In March of this year, I made the annual pilgrimage to AWP like so many emerging and established writers, educators, and publishers. While I had spent the majority of my time volunteering at the book fair, I didn’t get to explore the myriad of booths and tables until the last day.
No matter how many years I’ve attended, I am always amazed by the enormity of AWP, the hundreds of booths, the thousands of people toting their matching conference bags, books everywhere. It’s a bibliophile’s paradise – only it’s overwhelming. There are too many books to learn about them all. Too many people to meet. Everything in excess.
As I meandered up and down the aisles, I happened upon a table free of books. In fact, the table was full of little glass bottles. After the dizzying path I’d walked back and forth around the maze of the book fair, I half expected to walk up and read DRINK ME! on the bottles’ neatly-placed labels. Instead, I found myself meeting JT Siems, the owner/artisan of Immortal Perfumes, formerly Sweet Tea Apothecary, a micro-perfumery that features the line called Dead Writers: a perfume/cologne line based on the lives and works of famous dead writers; the scents include Lenore: An Edgar Allan Poe perfume, Sylvia: A Perfume Inspired by The Bell Jar, Pemberley: A Jane Austen Inspired Perfume to name a few.
What I think makes Siems’ venture so fascinating (especially for literary nerds) is that she meticulously researches the writer and his or her work in order to craft the most authentic scent possible; for instance, she used the garden details described in Pride and Prejudice to craft what Mr. Darcy’s estate might have actually smelled like. Or, my favorite, using the scent of figs to make a perfume inspired by Sylvia Plath, a nod to her famous fig metaphor in The Bell Jar.
I closed my eyes and smelled the sample of the Plath perfume and was completely transported: it was a way of engaging with the literary world that I had never before experienced. Though called Dead Writers, for me, the scents brought these literary godheads back to life. As writers, teachers, and editors, we most often use our senses of sight and sound to read, to craft, to edit, and to teach literary works, and in so doing, we hope to engage ourselves in the world of the story or poem as completely and as authentically as possible; we hope to encourage others to do the same. Who knew that, all along, the sense of smell could tell the story so completely?
Where did the idea originate for historical/literary inspired perfumes? Are you a bibliophile or a history buff?
In case you couldn’t tell, I was an English major in college with minors in philosophy and political science. In late 2011, I had finished a Masters program in teaching and taught English to 9th and 10th graders, but I experienced a lot of health problems due to the stress of the job so wasn’t too upset when I got laid off at the end of the school year (last one hired, first one fired). I was feeling pretty depressed that my careers (formerly worked in editorial for a psychic company, but that’s a story for another day) hadn’t panned out and was looking for a hobby to get into.
I’ve always been really into perfume so thought it would be fun to make some as a hobby. I read books and found information online and started experimenting, and my first perfume was a god-awful rose concoction I made as a solid perfume for a friend’s birthday. For my honeymoon, which was around that time, we went to London and Paris, and when we were at Marie Antoinette’s Hameau, I saw a sign that mentioned the ingredients in her favorite perfume. I was also reading historical fiction about her at the time, so when we got home, all of these experiences kind of came together, and I was naive (delusional?) enough to think I could make a business out of this idea so off to Etsy I went.
One of my favorite parts of your product is that the website gives the inspiration for each scent’s ingredients. Tell me about your research process.
There are generally two ways it happens. Usually, I read about a person (historical fiction or non-fiction), or see a film/tv show, or I go on a tour of a random old place and hear about someone new. The people’s lives inspire me, and I create a scent profile around what I thought they would have smelled like – usually one or more notes have a connection to the person. For my new Literary Lovers collection, for instance, Persephone has a top note of pomegranate, and Hades has cypress, narcissus, and belladonna (fake belladonna, it won’t kill you I promise!).
The second method is I either find a new note I like or I’m just playing around with scents, and it either reminds me of a person, or I actively look for a person that it would apply to. I don’t usually do it this way though.
What was your process/inspiration for developing the scent inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar?
I cannot tell you how many people requested this perfume. People would come up to me at shows, write me emails, post on Facebook and Twitter inquiring about a Sylvia Plath perfume. Ms. Plath is definitely a favorite in the literary canon – probably because the feelings she describes are so universal. I was a little nervous about making it because her death was so tragic and relatively recent. I wanted to be delicate. The passage in The Bell Jar about the fig tree really captured the spectrum of her thoughts and emotions, (at least in my reading of it) so that’s why I chose that as a starting point. The perfume itself is both dark and sweet (fig), and I think that represents the dichotomies reflected in the writing.
You seem to try to find a textual reference for each scent. How do you choose what other ingredients to include in a scent that may not be referred to in a text or a historical document? What inspires the “other” ingredients?
I alluded to this earlier, but it’s not so much about one note as it is about a scent profile. Generally, if you want to work with a note, you need to work with complimentary ones so that it will actually smell good (at least for my business model. I participated in an art show where people weren’t selling their perfumes and made scent just based on what they thought would work with the story they were conveying, which was definitely cool but not necessarily what you want to wear everyday). For a scent profile, I’ll write down defining characteristics/flaws of a person and a few notes that I find in textual references or things I’ve heard they liked. From there, I have an idea of a scent/feeling I’m trying to evoke so all of those work together to build the scent. Back to the Persephone example, I’m not trying to make a pomegranate perfume. I’m trying to make a perfume that when you smell it you smell HER – the carefree maiden frolicking in nature that when paired with the darker Hades perfume adds a layer of sadness/of feeling trapped.
Do you have a favorite scent in your catalogue?
I like the darker, smokier ones. My two favorites have always been Madame Moustache (based on a woman who hustled during the California Gold Rush) and Lenore, which is an Edgar Allan Poe perfume (he’s my favorite writer of all time since I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I was weird). I’m really into Heathcliff and Hades now though. Heathcliff has this dark alluring brooding thing going on, and Hades smells like what I imagine stardust and dreams to smell like. I know that doesn’t flow logically, but I say that to people and they seem to understand. I get obscure descriptions from customers like that all the time.
What’s been your favorite reaction by a customer?
Hahahaha, it’s hard to choose. I get good ones a lot. The funniest to me is when people ask me to take pictures with them because they love the perfumes or their friend does. It’s about as much fame as I think a (high functioning) introvert like me could handle. I’m always honored when people say they’ve smelled my stuff at a show and had to come back for more. Then, I once overheard someone exclaim, “Oh my god, this smells like Victorian Times!” I also get creative testimonials sometimes. My favorite one was: – Georgiana: A smell of lace and pearls and the richly curled hair of fine ladies in an English country manor. Sweet, genteel, dignified, opulent yet intimate, it transports the mind to the chambers of Grandes Dames and the arms of noblemen. As ponies and coaches no longer deliver our parcels, I received this fragrant jewel almost as quickly as the blink of my eye.
What was your inspiration for the new Literary Lovers collection?
I was really interested in doing perfume pairs that could be worn together (or separately). The Literary Lovers angle was in keeping with my brand, so that’s how I chose the theme. The three pairs I chose were definitely my favorite love stories growing up (Wuthering Heights, Hades & Persephone, and Romeo & Juliet). Which now in retrospect seems a bit unhealthy because they were all so violent and tragic. They’re beloved characters/stories though, so I knew other people would appreciate them.
You’ve been featured in a couple of publications and have enjoyed a lively reaction to your products. What has this success meant to you? And what do you think it says about people’s love of (or maybe fascination with) literary or historical characters?
I have a lot of friends, but I still consider myself kind of a loner outcast so hearing that people really like my perfumes and the characters/figures I’ve chosen kind of makes me feel less like a weirdo and like I’m tuned into “the universe” or “collective unconscious” or just finding the other people out there that share my interests. I grew up believing success only meant being rich or being a doctor/lawyer, so for a while, I would always use qualifiers when people complimented my success. Now, I try to be more confident and own it – I’ve got to do the Stewart Smalley thing and be like YES I make a thing people like, I own my own business, I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me! I’m also weird about this because I have a toddler and stay home with her, so I get nervous people will be like “oh you have an Etsy business how quaint.” But that’s not it at all. People are absolutely lovely about it, and I thank everyone who has been so supportive.
In terms of what I think this means for people’s love of/fascination with literary and historical characters – These stories are famous for a reason. They tap into the full range of people’s emotions. I tend to choose the more flawed / tragic people because they’ve always been the ones I identified with, and I am learning from this project that a lot of people feel the same way. I think it comes down to the fact that people connect with these stories because life is so complicated, and we’ve all felt pain and suffering, but at the same time, we’re also the heroes in our own stories. I grew up thinking I was this weirdo nerd, but it turns out there’s lots of other weirdo nerds out there, and that notion makes the world feel less lonely to me.
Immortal Perfumes is a micro-perfumery specializing in historically inspired, handmade scents. Anchored by the flagship line of writer scents, Dead Writers Perfume, Immortal Perfumes imagines vintage fragrances for the modern era. Ever wonder what Mr. Darcy’s estate, Pemberley, smelled like after a fresh rain? What made Marie Antoinette so alluring? Want to experience the road with Jack Kerouac? Join perfumer JT Siems on a scent journey through time, memory, and the ghosts of words past. All perfume blends are original recipes made from a mix of jojoba, essential and fragrance oils. None of the oils used in this shop are derived from animals. Every bottle is handmade by JT in her Seattle studio.