The Scent of a Memory

L-R: Amy and Gaby

I orginally submitted this article for Vol iii: The Social Olfactory, The State, but it didn’t make the cut.  I thought this would be an appropriate place to post it.

I’ve been in the fragrance and flavor industry for twenty years, the last seven years as the founder of Trendincite LLC, and I’ve yet to write about my own personal experiences with scent and scent memories. Whether I write for Tidbits, Trendincite’s bimonthly newsletter, or for Forward Thinking, my column in Perfumer & Flavorist magazine, the material focuses on the parallel relationship between fragrances and flavors. Like several colleagues, I fell into the industry and once here, I stayed. I have a keen sense of smell, which was always there from childhood, but was refined by working in the industry with experts.

When I think back to childhood, there are several familiar scents that take me to a certain place and time.  In elementary school, I distinctly remember the scent of vomit. I had a visceral reaction…when a kid in school vomited, the smell alone created a knee jerk reaction and often caused me to gag and then puke. I have a seven year old daughter and four year old son and to this day if they throw up, I gag and it takes every ounce of me to hold back my smell instincts. I feel similarly about the smell of garbage, particularly on a hot summer’s day in New York City – I flash back to the foul smell of rotting fish and spoiled food in Chinatown or urine soaked New York City subways.  In East Hampton when the wind blows in the wrong direction, the smell of dank, wet salty and dirty seaweed wafts into my nostrils. As you drive along a country road, the quick, passing whiff of a skunk is unforgettable.  And I’d be remiss if I left out the smell of mulch – manure combined with a sweaty, salty body odor note, most unpleasant.

In contrast, I absolutely love the scent of fresh baked bread – a little sweet, salty and yeasty. I’ve been trying, as I’m sure others have been, to have a perfumer create a fresh baked bread fragrance that accurately captures the yeast accord. I can’t wait until a perfumer nails this scent. Mark my words – it will be an instant success.  There’s also nothing like the smell of fresh cut grass even if there is cis-3-Hexen-1-ol. Or the smell of potato fields – dry, starchy and a bit earthy. And the sweet, honey hay-like scent that I smell while passing open fields.

These are just a few examples of my scent recollections. My personal scent memories and specific scent associations help me recognize certain fragrances or ingredients based solely on what they remind me of.  When I smell a grapey note like the one used in Giorgio perfume, it takes me back to Dimetapp, the cough medicine I took as a child, and I recognize Methyl anthranilate.  I disliked Dimetapp as a child and therefore I do not like the cloying scent of Giorgio now. Anything with orange flower strikes a chord and brings me back to Bain De Soleil Orange Gelee sun tanning lotion; some feel this way about Coppertone. It’s the signature smell of summer, which I loved as a child and am still fond of today.  In the 80’s when I was a teenager, my peers wore Tea Rose perfume, an aldehydic rose floral, which I thought smelled like old ladies. Today when I analyze fragrance market research data, respondents frequently describe aldehydic floral notes as “old lady” and “grandma like.” This reaffirms my teenage evaluation of Tea Rose perfume before I even had “aldehydic” in my vocabulary.

In hindsight, who knew that my childhood scent experiences would be the stepping stones that launched my career in fragrance?  Unbeknownst to me, all of these childhood scent memories have directly impacted my sensibilities. I now recognize that creating signature scents and worthy scent memoires for consumers is a tall order to fill. I appreciate a scent that is polarizing and recognizable, often a blockbuster signature like Angel, because whether you love it or hate it, you remember it. I applaud perfumers who are able to create these signature scents that stand out from the crowd. Knowing that fragrances can create such an emotive response intrigues me and makes the fragrance and flavor industry exciting and ever changing.

From my twenty years of industry experience, I am hypersensitive to smell – both good and bad.  I’m grateful for this ability and find myself at any given time instinctively and habitually smelling products, foods or beverages prior to buying, ingesting or using.  Today my children mimic me and smell everything from fresh flowers to public restroom soap. They’re so scent aware that they can both recognize cherry almond because more than half of New York public restrooms, particularly restaurants use it.  And when they don’t recognize the smell of the soap, in surprise they ask, “Mommy what does this smell like?”  By this process, they are creating their own scent memories.

Smell is such an integral aspect of our being, but we often take it for granted.  The odd thing is that I have an identical twin sister who is anosmic and lost her sense of smell due to a childhood accident. We are similar in so many ways, but one defining difference is that I have an acute sense of smell and she has none.  I can’t imagine life without smell nor working in any other industry.

1 thought on “The Scent of a Memory

  1. Hi Amy, I’m a sensory-memory kinda gal, too! Some of my earliest scent memories are the childhood ones like you mentioned, medicines – and also toys, like the almondy-cherry smell of Play Doh , the sweet powdery plastic ‘dollhead’ aroma of a Barbie doll, the highly chemical (but addictive) stink of a freshly unsheathed fat, black magic marker, and the waxy tartness of a Crayola crayon. And the papery, dry, slightly earthy smell of the pages of my Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books, ahahahaha! I can actually remember the smell of my first real lipstick, Frosted Coca Mocha (by Covergirl), which was a white, frosted late ’60’s, mod-dollygirl shade (matched my go go boots) that was redolent of candied violet and a touch of rose. I loved it sooo much… and have been searching for that smell ever since!! Cheers, Karen

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.