The Viridian Voice

hamadryad

– a review of Papillon Perfumery Dryad

Once upon a time some long time ago, in a house on a hill, lived a little girl with her parents. Daddy left every morning for work, Mommy had other preoccupations, and the house was so isolated, she had no neighboring children to play with. What she did have was the wood that surrounded the house on either side, and the imagination to fill it, with characters she heard about through the stories her mother read to her. In the beginning, Teddy the Bear stood in for handsome princes from fairy tales, and Raggedy Ann for all the princesses in peril, and sometimes, she would recreate a favorite story of another little girl, who lived alone in a faraway land with a monkey called Herr Nilsson, and was strong enough to lift her own horse.

But soon, she discovered other characters – the animals who lived there. The birds chatting in the trees, the squirrels who would eye her in the autumn as they came down from the trees to search for acorns and hickory nuts before deciding she was no threat to them, searching onward for their winter stash. The crafty raccoons who stole leaf-wrapped peanut butter sandwiches when she wasn’t looking and sometimes ventured close enough to talk and make her laugh at their antics. The foxes that eyed her from a safe distance and carried on dancing with their cubs, barking when they ventured too far for safety.

Towering above them all the green canopy of trees; hickory, maple and birch, wild pear, cottonwood, fir, larch and oak. She would watch the sunlight through the leaves in spring as it found the forest floor, the motes of pollen whirling towards the sun, and notice how the greens shifted through the seasons; from the spring green of her favorite crayons, to the richer, darker greens of high summer and the inky greens of the fir trees, through to the crimsons, oranges and golds of autumn, when the wild pears offered up their fruit, with the tough, bitter skins hiding a juicy-sweet treat, and next, the trees stood bare and unadorned, sleeping like the black bears she would also sometimes see. But as time went on and the little girl grew, she chatted less and listened more.

For the trees were talking, to each other and sometimes, to her, in slow, sonorous rumbles and whispers on hot, sleepy summer afternoons, and in excited, proud rustles showing off their spring finery, in melancholy, sleepy sighs on blustery, rainy autumn days, and in the occasional creak and shift of roots as winter went its way.

They were alive, this she knew, knew it in her very bones, alive precisely as much as she herself, and because she welcomed them in with no reservations, they in their turn guarded her, as she brought flowers she picked and laid by their roots, and sang for them songs she knew to sing.

The wood was her joy and her refuge when Mommy told her ‘no’, when Daddy was away too long, when the world outside the wood was less than kind to imaginative little girls.

That little girl was me some very long time ago, in a small wood across the ocean and far away, from a time I thought I had forgotten.

Except I never did. To this day, the forest – these days, it’s the beeches that surround my town – always, but alwaysgives me joy. Today, we even have scientific proof of what that little girl always knew – trees do indeed communicate in highly sophisticated ways, if only we people would learn to listen.

In that winding, whirling way of memory and emotion, in ways not even I can entirely articulate, Papillon Perfumery’s Dryad took me back in an instant to that early childhood memory, to the happiness I always felt there, and to those unforgettable trees.

Whether through the strength of those memories, or simple inclination, I am a Green Fiend. These nearly nine years of perfume writing have expanded my tastes to an increasingly catholic degree, but somewhere near the bedrock of my soul, a green burns with an emerald fury, and will never, ever fade.

When Dryad was released in 2017, I sat up and took notice. I cursed the UK postal restrictions that initially meant I couldn’t try it, and cursed my impecunious circumstances that ruled out buying a sample from elsewhere. There was somethingabout Dryad, I knew it in my bones, something I needed, something I had been seeking forever and never entirely found.

Well, I thought, singing along with Mick Jagger. I couldn’t always get what I wanted, but I got what I needed.

Until that fateful day a wonderfully kind, generous Perfume Fairy, or else one of my patronesses Freyja or Danu whispered in her ear, decided I needed to try Dryad. It came about in a perfume group thread, and lo and behold, on my otherwise not-at-all-spectacular birthday (exit the Dude, who won’t be back), an envelope arrived, (also) containing a generous decant of Dryad.

In an instant, I was all of four again, listening to the songs of the trees.

The next day, I sampled it in earnest, sat down in a swoon on my chair, and cried, cried like I hadn’t since a tiny sample of vintage Vent Vert extrait also took me far away for other, far more grown-up reasons.

Vent Vert is all sharply delineated Parisian chic and chartreuse hope emerging after long, dark years.

Dryad is very different.

Galbanum – a resin used as incense and perfume for thousands of years – is a very difficult material to work it in perfume. It can turn bitchy and evil and monstrously green. It can be a top note, a base note or a through-and-through note. But it takes a breathtaking amount of skill to make it, as indeed it is here, numinous.

I could take you through the notes as they unfold, tell you of that effervescent, citrus-herbal opening song, tell you of its softly floral heart and an unexpected and delightful apricot kiss, I could tell you tales of jonquil, that soft, voluptuous sister of narcissus, tell you how its sweetly mossy drydown some many hours later lands you on a forest floor where nettles never sting, where ants never march and vetiver never growls. I could write of all of that, and it would not be, would never be enough. Galbanum is the heartbeat and the pulse of this perfume, and it is the end and the beginning of Dryad. Rendered as exquisitely as it is here, it is nearly my undoing.

For all my love of green perfumes, I know nothing in the slightest like Dryad. I own not a few; my beloved Chêne, Vent Vert, Bandit, Antonia, Chanel no. 19, Ivoire, vintage Lauren, the staggering vintage Jacomo Silences. Ever-greens all, and ever-loved.

They are not Dryad, are not so atavistic, nor so primal, never so wild nor so bewitching, so free or untamed.

It’s as if Liz Moores set out to capture – as indeed she did in both the name and the juice – the hamadryad, the guardian spirit of a particular tree, but not just any tree, nor just any passing dryad. This is a witchy, bottled Balanos, the spirit of an oak tree, and in that spirit are echoes of other trees in other times. In Dryad’s floral heart, she left a little of her own soul, and to my own surprise and ever-lasting wonder, I rediscovered not a little of my own.

Or as a favorite, ancient poet once wrote:

When the beech prospers

Through spells and litanies

The oak tops entangle

There is hope for the tree.

(from the Câdd Goddeu)

A viridian voice that sings: wearing this, there is even hope for me.

With thanks and profoundest gratitude to the super-generous Tora, who made these words possible. And to the ever-wondrous Liz Moores of Papillon, whose magick conjured them out.

Notes: Bergamot, galbanum, bitter orange, cedrat, clary sage, thyme, tarragon, jonquil, orange blossom, lavender, orris, costus, apricot, oakmoss, vetiver, benzoin, Peru balsam, styrax.

Papillon Perfumery Dryad is available as an eau de parfum (with 16+ hour longevity, no less, at least on me) at Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and Les Senteurs.

A Note To My Readers

daisybasset

– some thoughts on a neglected Spring

Dear Readers,

Here you are, all cosily settled, looking forward (or not?) to the next TAG review. So I’ll begin with the bad news.

My posting of reviews from this point on and until after June 20thwill be erratic. Circumstances beyond my control have meant that my favorite avoidance action in academia – namely writing perfume reviews, because by Golly, academic writing will be the death of me, and I need something to keep me (semi-)sane.

In September of 2017, I embarked on perhaps my most hazardous endeavor yet. I had been accepted at a nearby local teaching college to become a teacher of Danish, history and a few more things I haven’t decided yet. At this point in time – late May 2019, I’m nearly halfway through. I can’t believe it, either.

That being the case, I have my final bachelor-level exams in Danish starting Monday the 27thof May. On the 28th, I have my final written exam. On June 7th, I’ll have to hand in a ten-page paper on teaching Danish as a second language, and on June 20th, I have the whopper of all oral exams early that morning. Wish me luck, because my examinator – who has taught my class Danish these past four semesters and in so doing, revolutionized my approach to language – is known to be One Tough Cookie at the exam table.

What this means for you is that to the extent I’m able, I’ll still post, just not as frequently as I’d like. But you have a few things to look forward to.

Among them: reviews of Chypre-Sîam by Rogue Perfumery, Dryad by Papillon Perfumery, Niral by Neela Vermeire Crèations, Rêve d’Ossian by Oriza L. Legrand, and a perfume story of Portrayal Man and Woman by Amouage. I can’t recall I’ve been this excited or blown away by epic perfumes since roughly 2012. And I’m dying to find out where the words will take me.

What you’ll also have to look forward to: something new on TAG. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time, I just didn’t entirely believe my words were up to the task. I’m going to kick off a series of perfume ‘retrospectives’ – a look at some of the perfumers and/or creative directors who have inspired both this blog and its proprietress for a long, long time – and still do. I’ll be kicking off that series by the end of next week (after my written exams) with someone who has an oversized niche in my personal Pantheon of perfumery.

Stay tuned – wear perfume! – and wish me luck.

Love,

The Genie

The PushmipullyOud

bluepushmipullya

– a review of Amouage The Library Collection Opus XI

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but my mind is a strange place. I imagine all sorts of scenarios about perfume materials, not because I don’t like them, but because I wonder. A scenario like this one, for instance:

One day in the Neolithic era in a remote rainforest in tropical Asia, a tribe decided they needed a new canoe. So they managed to fell an aquilaria tree of just the right height, girth and shape, only to discover that the heartwood of the tree was diseased, attacked by a mould we know today as Phialphora parasitica. No matter. They scraped it out bit by bit, and threw chips of heartwood on the fire. Lo and behold, a fragrance unlike any other in the world rose with the smoke to the sky above.

Lo and behold, that otherworldly, haunting stuff we know today as agarwood, or more commonly in perfumery by its Arabic name oud was discovered.

Natural oud is not only one of the rarest and most costly of perfumery materials on the planet, it is also one of the most temperamental. There is no such thing as a consistent ‘oud’ odor profile.

Oud can be floral, fruity, intensely animalic, medicinal or indolic. (To put it mildly.) The quality varies from tree to tree, which takes the whole terroir discussion to a whole new level of complexity, depending on location, growing conditions, weather or type of aquilaria tree.

We have Indian oud, Malaysian oud, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian oud. They smell nothing alike in the slightest in a way even my oversized vocabulary struggles to describe.

It is so prohibitively expensive that it is also one of the most adulterated perfumery substances of all. Not so many years ago, we in the West wised up to what the peoples of the Middle East had known for thousands of years, and so oud – more ‘oud-a-like’ or synthetic than natural – became the material du jour, with every niche perfumery jumping on the trend bandwagon to release oud perfume A, B and Z in their hundreds. Due to the ever-increasing demand, aquilaria trees – and mainly, aquilaria malaccensisare now among the most endangered species of wood on Earth, and the price keeps moving in one direction: to the ionosphere, if not all the way out to the Kuiper Belt.

Efforts have been made to create aquilaria plantations, but the infections are not consistent, and the results are still somewhat inconclusive as to whether or not this will mean natural oud will be saved from extinction.

I for one won’t hold my breath. Of all that can and does go into the perfumes I love and adore, oud is without question the note I struggle with the most. Most pure ouds turn me an unfashionable shade of green as I head screaming for the hills to scrub and scrub and scrub, but I hasten to add that my experience has been rather limited.

Handled carefully, oud is a majestic Thing of Beauty. When I think of oud, I think of my own favorites containing oud: Aftelier’s breathtaking Oud Luban, my gateway oud, Neela Vermeire Créations Trayee with its numinous oud note, or Amouage Epic Woman, which especially in frosty weather takes many winding twists and turns towards the stupendous drydown to land on yet another supernatural oud, or the stellar discontinued Yves Saint Laurent M7, to name but four off the top of my head.

But generally speaking, I can’t stand the stuff.

Yes, I’m the Big Bad Oud Philistine. Feel free to throw eggs and tomatoes. No, I probably haven’t met the ‘right’ oud yet.

If I want barnyard, I know just where to go – a stable not too far from here with all the horse droppings and horses any horse-mad girl could ask for, never mind my own schoolgirl olfactory memories of mucking out the stables of the horses I took care of twice a day.

Animalic? Readers, I adore castoreum, labdanum and musk notes in perfumery. I also curated a spectacular perfume project that utilized all of those. Sexy does it.

I’ll be getting back to that one.

Which brings me to the latest from Amouage’s Library Collection, Opus XI.

Unlike the previous volumes VIII-X of the Library Collection, Opus XI slants emphatically masculine. Maybe I should have written that with a capital M, because quite frankly, my chest is far too lumpy and nowhere hirsute enough for Opus XI.

What I’ve long suspected about the Library Collection has since been confirmed by far better perfume writers than I – that in the creation of its volumes, Creative Director Christopher Chong gets to metaphorically let his hair down a little and play/experiment with perfumery ideas.

If the main and side collections of Amouage are the seven-movement polyphonic symphonies and four-act operas of the perfume world, the Library Collection perfumes are the sonatas and etudes, every single one of them made without sacrificing a nanometer of the ‘drop-dead haute couture-grade hand-woven, petits mains-embroidered silk brocade’ brand aesthetic of Amouage, which to my mind is no small accomplishment.

Even  – or perhaps especially – Opus XI.

Opus XI was created in collaboration with perfumer Pierre Negrin, and before I incriminate myself further, it’s really and utterly all about the oud, if nothing like what most perfumistas and all oud lovers associate with that word.

It contains what could be the shortest note list of any Amouage to date (which says something); marjoram, that polite, well-mannered cousin of oregano, oud both natural and synthetic, a Firmenich compound known as leatherwood which so far as I’m aware combines the best of both notes, and a sly, smoky styrax.

All told, it sounds rather simple. Yet Opus XI is one of the strangest and most confounding perfumes I’ve smelled to date, for reasons I’ll explain.

As stated before, I have Major Oud Issues. I’m the Big Bad Oud Philistine. You may as well just kill me now and be done with it.

For the first few seconds – and it’s only a few seconds – I get a violet vibe, as in the flower and the color. And then. And then, the oud comes roaring out of the gate. Not a barnyard, indolic oud, nor a floral, a fruity or even an animalic oud, but the scent of what could be the most exclusive, expensive band-aids money can possibly buy.

Billionaire band-aids.

In this case, it’s schizophrenic billionaire band-aids. Opus XI  is medicinal bordering on clinical, but the biggest surprise is the extraordinary tension between a silky-smooth natural oud and a synthetic, sharper, edgier oud where neither gives an inch to the other. Marjoram gilds these two with greener, fluffier outlines as time passes, but these two ouds are, to misquote Oscar Wilde, dueling to the death, and neither  will go. Not in the first five minutes, not in the first five hours, nor even in the first ten.

This is an Amouage. It stays the course.

Around the eleventh hour (see what I did there?), the billionaire band-aids sigh, if such a thing were possible, and shift, and leatherwood and that sly, smoky styrax slither in, adding a glossy sheen and lots of cohesion to those ouds that finally expire some time around the eighteen-hour mark.

If that sounds strange to you, it gets even stranger. Not so long ago when the Dude was still around, I rolled out my mastery of rhetoric to persuade him to try it on his (masculine, hirsute) skin. Mr. Ardent Fougère Lover was not easily persuaded. Had this been Bracken Man, I would have had to hide the bottle. But after about an hour of my most diabolical demonstration of logos, ethos and pathos to date, he finally caved in.

Willingly or not, his skin brought in that justly celebrated sexy oud. Make that Sexy Oud.  Somehow, some way, there was no tension and no duel to the death, just one of the smoothest, sexiest perfumes his skin had ever encountered, as indeed it has encountered quite a few.

Luckily, he had to leave, or he might not have survived. And just to set the record straight, he did not like it. At. All.

This Bactrian camel, on the other hand, could have walked several miles in hot, lascivious pursuit for a chance to sniff that Sexy Oud again.

Opus XI is, as I’ve written above, one of the most confounding perfumes I’ve sniffed this year. Like the exceedingly rare creature the pushmipullyou of Dr. Doolittle fame, it’s hard to determine if it even can move.

Which is why I call it the PushmipullyOud. A most exceedingly rare creature indeed.

Notes: Marjoram, oud, leatherwood, styrax.

Amouage The Library Collection Opus XI is available as a 50 ml eau de parfum directly from the Amouage website.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Amouage. This post was not sponsored, and my opinions are my own. With thanks to the Very August Personage.

Should your curiosity about oud be killing you, Ensar Oud comes highly recommended by some of the best noses I know.

The Color of Wonder

gadisarjaisalmersunrise

– a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele

In a day and age when mass transportation has made travel to anywhere on Earth not just possible, but attainable, imagination has to fill in the spaces for when travel meant not just adventure and opportunity, but also danger. Most people never left the villages and towns where they were born and raised.

Ships could sink in a storm, caravans could be robbed by thieves, and at every turn, hostile natives or malevolent bugs large and small could lay waiting for the unwary.

Yet human curiosity burned bright and hot enough to send the intrepid Magellan and Sir Francis Drake around the world, caravans traversed the Silk Road from west to east and back again, and everywhere ‘elsewhere’ great discoveries awaited; revolutionary ideas, marvelous merchandise, peoples, faiths and histories without number.

The lucky ones who returned with tales of faraway, fabled places set the European imagination alight with their stories of unimaginable splendor, unfathomable wealth, and ancient, sophisticated civilizations vastly different than their own.

Three fearless Frenchmen, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a jeweler and merchant, François Bernier, a physician and Jean de Thévenot, a linguist and botanist, all of who lived to return to France and tell their tales, set off at the behest of first Cardinal Richelieu and later Louis XIV himself, to find themselves in that fabled land that fanned the tallest flames and tales of all: India.

Like all true travelers everywhere, their own lives would be forever changed, and they themselves would change others’ lives as well, not least through their published stories of their travels, which were translated into several languages and lit up the imaginations of generations of armchair-traveling Europeans to come. At different times in their lives, the paths of all three men crossed. De Thévenot and Tavernier hoped to travel overland together from Isfahan in Persia to India, and Bernier and Tavernier met in India.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier was the Harry Winston of his day, buying and selling gems as well as Persian and Indian textiles. He became especially famous for bringing home the ‘French Blue’ diamond, a centerpiece of the French crown jewels, before it disappeared in 1791, only to reappear recut in 1830 as the diamond we know today as the Hope diamond.

François Bernier went to India to become first the court physician to Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal, and later, to Dara Shikoh’s younger brother and successor Aurangzeb and the Mughal court. In an age where there were very few reliable travelogues to the Orient, his Travels In the Mughal Empire, based in part on accounts of officials at the Mughal court as well as his own first-hand observations, became a European sensation. Bernier also became the first – and for a long time, the only – European to travel to Kashmir.

Jean De Thévenot, an independently wealthy scholar and linguist fluent in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, also published his own travelogues, as well as making considerable contributions to botany through his travels, observations and botanical collections through India in 1667-8.

These three gentlemen and the stories they wrote of their travels became the inspiration for Neela Vermeire’s 2016 release Rahele, the Persian word for ‘traveler’, yet Rahele has a twist in its tale. Here, you’ll find no associations of ‘East-meets-West’ so much as ‘West-meets-East’, with an open mind and an absolutely marvelous sense of wonder.

Often, our associations of the Mughal Empire are somewhat, well, tainted by Victorian-era letters and books, written from that lethally close-minded Victorian (and imperialist) viewpoint, which sadly makes us forget that in Tavernier, Bernier and de Thévenots day in the 17thcentury, attitudes towards other cultures and perhaps Mughal India in particular were very different and far more open. Believe it or not, this expansiveness is very much reflected in Rahele the perfume.

As always, Rahele was created in that flawless pas-de-deux of Neela Vermeire with the perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. Six peerless perfumes later, it becomes very clear that Neela Vermeire knows precisely how to push the justly celebrated M. Duchaufour’s work higher and farther than it has ever been before. She has never compromised on her creative visions of what she wants her perfumes to embody, always held out for the best and most elevated concept of her exquisitely articulate ideas, and Duchaufour has shown an uncanny and profound understanding of precisely what it takes to get both of them there in essence and absolute.

Rahele – the Traveler – speaks to the adventurer in all of us, even those of us who can’t travel beyond our armchairs. We are all of us on the road to somewhere, but Rahele reminds me of a description of the Tarot trump The Chariot – travel in luxurious circumstances. And such a journey lies ahead …

From its beginnings, Rahele is a chypre born and bred, that most uniquely perfume-y of all perfume families, and in my chypre-biased opinion the most difficult to execute. Rahele opens big, spicy and jungle green, with its unmistakeable Duchaufour cardamom and a grassy violet leaf and green mandarin kick that tells you you’re definitely not anything near the Paris of the seventeenth century.

This is a wonder of a very different order, everywhere apparent in Rahele’s floral heart. Osmanthus takes center stage, but this is not your usual osmanthus of apricot and leather, this is an altogether grander bloom. This is an osmanthus veiled, kholed and bejeweled with its intimations of rose, violet, jasmine and a lemon velvet magnolia to tame osmanthus’ fruity sweetness and make it stay the course.

Some long time later, well before osmanthus has overstayed its welcome, a deep, silken cloud of cedar and sandalwood – if not Mysore, which it could be, then some alchemical sleight of hand that achieves the precise same effect, with glove leather and sotto voce whispers of patchouli and oakmoss.

I’m reminded of a pivotal moment in another context, when I realized that the inlaid flowers of the Taj Mahal are made of precious stones set in white marble, and the world was never quite the same again. Rahele has that same effect; its flowers embroidered in liquid to bloom forevermore.

The overall effect is the perfume equivalent of the embroidered muslin pantaloons worn by the ladies of the Mughal court; sophisticated, beautiful, as opulent as silk brocade yet  as transparent as gauze.

Like all Vermeires, it lasts a surprisingly long time – I get at least 8+ hours, but Rahele’s sillage wears close to the skin after the first hour or so, and will not overwhelm either your own nose or your surroundings.

I found myself dreaming often about those three Frenchman wearing Rahele. Thinking of what it must have been like to experience that jaw-dropping awe in the face of the Mughal reality, when suddenly, the world – or rather, their understanding of what ‘the world’ encompassed – grew and grew like some revelatory Rajasthani sunrise, broader and far richer in all senses of the word than anything they ever knew in the Sun King’s realm.

Call Rahele  the color of wonder. And call yourself lucky to exist in a world where such marvels may still be discovered.

Notes: Green mandarin, cardamom, cinnamon, violet leaf, osmanthus, rose, magnolia, jasmine, iris, violet, cedar, sandalwood, oakmoss, patchouli, leather

Disclosure: A sample was kindly provided for review by Neela Vermeire. For which I thank her from the bottom of my heart. My opinions are my own, and no posts on the Alembicated Genie are ever sponsored.

Neela Vermeire Créations Rahele is available as an eau de parfum at LuckyscentFirst in Fragrance and directly from Neela Vermeire Crèations.

How To Be A Perfume Writer

GerhardterBorchWomanwLetter

 – some thoughts on returning to the fray

All my life, I’ve always been considered a bit … strange. Whether caused by an early childhood playing alone with my teddy bear and a rusty tin can in a cemetery among the headstones, or evolving into the dreamy, geeky, bookworm teenager I later became, never mind the pint-sized over-the-hill irrelevance I am now, weird has always been my unofficial middle name.

Yet nothing – and I do mean nothing – shuts people up faster when they ask about what I do, and I tell them among other things that I’ve been writing about perfumes these 8+ years and counting. A l-o-n-g pause ensues. Next thing I know, the punch line arrives.

“Why?”

Well …

And if not why, they ask me how.

I’m never sure what to reply to that question, either.

I just do it.

Meanwhile, erudite seminars are held at EsXence in Milan on the language of perfume, hosted by none other than the eminent Michael Edwards. Also meanwhile, scores of people who have never attended any expensive seminars on perfume writing in their lives (or if they have, they’re very discreet!), are posting YouTube reviews or comments on those reviews, or writing reviews for perfume blogs, or perfume books, or writing about perfume on one or another of the many perfume groups on Facebook, sharing their experiences with perfume A, B or Z.

Perfume nutcases/people are strange. Strange for no other reason than they’re trying – and sometimes failing – to articulate what to all intents and purposes is a wordless art. Our sense of smell is one of the most rudimentary and in evolutionary terms one of the oldest of our sensorial input methods, and for that reason, olfactory impressions bypass the cerebral cortex – home to abstract thinking, logic and other hazards to our sanity – entirely and head straight for the hippocampus, the gateway to memory.

In less time than it takes to type this sentence, we are mid-memory and in the grip of an emotional response, and this, boys and girls, is the essence of the invisible, indelible art that is … perfume.

Back to the why

Why do I write about perfume? Once upon a time, I was so destitute, I had no perfume at all. By which I mean – no perfume. At all. For someone who throughout her adult life always had at least five in regular rotation, this was akin to torture. Soap and water are all fine and dandy thank you, but not being able to establish a presence (by which I’m not referring to sillage, but simply presence) when I already felt increasingly invisible, was a horror I couldn’t handle.

So as a cruel exercise in contemplation, I landed myself on Makeupalley one day by accident, ca. 2003. It blew my mind. People were discussing perfumes I had never heard of, from brands I’d never heard of, in ways I had never imagined.

Top notes? Heart notes? Drydown? Had someone been messing with the English language?

When the first perfume blogs arrived ca. 2006-2007, I set about educating myself with everything I didn’t know. Materials, evolution, perfumers, perfumes, perfume families (thank you, Michael Edwards!) – something in my own brain was coalescing as I read. But I wasn’t quite there yet.

‘There’ arrived on the night of August 5th, 2010, at about 2 AM. I was still reading perfume blogs. I was also fast approaching the finish line of my first finished novel, and I needed a break from my subject matter, something with an aesthetic dimension, something, well, girly.

That night, after the third glass of white zinfandel, or it could have been the fifth, I thought, well, I could always start a perfume blog. Just for me. As a writing exercise. Before I went to bed, I had emptied the wine bottle, signed up for Blogspot, created a blog called Scent Less Sensibilities and called it a day.

By that time, thanks to my then mother-in-law (and fellow Taurus), who got my desperation, bless her forever, I owned three perfumes. They were Balmain Ivoire, Lancôme’s Magie Noire, and Caron’s Bellodgia, all hunted down by me at online perfume discounters for bottom basement budget prices for several birthdays and Christmases in a row.

My first review was Ivoire. I tried to write a straight-up, non-interpretive review, really, I did. Except I didn’t.

For lo and behold, someone in the ether had found my writing exercise, liked what they read, and left a comment. (Those were the days when people commented!) A comment stating something about ‘my unique voice’.

Whaddaya know, I did become a better writer. I learned by observation from the best of the best: Ida Meister of Cafleurebon, Lucy of Indieperfume, Elena Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine, Angela, Beth and Donna of Now Smell This, and the beyond wonderful, irreverent Perfume Posse, all of whom brightened my far less than happy existence.

I learned about pacing, about writing things out, about trusting my instincts and my voice. I learned to edit and pare things down in ways that are still with me to this day.

More than anything else, above the writing exercise/girly outlet/aesthetic dimension, I wrote about perfume to give myself some micro-degree of success. From 2010-2013, my life went from not-great to smoking ruins. I was too “old” to be hired anywhere, too over-qualified for the jobs I could get, and likely just too outright weird. I had no social life, no friends, and very little family.

Suddenly, I found community, commonality, and dare I write this – virtual friendships, too. I could scarcely believe my luck.

In April of 2019 with The Alembicated Genie, I still can’t.

Listen up, padawan

That’s me. Maybe you’re the one who thinks this could be something you could do. While I can’t tell you anything about your particular ‘why/how’, I can tell you something about writing.

Writing is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the better you get. Anyone can learn to be more articulate and precise in their writing. Which, I hasten to add, is not at all the same as saying that if you do it long enough, you’ll turn into the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the perfume world.

Anyone can learn to write, yes, but not everyone will do so equally well. Some people are articulate in person, while others need to think things through. It follows that having a certain degree of eloquence helps, as well as access to a good thesaurus. I use the Oxford online thesaurus, but you may prefer something else.

Like any other creative human endeavor, talent also enters the equation. Everyone can write – or learn to do so – but some people have an aptitude for language, and some don’t. Yet talent matters not at all unless you keep at it. That’s what gets you noticed. Consistent effort over time. The End.

Nuts and bolts

Still there? Now, we’re at the part that separates the wannabes from the survivors. First that maxim stated above: consistent effort over time. I’m not kidding. Second, if not in terms of importance:

The prose.

Generally speaking, perfume writing tends to land in one of two categories. There are the straight-up reviews.

This is what perfume X, Y or Z smells like, these are the notes and how it develops, this is what I think.

In other words, the kind of reviews I wish I could write, but can’t. I know, because I’ve died numerous agonizing deaths trying to do just that, and my twisted brain has other ideas. My admiration for those who can is boundless.

Remember, experiencing a perfume is a wordless act. Here you are, tearing your hair out, trying to communicate a sensory experience in words. A bloody thankless task, if you ask me. As they say in book publishing: if everyone could write a novel, they would. Yet relatively few people do. By the same token, not everyone who writes about perfume will do so equally well.

Then, there are those other perfume writers. I count myself – vain as I am – in this second category. They are usually of a literary persuasion, meaning they read, they keep informed, and have a laser-sharp eye for the well-turned phrase, the polished metaphor, the rhythm and flow of words. They use their knowledge from other culture-vulture areas for their reviews; art, history, music, literature. Given that our vocabulary in describing perfumes is severely limited, we resort to metaphor and simile, tricks of rhetoric and semiotics to get the point across, provided we even succeed. You have to be aware that when you write about perfume, you won’t always get it right. Put another way, sometimes a review will state everything you wanted to say, and sometimes, it won’t matter what you do. You still feel as if you’re falling at the fences if not being catapulted straight across them (to use a show-jumping metaphor). That’s OK, too.

I became notorious for turning perfume reviews into literature. Instead of writing a review, I’ve written a short story, a whole, short, self-contained world, to better convey my impressions of a perfume. Sometimes, that approach worked. Sometimes, it didn’t, usually when I neglected to trust my own instincts, or simply tried to force a story when I should have settled for an ‘ordinary’ (my version) review. Don’t forget, I’m also a novelist, and everything and everyone is grist for that literary mill, even – or perhaps especially – perfume. Jean-Paul Guerlain, who once famously stated that perfume is liquid literature, would be thrilled. Those reviews are my personal favorites and among my best writing anywhere, and I’d give my eyeteeth for a chance to turn them into a book of their own. One day, I will.

The YouTube conundrum

What if you’re one of those people who don’t like to read? (And read. And read.) Or for whom the idea of banging out 2000 words on latest release A, B or Z causes a) bad memories of school assignments and b) severe orthographical and/or grammatical anxiety?

Perhaps your personality is so naturally gregarious, charming and extrovert, you could become a YouTube reviewer?

Well, you’re going to need to invest in a better camera than your laptop, some good ambient lighting and a proper microphone, to start. You’ll need to become familiar with video editing software. In television production, a rule of thumb is one minute on screen equals one hour of work. Put another way: a five minute video is five hours of work. In comparison, I usually spend between two to four hours on a review, but a few have taken me up to a calendar month to write.

And above all things else, it helps heaps to have some general ideas of what you’re going to say beforehand. So you’ll also have that to consider. There’s nothing wrong with ad-libbing or spontaneity, but you’ll likely soon discover that what looks easy, spontaneous or natural on screen in reality is anything but.

I have an exceedingly low opinion of most – but not all – YouTube perfume reviews. I find them repetitive, lacking in imagination and often redundant. Nine out of ten bore me to tears, but there are definite exceptions. Who knows? You yourself might even become one of them.

The Social in Media

Writing a post/uploading a video is just the first step. You’ll have to do research on the brand, on the perfumer (presuming one is named, and they aren’t always), on the inspirations behind the perfume. For a written review, you might need an illustration or photo. You might need to invest in your own unique domain name, web hosting, plug-ins. You should think about reading up on other reviews of the same perfume to check your impressions against others’. Not because it will influence your own review, but because other people will often have a perspective that might help your own.

Should you be so vainglorious you want hits or views – as indeed most of us do – then the single most important thing you can do for your blog/vlog is establish a presence. And for that, you’ll need social media, a terminal case of what I call the fuckits, and a complete lack of shyness in tooting your own horn without being obnoxious about it.

So from the top …

Comment on your favorite blogs/vlogs. Nothing delights a reviewer faster. I lurked on all my own favorites for years before I ventured to comment, and that didn’t happen until I realized no one is expecting you to be 100% brilliant. Just be yourself. State what you appreciated, what stokes your curiosity, where you disagree – or not. This is called engagement, and engagement is (also) how you get a reputation for your reviews.

Do not, no matter how desperate, bludgeon your audience over your head by promoting your blog all the time, or even half the time you’re interacting on social media. Most people usually get it the first time. Leave it at that.

Courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

It’s that simple.

Next, you’ll need Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Post links to your blog/vlog to your FB profile, tweet about it, post your illustration on Instagram, and tag everyone relevant to your post. (This is reputation building, step two) This means following brands on FB, Twitter and Instagram, interacting with them, and tagging/hashtagging everything you possibly can. Join a few perfume groups on FB, and participate in the discussions you find there. Have Twitter conversations with perfume people. Again: courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

You will guaranteed encounter a brand that ignores you, if it’s even aware you exist to begin with, no matter how frequently you tag/hashtag them. This could be caused by that brand being narrow-minded (you’re not influential enough/you don’t have a big enough presence, followers or enough engagement, say), but could also be caused by your particular review not being ‘right’ for that brand – they can’t use it for marketing purposes. That is their prerogative to choose, not yours. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s them. Move on.

The Good Ship Relation

My inbox, meaning my email/Messenger/DM, blows me away on a daily basis. Many of the most touted/celebrated/platinum-coated-with-pavé-pink-diamonds/award-winning names in perfumery can be found in it, not because I’m so bloody bleeping fabulous, but because I’m a fellow human being and relate to them as such.

In writing about perfume, you are building relationships with the brands you review whether you realize it or not. Again – courtesy, gratitude and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing, and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t. Neither does indiscretion. You might be given access to privileged information, snark on other reviewers or super-juicy industry gossip. This will be a test of whether or not you can be trusted to be professional. So your reputation among brands – and trust me, if you keep it up, you’ll get there – will also be based on your ability to keep your mouth/keyboard shut when appropriate. Pick your battles wisely. Nurture your relationships with those people. You might be surprised at what you discover; friendships, common ground or interests, a shared sense of the ridiculous. Even a life-long friend or two. Or forty.

Brands are not the only place to establish relationships. Share your love of other blogs/vlogs. Send an email/comment/PM/DM to those colleagues you appreciate. Link to them. Social media is often predicated on the principle of mutual back-scratching. They might – and often do – the same for you.

Which brings me to …

The (not so) free lunch

If you’re venturing into perfume reviewing for ‘free’ bottles or samples – since many bloggers/vloggers review new releases – Stop. Right. There.

Walk away. This business is NOT for you.

First of all, there’s never, never, never ever any such thing as a free lunch. If a brand offers to send you samples or bottles (as opposed to you outright asking for them, or worse, demanding them), bet your vintage no. 5 extrait they want some bang for their buck. And no samples arrive without strings – a sliver of hope for a review at the least.

Those samples represent a substantial investment and cost, in terms of shipping, the man hours required for decanting, packaging, postage etc compounded to whatever costs the brand have in raw materials, research, marketing (when applicable), bottles (which are expensive) and perfume development. Should they offer you samples, it will be due to two things: a) they’re interested in your particular perspective, aka. The Best Case Scenario or b) they’re just shooting samples at any blogger/vlogger who moves because they have a new release and they need the PR. Option a) is something you will have earned by your consistency, your reliability, your discretion and your professionalism.

But it must be earned.

I’ve been alarmed by stories – yes, by perfume brands you know and love – of bloggers contacting brands and demanding full bottles for reviews. Should you be or become one of those, you will be ignored and deplored. The perfume industry is relatively small, the niche/indie part is even smaller, and word will and often does get around.

Think about it.

Likewise, bloggers attending industry events such as EsXence or Pitti Fragranze have been handing out price lists. Want a review? It will cost you XXX€.

If that’s your thing, by all means go for it. Just be aware that if you choose that option, in effect that brand is hiring you for PR. You may be fine with that.

call it corporate whoring.

Having said that, quite a few perfume bloggers have written copy for brands in other contexts and places. Even me. Yet when I have, I’ve done so under my real name and not as The Alembicated Genie. You’ll find not one sponsored post on this blog.

Not one.

One option is to buy your own samples. I’ve done this on a few occasions and never regretted it. For one, it demonstrates a definite interest in the brand and a commitment in cash. For another, it’s marvelous for keeping reviews honest. And lastly, it frees you from all commercial interests and agendas, to write what you choose.

Should I choose to review a perfume, you can be assured it’s for one reason only: to provide my own perspective. Period.

As an EU citizen, I’m not required to give disclosure for review samples, but a large part of my readership is international, so I always do.

On very rare occasions, I’ve been gifted with bottles. Notice the ‘gift’. Those bottles are considered and given in the spirit of appreciation and respect, and treasured accordingly. My entire current income is a student grant which is barely enough to live on, never mind buy perfume with. The irony of my perfume blog’s existence is that I can’t afford to buy what I review at all.

It happens I fall in love with something utterly beautiful, only to wail in despair once the sample goes. Two examples that come to mind are Palissandre d’Or and Sunshine Man. Notice they haven’t been reviewed, for no other reason than I’ve literally loved them to death, fumes and micro-droplets, and it was painful to see them go. Two hundred+  euros is my entire food budget for a (good) month, and I need to eat more than I need perfume, alas. So those ‘free’ bottles – which are actually earned the hard way, by writing and writing and writing about perfume – are treasures beyond rubies and emeralds. They shall never be sold, provide huge amounts of goodwill and heartfelt gratitude but will be drained to the last drop. While thinking fragrant, warm and fuzzy thoughts about the people who sent them. Because those incredibly kind and utterly generous people are worth it, and wonder of wonders, they thought I was, too.

Danger Zone

Some long time ago, a super-famous (and super-smart) feminist writer once wrote an essay about the dearth, comparatively speaking, of women artists. She had grown tired of all those who airily dismissed them as being afraid of failing. As she saw it, it wasn’t so much the fear of failing that held women back as artists, but the fear of judgment.

Things may have changed in countless ways since that essay was written in the 1970s. I’d say that they certainly have. Yet I would also say that she was right then, and right now.

Put your neck out, state your case, have an opinion, by all means. Just be prepared to be judged and found wanting. Since the advent of internet anonymity, any Jane or Joe Schmo can castigate anyone at all for any reason at all – real or perceived. They have nothing to contribute except their own negativity, and take it from me – that’s no way to live.

We call them trolls. They’re out there, and they are out to get you. Be prepared to stand your ground if you have to, and should you walk this perilous path of perfume reviewing, you will have to.

A few years ago, I received so much vitriol for my reviews I almost gave up writing. But that would mean they won.

Enter the terminal case of fuckits. Do it anyway if you dare, and this enormous post hasn’t completely discouraged you.

I see plenty of room in the perfume community for whatever type of reviews you choose. One form is no better than any other. Each has its own merits and drawbacks, and more to the point, each and every writer on this planet has his or her own unique voice. With just a little practice, that voice will out. Let it.

With super-special thanks to Margo and Liz for the spirited FB discussion that inspired this post.

Painting: Gerhard ter Borch, Woman Writing A Letter (1655)