Perfume Interview with Judith of Unseen Censer, Part I

August’s interview is with the perfumista Judith of the fragrance blog Unseen Censer.  Not only is Judith discriminating and witty, she is generous – when I asked her for some perfume recommendations, she sent me some samples that blew me away and opened my “nose” to what perfume could be. I’ve known for years how wonderful she is. You’re just meeting her, so here are three of her blog posts to get you better acquainted:

I asked her, “What do you want to tell the world?” as her last question. But her response was so vivid and important that I am moving it up. Because if you only read one thing she has to say, it is this.

I’m reading The Emperor of Scent (fascinating book about Luca Turin, who wrote Perfumes: The Guide, and also by Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic), and one of Turin’s observations really struck me.

Whenever he starts talking about perfume, people start laughing or tittering or smiling or squirming – they’re *embarrassed*. There’s something about scent that is bodied. People today, at least in America, are embarrassed that things ever do smell, much less that their bodies would smell, even if they smell good.

This is an appalling state of affairs. Embrace scent and you embrace the physical. That is a powerful feminist message. Be polite in your enjoyment of scent but never be ashamed. With or without perfume, you smell good; and much of the world smells good, and you should enjoy your sense of smell.

Vintage Diorisimo

Judith put together this montage of a favorite vintage bottle and, “The photos are of my great-great aunt Tessa and my great-grandmother Retta. Aren’t they beautiful?”

This interview is split into two parts. Today is Part I. Behind the cut, her perfume story, attending grand-scale perfume events in NYC, the ethics of buying online vs. buying at the store counter,  thoughts on perfume and New Zealand, men and perfume, and, oh, tons more.

New Zealand has only recently started to get into perfume culture. For many people here perfume is something you pick up at the duty-free at the airport, not something with an artisanal history….How did you get “into” perfumes? What was your perfume discovery process?

I think there’s a novel in this. Every fumehead has his or her own story. I could tell you about the Love’s Baby Soft and Jean Nate I loved in high school, or smelling my grandmother’s Giorgio and a remnant of what I now realize was probably Chanel No. 5, but those would just be the beginnings of what’s been a very long slow curve that took off sharply around 2008. I can tell you it was Donna Karan Gold that turned me into a massive die-hard. I don’t remember why I bought it, but I loved it unreasonable amounts – and it was immediately discontinued. In researching to find some  other lily scents I might like as much, I stumbled into Now Smell This  – and that was the end of that.

Groovy bottle of DK Gold
And how many perfumes do you have as bottles and samples? It’s a pretty substantial collection, yes?

I keep a spreadsheet online so I don’t duplicate purchases, and currently there are 753 things in it exactly. But a huge number of those are samples. 113 of them are marked as “full bottles” but that’s not exact, because I have a number of small 5 ml oil perfumes, for instance, that really are full bottles from that particular  vendor- and some of the full bottles are also partly empty, acquired in swaps. I also have some “backup bottles” of particular  favorites, and purse or minis of things I like to carry in my purse. It would be fair to say I have “A Lot.”

Part of "a lot"

Some of the perfume samples you’ve sent me have literally blown my mind. When I sniffed By Kilian’s “Back to Black” I heard Barry White start to sing and a disco ball descended from the ceiling. Have you ever have that experience?

Not that one, no, though that sounds like fun! I’ve had memories come bubbling up immediately – I knew I’d smelled Chanel No. 5 in my grandmother’s bathroom because sniffing it, I was transported there immediately. Usually my response to perfume is entirely emotional. When I sniffed “Back to Black”, for instance, my thoughts primarily consisted of “Oh. Oh my. Oh yes. Yes indeed. YES. Oh my darling, where have you been all my life?” Eventually I calm down enough to break it down and realize that honey and tobacco are two things I love, love, love together. But my experience of a perfume – especially one I really love – is a lot morelike first-time sex than like an immersive movie.

Whew! You live near one of the global epicenters of fashion and glamour, New York City, and you get to go to great perfume events like Sniffapalooza. What happens when you go to one of these events?

The first time, I was nervous for months – literally months – before I went. I planned my outfit down to the last smidgen – I bought a new purse. I so wanted to make a good impression. And then right before Sniffapalooza, Jean-Paul Guerlain made his absolutely indefensible racist remarks on television, and a lot of the perfumistas I was reading on the boards rushed to defend him. And then I felt rather defensive, thinking, “If these are the people I was hoping to impress, I couldn’t care less now what they think of me!” The reality was far less extreme. There are all kinds of perfumistas at a Sniffa event, everything from very expensive, well-groomed young women looking for a scent to make  them more chic than the next person, to working women who’ve scraped together the money for the event because they just can’t imagine anything better than getting to find out about all the newest perfumes. It’s quite a mix and everyone has at least one thing in common so it’s actually very sociable. And grabbing other people’s arms and smelling them is completely and totally acceptable!

We go from store to store, and the stores are incredibly kind to us, and we get to see the newest products, we are gifted with a lot of samples, we get to mix and mingle and sniff things, and we buy. A lot. Some of the stores get quite cramped with all of us in there shopping. The two lovely women named Karen who run Sniffapalooza do an incredible amount of work to get us great speakers, great stores to host us, great deals, even great food. And the speakers and the stores are usually dying to have us, because we are a valuable demographic – the rare person who buys more than one bottle of perfume a year!

Most of the stores offer discounts if you buy on Sniffapalooza day. Enfleurage on Bleeker Street gave us frankincense and rose flavored ice cream the owner herself had made for us! And we eat lunch together and listen to presentations, often from great creators of perfumes, and discuss… well, usually, perfumes, though other topics occasionally come up. One learns an incredible amount about perfume from the other participants. I’d be happy to just sit and talk with them all day!

I’m not generally a fan of New York but my husband points out that living here makes it easy to take advantage of special events like Sniffapalooza. And that is 100% true!

What does your partner think of all this perfume? Does he like smelling perfume on you?

My husband hates, purely hates perfume. He will move away from me if he can smell it on me, and once he said he couldn’t set off on a car trip with me if I didn’t wash off some of what I was wearing! (To be fair it was way too strong to be inside a warm car.) He set me on a path to further perfume research because he has a much less negative reaction to vanilla scents, and I love vanilla scents, so I went looking for more. (Did I ever!)

For some reason he reacts very negatively to florals. He really doesn’t like any scent. He himself uses nothing but Dove or Dial soap and Neutrogena shampoo and Arm & Hammer deodorant, and he smells divine. (If I could bottle him I’d be rich, but Donna Karan already got pretty close to his scent with Black Cashmere.)

So when people talk about perfumes being sexy or loved by their partner, I just blink. I wear perfume for me and just me, I’m afraid. Though I do have a work colleague or two who compliment me on my perfumes – one’s a budding perfumista herself. So there are those compliments sometimes.

Your thoughts on buying perfume online versus supporting the staff at cosmetics counters? This is a HUGE issue for us in New Zealand. As an example, I tried a perfume at a local store. I liked it, but it cost $175 at the store. I went home and found it on line and acquired it, with shipping, for $50. On the one hand, I saved over 300% of the perfume’s price. On the other hand, I feel I should go back to the store and tip them, or something.

This is actually a big issue everywhere these days. Many a helpful sales associate has turned a perfumista on to a great new release – but especially if you want to buy as many bottles as you can in a year and your budget is limited (and whose isn’t?), you don’t much have a choice – you need to buy the cheaper version online if you can.

That said, I did once pay full price, in a store, for a bottle, because it had come straight from France with a salesperson and I wanted it fresh. You can buy perfume at great discounts online for lots of reasons, but one of those reasons is that sometimes it’s been stored for a while (in a warehouse, in a store) and it no longer is fresh. Storage is a huge problem for perfume. If it isn’t protected from light (which it should be in the box) and heat (which it may not be, even in the box), it can start to change and break down. There are some perfumes that are famous for turning “off” within a year even if bought fresh from a store – their opening notes are made of very delicate materials, perhaps too delicate for a commercial perfume.

If you look at discount sellers on eBay, almost none of them has a perfect satisfaction rating. And the reason is that people complain “This bottleyou sent me isn’t WhateverItShouldHaveBeen! You ripped me off!” When the truth is probably that the perfume has been reformulated since they loved
it – in the 80s or something – and/or it has been stored a long time and poorly. It’s probably authentic, but that doesn’t mean it’s what they wanted. I think that’s unfair to the seller – discount perfumes are what they are.

When you’re buying less commercial perfumes, direct from small perfume makers like Dawn Spencer Hurwitz or Neil Morris, you won’t find them cheaper online, so if you want them, you *will* pay the full price. So at least you don’t have to feel guilty!

The big commercial manufacturers make huge amounts of perfume in a year, usually as cheaply as they can and with as much advertising as they can. Often those over-large production runs will end up with perfume being discounted, dumped on resellers, sold in discount stores (in the States these are places like TJ Maxx). Les Exclusifs from Chanel, or Guerlain’s or Caron’s classic scents, or Amouage perfumes, never end up like this; it’s the ones that the perfume makers intended to be a big commercial success in as many department stores around the world as they can reach. So who’s really at fault for the fact that there are discount bottles to be had?

The only scents I think become a discount option are the over-produced mass market scents. And some of them are gorgeous (I wrote about my discovery of White Diamonds this year) and many of them are very repetitive and boring to the connoisseur, like any mass-market pop culture product.

If New Zealand is interested in boosting perfume sales and supporting its sales force – both newsworthy goals – I would love to see its stores contracting with unique and local perfumers to sell their wares. This is perfectly reasonable marketing strategy.

I hope New Zealand’s retail spaces cultivate interesting collections, as they should of fashion or any other art they hope to sell.

Now that we’re all tied up in ethical knots from the previous question, where do you recommend that people outside the US shop for perfumes online?

I know that it’s actually quite difficult to buy a lot of perfumes outside the US – shipping restrictions from some vendors, and the like. I would haunt someplace like Now Smell This – which I consider
“the paper of record” for the perfume world. Read and you will undoubtedly find someone from your country who can give you some advice.

First in Fragrance is incredibly useful in Europe, the German equivalent of Luckyscent in the
US. Asia is a huge emerging market in scent and has its own specific tastes, so some brands are easily found in Japan or South Korea, and some are nonexistent.

What are some of your favorite perfume review blogs?

Along with Now Smell This, there’s the Perfume Posse. Oh, and The Non-Blonde – I love her reviews, even though she’s the very devil for sending you longing after something that’s impossible to get!

I get my perfume business  news from Nathan Branch – and he recently moved to New Zealand! He blogs about the economic aspects of luxury industries (including, perhaps even especially, perfume). If Nathan is mail-ordering it, other NZ shoppers can as well.

How should we decide if a perfume is really “for us”?

If you love it – if smelling it makes you happy – then it’s for you, even though you might need to wear it alone in your bedroom. There are perfumes one can’t carry off at the office, and there may even be perfumes others don’t want to smell on you (I love Annick Goutal’s Duel, which smells to me of smoke and leather and tomato, and no one I love loves to smell this on me!). That just means that there will be a time when you will want to spritz it on and enjoy it. Maybe while you’re driving, maybe in the grocery store – just find a time.

Perfume is not clothes. You can have a perfectly gorgeous velvet dress that looks simply dreadful on you. And you can even have the same dress and never have anywhere to wear it, such that having it hang in your closet is a waste of space. I can’t see perfume in the same light. There is always some time, even if it’s just sitting at your desk, when you can enjoy a light spritz of some perfume that you love, and who’s to say it doesn’t “suit” you?

It can be difficult to find perfumes that one can wear around other people. Fortunately almost everything dries down after an hour to a muted version of itself. And the key to wearing strong perfumes is a very light hand. The lighter the hand, the closer you can wear it to your nose, by the way. I’ve tucked a drop of something right up under my chin in order to be able to wear something under the world’s radar.

What other advice do you have?

Train your nose. Perfume is a lot more fun when you can start to identify some of the notes you really like, and go after them. And like any art form, the experience of perfume improves with more educated appreciation. Unlike most other art forms, wearing perfume changes with time, weather, your hormones, and situation – it is an evanescent thing, never the same thing twice. Once you realize that and let go of your inner control freak (maybe that’s just me), you realize that it may be the most freeing of art forms to experience precisely because it can be shared and discussed but seldom really captured.

This concludes part I of our delightful interview. Tomorrow we are going to post Part II, with expert perfumista advice on perfume storage, application, and a lot of recommendations!