Aromatic Time Machine

Scents are quite literally the closest method we have to time travel. The power of scent is that our emotions are instantly activated before we have the chance to edit them.

One of my greatest challenges across the many moons that I have been a perfumer has been an attempt to put into language a practice whose currency and vocabulary are obscure, at best. The players are invisible, shadowy and almost impossible to describe and yet, they have the unparalleled ability to transport us back to a moment in time like no other mechanism in the world. Scent memories are immersive. Suddenly, you are back in that moment. In your 2nd grade classroom, you sit at your desk summoned back by the smell of freshly sharpened pencil shavings and paste. The memory is sharp and gentle at the same time. It’s as if you’re experiencing it through windows that have a little steam on them, softly filtering the memory.

I have all my clients fill out a “Fragrance Blueprint” before our appointment, so I can have a fundamental understanding of how to begin building their scent. One of the questions I ask is “Please write down any aromatic inspirations that you might have (walking in the forest after the rain, sunset at the beach with a fire burning, Lilac tree in bloom). Be as abstract or as specific as you wish.” This is where I find the good stuff. The unexpected aromatic cues. It is my favorite part of the fragrance profile to explore with my clients.

I had the opportunity to be interviewed for the #onethirtysomething Podcast about Fume recently and I asked the host, Kerrilynn Bass, to fill out the Fragrance Blueprint. Her answers to the aromatic inspiration question included “the smell of fall in Pennsylvania”. I pulled a bunch of oils to introduce to her, including a Myrrh that smells almost like a sweet burning wood. I knew that in order to make her connect with the robustness of the olfactory experience, I would need for her to smell the scents I had selected to match her blueprint, so before we began the interview, I asked her to smell. I saved the Myrrh for last, knowing she would have a strong reaction to it.

As she held the cap under her nose and inhaled, she looked up at me, her eyes misty with a rush of fresh tears. “Where are you right now?”, I asked her. “Tell me what’s going on”. “I’m standing on my old field hockey field. It’s mid-September in Westchester Pennsylvania. It smells like new beginnings. Everything is possible. My father is still alive.”

Among the Waterlily and Night Queen of Kerrilynn’s fragrance, tucked in between the Pacific Musk and Blood Orange, is a smell that reminds her of one of her deepest and most touching memories. It’s like hanging a cherished aromatic portrait on the invisible walls of the soul.

That is the transportive and evocative nature of scent.


Both books seen in the blog image were written by Amy Stewart, who in addition to having written 12 books, owns one of the last classic antiquarian book stores in the country. When my now husband and I took our first trip together to visit the Giant Sequoias in the Redwood Forest, it was no mistake that we were driving distance from Eureka, CA. where Ms. Stewarts book store can be found.

I casually suggested lunch in town knowing that my ultimate destination was Eureka Books with the hope that Ms. Stewart would be making a rare appearance… I fantasized about chatting her up in a quiet corner of the store and becoming her new best friend. Total girl crush territory.

Although Ms. Stewart was not at her store, we wandered through the quiet aisles and I took deep inhales of the scent of old books mixed with sunshine warmed ocean air and honey from the communal bee hives in the town center of Eureka. I was content… For that moment.

I, of course, made rigorous inquiry with the shop keeper to find out when Ms. Stewart would be back. I barely managed to walk out of the store without a Temporary Restraining Order to the great relief of my husband, who happens to be an attorney.

What does this story have to do with perfume? Obsession. Not the popular Calvin Klein fragrance that dominated the mid 80’s...

The olfactory realm invisibly pervades our subconscious with every breath we take, and yet, it eludes description. It is chaos and order. Shadow, memento, obscure and immediate. It is the one sense that does not censor. It offers indisputable truth and yet it lives around us in its nuanced camouflage gently tapping on the door to our hearts and spirits.

I have been obsessed with the world of fragrance since my best friend properly introduced it to me 27 years ago. Amy Stewart writes about the botanical world with the electric fervor of a scent obsessed junky. I can recognize the comparably afflicted. I consider her one of my tribe.

As we left, we decided to tempt fate and try the Zoltar Fortune Telling machine that sits in front of Eureka Books. My pulse quickened as I fed him my quarters and secretly wished it would print out a 50% off coupon so I could buy my own Zoltar and have it give out olfactory inspired fortunes…