This is an extract from Perfume, a new book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.
It is far from easy to gift someone a perfume. There are two main ways of doing it and both of them are terrible. One way is to buy another bottle of whatever that special someone already has at home. Simply refilling a person’s stash is insufficient as a gift because the message is only that one has paid attention, not that one has been thoughtful or creative. There’s no connectivity implicit in the gesture; it’s merely replicative of the special someone’s fragrant status quo. One may as well be picking up toilet paper or a dozen eggs. Sometimes it’s nice to have an errand taken care of and sure, sometimes a little show of attention is enough of a gift, especially if one has been otherwise negligent recently.
But this kind of gifting also sits on a slippery slope to the clearly awful mode of annual perfume gifting, in which one continually re-ups the scent stash so that the special someone comes to expect and even rely upon the yearly perfume gift. At that point, not only is there no real sense of connection between the two parties, but the special someone is increasingly constrained by the pile up of one bottle so that there’s no space remaining for joy or surprise in experimenting or growing. Best to let people stock their own supply of a favorite or a trusted stand-by as needed. The little show of attention implicit in stocking it for them is outweighed by the likelihood of smothering them with it.
The second way is to go to the department store and ask a smiling face with a name tag to please help. More often than not, this is a ten-minute activity. One might state the occasion for the gift, and perhaps the gender expression and occupation of the special someone. Perhaps also name the daily perfume they wear. Then the salesperson will point out two or three bottles and spray them on blotter paper for sniffing. Usually there is light chatter about these bottles being very popular this season, or timeless classics maybe by brands one recognizes. One buys the scent one instinctively likes the most and so leaves the store feeling good about having spent a little time to be thoughtful, to seek some guidance even if it has been quite loose and uninvested.
In this case, we have thoughtfulness divorced from attentiveness. One has given over the process of thinking to the salesperson, who is by nature without any real regard for the special someone. The salesperson is necessary to assist those who are unstudied in how to choose such a gift, but the short duration of the deliberation is a clue to how inadequate this method is. Unless one has stumbled up to the fragrance counter to find a very energetic and deeply caring person behind it, the resultant gift will empty one’s pockets without filling up the heart of the special someone. It’s the difference between sales and customer service. For two people to find a fragrance that stands a good chance of being suitable to a third, absent person, allot at least an hour.
One should be peppered with questions to give as full a portrait of the special someone as possible because the resultant gift reveals itself through a combination of attention to their unique attributes and thoughtfulness about one’s own connection to them. This is regardless of the extent to which the special someone knows anything about perfumery, and is perhaps especially true if they actually don’t know anything about it. If the gift is to be a perfume, the giver must be able to explain why this particular bottle was deemed worthy— both suitable and exciting—of the special someone. They can learn about it together and then share in the experience of the special someone wearing it. The feeling of accomplishment in gifting a perfume is located there, in the production of that kind of connectivity, not in the simple satisfaction of plunking the gift box on the table when one gets home.
About Object Lessons: Perfume
Our sense of smell is crucial to our survival. We can smell fear, disease, food. Fragrance is also entertainment. We can smell an expensive bottle of perfume at a high-end department store. Perhaps it reminds us of our favorite aunt. A memory in a bottle is a powerful thing.
Megan Volpert’s Perfume carefully balances the artistry with the science of perfume. The science takes us into the neurology of scent receptors, how taste is mostly smell, the biology of illnesses that impact scent sense, and the chemistry of making and copying perfume. The artistry of perfume involves the five scent families and symbolism, subjectivity in perfume preference, perfume marketing strategies, iconic scents and perfumers, why the industry is so secretive, and Volpert’s own experiments with making perfume.
The book is available now, published by Bloomsbury