Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas

Image of Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas
Release Date: 
May 21, 2024
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

The old saying goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said for writing about food, given the proclivities of human taste buds. A further challenge would include writing about scent. Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas, by Jacques Cavellier-Belletrud and Lionel Paillés presents a particularly challenging case.

The book focuses on profiling the raw materials involved in the manufacture of perfumes. Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer, writes the texts on the various raw materials. He also wrote a rhapsodic introduction and a brief travelogue. Lionel Paillés, a perfume journalist, wrote the material about Louis Vuitton itself and Mr. Cavallier-Belletrud’s adept use of materials in perfume composition.

The book itself, the actual physical object, is an impressive thing. But that is to be expected when the topic is a luxury brand (Louis Vuitton) packaged by a top-tier publisher (Thames & Hudson). Although, for all its stunning presentation, it still cannot capture the fleeting and ephemeral quality of its subject matter: smell. Cavallier-Belletrud, the master perfumer, reconstructs the sense of smell through his writing about the raw materials.

Divided into continental regions, he explores each scent. After a one-page narrative, he gives a run-down specifying botanical species, geographical growing area, harvest time, the part used, treatment, along with “olfactive family” and “facets.” The last category is a kind of taxonomy of smell. For instance, the facets of Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar are: “Woody, tobacco, balsamic, leathery, spicy, creamy.” Yet during these exploratory investigations into smell, the perfumer will relay that even the simplest raw material can yield a multifaceted odor, sometimes depending on when it is harvested or the treatment it undergoes to achieve an essential oil.

The one-page narratives about the raw materials can often overlap with the culinary world, as the aforementioned vanilla. Other raw materials include lemon, cinnamon, rosemary, cocoa, and ginger, among others. Sometimes the taste coincides with the smell, at other times the essential oil is an entirely different product from its culinary application. Cavallier-Belletrud creates narratives that seamlessly blend history, agriculture, chemistry, sensuality, and poetry. For, at its root, perfume’s primary function is to arouse desire from a liquid applied to the human skin.

Prior to every one-page narrative, Cavallier-Belletrud distills the essence of the scent into a one- or two-sentence description. For osmanthus from China, he says, “The extraction of this deliciously apricoty flower takes place in China, and nowhere else. It is a piece of civilization ushered into a perfume.” In the narrative, he describes the scent “ . . . imbuing the air with a soothing aroma reminiscent of apricot and conveying a sense of foreign climes, bathed in sunshine, peaceful, harmonious and cordial, far from all danger.” Not appreciated in China as much as the West, he continues, “it is mainly used in infusions and as the primary ingredient in a perfumed tea (gui hua cha).” The book is a cornucopia of descriptions like these, educational and entertaining in turn. It shines a necessary light on the sometimes backbreaking labor used to extract these raw materials. “Hand-picked” and “seasonal” remain common themes and explain how perfumes can become expensive. Or, to choose more nefarious, euphemistic language: upscale, upmarket, and exclusive.

Following the raw material profiles, Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas has a handsome double-fold-out section showing the fragrance collection. These include categories like Feminine, Masculine, Oriental, Cologne, and Les Extraits. (Oriental, in the vocabulary of perfumery meaning a historical fragrance family. Is this term backward, antiquated, or racist?) Each perfume in the collection receives a haiku-like description and lists key ingredients. The feminine fragrance Mille feux is described as “The grain of her skin, / Incandescent firework / Of love.” Its “composition” includes Bergamot, Osmanthus, and Sandalwood.

Lavishly illustrated and accompanied by a text imbued with scientific and botanical knowledge, sensuality, and olfactory notes, Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas is a unique book for those seeking to understand the seemingly esoteric world of perfumery. It is a fascinating cocktail of science, aesthetics, geography, hedonism, and craftsmanship.