Published on May 26th, 2015 | by The Perfume Expert
Cult Perfumes by Tessa Williams Book Review
Cult Perfumes: The World’s Most Exclusive Perfumeries, is more than just a trendy coffee table book, it’s a history book, a reference guide, and a catalogue of what to buy next!
A condensed and concise snapshot of the history of perfume and some of the leading niche perfumers of past & present that makes for not only an entertaining browse through while sipping tea on the sofa, but also a detailed reference guide for collectors, and inspiration for beauty & fashion mavens, or a tempting read for those who are always after the “next big thing”!
Tessa Williams has taken great care, effort, and tenacity to research and interview some of the world’s most exclusive brands and perfumers; culling a wealth of material to give the reader just the essentials pieces of each brand.
Within a few paragraphs one is privie to the condensed history, philosophy, and design of some of the world’s greatest niche/cult fragrance brands. This provides a tour-guide-like approach to perfume where Tessa Williams has drawn the road-map to a budding love affair with cult perfumes, showing us where to go and who to explore.
But to start, Williams’ introduction takes the reader through the history of perfume at warp speed!
An energetic and entertaining speed-round of information detailing such interesting historical facts such as Monks using perfume to clean houses of bubonic plague in the 1300’s, the Roman’s using perfume to scent their walls, Cleopatra wearing Civet on her eyebrows to seduce Mark Antony, or the people of the 17th century using Cinnamon & Thyme to kill the Typhoid Fever bacteria.
These snippets of history are important because they ground the reader to the context of scent and how it has evolved through time. From warding off disease, by then being used by only the royals and elite, to the mass appeal of drug store perfumes, we now find ourselves in an age where beauty has become more bespoke and more individualistic.
“Gone are the days when everyone wanted to wear the same scent, and the opportunities to smell unique are now limitless”
And if this quote sounds like you, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy exploring some of these rare historic scents in this book, like Marie Antoinette’s signature fragrance re-created by Francis Kurkdjian, or some of the more innovative modern scents like Escentric Molecules, a independent German perfumerie that creates scents designed to interact with the wearers own pheromones!
The thing I most appreciated about this book, however, is it’s underlying format, where every brand is showcased in the same way: Starting with a quote from the perfumer or creative director, a brief history of the brand, then the philosophy of the creative direction, highlighting key fragrances, the bottle design, and lastly a note of the future direction of the company.
This format allows for a more objective approach to representing each brand, which is extremely valuable in an industry that is highly subjective in it’s nature!
Trust me, as a beauty writer myself, it is hard to write objectively about scents that you have a personal connection with, and it was refreshing to be able to learn about each of these cult brands within this book with no hint of which the author liked best.
This underlying format allows the reader to soak up the information and then determine for themselves which perfume houses and perfumers resonate with them. It puts all of the brands on equal terms which one can then use as an almost reference guide.
This point of it being like a reference guide was useful for me, especially as a writer and blogger of perfumes & beauty. I find myself using this book as a “Cliff Notes” tool (as they say in America). In other words, when a new perfume/cologne comes across my desk or if i’m sourcing a particular fragrance, I can go to Cult Perfumes and within a few minutes have all of the essential background information I need on that particular brand or perfumer.
This makes Cult Perfumes an essential book for collectors or those who work within the beauty industry.
On a personal note, this book is almost like a catalogue of what to buy next.
Usually someone falls in love with a scent first, whether it’s a gift or simply a spritz at the department store beauty counter. We smell first then ask “what’s that?”. We are guided by our noses first and foremost, and at times finding the details or history of the perfume or person who created it irrelevant to our experience.
With the wealth of information and in-your-face marketing approach by some of the largest perfume houses, it is easy to know about the latest mainstream releases as you are in a way being force-fed the “next best thing”. Come on, who hasn’t been mobbed by sales associates spritzing the latest fragrance as you pass through the department store!
But Cult Perfumes inspires us to learn first, smell second, a revolutionary way of exploring a new fragrance!
When one reads through Cult Perfumes, we can not help but be drawn to certain brands or perfumers. For some reason, certain pages, quotes, or philosophies may spark something inside of us and it is then, after learning about the history of a fragrance, do we go out and smell it. Like a treasure hunt, following a map, until we uncover a hidden gem!
For example, after reading a quote by Bertrand Duchaufour, perfumer for the brand L’Artisan Parfumeur, a french perfume house established in 1976, I was immediately intrigued by his approach to creating a fragrance.
“Balance is achieved when opposites attract, like yin and yang. Nothing is lost or created, everything is transformed.”
Needless to say, I have now started my own personal treasure hunt to source Duchaufour’s warm and spicy Timbuktu perfume inspired by African dressing rituals!
In conclusion, this book has opened my eyes to some long-forgotten giants and fresh upcoming talent, a world that I knew existed but never really knew where to start.
But this book can be enjoyed by ALL! Not only those who have a particular interest in perfume or beauty, but anyone who has stopped to smell the roses at some point, has been captivated by a scent of someone passing, or has been taken back in memory to a time long past.
“Of all the human senses, smell is the strongest trigger of emotion, and perfume can do many things. Who is not moved by the sudden hint of a fragrance that sets off a spiral of reminiscence?”
I would recommend anyone to go on this scentual journey with Cult Perfumes and to find some new treasures along the way! Because i’ll tell you this, with the fascinating history, outstanding tradition, and quality craftsmanship of these niche and cult brands, you may never buy mainstream again!
The only complaint is MORE PLEASE! With the wealth of new and up-and-coming fragrance houses, I would love to see a Cult Perfumes II or a book specializing in niche/independent perfumes. More and more people are veering away from mass market scents and it would be great to see more books like these showcase rising stars and encouraging people to venture outside the box!
Tessa Williams is a journalist and author based in Scotland, and has written for Vogue, Marie Claire, and Elle magazine along with being a published author of Cult Perfumes. When she is not writing, she also hosts a radio program and has recently launched her very own scented candle line, sold exclusively at Roullier White in London or at LuckyScent in the USA. Having had a passion for perfumes and beautiful scents most of her life, we are looking forward to smelling her gorgeous candles based on natures elements like Water, Earth, Air, and Fire.
[Review copy of Cult Perfumes courtesy of Merrell Publishers. Page insert photos used Copyright Merrell Publishers]