Monday, January 21, 2008

What We Talk about When We Talk about Perfume

I write about perfume. Every morning, I pull out a little vial of something or other, dab it on my wrists and elsewhere, and go out into the world. I come home at night, look up the notes, and dab on a bit more perfume to refresh my understanding of the top notes and development. Then, I write.

I am not a nose. I have no formal training in perfumery. I have never sold perfume. I am a woman who found a perfume blog (Now Smell This) one fine April day in 2006. Not to be too dramatic about it, but that blog changed my life. For one thing, until I found that blog, I, like most people (I suspect), knew nothing about the world of niche perfume. Within a matter of weeks, I'd ordered my first samples online (Ormonde Jayne) and worked up the courage to go into Sephora and ask them to decant some things I wanted to try at home. I had not one clue what I was doing, really, but it seemed important somehow. I wanted to smell everything. I wanted to know scents firsthand.

A few more sample orders and trips to Sephora later, I started a journal. I diligently copied notes and described my impressions. One day, my husband suggested I start a blog. Now, at this point, I'd followed all the links off Now Smell This to other perfume blogs, and followed the links on those blogs to even more perfume blogs, so I knew the world (at least online) hardly lacked for conversation about perfume. But I was so unbelievably eager to share what I was learning, to tell people about my impressions and to hear about theirs, I decided, why not?

And so I started Sweet Diva. As far as writing reviews (although I adamantly refused to call them reviews, because that seemed to imply I held some level of expertise), in a way, it wasn't all that difficult. Like anything else around which a culture evolves, perfume has its own language. I don't mean vocabulary or terminology, but its own style. Click around and see. We speak a language of metaphor: colors, nature, movie stars, heroes and heroines from books, cities, works of art. I essentially tried to write like everyone else, use the language they used. And, more importantly, I tried to agree with everyone else. I was sort of crushed when I learned people didn't like what I liked, because I thought it meant I had bad taste, that I had no business writing about perfume, let alone sniffing it.

I remember distinctly writing a positive post about Nuit Noire, thinking it was one of the most elegant things I had ever smelled, only to read a poor review of it on a blog I trusted. I wanted to pick up my toys and go home, but I stayed. And as I stayed, as I kept writing, I developed. My nose developed, my writing developed, and I like to think I developed a sort of voice of my own.

In my post on The Language of Perfume, I don't believe I got my point across clearly. Simply, I was trying to say that the terminology we have to talk about perfume can be inadequate. It seems a chypre is not always a chypre, or else it is. And that's why we DO need lists of notes, we DO need metaphorical descriptions, we DO need stories and memories that compel us to try these perfumes. Some combination of all of these is required. But experience is also an important factor, because the more you sniff, the more you understand the lists, the metaphors, the fact, these become more compelling, more meaningful. We should not try to develop or enforce a rigid vocabulary, because it will fail us. In his comment to me, Michael used the terrific example of Coke. If he says something smells like Coke, I know what that means. Except I am from the South, where "coke" is interchangeable with "soda." You say, "It smells like Coke," and I could very well be thinking of Diet Coke or RC Cola. Or maybe I think you mean something sweet and fizzy. It requires the speaker and the audience to have a mutual understanding of the term. This is hard to pin down when so many variants exist.

As for the experience part, I simply meant to say to beginners, do not be shy or afraid, and don't feel inadequate if your nose tells you something other than what you read. Your impressions may or may not change, but reading about perfume and thinking you know it is like reading about travel without ever getting off the sofa. You have some idea, some understanding, but always the picture is what someone else has tried to show you. I think all beginners should sniff and write down what they think without worrying about what language they should use. First things first. The words will come.