology, a bit of science and a dollop of mysticism. We also get a bit of practical guidance as he talks us through the process by which he devises a fragrance along with a worked example.
You get to learn quite a lot about the author. I imagine that like his book he is eccentric, surprising and maybe a bit lighter on the details than you would really like. I can’t tell from the photo whether he is also short.
Artisan Perfumery is an interesting book, if a bit tantalising. It isn’t really long enough to do justice to its subject. It weighs in at only 100 pages. Doctor Johnson said of Paradise Lost that all admire it but few have wished it longer. Few would wish this book to be shorter. It certainly isn’t a reference book or a primer to get you started. It is more of a taster. Think of it as a tester strip on the counter of a boutique, tempting you to try. If you do, you might be hooked.
(N.B., This book doesn’t seem to be available any more.)