Fragrance is a global industry, and yet it has often been a Eurocentric perspective that has reigned supreme. But there is far more to see beyond the border. Blocki is a testament to the rich history of American perfumery, underpinned by a rich history of aromatic experimentation and homegrown expertise.
Similarly to the US’s development as a country, the fragrance house’s evolution has not come without challenges. Founded in 1865 by John Blocki, the family-owned fragrance house cemented a long legacy which lasted until 1950. The house was relaunched in 2015 by Tammy and Tyler Kraemer (the latter being the great-great-grandson of John Blocki), harnessing the original formulations of three fragrances—the violet- and orris-focused For Walks, the vintage vanilla This Grand Affair, and the floral bouquet of In Every Season, all by perfumer Kevin Verspoor—insofar as modern perfumery regulations allowed. Fast-forward to 2021, and the Kraemers decided to relaunch the fragrances house’s most famous fragrance: the 1920s creation Esprit d’Amour, reimagined by perfumer Lionel Nesbitt. The floral woody musk features notes of lemon, bergamot, muguet, tonka, sandalwood, and musk. The name isn’t just referring to the spirit of love, but also to an ethos of skin- and haircare taught in beauty schools of the era by Blocki himself through independent, female-owned boutiques.
Today, the house’s lineup includes further additions such as the aromatic citrus Sanrovia (by Verspoor), the spicy amber Saharet (by Nesbitt), and the green woody scent Kościuszko (by Duff Scott).
Presented in floral engraved boxes, there is a certain romanticism to Blocki fragrances. But just as with archive fashion, there is an artful balance between referencing the past and coalescing it with modern olfactory tastes—a proposition which the Kraemers and the selected perfumers they work with have certainly mastered.
BeautyMatter sat down with Tammy Kraemer, who is currently in the midst of creating a publication on the history of Blocki, to take a fascinating deep dive into the house’s fragrance dynasty (vintage beauty memorabilia and all), the spirit of American perfumery, and what this new era for the fragrance house holds.
What can you tell me about the book you are currently working on?
It’s one of the funniest things. I'm the one who nerds out about the history of Blocki, and Tyler just loves the fragrance aspect. In the beginning, this memoir had nothing to do with the fragrance house. It was John Blocki's mother's memoir, and we used that as inspiration for our fragrances. She had an unusual upbringing—the women in this family were really well educated for their time, and that's part of why the perfumery was able to happen. When we did that, people asked why we weren’t relaunching the old fragrances, so then we started the Heritage Collection. What I realized was: these older fragrances that John launched are about more than just the Blocki perfumery.
They tell these stories in American history, they're named after people or things that tie into a broader perspective. It's fun to be able to tell those stories. One of the things that I find fascinating about [Tadeus] Kościuszko is that his story has been lost, just like our own story has been lost. We relaunched that because of the political climate at the time. We felt that story needed to be retold as a peasant prince who truly understood freedom, because that word gets thrown around in the US a lot right now, but not a lot of people really understand what it means. There's all these bigger stories going on, plus the fragrance history. I began focusing on those snippets.
What sparked the brand relaunch?
Since I first met Tyler, he always had this affinity for smell, which I thought was unusual. When I asked him about it, he mentioned that there's been a perfumer in the family. Soon after we met, we came across a woman from Bulgaria, and at that time, in the ’90s, they were privatizing a lot of the floral industry over there. She connected us with a bunch of people and we started working with one of the recently privatized oil producers, importing floral waters.
We tried to create a rose water face spray, which now they're everywhere, but at the time, people were surprised by it and it never really took off. But we loved it and that introduced us to fragrance. After we closed that business down, I started looking into the family history more, for kicks really. And I realized the story was so much bigger than his great-grandfather being a perfumer. I thought: we have to bring back this story. Our American perfume history has a very different story than any other European house. It's a different animal.
What defines American perfumery today? There is often such a Eurocentric perspective, but there's been the emergence of so many great niche brands. At the same time, it doesn't feel like that identity of American perfumery is perhaps as fully formed as the European one.
It's always been in the shadows. There's geo bias in a lot of industries, especially anything luxury or anything that requires a specialty, because, of course, if you gather people who are really good at doing something in one place, that place begins to develop a mythology about it. Whether it's leather or wine or whatever.
In John's day, back in the 1800s, they were struggling with the shadow of Europe. It was hard to get people to buy American perfume. They just didn't trust it. Even the early department stores over here had a huge bias for European brands. The American brands would then try to imitate the European style with French names or try to evoke that credibility that comes with the European heritage.
Niche has certainly made a lot of progress, but it's still hard to figure out. To me, it just comes from a different angle. The European houses had these royal charters and were creating perfume for an elite group of people. Blocki especially wanted to democratize perfume, to bring it to everyone, even in the rural locations in America.
With the brand having such historical roots, what was the challenge of modernizing those fragrance concepts for today?
The first three we launched, we worked with Kevin Verspoor and that angle was his specialty. He is a perfumer obsessed with vintage fragrances and was thrilled to have the opportunity to recreate some of those styles of perfume. In 2015, linear fragrances were becoming very popular, so we were kind of going back. We wanted to cast our net wide, which is an American fragrance approach. There are a lot of diverse customers in the US and we wanted them to be wearable, so we had to push the part.
For example, This Grand Affair, it's an amber-y fragrance, usually it would have had bergamot in the top, so let's mix it up with a new ketone and grapefruit. On For Walks, we really pushed Kevin to keep the violet aspect green and cool, with a cold chill in the air and then warming up on the dry down. We ended up reformulating In Every Season. Kevin had done a fantastic job making it authentic, he built everything from scratch for this beautiful vintage musk accord, but the floral aspect was so big. It just wasn't anything that most people would wear today, too vintage and too bold, but that was a tough call to make.
Conceptual perfumery plays into this, but sometimes you can forget that it's a product meant to be worn on the skin. I had fragrances that I greatly admire for their technical skill, concept, and execution, but when it comes to wearing it every day, I can’t. It’s that struggle of initial creative vision and reception, right?
We didn't want a niche customer. We want to do what Blocki had done by trying to bring fine American perfumery into as many households as we can. As people have told us, the smaller you are, you can shout from the mountaintop and no one will hear you. It's hard to get there, but when we look at our growing customer base, we are reaching that person. I feel excited that we're bringing niche perfumery to people who maybe wouldn't experience it otherwise. Maybe the history is what gets them excited at first and then they're willing to try it, and they become repeat customers. We didn't want a luxury that was glitzy and glam. We wanted it very down to earth and approachable.
That exclusive velvet-rope model had been the norm for a bit and, ultimately, that can be really alienating and keep people from experiencing these great creations. How important is the story around the fragrance to the customer versus the actual scent?
Because of the nature of our interests, it plays equal part. For Tyler, it's all about the scent, and for me, it's all about the story. At times the volume of the story can be a little much, and so we've been working on dialing it down a little bit. I can talk about the peasant prince all day and why it's so cool, but people want to hear about the Swiss cognac, the gunpowder, the tobacco leaves [in the fragrance]. For us, a lot of the work is trying to get the story into something short and digestible instead of having it dominate. That said, I do think our customers are interested in it. We didn't launch using the original fragrance names at first, and what happened was everybody kept coming to us stating, you have this list of 100-something fragrance names, when are you going to start bringing them back? We realized people want the history and story behind those original fragrances.
How do you choose the perfumers that you work with?
After Kevin left the fragrance house we were originally working with, we wanted to stay with them because it's an American house and we have a shared history. We talked with other European houses that were great and probably would have had more household-name perfumers, but we really wanted a place where Tyler could learn to be involved with the fragrance, where we could go to 50 mods if we wanted to. We actually have gotten to a system that is a little more old school. We put out the brief and they’ll give us anywhere from three to five mods in response to the brief, but they don't give us the perfumer’s name. We then choose the starting point and learn the perfumer’s name afterwards, which has been interesting because, and this is an unintended consequence, we've actually ended up with a more diverse group of perfumers. The blind sampling can have its benefits, and I know that is controversial because part of niche is elevating the perfumer, celebrating perfumers’ art, and not having them behind the scenes anymore. But we really enjoyed it.
There's a lot to be said about subliminal influences, even when it comes to purchasing fragrance. As an independent perfume brand, how have you seen that genre evolve since beginning your journey?
Oh, my goodness, it's amazing.There are always a few artisanal perfumers out there, and now it's this proliferation of labels, labels, labels. We're not artisanal. I won't claim that because we're using perfumers in a fragrance house. But independent perfumers have exploded and are doing so many creative, innovative things, so that's exciting.
Do you have any kind of directions or inklings in terms of where the brand might go?
What does an American heritage brand do to stay fresh? I feel like American heritage brands overall struggle more than European heritage brands. In fact, it's still the same problem John Blocki had right in his beginnings, but American brands also have a disruptive culture which can be an exciting good thing.
The huge bloom within niche, and I don't know if it's just that I became more aware of it over time, but the sheer number of players and the challenges of making your mark when it's such a huge sea, right, ultimately has a lot to do with brand identity and authenticity. But then also online communities have changed so much in creating hype and tunnel vision around how you explore scent. You're not looking left and right, and you might be missing out on some really great things. There's something to be said about whimsical exploration around scent. Obviously there are curated fragrance subscription services, or even if you go into a store the retail personnel can advise you, but we all smell it slightly differently.
That’s where I really find it tough as a brand because we are creating for our customer, and one of the top things with them is they're not online that much. Our true customer is outside of the fragrance community, and so how do we find them? I don't know, maybe we need to go back to print ads. We have a fragrance that our customer gets really excited about, but for the fragrance community, it's not cutting-edge enough. Those are different purposes. But that's where the indie, the niche, the artisan can meet those different needs.
Speaking of which, what challenges do you face on your journey as a brand?
On the one hand, we're getting the customers we set out to get. We wanted someone who was not into trends. We're self-funded, but, going back to casting a wider net, we've also set our mind on this customer that is more into the big names like Chanel or Dior. So how do I reach that customer?
Physical retail took such a hit this year, and fragrance is still one of those genres that, because of its very nature, is hard to convey online. But through the pandemic closures, a lot of people had to shift more into an e-commerce strategy. I'm curious to see if that's going to stay or shift back to more physical retail. Yes, you can order samples online, but there's something to be said for experiencing the scent in-person. That tangible experience is such a part of a fragrance and at the same time, right, by necessity, that other avenue is being explored a lot more.
That's a big part of the history too and the story we're telling with the Esprit d'Amour: Blocki developed this volume of early cosmetics, which at the time were deemed hygienic cosmetics and toiletries. There were all these independent stores. While Avon was going door to door, we had that model Blocki was working on with women-led stores. Sometimes it would be like a hair salon and beauty shop all in one. But going back to the present moment, the retail piece was heartbreaking to me, but it will bounce back.
On the one hand, it was really good to be dealing with direct-to-consumer more. That was good for us to figure out for sure. We decided to have the incentive that if you buy a discovery set, you get that money back off of a full-size bottle if you decide you'd like one. That can help. I've been really hopeful that people will get back in the stores. A lot of the boutiques are just places where people meet, share knowledge, and make each other feel good. A lot of the confidence that a shop owner or sales associate can give a person when they are buying is so helpful. I know it helps me to go in and learn more about it. You get excited and feel good. I don't know if you can deliver that online.
That human interaction is so important, isn't it? Especially now. What can you tell me about the Esprit d'Amour approach to beauty, how would you define it?
It's interesting. Some of the ads, and I do not know if we were the first, but they do claim that Blocki originated this idea of skincare based on skin type. Blocki was a chemist, a perfumer, and a manufacturer, dating back to the 1800s. The Blockis were pretty progressive. Louise [the wife of John Blocki’s son, Fred] was out there marching for the women’s vote and also marched against that wave of immigration constraints in the ’20s. When Fred was treasurer, he would pay the firemen and police salaries at the end of the year. Money he had taken out of his own pocket.
Esprit d'Amour is interesting because the advertising material states it has 27 rare natural ingredients and the name translates to spirit of love. If you look up 27 in numerology, it's all about non-judgment, compassion, and humanity. It's a big family business, but they were trying to do something more. They wanted to create opportunities for women to not only work but to own their own stores. This branched out into a whole line of cosmetics that were cosmetology schools that would teach this Esprit d’Amour skincare technique. From what I can tell, they may have even offered financing to some of these women to get their stores going.
I always like to say you’ve got to know the genre's history to inform its future, whether it's a direct reference or building on that to influence what you're working on. What are your plans looking forward?
We've been asked for candles a lot, so we may do that while we're pausing and reevaluating which olfactive direction to go in. I feel like we should do something uniquely American and innovative. We're definitely always operating in three different time periods. Because we're still finding out all this fascinating history, we're always looking in the past. We're trying to be mindful and present to who our customer is and how we can make them happy. Ultimately, you want to have customers that are excited about your brand and feel good when they're wearing your fragrance. And because we're reconstructing this history, I always have my eye on the future. We are trying to make sure this time we leave a better trail.
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