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Five gift-giving philosophies to help you find the perfect gift

Sarah Dennis for Quartz
It’s an art, and a science.
By Jenni Avins
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

How do you give a good gift?

While some of us get tied up in knots trying to find just the thing to convey our love and appreciation (and impeccable taste), others seem to effortlessly give gifts that delight their recipients. These givers might appear to be preternaturally, well, gifted. But there’s an art and a science to giving great gifts, again and again.

Rather than a shopping list, we wanted Quartzy’s inaugural gift guide to provide you with a framework for conceiving of great gifts forevermore. Five writers investigated the appeal of the best gifts we’ve given and received. We found that each one—a pair of black jeans, a fancy candle, a pasta-making class, a handwritten love letter, and a bundle of chocolate-sea-salt cookies—represented a smart, thoughtful, and proven approach to giving a simple, perfect gift.

You can apply each of these five, go-to approaches at any budget, for a wide variety of recipients and occasions. Bookmark them for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays ahead. Consider them our gift to you.


The Black Jeans Approach

: Just give them what they ask for

Sarah Dennis for Quartz

There’s a simple, selfless genius to giving gifts that are all about the recipient’s wishes, rather than the giver’s desire to impress. But show-offs need not be deterred; these gifts can leave a lasting impression nonetheless. As Marc Bain wrote, about a perfect pair of black jeans he received from his wife several years back: “Was I surprised by those black jeans? Not at all. Was I delighted? Deeply, and I continue to be, six years later, when I pull them on and pause to remember who gave them to me.”


The Fancy Candle Philosophy

: The most luxurious gift is one that no one needs

Sarah Dennis for Quartz

Oatmeal milk and vetiver. Leather-bound books and a Russian samovar. These are just some of the scents Sarah Todd has discovered since a fig-and-maple screw-top candle converted her into a “candle person.” Now, it’s a gift she loves to share with others: “The right candle is a perfect luxury: an utterly unnecessary object that has the power to make life, and by extension you, feel a bit more elegant, cozy, or calm,” she writes. “When you give someone a candle, you’re passing along the gift of ritual. Striking a match and lighting a tiny, pleasant fire in your home means committing to the idea that everyday life can be an occasion worth celebrating.”


The Pasta Class Theory

: Give the gift of quality time, instead of more stuff

Sarah Dennis for Quartz

Some people say they don’t want anything, and they really mean it. Maybe it’s your sister who lives in a tiny studio apartment, your parent who finally Marie Kondo-ed the basement, or your partner who is just too picky to shop for. Eshe Nelson is that person, so when her best friend booked a pasta-making class for them to take together, it was a truly inspired move. When life feels crazy and our homes feel stuffed, how wonderful for a gift to say: I want nothing more than to hang with you, and organized this activity for us to make it happen.


The Love Letter Method: There’s no gift like helping someone love themselves 

Sarah Dennis for Quartz

When was the last time you wrote a real love letter? Leah Fessler has made such an art of it that her friends and family call her handwritten, freestyle odes “Leah letters.” Leah’s practice involves covering a sheet of paper “with sentiments I often think about this person—while we’re laughing over dumb TV, texting aimlessly, or sharing a good cry—but rarely say aloud,” as well asking herself a series of questions about her subject. “These questions can provide guidelines for those less comfortable with letter writing. And taken together, the answers communicate a larger, more complex sentiment: This is why I love you.” That’s a gift that will always be treasured.


The Homemade Cookie Concept

: A homemade gift is warm and personal, yet widely applicable

Sarah Dennis for Quartz

Sometimes you want to give someone a gift, just because. For this purpose, I turn again and again to homemade cookies—specifically, Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies, deep chocolate sablés studded with chopped dark chocolate bits and flakes of fleur de sel. They’re the rare gift that is equally appropriate for the host of your fanciest holiday party, your lover, your lover’s mom, your office doorman, and the laundromat manager you practice Spanish with. Forgot someone? No problem. Just bundle a pile of cookies in parchment, tie it up with baker’s twine, and Bob’s your uncle.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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