A Scents of Memory and Desire
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary
Perfumes, odors and aromatics of every description have been captured and enjoyed by man since early civilization. In Athens and Corinth, perfumers' shops were frequented as coffee houses are today. According to an old perfumery book titled “A Practical Guide for the Perfumer”, scents were offered in homage to gods and goddesses, used to honor kings and glorify heroes. In ancient Rome, the public love for perfume grew so fervid that people rubbed their dogs, horses, walls and furniture with whatever odors they could afford.
I sit enchanted in a brightly lit perfumer’s shop nestled among the art galleries of Roosevelt Row, a cup of earthy tea steaming before me. Charlie Parker wails in the background and my arm is a collage of scent. I am calm and dizzy now from having inhaled so many different aromas.
Violet Brand, the perfumer and owner of Revera Beauty sits across from me, a voodoo twinkle in her eye. What began as a fascination with aromatherapy thrust Brand, lovestruck, into the world of scent. Her early perfuming experiments evolved into a love affair with the craft. Though scent is intangible, she draws her inspiration from the physical world.
“That's the great thing about making perfumes,” she says. “You can be inspired from the grass outside or going on a walk or somebody that walks by you.”
Violet leaves the table where we sit to consider a bottle of molasses-colored cologne.
“That Bhodi fragrance is based on someone I know. It's kind of masculine; you should try it on,” she says, offering me the bottle.
Violet worked for some time as a gardener in a national park. The cologne was inspired by a young Native American man she met there who ran the horse stables. She was once plagued by a month-long cough, and he went out in the cold to gather wild licorice and dandelion root, telling her to assemble them into a tea. The next day, her cough was gone.
“Getting to learn from somebody who was so connected with the land was amazing,” she says. “This is what inspired me to make this fragrance, this person who taught me so much.”
The cologne smells of pine. It leaves the silver-capped spray bottle in a fine mist and I can see the damp woods in my mind's eye. There floats the anise note of licorice root in the air and I can taste the healing warmth of tea on my lips. The base of the blend is amberette, a natural musk and the earthy, masculine smell melts into woody cedar. For an instant, I see the man's long hair fluttering in the howling wind, surrounded by horses plodding through fragrant wood chip bedding.
Brand sprays a sample on her own wrist and exhales dreamily and I know she sees the same. Odor memory is impervious to time — it serves the primitive function of ensuring that events involving food, people or places are not forgotten.
Jenna Hutchinson, an anthropology and American Indian studies freshman, remembers her grandmother in the scent of Red Door by Elizabeth Arden, a rich perfume bursting with rose, honey and spice. Hutchinson will sometimes walk through crowds of strangers and catch a hint of the perfume: “It feels like my grandmother is there,” she says.
People are commonly tied to scents. Brand says that Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, wore Frankincense as perfume and had their house plastered with its essence. When they separated, her memory still haunted his abode; Napoleon had to tear down the house to rid it of her presence.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary
Perfumes are derived from essential oils that yield thick lipids — the distilled aromatic compounds of plants. They are renowned for their effects on the mind, but the oils can be expensive. A small half-ounce bottle of Tuberose oil, the size of the uppermost segment of my middle finger, cost Brand $200.
“This is Vetiver,” she tells me, smiling and places a drop on my forearm. Known as the “Oil of Tranquility” in India, this deeply relaxing oil has been used for centuries in tantric rituals. I inhale. The Vetiver is earthy and smoky, like a campfire extinguished by rain. It has a subtle nuttiness to it, like peanut butter, and smells musty, like an old tree.
Lost in the wafts of Vetiver, my mind wanders into a labyrinth of scent. I look to my yellow steno pad to ask Brand more questions, but can't seem to fashion words from the page. I smile dumbly and scratch my head. On the interview's tape, there is a long pause.
Brand laughs and offers me a smell of Mandarin oil, a tropical citrus that smells like an orange rolled in dirt. She tells me that in Japan, citrus oils are pumped through office air vents because the aroma promotes better work ethic and improves focus. I take a whiff of mandarin oil and the Vetiver haze dissipates. She invites me to smell more, taking several bottles down from their shelves: cinnamon, bay, black pepper, neroli.
“All of these things help entice and stir emotions within us and they've been known to do it for ages,” she says. I am dizzy with scent before I realize she's hypnotizing me, bending my emotions with each bottle and sniff.
Smell is an old sense. The olfactory bulb, the mind's center for processing scent, is housed within the limbic system, which is a part of the brain devoted to primal instincts like emotion, motivation and hormone production. It regulates a person’s feelings and emotions. The art of perfumery, says Brand, revolves around evoking memories and emotions using scent.
A waft of scent generally enacts emotional, sometimes instinctive, responses. Because the olfactory sense is so ingrained in the primitive brain, aroma prompts little evaluation on the part of its observer. Instead, people tend to have immediate emotional reactions to aromas and act in accordance with them.
Hollywood tragedy speaks to the emotional power of scent. According to a New York Times article, on Sept. 6, 1932, a starlit marriage was cut short in its second month by suicide. Paul Bern was married to Jean Harlow, the actress and sex symbol known as the “blonde bombshell.” Plagued by impotence, Paul doused himself in Mitsouko, his wife's favorite perfume, and wrote a note:
This is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out all my abject humiliation.
You understand that last night was only a comedy.
Paul left her the note before taking his own life. Such a comfort was the smell of his beloved that he chose it as the last thing he sensed before shooting himself in the head with a .38 caliber revolver.
“Jasmine,” Brand says. “Jasmine is my go-to.” She places a drop of oil on my arm. The jasmine is earthy and sweet, like cool floral sweat. One of the chemical components in jasmine smells similar to natural body odor — that dank, salty smell that's horrid on anyone but a lover.
“Women are really drawn to dark, danky smells,” she says.
Brand says a test of love is to lie with someone after they've worked out or taken a run. Should the scent of their sweat prove irresistible, the love is true.
But not all scents are dark and seductive.
“Dill is a sparkle in my eye. It's bright; it bubbles,” she says.
She places a drop on a smelling strip. Salty and sour, it smells like pickle brine.
“Now smell these together,” she offers, placing two drops of dill and jasmine on the same strip.
The two notes blend to create something completely different; the dirty jasmine comes alive in the company of dill. What met my nose was smooth and warm, sparkling like fresh-poured champagne. I'm suddenly in high school again, gawking at a friend's peanut butter and pickle sandwich as we sit on damp grass, cutting English class in the park.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary
“The smell of freshly-cut grass makes me think of a summer house we had in New Jersey,” says Kayla Chan, an English literature freshman. The house was old. Peeling blue paint flaked from its facade onto the grass. There was a pine tree out front. She remembers the crisp woody scent of sap, how it got everywhere, the spray of the ocean five minutes from the house.
Scent is a time machine — a gateway to the past for the body’s olfactory glands. In it mankind stores memories of old and new, of those lost and living.
“Every oil has a meaning,” Brand says. And so does every scent.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @scotchandfoie