Essay: Scent and Memory

by Lee C. Wallick on 20 February 2014

Writer and scent doyenne Lee Wallick talked to Margiela's perfumers to pen this evocative essay about the link between smell and memory.

Writer and scent doyenne Lee Wallick talked to Margiela's perfumers to pen this evocative essay about the link between smell and memory.

Illustration by Alexandra Levasseur

Proust was certainly on to something long before most when he vividly recalled the power of a spongy, almond-flavoured madeleine dunked in linden-flower tea. For scent is our super-power when it comes to memory. It stands alone amongst our senses. Many believe it is our first to develop. The way in which offspring recognise their mother. How our earliest ancestors determined whether not something would sustain or sap. Consider the very placement of our nose in front our mouth as an immediate warning system and the integral reliance of taste upon smell. It is both slow and speedy; ancient and awesome.

Whilst other messages travel at the speed of light and sound, scent saunters along in tiny molecule collectives hitching rides along breezes and the like. And yet, because the olfactory bulb, where we process scent, is nestled up with the brain regions which control emotion and memory, smell pips our other senses to the post in terms of instant processing. The intertwined cortical relationship between feelings, recollection and fragrance is long and resolute. And our earliest associations tend to be the strongest.

Our first olfaction experiences naturally tend to be of warm skin and vanillan mother's milk, soon followed by our first foods. The rest is down to personal experience. The distinct odour of a beloved childhood blanket can snap us straight back into comfort. A whiff of the perfume a first love doused themselves with sends us immediately to those awkward moments of youth. The nuances of changing seasons signalled by the succession of winter's cherry pie plant (heliotrope), heady-meets-near-astringent notes of spring bulbs, followed by summer's aldehyldic fresh cut grass, indolic jasmine, enveloping honeyed roses right through to the wet leaves and wood smoke of autumn, chart our life's course. All of which lay in wait as our virtual time machine.

Herewith the perfumers responsible for producing Maison Martin Margiela's Replica scents tap into their own memory banks and share the moments that inspired their fragrances and the sure-fire scents to transcend time and place.

Marie Salamagne - Flower Market, Beach Walk and Funfair Evening

Flower Market: a strong floral accord of Grasse rose petals, Sambac jasmine and tuberose combined with cedar and moss notes.

Beach Walk: fresh and radiant notes of bergamot, lemon, pink pepper and ylang ylang, Beach Walk evokes hints of ocean spray.

Funfair Evening: a sweet accord, containing apple, caramel and orange blossom notes broken up with hints of musk and amber to reveal an ambience of the funfair.

Lee Wallick: What is your earliest memory?

Marie Salamagne: The smell of a baking yogurt cake. I remember my Mum cooking it for our birthdays, graduations and sometimes, on special Sundays. As I became a mother myself, my children and I, altogether, make the same recipe. The fabulous warm and sweet trail of vanilla sugar brings me fond memories of moments I spent with her. Its soft texture, its creamy flavour are deeply linked to my childhood.

LW: Which scents have the longest reach?

MS: The smell of the vanilla sugar my mum used in her cakes. Its addictive yet reassuring smell enlightened with a floral note can’t leave you indifferent. Using this facet in my accords allows me to add some of this deep and “yummy” memory.
Ambrox, that I discovered later on, produces the same emotions for me. Its luminous and warm note, mineral and woody facets, drag me into a soft “non sugary” addiction. The more you smell it, the more you want to smell it

Sugar undeniably evokes in us childhood and reinsurance. It is a universal ingredient because the birth of taste begins with the sweet and sugary.

Louise Turner - Lazy Sunday Morning

A heavy, enveloping floral fragrance, with notes of lily of the valley and patchouli in its purest form, melt together into a white abyss. A festival of white and creamy musk, lifted by an aldehyde note boosting the sensation of freshly washed laundry, dried-out in the blazing sunshine. The fresh fragrance takes its inspiration from silky-smooth skin, crumpled linen sheets and the reassuring scent of fresh laundry.

LW: What is your earliest memory?

Louise Turner: I think the memories that resist time are those which have a strong emotional content. Mine goes back to when I was 3 years old. My mother had just given birth to my little sister. Her arrival, the place she will take, were all questions I asked myself because I was not going to be an only child, but my life would be changed.

LW: If different, what is your earliest scent memory?

LT: It’s not original, it is the scent of my mother: my relationship with her scent is so special, a blend of admiration and childish respect. She liked to wear opulent fragrance, like Orientals and Chypres, always very perfuming. Magie Noire by Lancôme, Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, Ma Griffe by Carven affect me the same way as Proust's madeleine. Ultimately, they are the first famous perfumes that I could smell in my work as a perfumer.

The smell of my father also influenced me. He was chemist but one of his passions was the wood. He used to work the wood, cut it into small pieces to create beautiful objects. I intensely remember the smell of sawdust which mingled with the cigarette that he was smoking. Those smells fascinated me and continue to fascinate me.

Finally, I think it is when we grew up as we realize that these odors that have permeated our olfactory memory of child provide us a very comforting smell.

LW: Which scents have the longest reach?

LT: I think sugar undeniably evokes in us childhood and reinsurance. It is a universal ingredient because the birth of taste begins with the sweet and sugary. When we are baby, we drank milk that contains sweet and sugary notes. Then the first foods we eat are carrots and apples, two more delectable notes, sweet and containing sugar.

The smell of freshly cut grass instantly reminds us the image of warm summer afternoon.

There is also the smell of honeysuckle and rose instantly evokes the smell of the garden with the green, rosy, wet, fresh and natural notes. To me, they remind me of an English garden, where I grew up in Kent, in southern England.

White Musks also evoke the cocooning and softness, both enveloping and reassuring that can remind sometimes the skin.

Alienor Massenet - Jazz Club

Woody, oriental, sweet and intoxicating. A rich score, with a fresh vibrato at the start and a trio of pink peppercorns, citrus and neroli. Its rum notes play with orange and bitter orange, enriched with sage. A balmy base scent, styrax is added to vanilla, tonka bean, vetiver, and tobacco leaves, lending an overall melody of leather and liquor.

LW: What is your earliest memory?

Alienor Massenet: I was 5 years old, a little ballerina, wearing a wonderful white tutu and a cute diadem during my first presentation at Champs Elysees Theater. I was in the first row and there were all those gorgeous ballerinas dancing behind me… 

LW: If different, what is your earliest scent memory?

AM: The scent of Bledina, a typical French cereal for babies and children. It has a grain smell wrapped in vanilla notes.

LW: Which scents have the longest reach?

AM: It’s clearly the vanilla scent, intimately linked to mothers and, consequently, to childhood. Mother’s milk has a vanilla smell with mild musk facets. After this period of breast-feeding, everything depends on where children grew up: for someone from the countryside, the longest scent memories can be solar and herbaceous. For someone raised in the heart of a big city, this memory can be built on stronger and more aggressive smells, like exhaust fumes.

Carols Benaim - Promenade in the Garden

A floral scent built around the intense femininity of Turkish rose and woody, elegant heart of patchouli allied with sandalwood and vetiver. Astonishing volume, starting with a crunchy greenness you can almost taste and a magisterial floral flight of fancy, leads us into the heart of an English garden.

LW: What is your earliest memory?

Carols Benaim: Being dressed like a Pierrot [clown] when I was two or three years old.

LW: If different, what is your earliest scent memory?

CB: The smell of Craven A (an English cigarette) and mint in my father’s hands.

LW: Which scents have the longest reach?

CB: In my opinion, the ingredient with longest recall is Veltol* because of the sweet tooth and its gourmand notes that remind us of our childhood.

*cotton candy, caramel, freshly baked bread



Essay: Perfume by Viktor&Rolf

15 December 2004
Shelf Appeal: Penny Martin on the extreme beauty of Viktor&Rolf's most commercial offering.

Essay: Radical Scent

25 September 2008
Violence: Bethan Cole on the rise of the high-concept fragrance in contemporary perfumery.

Essay: Safer Steps

09 February 2001
Safer Steps: Paul Hunwick on the life and work of contemporary British poet Andy Stick.
Back to top