– some thoughts a bit past the Genie’s fifth blogoversary
Once upon a storied time when I still had a few illusions left, I sat one (very) hot, humid late night in August after my third or maybe fourth glass of wine and thought a very heretical thought.
I said out loud although I was alone in the room,
I could always start a perfume blog. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could learn to become a better writer, what the hey.
At that particular time in my life, I had all of five bottles of perfume in my cabinet. Two vintage bottles of Balmain Ivoire and Lancôme’s Magie Noire respectively, a bottle of Antica Farmacista’s Mandarine Bourbon, Chanel no. 19 in eau de parfum and a bottle of Jacomo’s Silences. And that was it, the sum total of my less-than-spectacular perfume collection. In short order, I registered a blog with Blogspot and thought no more about it until the next morning when I saw my notebook by my desk and my hastily scrawled notes – and remembered.
Just as I recently realized with a jolt… that was five years ago!
Yet even then, I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) take it seriously. Because really – what were the odds? Yes, I had been a lifelong perfume lover/aficionado (all my mother’s fault, just like my coloring, my (lack of) height and my Aries Moon impatience). I had been reading perfume blogs since around 2006 – Perfume Shrine, Grain de Musc, the Perfume Posse, Indieperfumes, Perfume Project NW – as an exercise in aesthetic and olfactory masochism of a most peculiar kind. In those days, you see, I had no perfume at all, so all I could do as I read was dream of all those tantalizing names; Tauer, Kern, Lutens, Malle, Aftelier…. and wonder at the perfumes they created. Along the way, I learned a lot. But reading perfume blogs and maintaining your own are two very different things.
So I began by imitating/plagiarizing those blogs I loved to read. So I thought. Only to find that not even perfume gets a (bad) writer down, and I had a voice that would o-u-t no matter what I did right from the start.
Since then, it’s been one wild ride… into the unknown, into places and on to connections I never knew my pathetic perfume writing could reach or I could ever attain.
The Big Fat Why
Not so long ago, I was asked a pertinent question by my employer, who had no use for my writing skills whatsoever yet recognized a Looney Tune when he saw one.
‘Why the hell do you write about perfume?’
I had no time to think of a well-considered answer, and if I did, I might have answered differently. Instead, I blurted “Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that got any kind of reaction.”
Which is not entirely true. Yet this much certainly is: Writing about perfume has made things possible in my life I could never, never, ever have imagined that Zinfandel-sozzled summer night and given me something I sorely needed at the time, the confidence to Go For It. As a writer, as a woman, as a fabulous nobody who just possibly might have something worthwhile to say and have the chutzpah to chase it where it took her.
In these past five years, I’ve tried to do just that. I’ve smelled olfactory marvels that have rearranged my mental furniture for good, and I’ve smelled stellar fumes from people not even you have ever heard of, as well as funktastic stink bombs from favorite perfumers. I’ve torn my hair out in front of my laptop trying to find the ‘right’ words to convey my impressions, and I’ve thrown out the rule book of perfume writing and written story reviews when the mood – or the perfume! – struck me, since I believe that narratives can speak volumes about a perfume a straight-up review never could.
It was my party and I could write if I wanted to…
Since I first began five years ago, perfume blogs have exploded. There are now more blogs to read, to follow or to watch than ever before. Vlogging on YouTube is now a thing, and some do this horribly and others are marvels of both personality and talent. In the bad old days, which would be four short years ago, I spent a good two hours a day reading my way through my favorite blogs from some of my favorite writers, commented if and when I could, and a few scant hours later, I’d be burning the midnight oil writing my own reviews.
These days I’ve reached the conclusion that no matter what I do, I can’t keep up. I’m still not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing, but from my other writing, I’m guessing it’s a good thing. For one thing, it keeps me focused on the essentials, instead of mindless lemming-chasing the Next New Thing.
Then again, we all have opinions, and they all stink!
These days, my own perceptions of perfume and certainly my tastes have changed to an alarming degree. Had you told me five years ago that I would love ambers with a fury and certain no-holds-barred opulent orientals with a fanaticism that borders on neurosis, I wouldn’t have believed you. Perfumes I originally loathed I now love, and others I really liked at certain times I can’t stand in a five-mile radius. Given that my first instinct five years ago was to love everything I encountered on principle, this, too, is a kind of progress.
Niche – Schmiche
Five years ago, being a niche perfume company held a certain magical cachet; a promise of the new, the different, the non-commercial, the artistic, the road less traveled in perfume and with a price tag to match.
Here we are five years later, and the term ‘niche’ has become such a commonplace, throwaway phrase in perfumery as to become virtually meaningless, and whatever prestige the term once conveyed has been watered down to something so safe I’m positive the IFRA approves. Even perfumistas get confused about the difference between ‘niche’ and ‘indie’. My own definition – which has helped me sleep at night – was formulated over the course of a long conversation with a perfumista friend and is as simple as it is informative about the true state of ‘niche’:
$$$$$. Which is to say… Money. No more, no less.
In other words, a company is niche if it has financial backing from other sources, and indie if there’s no financial backing at all. Tom Ford, Serge Lutens, By Kilian, Roja Dove etc. etc…. are niche.
Amouage, Tauer Perfumes, Neela Vermeire Crèations, vero profumo, Papillon Perfumes, Aftelier, DSH Perfumes, Opus Oils, Olympic Orchid Perfumes… to name just a few of my own dearly beloved names, are indie.
It’s that simple, people. Anything else is more marketingese intended to bamboozle the masses and impress the gullible. Which is really all you need to know, because what matters – all associations of luxury, exclusivity and artistry aside – is the juice.
These days, there’s no shortage of niche perfume houses out to part us fools with our money. Niche has become Really Big Business, and even masstige and designer houses have been forced by necessity and maybe a few pithy perfume blog posts to sit up and pay attention, because trends start here – and in indie perfumery, too.
After all this time, the rest of the world is catching up, and even Chanel and Dior now have exclusive ‘niche’ lines in their collections with higher price tags and a bit more thought put into their creations, or so it seems to me.
Free Lunch? Anyone?
Since 2011, I’ve been in the utterly shameless self-promotion business. I’ve tagged every single brand I’ve ever reviewed everywhere I could on social media, regardless of whether I received any kind of response or not. In most cases, this has landed me on the maps of several storied companies who now send me samples of new work for review, and before I shoot myself in the mouth here, let me say this:
I’m so grateful, it’s pathetic.
I’m not one of those bloggers – and they’re everywhere in the blogosphere, no matter what the subject matter – who takes such things for granted. Yet I’m only too aware this is a definite two-way street and as for that free lunch… fuggedaboutit!
Because who doesn’t want a great review?
Perfume brands need PR and a bit of buzz, and blog owners and writers like followers and being ‘in on the know’ of Hot New Releases. Some blog owners are invited to opulent launches (with swag bags) and other fragrant happenings, and others, myself included, are invited only to ponder the true meaning behind the abbreviated letters F and U for not being important enough.
If we are, we’re treated with a certain amount of condescension for daring to write about perfume despite our lack of training/knowledge/sub-par Klout scores. Or else – and this has happened to me, too – being castigated for our own <ahem> idiosyncratic perspectives.
Since I experienced Pitti Fragranze in 2013 and the scales really fell from my eyes about the perfume industry, I’ve learned the hard way not to pay attention to those.
Life is just too darn short for that amount of aggravation. Yet gratitude alone does not a review write, and I have enough stuffed steamer trunks of guilt trip over my backlog for several lifetimes.
Courtesy, politesse, gentilezza
My late beloved stepfather, a first-generation American of impeccable Maltese and Sicilian ancestry, once said courtesy is under-rated. Both my stepfather and my mother instilled an acute degree of courtesy somewhere in my epigenetic DNA: At least you can be charming. If that’s impossible, you should be pleasant as well as polite. Should that prove too hard, remove yourself from the situation before it escalates.
To the best of my knowledge and with relatively few exceptions on TAG at least, I’ve tried (and sometimes failed – that damn Aries Moon!) to live by those words. I save the majority of my snark for a few trusted friends.
Sometimes, I’ve also been carried away by a sense of despair over the lack of imagination a perfume can provide, and a few of those times, I’ve let rip. Sarcasm can be so cathartic, if I think it’s justified. Having said that, most of the time I’ve at least tried to understand the concept of a perfume, even if I could never wear it and even, which has also happened, when I hated it.
Which was only polite, after all.
The Great, the Bad and the Ugly
Of all the things I love about perfume besides chronic indecision on what to put on in the morning (or evening!), my absolute and essential favorite thing about it is without question or quarter the people involved.
I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again:
Perfume people are the best people in the world.
In fact, I can say almost without exaggeration that without generosity of the international perfume community, this financially challenged blogger, relatively speaking, would not be blogging at all. (More on that in a bit.) I have no perfumery stores selling anything other than designer wares nearby, I can only rarely afford to send for sample sets of the type of perfumes I would like to write about, and although Copenhagen has really upped the ante since I began writing about perfume, Copenhagen is not London, Paris or even Stockholm.
My own journey down this odiferous rabbit hole began with a super-generous sample pack from a particular favorite fragrant friend of mine, namely the all-round awesomely talented Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids and Perfume Project NW.
In late 2010, Ellen and her luscious orchid-inspired works were almost occult (she’s since become an indie superstar, and deservedly so), but if anyone at all ‘made’ me a perfume writer, it would be Ellen. Those samples arrived right at the time I had almost given up hope of ever sniffing a fragrant epiphany again, and those small sample vials were stuffed with epiphanies. They ignited my imagination in ways I had never quite encountered before, and have been setting me alight ever since. One of my greatest fragrant treasures is a base note olfactionary Ellen was sweet enough to make for me in the very early days of the Devilscent Project.
I’ve used that olfactionary for nearly all my reviews since.
Ever since, the connections, the emails, the Facebook PMs, the Skype conversations, the letters, the postcards, the… OMG, the way my relationship with the contents of my mailbox has changed!… the people!!!
Have done so very much to enrich, improve and elevate my humdrum existence to where I can not just imagine but create a future, when at the time I began my perfume writing I was beginning to feel that any ‘future’ at all was a highly dubious prospect.
I count myself immensely lucky to have perfumista friends – some of them bloggers, some of them not – as dear to me as family, and some I even consider relations in all but blood. I have standing invitations on five continents. For a former jaded misanthrope living in the left armpit of northwestern Europe with very few local social ties and in 2011/2012, a totally unraveling life, this means so very much more than I have the words to say.
Simply put, I found my tribe, and just how epic is that?
Maybe it’s because I have too much myself (as my mother would have said), but one thing about Planet Perfume grinds me to a fine and dusty powder – the general lack of imagination among many so-called ‘perfumers’. That fug I encountered in Florence – the pervasive smell of eau de niche or should that be eau de nihilism? – has not grown smaller these past two years. The brands that completely blow me away are the brands that have consistently blown me away nearly from the beginning, and new epiphanies are getting harder to find. Starting with…
Oud. Enough of the ‘oud’. I have HAD it with oud, and oud wannabes. Just stop. Thank you.
Jasmine sambac as a note (there are one or two exceptions) hates me, and it’s mutual. I’ll take grandiflorum any day…
Over-priced perfume lines. Since I can’t afford any of it, unless a fellow perfumista friend makes me an offer I can’t refuse, I have my own bs price limit set somewhere in the general vicinity of around 400€. Even then, if I did have that kind of disposable income, I’d think again before I hit the ‘Buy Now’ button. If I did, I’d certainly expect an out-of-body experience, an Exorcist moment where my head rotates 360 degrees and I can’t even think. My sorrow to say, this hasn’t happened. Sometimes, a luxe price tag is just too damn much to pay. Besides, with all the incredible talent floating around in the indie world, why would I?
Five years of perfume writing will inevitably land you the occasional WTF moment. One of those was an email from a peeved reader who was mightily irritated I wasn’t a ‘usual’ perfume blog. Err… was I holding a gun to this person’s head muttering ‘read this or die’? No. I can laugh about it now – in no small part thanks to all the encouragement I received when I went public on Facebook with it, but that day, I was more than a little upset.
It never ceases to amaze me just how snarky and cut-throat competitive some bloggers can be, not just in their reviews but in person. If relevancy is measured in hit counters, media PR, being invited to the ‘right’ launches, free samples, bottles galore and blog stats, then I am a dismal, abject failure and should just slink away and die already. Five years on, rumors of my demise have been grossly exaggerated. I’ll never forget one moment in Florence, at a taxi stand with a celebrated perfume rockstar, laughing and talking, when one likewise celebrated blogger walked up in search of a taxi and frantically had to rearrange her mental furniture that someone so famous and distinctive was having a grand time deigning to speak with fabulous nobody me. The rockstar and I laughed all the way to a Centro Storico café, and have laughed about it several times since.
The less I can say about the over 1500 new releases in 2015 alone, the better. When does it end? Does it ever?
The problem with being a semi-cynical post-punk catastrophe is never, ever taking anything at face value. After I had reviewed Amouage’s Fate as two separate story reviews, I received a Twitter DM from a certain Luca Turin. It took not a little convincing on his part to tell me that yes, this was Luca Turin himself. He didn’t say so, but from our conversation – prompted by Amouage’s RTs of my reviews, bless ‘em – I gathered he was neither impressed, entertained nor amused by my verbal prowess. Dear readers, I felt as if I had arrived! ;)
I do get feedback on my reviews from the perfumers and brands I’ve reviewed, and mostly, it’s been illuminating, constructive and encouraging. But one of those emails in particular was so lovely, so wonderful and so important to me (since I had dreamed of these perfumes for years) I had it printed (I don’t own a printer) and framed. It now hangs on the wall in my bedroom and is among the first things I see every morning.
Those are the moments when beauty is its own reward.
The astute reader – and those who follow TAG on Facebook and elsewhere – will have noticed that my blog posts have become fewer and farther between in this past year. It was partly despair on ever clearing my backlog, partly a huge workload, partly a severe crisis of confidence I’d ever write anything at all worth reading after the debacledisaster of publishing my first novel, but more than anything else, it was this:
Why? I’d happily promote the brands and the names I believe in, but it would never amount to anything anyway, and there’s lots of new blogs out there who do it miles better than me and even several old ones I read in awe, and is free PR even worth the free samples and… Argh. I suck. I should just pack it in. Instead of being a fabulous nobody, I should just drop the ‘fabulous’. Nobodies don’t have to review perfumes, don’t have snark-breathing dragons on their case about when the review will be up, and. And. I suck.
It was – I swear on my Serges – truly that awful.
Then, three things happened in fairly short order, but first, let me explain…
In the five years I’ve been writing about perfumes, I’ve been the lucky recipient of an unholy amount of packages, letters and boxes. Most of them come with personal notes, postcards and letters attached. I have kept every single one of those notes and letters, and on the dormer wall next to my desk in my living room I have a Wall of Fame (illustrated below) with a selection of those notes, letters and postcards. (I’m trying to find a way to organize and display all of them.) There’s no hierarchy and no order, but each and every one – from brands, from bloggers, from friends, from perfumers and my fragrant ‘family’ in New York – is there to remind me of one important priority:
I would never have had them if not for perfume, and if not for my writing about said perfume. Maybe I need to be reminded that somewhere in cyberspace (on WordPress), there’s a blog that made a difference to a curious reader, or to a perfumer who was thrilled I ‘got’ them right or outraged I got it wrong.
The TAG Wall of Fame
Maybe I need to be reminded that I have made a difference?
Not so long ago, that was precisely what happened. A diehard perfumista, a very dear friend and long-term reader/fan of TAG PMed me on Facebook to ask what was up. I told him the Reader’s Digest version of what you’ve just read.
I was floored to even hear from him (I haven’t been much on Facebook, either), flabbergasted he’d asked and completely blown away when he said:
It would be an awful shame to lose your unique voice.
Which was when I glanced up at that Wall of Fame, at all the ‘Love you!s’, ‘Stay fab!”s Best Wishes, Big Hugs and xoxoxos, from rockstar brands and rockstar perfume people and fellow bloggers and friends and…
Broke down and cried. Deep down in that black and cynical heart I call my own, I knew he was right. I knew that writing about perfume has given me so much more than I could ever have imagined in my wildest, wine-soaked fantasies one August night five years ago. Some of my superlative best writing has been about perfume, since it has given me the perfect place to plant my passion for history, literature and art. In one handy liquid package – perfume. That has to mean something.
Also, this past summer, I’ve fallen in love for the first time in fifteen years. Madly and mutually and I haven’t had this much fun since… well, fifteen years ago. So I’ve allowed myself this summer idyll of dolce far niente. The niente is still very dolce (with no end in sight), but this is not how perfumes get reviewed on TAG.
Which is why I’m slowly but surely edging back in with a few things from my backlog and a few screaming hot new releases. Stay tuned.
Once upon a time, I said that all good things in my life have come through perfume. It seems a few more good things are still to come.
Thank you ALL – readers, friends, bloggers, brands and fragrant family – for sticking around long enough to see it happen.
I <3 you all!
Correction: The first published version of this post stated erroneously that Amouage was a (my definition) niche house. Amouage – one of my most favorite brands of all time – is an indie luxury brand. The text has been amended to reflect this, and I stand corrected.