The power of scent

Lilac — the best!

Like some of you, perhaps, I’m obsessed with fragrance, and not a day goes by (unless an appointment in small shared spaces) without wearing perfume — currently in rotation are Terre by Hermes (winter only), L’Eau de l’Artisan by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Chanel No. 5, Prada Iris and Herbae, a spontaneous purchase this year, by L’Occitane.

So this story from Spain was perfect.

He leads “smelling tours”:

“Smell goes directly to your emotions, you are crying, you don’t know why,” Mr. Collado expounded as the others leaned in. “Smelling has a power that none of the other senses have, and I must tell you now, it is molecular, it goes to the essence of the essence.”

Our lives are filled with scents, some pleasant, some less so and they can so powerfully evoke memories.

When we married, in September 2011 in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto harbor, I was so deeply comforted by the smell of sun-warmed wood — a cherished memory of my summers at camp, where we slept in wooden cabins and all our buildings were made of wood.

Some of my favorite smells include:

jet fuel (!), motorboat gas (I think it’s the connotation of motion/travel!), cut grass, sun dried pine needles, the ocean, coffee grounds, Balkan Sobranie pipe tobacco, gardenia, lilac, the peppery scent of marigolds, the briny smell of fresh oysters, good leather — shoes or a saddle or a lovely old jacket, new books!

Jose and I have an odd scent we both love, from our childhoods — the distinctive but subtle fragrance of an olive green Spanish soap and perfume called Maja. It still comes wrapped in black tissue paper.

Created in 1921, here’s a description of it:

Top notes are Geranium, Citruses, Tobacco and Orange Blossom; middle notes are Carnation, Cloves, Nutmeg, Rose, Lavender, Leather and Jasmine; base notes are Patchouli, Cypress, Tonka Bean, Amber, Benzoin and Oakmoss.

I adored a Roger & Gallet soap with the spicy scent of carnation as well but (sob!) it seems to have been discontinued.

The night I met Jose in March 2000 he wore a delicious scent — 1881 — whose top notes also include carnation, juniper, lavender and cypress, created in 1990. He was wearing a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (!) as a muffler and, at the end of the evening, took it off and wrapped me in it.


Perhaps my favorite memory of scent is the week I spent alone traveling across the Balagne, the northern tip of Corsica, by mo-ped. It was July and I drove across endless fields of the low, scrubby brush known as maquis, a mix of fragrant plants — sun-warmed, their fragrance filled my nostrils. So sensual!

What are some of your favorite smells, and why?

20 thoughts on “The power of scent

  1. What do you think of Herbae? I tried it but found it didn’t last very long on my skin. I like the scent though. My favourite L’Occitane perfume is Terre de Lumiere L’eau — such a gorgeous fragrance.

    I know what you mean about the scent of the fragrant plants in Corsica. I spent a lot of time in Greece when I was growing up and I love the smell that rises from the ground, especially after a hot, sunny day as dusk is beginning to fall.

    Other favourites: freshly ground coffee beans, hay, clean linen, invigorating sea air.

      1. Their perfumes and eau de toilettes are lovely. Never too overpowering.

        Have you tried Jo Malone? She produced a range of scents for Zara (a popular Spanish chain here in the UK) which are the same quality as her originals but at a very affordable price. I’m keen to try the Bergamot & Leather one!

      2. David Holzman

        My impression is that perfumes have to harmonize with the wearer’s natural scent. There was a period of several years in my long-ago 20s when I was in a passionless relationship with a woman. At the time, I frequently came into contact with women who had perfume on that smelled wonderful. I’d ask them what they were wearing. Half the time, it was Halston.

        So I bought some Halston for my then girlfriend. It did nothing for her.

        These preferences are quite personal, though. After we split up, a guy at her work fell madly in love with her, and they got married.

      3. David Holzman

        I haven’t bought perfume for anyone in the 40-odd years since, but if I do, I’ll take your advice. Thanks Caitlin.


  2. I love certain scents as well, and smell is one of our strongest memory senses. my go to’s are the original cherry and almond jargons lotion (brings me back to childhood), vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, and baby’s heads. ) great memory of you and Jose –

    1. Those childhood memories, for sure! I am positive my mother always used Maja — when her final boxes of belongings were sent to us from Canada, there was a bar of it in them.

      Clean baby is a great smell…also horse!

  3. The scent of the woman I’m going out with.
    I can’t conjure it up anymore–I could until some time in the last the last ten years–the new car smell of my parents’ ’57 Chevy.
    Good coffee.
    We lived in Menlo Park the summer I turned 4. The scent of the earth there.
    The scent of spring in Massachusetts.

  4. I’m also a big fan of WD-40. If they made an after shave, that could be the most popular men’s personal care product since shaving cream. I’ve heard that girls like a guy who smells like he can do stuff so she doesn’t have to all the time. And let’s face it-that’s why men’s personal care products exist. Sawdust worked for me.

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