a conversation with Chandler Burr      
photograph of Chandler Burr


English Translation of French interview with Chandler Burr by Wilfrid Azencoth for the website

Wilfrid Azencoth: If someone wrote your biography, what would be its title?

Chandler Burr: Maybe "The Right Place at the Right Time." When I was 25, I was working in Tokyo for a huge Japanese corporation, Mitsui Bussan, while getting my masters in International Economics. Because I speak Japanese and because the subject fascinated me (this was in 1989, the height of the trade wars), I did a long piece on why the Japanese didn't import foreign cars. I sent it to James Fallows, a very well-known American journalist, who liked it, and I became friends with him and his wife Deb. In the course of things I came out to him, and almost immediately The Atlantic, the highly respected magazine Jim writes for, asked me to do an article for them on homosexuality, a subject they'd never published on. I decided to write on the biological research of sexual orientation, and they ran the article at 10,000 words and on the cover. It was the first article I'd ever written for a magazine. My agent sold it as a concept, and I wrote my first book, "A Separate Creation."

W.A.: Tell us about your current book.

C. B.: "The Emperor of Scent" is the result of pure chance. On January 5, 1998, I was waiting in line to board the Eurostar in Paris's Gare du Nord to go to London when the loud speakers announced there'd be a 20 minute delay. So I started talking to the guy next to me, around 40, nice, open, with what I thought was a very Italian face (it turned out he is, in fact, Italian though raised in France as well). We talked about the scene in "Mission Impossible I" with Tom Cruise where the helicopter flies into the Eurostar tunnel, "but of course," said the guy, "that's impossible according to the laws of physics," and explained why in detail. You know a lot of physics, I said. "I'm a biophysicist." Oh yeah? What do you work on? "Smell. I created a new theory of smell." We talked during the entire trip, and at Waterloo I said "I want to write on you." His name was Luca Turin. I started a book about his creation of this new theory which, if Luca is right, will revolutionize science and win him the Nobel Prize. But without realizing it immediately (because Luca didn't start to talk about it till a bit later) I'd also started a book about a second subject, one intimately tied to the first but which stood on its own and grew more and more important: perfume.

W.A.: How did you discover the world of perfume?

C. B.: Entirely via Luca Turin's experience. He is a passionate, obsessive genius of perfume. From the age of five years old he analyzed and described odors, loved perfumes, and perceived the world of smells that, usually, we don't even notice. He started his perfume collection very young, in 1992, and he published a book "Perfume: The Guide" which became the best-selling perfume guide in France. It was due to this guide that he was discovered by the Big Boys, the large, secretive industrial conglomerates that actually create the perfumes that Armani and Estee Lauder and Calvin Klein put their names on. The Big Boys opened up their world to him, of perfumery materials and creation, the secret, hidden, fascinating world of perfume. He was crazy with joy. He smelled all their raw materials, talked perfume with everyone. But a tiny something started bothering him: No one at the Big Boys, he realized, understood how we smell odors. Not the chemists at IFF and Quest and Givaudan, not the biologists, not the university professors who publish academic articles on the science of the sense of smell. And then, completely by chance, Luca discovered an old paper buried in a library that gave him a clue. And that clue led him towards a stunning idea. So the scientific story I tell in the book originates with and centers around perfume.

W.A.: Who is Luca Turin?

C. B.: A man with a beautiful and unusual mind. One example: I was with him in a perfume raw materials market in Bombay (I tell this story in the book), and we had found an "attarwallah," a seller of "attar," perfume. Luca talked with the guy for hours, the attarwallah showing him fragrance after fragrance, and Turin could, just from smelling them, not only give the fragrances' names (and their creators and the stories of their origins) but for the perfumes the attarwallah had himself created Turin named the molecules and atoms the guy had put in. At lunch once in Bangalore a woman passed close by, and Turin raised his head and said "Ah! Claude Montana's 'Parfum d'Elle'! Almost pure beta-damascone!" It was astonishing. I never imagined there was a human being with these powers of smell.

W.A.: Can you tell us about Luca's perfume guide?

C. B.: It's his perfume reviews for a hundred or so perfumes, incredible imagery from an amazing and original imagination. So far it only exists in French. The reviews contain everything from the perfumes' molecular structures to their purest aesthetics: "Thanks to 'Rive Gauche' by Yves Saint Laurent, mere mortals can at last know the odor of the soap from the goddess Diana's bath..." It's poetry on perfumes.

W.A.: By the way, what's a "good perfume"?

C. B.: I'll respond very specifically. A good perfume is one that doesn't deteriorate in an hour, one that is a work of art during its entire journey and not just the first ten minutes, one that doesn't start in a field of tuberoses next to an azure sea only to finish in a laboratory. These things are absolutely necessary. As for the aesthetics, I could give you my opinions, but they're only important to me.

W.A.: For you, is a perfume a work of art the same way that a painting is?

C. B.: The specific nature of each biological sense- smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste- leads us to create an art that speaks to that sense, and each sense's art is profoundly different. Someone has said that all art aspires to the state of music because the nature of the sense of hearing demands that hearing's art, music, take an entirely ephemeral form; you stop playing the instruments, the art disappears, whereas a painting is always there on the wall. But at the same time, you could note that a sublime meal is also an art (for the sense of taste) born to die immediately, and yet fine cuisine is no less physically real than a painting. The biology of the sense of taste determines the form of the art made for the sense of taste. A perfume enclosed in a bottle and thus impossible to smell is not different from a painting in another room, impossible to see. But when it escapes, perfume changes. It ripens, flowers, rots with time. It decays and disappears, and a painting can't do all that. Smell, sight, and taste have commonalities. And significant differences. Just like the art we create to satisfy each of them.

W.A.: The name of the painter of a painting or the composer of a sympony is always given. why isn't the name of each perfume's creator?

C. B.: That's simple. Money. More precisely, it's not in the financial interest of the Big Boys, the large corporations that employ perfume creators, to turn their creator-employees into stars; they'd want more independence, their salaries would go up, and so on. Keeping them anonymous means more control.

W.A.: You say Luca Turin's theory is revolutionary. How?

C. B.: Almost no one admits it, but the sense of smell poses a huge mystery: Not only do we not know how it functions (while we understand completely sight and hearing), we actually shouldn't be able to do it at all. Smell should be impossible. I explain why in "Emperor." Even if the sense of smell functions like all the chemists, biologists, and professors claim it does, which is by recognizing the shapes of smell molecules, we shouldn't be able to smell molecules that didn't exist in our ancestral environment, like plastics or gasoline. But we can smell plastics and gasoline. How? Luca proposes, from a series of absolutely ingenious discoveries and smell experiments whose story I tell, that a molecule's odor is not at all contained in its form. It's contained in the vibrations of electrons that hold atoms together. We literally smell atoms. How? By a microscopic machine gun in the nose that fires electrons into molecules and measures how much energy they lose passing through. Which, if it's true, will entirely change our ideas on the functioning of biology, chemistry, and physics. That's why all the people in the "Shapist" camp are, as I show, violently opposed to this idea of "Vibration." It threatens them, and you'll see how they tried to suffocate this dangerous idea in its cradle. Science is sometimes neither pleasant nor honest.

W.A.: Why did you write this book?

C. B.: Because as I got into it, I found this story both mesmerizing and, actually, important. Perfumes with their unforgettable beauty, the huge secretive corporations that manufacture them, a man with an extraordinary power. The creation of a scientific theory, unheard of and even shocking, from clues that include the secret of the fragrance of "Chanel 5", and the ferocious rejection by the scientific world of a new idea that threatens their interests and the reigning theory. I was just happy to stumble upon the end of the thread in the Gard du Nord.

W.A.: Is the world of perfume open or closed?

C. B.: Closed. Absolutely. This is not to say that they're mean, simply that their work is secret. What they do makes an enormous amount of money for Estée Lauder, Tom Ford, Gaultier, Mugler, and on and on, and these guys demand absolute loyalty and confidentiality, which creates a culture wary of outsiders.

W.A.: Do smells have secret powers?

C. B.: Secret? I don't think so. Just astonishing powers: You walk into a florist's shop, take a breath...

W.A: When will "The Emperor of Scent" be published?

C. B.: It was published in January 2003 in the United States by Random House, and it will be published in Great Britain in August 2003, as well as in Spain and Latin America. That's so far. It was interesting. Some of the very first reactions I got personally from the first readers were, "This is like the novel 'Perfume' by Patrick Suskind only today, and real." That's pretty accurate.

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
    Photo credit: Curtis Kelley