Monday, June 3, 2013

Making the World of Perfume Accessible

Let's face it, the online perfume community and the concept of "niche perfume" as a whole can be a bit of an intimidating prospect. Much like the appreciation and critique of art, perfume is intangible, essentially invisible and entirely in the eye (or nose) of the beholder. Incredibly well known perfumers such as Francis Kurkdjian often weigh in on their opinions of those known as "perfumeistas," which makes the concept of learning about and writing about fragrance publicly (ie online) somewhat terrifying. And yet, fear for me is what makes something interesting. I've always loved perfume, much as I've always loved art, but for over a year now I've turned up the notch a bit and have begun to explore the world of fragrance ... particularly those that one might define as "niche." When I write about fragrance on Getting Cheeky, one of the most common statements made to me either in comments, or via e-mail and Twitter is just how intimidated many of you feel by perfume. As did I ... but why?

I'm sure standing in a room studying a (fill in the blank with your favorite artist's name) painting seems innocuous and charming, until you fill that room with well known art scholars and critics. Then, I'm sure, raising your voice with a considerably less knowledgeable but no less valuable opinion devoid of the jargon others are using around you seems terrifying. That is what it can often feel like to experience and comment on a fragrance. To be fair, my experience has been nothing but incredible. I've gotten to know some very talented and kind bloggers (and perfumers!) who are wonderfully kind and have welcomed me with open arms. But before all this came to pass I was terrified to raise my hand and offer my own opinion because of the mysterious and unquantifiable aspects of perfume. Because I know this is something many of you are experiencing as well I wanted to create a guide of sorts to make the world of fragrance (niche or otherwise) that much more accessible.

Photograph F Martin Ramin (image source)

Writers are trained to use as few powerful words as possible when describing something. Why say "a very bright red flower" when you could describe the subject of your musings as "a vivid scarlet rose." Both describe the same thing, but the latter is far more forceful and paints a more scintillating picture. As a former student of literary criticism I notice these things—even when reading blogsand it is this desire to be as accurate and vivid as possible that motivates writers in any given community to employ jargon. This can be an excellent way to paint a mental picture for those already "in" the community, but for newcomers it can feel exclusive. I enjoy jargon surrounding perfume because much of it is in French, my second language, but I can see how it would add to the mountain of things to learn, understand and pronounce. One of my favorite fragrance bloggers, Bois de Jasmin, has created a brilliant dictionary that plays host to all these words that can be perplexing. I often reference this excellent resource that can be found HERE.

Once the hurdle of vocabulary has been successfully conquered it can be hard to understand the significance of various perfumes that come up a great deal when comparisons are being drawn between notes. Why, for instance, is Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue so significant? For what reason has Dior's Diorissimo evolved so much over the years? How did perfume come to be and when did it begin as we know it? If you're like me, these are often questions you'll find yourself asking about any given subject that tickles your fancy. I started with a book that I absolutely adore, written by Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes: Essence and Alchemy (book review HERE). There are, of course, countless excellently written books on the subject that provide fascinating information that will forever change how you regard not just perfume but scent itself.

Another immense problem I'm often asked about is smelling niche fragrances (or any fragrances, for that matter) in a location that is not, say, Paris. I could kick myself now for all the things I didn't smell when I was lucky enough to live there: no matter how many counters and boutiques one visits there always seem to be more just around the corner and down the next winding street. Where I live, unfortunately, niche perfume shops are few and far between and it can be a challenge to experience a wide variety of fragrances to expand my olfactory vocabulary. I have chosen to combat that in two ways: keeping a fragrance diary of sorts in which I record notes along with what I like or dislike about each fragrance I smell, and sample services/decanting websites. Lucky Scent offers an incredible array of hard to find perfume samples, and decanting websites like The Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance often have the rare perfume you may be looking to try. When all else fails? Write a polite e-mail to the brand itself and ask if they offer samples. It's always worth a try, particularly when you ask nicely!

Photograph F Martin Ramin for the New York Times (image source)

When all is said and done I feel (quite frankly) more comfortable writing about fragrance than I do makeup and skin care. Why? After years and years of studying literature I find that I am better able to describe and analyze perfume in the same way I would a novel. Perfume has a beginning, middle and end, a denouement and a climax just like a well written work of fiction. Like a story it has the power to take us to far away places without ever leaving the room, and can create a feeling rather than just a "smell." Just as I do when I read a well crafted book, I cannot resist the urge to scribble notes when I have a thought about fragrance. I may even have recently hurriedly penned the phrase "church pews, pencil shavings and pink erasers" about the fragrance I was wearing while sitting in the middle of a meeting. Ultimately, I want my posts about fragrance to be quantitative and interesting for those that adore perfume, but I also want them to be accessible for those who do not.

I'm no expert, but I do love fragrance and that's not something for any of us to be nervous about! I'm learning one day at a time as many of you are as well, so let's take this opportunity to learn together. After all, a day without learning is a day lost!