Every child creates a repertoire of their favorite smells, usually closely associated with a loved being, either their own family members or animals. These are significant experiences because they are the first experiences, perhaps something as simple as going to the beach and lying in the sun inhaling the freshest air with the tang of salt in it and the sunlight refreshing everyone’s skin and the sense of expansion of time and bodily pleasure.
Important scent memories are laid down in the mind and soul in many ways. The scent of favorite foods or their preparation, the biting into an apple or plum, or sharing such an the experience with a loved one, who explains to you how they love a particular flavor and scent, so the child grows to love it too.
The sense of experiencing everything fully and therefore expanding time makes childhood memories the vast repository of emotions and scent associations. I know those two are closely related, since the olfactory nerve reaches to the brain straight into the amylgada, the seat of emotion, so the joining of the two makes for indelible memories.
It goes to show a wide range of experience, how many scents we may become attached to, from vanilla to coffee to all the wood and tree scents, the smells of cloth and paper, flowers and earth, or any expansive personal experience of the material world. It proves an openness to these simple experiences in their full beauty in childhood.
That quality is sometimes recaptured in adult life and new scent memories are laid down deep in our selves through new experiences of romance and joining with another persona. Even the tone and smell of someone’s skin will become imprinted on us through the endorphins of love, as it was when we were very young and much more open to loves of all kinds.
I know that deep concentration or simply focus of attention, a meditative quality that notices the nuances also builds experiences that are associated with their characteristic scent. Then their recurrence will reconnect me emotionally to that time and place.
Travel that brings unfamiliar and wider experiences, often during a time away from work, brings out the sense of play and timelessness that recreates a child like openness, will incorporate the fragrances of experience into the psyche, without effort or thought. The most important things are wedded to our minds and emotions with a scent to identify them more often than not.
Sometimes what gets interesting is when these personally iconic scents become incorporated into accords or perfumes that turn and move us to appreciate them from other directions. Fresh scent experiences that both are grounded in the familiar deep affinities and then layer upon layer, build up over time, reaching out to the new around this central core of an important scent, one that is important to ourselves. It’s like music that uses the notes and styles we are most familiar with and love and then takes them into new territories.
This freshness of experience that can deeply affect us is also similar to when people discovered new fragrant plants and food substances on the great voyages of exploration in the past. This is similar to how we may sometimes venture out of our habits to experience something new which incorporates something old and deep too. Then we can appreciate the new as we once did when we were new ourselves.
I hope to cultivate that way of being both fresh to experience and associate fragrance to important memories, binding the scent signatures they bear into my mind and emotions more tightly.
As a personal example, I think of the concept of musk. As I had understood it, before I was familiar with it as a note in perfume composition, musk was something that was a little sweaty, even a little dirty, an animal unwashed scent that was supposed to signify sexuality or be associated with strong and overtly aggressive wildness.
Now after exposure to various kinds of musks both natural and synthetic, I associate it simply with skin. Everyone’s skin has a scent, and some fortunate people have strongly appealing skin scents. Clean skin tends to have an appealing scent that is sheer but affects the perfumes on it nonetheless.
Musk itself has many shades and goes from an almost salty tanginess with an undertone of clean skin to an acrid civet tone to a smooth ambrette silkiness of something like fine thick brushed hair of a child, and many others in-between and beyond. There are so many shades of natural musk, which is why there are many kinds of chemical musk now too, used in practically everything. It fascinates me that musk has the quality of amplifying all other scents.
I have read that a glass that had contained orange juice, even after thorough washing in hot water will bloom out into a strong orange odor if a speck of musk is introduced into the glass. So this may be why own own and other’s musky skin quality has so much significance for us as a smell. Even people who shower with lots of hot water every day have this characteristic scent which seems to replace itself every day, regardless of how thoroughly we attempt to remove it and render ourselves scentless with bathing.
It interests and frightens me a little that humans have such a strong smell. An unwashed human smells much more rank than any animal in the wild, with a throw of more than 20 feet all around. I suspect that’s part of the reason why dogs became attracted to us in the first place, they love strong and dense smells of all kinds and nothing has a stronger smell than a human in a natural state without much access to soap and water. So that’s a possible beneficial effect, it may have brought the dogs to love us.
In any case, as we all know this, we seek out bathing and water and cleansing rituals, making this one of the great human pleasures. Grooming and the application of replenishing moisturizing substances that are scented after washing and surrounding ourselves with as many appealing scented materials as we can appears to be a universal pleasure. It can only get more pleasing once a sensibility for scents has been deliberately developed.
I think one of my earliest sense memories was noticing how sunlight on anything intensified it, especially enhancing the color and scent of anything in in its rays. I think that universal and subtle quality can be felt in certain perfumes. I find this particular deep sense memory works itself out in a number of perfumes in many ways.
Deliberately developing scent memories will amplify the beauty and pleasures of the world, as simple or luxurious it may be, in memory of the past or experience of the transitory present, and is well worth attention and dedication.
This is an excerpt from a book I am working on about my experience of perfume in all its glories.
Above images: Klimt's Mother and Child, a detail from The Three Ages of Woman, and
Monet's Water Lily Pond with Bright Setting Sun