All through life we collect ‘olfactory memories’ – scents that remind us of a particular time, person or place.
Whenever I come across the scent of jasmine, I am immediately transported back to my childhood in Australia, where the flowers grew wild over our back deck. A place where my family used to languidly laze on summer days, my father, legs-crossed, ever-reclined with the Sunday paper.
Like most women, certain fragrances have bookmarked certain times in my life. For me, Clinique Happy heralded the start of my adolescence; my older sister tossing me a sample-sized bottle that was part of a gift-with-purchase. 10 years my senior, she could afford things like Clinique Powder Compacts. I wore the fragrance like a badge of honour, dotting my neck and wrists with the elixir that symbolised a coming of age. I now wore fragrance. It seemed so adult.
Next, a stint of Davidoff Cool Waters (that all my classmates wore, too), then Issey Miyake (a gift from my first love), followed by a trip to New York, traipsing around drenched in the signature perfume of Juicy Couture (fitting, in retrospect).
For my wedding day I hoped to find a fragrance that was ‘bride-worthy’. A scent that was delicate and innocent, yet sensual and magnetic. An easy find, right…?
At the time, I was the training manager of L’Occitane. One day in the office I was greeted with a scent that ignited an immediate, yet momentary flash of a memory. It was the inimitable notes of jasmine, taking me back to the days lazing on the deck among its wild flowers. The scent was drifting from the marketing teams’ desks, a new fragrance release named “Jasmine, Immortelle, Neroli”. Its combination with the sensual touch of Neroli and the golden warmth of Immortelle simply captured my heart. In a moment I knew it was “The One”.
On our wedding day I gave each guest a fragrance, so they too could have a scent to remember the day by. The men received a mini L’Occitane Oranger & Cedre, the women, a mini L’Occitane Rose et Reins. We tied tags around the necks of the bottles with our initials and encouraged everyone to wear the scent. As our wedding was in Bali, the weather was warm and balmy and the women smelled of Roses and the men, like Spring-time.
As for me? My scent was a memory from my childhood mingled with my future, as a wife.
As teenagers locked away in an English boarding school,my friends and I lusted after nothing more exotic than Avon’s Pretty Peach bubble bath or a Bromley lemon soap – innocuous anodyne scents that were reminiscent of nothing but a draconian bath rota. So when I smelt Opium by Yves St Laurent for the first time, it transported me to a place beyond my wildest dreams and smelled like the person I wanted to become – a glittering glamorous party girl, sophisticated and a little bit dangerous. But of course it was well out of my reach. I remember having a dinner party one New Year’s Eve, and thinking I was terribly grown up. I went in to our local department store and splashed Opium onto my neck and wrists. It lasted long into the night and lingered on my dress for ages.It was years before I earned enough to buy my own bottle with its silken tassel and it took pride of place on my dressing table. It makes me think of music and laughing and dancing on tables, even now, and I still adore it. A perfume for behaving as badly as you want.
I’m fascinated by the link between scent and memory and it’s one that I’ve often explored in writing. Because the olfactory centre is so close to the hippocampus, the seat of memory, perfume triggers vivid recollections in a way that sight and sound alone simply can’t. My first powerful perfume memory comes from early childhood when we living in the West Indies and my mother would come to kiss us goodnight before yet another expat cocktail party. She brought with her a waft of Nina Ricci’s Air du Temps, a scent I still associate with sheer distilled sophistication, plus an undertow of sadness because she was leaving. It was important, when creating my fictional heroine, Clara Vine, that I gave her the right perfume, so she wears an iconic Thirties brand, Bourjois’ Soir de Paris. Ironically, because Clara is not only an actress but a spy, she sometimes has to forgo her signature perfume because it identifies her, but the fruity concoction of rose, violet and jasmine is one I totally associate with Clara and I often wear it while writing. It’s way too sweet for modern tastes, but smelling it takes me straight into the past – this time not a real, but an imagined one!
My grandparents ran a corner sweet shop in the 70’s in manchester- there was a concoction of smells which all seemed to fit together perfectly. From the old coal fire with it’s distinct smoke and woody aromas, to the perfumed sweetness of lemon drops and the spicy liquorice all sorts.