The power of scent

By Caitlin Kelly

The first time I met my husband, the evening ended with an unusual flourish when he took off the red silk Buddhist prayer shawl he’d worn as a muffler and wrapped me in it. Its soft folds smelled of his cologne, 1881.


I love fragrance, especially those  created by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Diptyque, Creed, Joe Malone and Hermes.

I discovered this one, Escale a Portofino by Dior, in a duty-free shop. Created in 2008, it’s light and citrus-y, as are many of my favorites like this, “O’ de Lancome, launched in 1969. Delicious!

Have you ever sniffed “Diorissimo”, created in 1956? It’s like stepping into a huge field of lily of the valley and jasmine! As a teenager, I used to babysit for a woman who wore it — her home smelled so delicious as she prepared to go out for the evening.

Scent has such tremendous power.

My late stepmother, a ferocious creature, wore Caleche, a crisp number by Hermes. I’d like to wear it as well, but still consider it “hers.”

One of the craziest/sexiest beaux in my past wore Kouros. If I smell someone wearing it today, my knees still buckle a bit at the memories…

Twinings brand Earl Grey tea leaves
Twinings brand Earl Grey tea leaves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the worst days, a few smells can instantly soothe me — Earl Grey tea, fresh lilacs, pinon, the ocean, dried, sun-warmed pine needles, sweetgrass, Roger & Gallet’s carnation-scented soap, well-worn leather, Balkan Sobranie loose pipe tobacco, a clean dog or horse.

Catholics are accustomed to one of my favorite smells — that of the incense, swung vigorously from a censer, during Mass — which Episcopalians use much less frequently, often deriding its use as “smells and bells.”

Jose and I share an unlikely childhood memory of Maja soap — a favorite of his father, (a Baptist minister in New Mexico) and my mother, (a sophisticated bohemian traveling the world for years.) It was created in 1921, and is Spanish, still made by Myrurgia.

English: Display bottle by PENHALIGON'S, Londo...
English: Display bottle by PENHALIGON’S, London, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wear a British scent created in 1902 for men, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet, which Burberry designer Christopher Bailey recently named as the smell he’s been wearing since childhood. The bottle is elegant, understated, with a stiff gray grosgrain bow and a little bulbous cap.

As someone working alone at home most of the time, I can (sadly) go for days without putting on nice clothes or make-up.

But I wear scent daily.

Other favorites include Tiempe Passate and Prada Iris.

What are some of your favorite smells?

27 thoughts on “The power of scent

  1. Oh, Caitlin- you’re so right about scents!

    To this day, anytime I smell violets, it takes me back to my first real crush, an older boy from summer camp as a 15 year old. I used to send him letters on sweet flowery tissue-like stationery scented with violet- until I found out he was two-timing me and another girl! My first heartbreak was scented with violets.

    Windsong, from Prince Matchabelli- ‘your Windsong stays on my, Windsong stays on my…mind” – this was my grandmother, once and always.

    My husband and I were having a new white wine out on the deck last night and I told him I couldn’t get past the aroma. It reminded me of a pet store. It took a while but I finally figured out the scent was cedar, like in pet beds! Not a keeper!

    Thanks for bringing back the sweet memories. Jose sounds like a gorgeous thoughtful soul!

  2. The smell of cheap perfume takes me straight back to a night when my mothers friend came over wearing something that smelled inexpensive. That same night we all contracted the 24 hour flu. Lots of vomiting from 6 family members…dad was spared (or was he?) haha and now I’m only reminded of that night if I smell something cheap smelling.

    My favourite scents are (Stella – by Stella McCartney) and Alien by Thierry Mugler.
    They are extreme opposites. The former being fresh, light roses. The second being dark, amber mysterious.

  3. I’m allergic to almost everything that can be inhaled, so I miss out on a lot–between the stuffiness that immediately hits me and the underlying sort of all the time stuffiness. But, there is something terribly magical about this first step out of the plane into the Indira Gandhi Intl airport in New Delhi: a mixture of dirty toilet, mold, moth balls, incense, and smoke. Not entirely pleasant, but wonderfully familiar.

  4. 🙂 For some reason, Maja soap is a staple in many drawers in my family’s house…

    I have to be careful with perfumes because many of them start to smell too different when they react with me. I’ve had luck with Cartier and wear the cologne almost always, crisp and soapy. Another favorite got discontinued. Balenciaga’s Ho-Hang, which I loved and is now impossible to get.

  5. This was a wonderful post–thank you! I am currently wearing either Amber by Prada in small does or Florabotanica by Balenciaga. But I have worn cheaper scents if they hit that “ahhh” button in the brain. Another fave scent? Leaves in atutumn all in a pile, leaves burning in autumn, wood burning in winter on the beach–a common factor here…. And give me the perfume of newly blooming lilac bushes in spring and a good, organic peppermint tea. I cannot wear what a man I once married gave me who was not kind–he was gone in a year and so, too, the delicious but dangerous scent (Roma). Once I was shaken up when a scent that my first true love from over 40 years ago never wore then but wears presently. I haven’t seen him in over thirty-five years. Don’t ask me how I know what he has been wearing…a very strange story, but this is not my post! Just a reply! Thanks for the education and fun!

  6. fresh squeezed lemons and basil in the kitchen – sensual, jergens hand lotion (almond and cherry original scent) instantly transforms me to a happy place in my childhood, chanel no. 5 – the scent of my mother as she prepared to go out for a ‘fancy’ evening out with my father, freshly mown grass – the scent of security, my father home and mowing our lawn. scent is one of the most powerful of the senses for me –

  7. I love the way scents trigger memories. My stepdad used to wear Royall Bay Rhum 20 years ago, and I can’t help but think of him when I smell it to this day. Same goes for Barbasol with my dad. I prefer Frankincense and Myrrh bar soap. I know it is associated with Christmas, but I love it year ’round. If I could find a cologne that had hints of earl grey in it, I’d wear it. I love that smell as well. As for places, spruce always transports me of the Pacific Northwest and mint julep to the Round Bar at the Hotel Willard in DC.

    1. LOVE all of these. Brooks Brothers still sells the Royall Bay Rhum and I’ve considered buying it for Jose. I did find him a few bottles of Gray Flannel — and every time he wears it he remembers wearing it to his successful NYT job interview in the 80s.

      I bet you could easily find a scent with bergamot (the Earl Grey scent) in it..

  8. My first real love wore “Canoe”. When we exchanged letters back and forth I asked that he sprinkle some “Canoe” on the paper. I wore my mother-in-law’s scent for many years but then went back to what I wore when I was a young woman – Chanel #5. I also love Chanel’s “Coco”. We just drove through the very wet forests and mountains of Colorado – a dank, wormy, woodsy smell – inhaled that!

    1. Coco is a lovely scent. I’ve worn it as well.

      Loved your description of the drive — I remember a night drive down the tiny back roads of North Carolina and the car smelled of jasmine. Amazing.

  9. I loved this post. I grew up in Catholic school and remember the smell of incense. I laughed out loud about “Maja” soap. My cousin Richard worked for a cruise line when I was little and always brought me soap from all over the world. I remember Maja being one of them. Memories.

  10. Jane

    After 18 years together my husband wearing Aramis still makes me go weak at the knees! I also love the old scents – Chanel No. 5, Cinabar and Ysatis are some of my cool weather favorites and Miss Dior in the hot weather!

  11. Smells I love…….My grandmother’s dinner rolls. Pacific Ocean’s mist of salt. White Gardenias. Morning Folger’s coffee (which I didn’t drink) that my parents use to percolate every morning. Freshly cut grass. Fresh cilantro. Lavender bubble bath soap.

    I am chemically sensitive so perfumes are out, but improved enough that I can use natural oils now and loving it!!!

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