Were Shakespeare's sonnets inspired by fragrant potions? Which English perfumery made its money selling Russian bear grease? Whose lavender plants were eaten by rabbits? Who applied for a job in a perfume lab still wearing his school shorts? Which aroma chemicals went into Coty's L'Origan? Whose chemist career started because he was "too short for the offices" and was sent to the laboratory instead? Which perfume manufacturer took its perfumers and a mobile mini laboratory to the Tarkine rainforest? Whose essential oil warehouse used to be in the railway arches under Fenchurch Street Station? Which fragrance firm had to move because a local resident was taking potshots at the office windows from the flats opposite?

British Perfumery, a Fragrant History is a unique book produced by the British Society of Perfumers (BSP) to celebrate its 50th anniversary year.

The breadth of the book is impressive. There are personal histories with candid descriptions of how perfumers entered the industry; company profiles and plenty of archive photos, timelines and historical facts. The entries were mostly written by the companies themselves and the style varies from formal to warm. Members of the BSP include raw material suppliers, perfume manufacturers, independent perfumers and global brands and they're all represented in some way.

"It is the story of the history, heritage and future of British perfumery as told by the industry itself," says John Bailey, the current president of the British Society of Perfumers. The book project was his idea, presented to the council two years ago and the decision was made early on to produce the book in-house and act as its publisher.

The book team consisted of John Bailey, Helen Hill, Yvonne Hockey and Matthew Williams. It was designed by Liz Baldin at Bookwork Creative Associates and printed by Butler, Tanner & Dennis Ltd.

It's a heavy, impressive volume with high production values, glossy pages and plenty of colour photographs.

"Technically the hardest part was the images but really, the hardest part was trying not to miss anyone," says Matthew Williams.

The book is split into chapters:

  • Heritage
  • Fragrance Houses in Britain
  • The Big Four in Britain
  • Ingredient Specialists
  • Global Brands
  • Niche Brands
  • Organisations and Training
  • The Future of Perfumery

It starts with the early history of perfumery in Britain and ends in present day where perfume companies are using scents to help children with sensory impairments, Odette Toilette is holding fragrance appreciation events and independent perfumers are setting up their own brands. This seems like a good time to disclose that I appear to have ended up in the book, too! I was invited to the book launch held at the Royal Society in London on the 30th of October and waited nervously, along with everyone else there, for the big reveal. The team had kept the book hidden from all of us until the official launch. Every member of the BSP gets a complimentary copy but the book is also available to buy directly from the British Society of Perfumers for £45 and I believe some perfumeries have expressed an interest in selling it, too.

"Once we'd taken the decision to create the book, we were keen to appeal to a wide audience. It'll probably be seen in one light by the industry itself and in a different light again by the consumers. How many people know that Toni & Guy is part of Unilever, for example?" says John Bailey.

I was eager to start reading it on my way home from the book launch and dug it out of my bag on the train. I don't recommend attempting to read it on a train. It's simply too bulky - the corners were poking at people as they passed by and it kept slipping off my lap. This is definitely what they call a coffee table book.

Being somewhat obsessed with perfumes and the industry, I couldn't put it down. I learned about the people who created flavours and fragrances for a diverse range of products - Bailey's Irish Cream, Agent Provocateur, CK One, Flex shampoo, Liz Earle...and even the aroma of Jesse Tafero's last breakfast. There's the story of Hedione and the story of Imperial Leather. Perfumers travelling the world to sniff out exotic ingredients or in an attempt to understand the everyday circumstances in which the end products will be used. How leading perfume manufacturers develop their own genealogies of fragrance to assist market research and creativity. I read the book in four sittings.

As consumers we mostly get exposed to the brands which commission fragrances for their fine fragrances, toiletries, air fresheners and laundry products (and the sales and marketing people who wax lyrical about accords and aspiration).

This unique book catalogues the history of the British perfume industry from the viewpoint of the insiders themselves and you get a peek at the stories behind the stories.

I asked Matthew Williams and John Bailey what the biggest surprise in the project had been for them.

"We were really impressed with the amount of time people devoted to it, given how busy everybody is," said Matthew. "Now we've finally got this book to take out into the world and say this is the British perfumery industry."

"How many hours, how many meetings - my God!" said John.

I would recommend this book even if I wasn't personally involved with the BSP in any way; it's a fine addition to my ever-growing perfume library.

You can find out more about the book on the BSP's website.