December 31, 2016
Great Glen Way, Scotland, stock photo
Should auld acquaintance be forgot/and never called to mind?
These poignant words, more plaintive than questioning, were first asked by Scots poet Robert Burns in 1788. They extol, rather than question, the importance of holding onto the past: its bittersweetness, its joys, its inevitable sorrows. Of scent, the same question may be asked. Smell, so intrinsic to memory that both abilities are rooted in the same part of our brain, makes us relive experience and place like so many Ghosts of Christmas Past.
Photo by Ekaterina Belinskaya
So, as we poise on the verge of a new year, I look back at the last four decades and the perfumes that, although I did not know it then, would be distillations of a past time. And, on the rare occasions I return to these fragrances, I am back in the moments they remind me of as swiftly as I breathe them in.
Carmen Kass, photo by Phil Poynter for Muse, Winter 2007
My childhood began its turbulent ascent into adulthood in the late 70s. In 1976, the local gift shop sold those Coty solid perfumes that are now collector’s items, Love’s Baby Soft, and, my favorite, Love’s Rain, which I wore religiously throughout my freshman year of high school. It had the melancholy allure of wet lilacs and damp pavement, the colour grey bottled.
Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ad, 1981
But in Bloomingdales, where I bought my first lipstick (a too-dark burgundy from Borghese), I discovered my first adult perfume: YSL Rive Gauche (Michel Hy). That first spray of turpenic aldehydes and blond woods over rose and citrus was so startling to me, so different from what I had thought of as “perfume” that it made my heart pound.
Dabbing it on now, I am instantly back in my black turtleneck, a pale girl with Jaclyn Smith hair and Lee jeans, trawling through Fiorucci for sale items and learning to flirt on the breezeways of Woodlands High.
Chamade de Guerlain ad,1970s
The event of 1986 was my admission to Oxford, which I applied to in the cheerful certainty I would be rejected. When I got in, my shock gave way to two years of near-constant anxiety. One of my talismans against self-doubt was a perfume that made me feel part of the grandeur and grace of Oxford. Guerlain Chamade (Jean-Paul Guerlain), with its swaying, hyacinthine florals, was every image I had of Oxford in my mind encapsulated in scent: elegant and idiosyncratic as a Hawksmoor arch, its powdery dry down a prelude to dressing up for the summer balls. Even now, at those rare times I reach for Chamade, it is reserved for formal events, the olfactory equivalent of a diamond bracelet on my wrists.
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, photo by Douglas Fry
1996 was a hard year. I left England; a painful separation. I was rootless, sad, detached. The scent of that time is one I find hard to bear even now: Lagerfeld Chloe (Betty Busse). The bottle I had was a gift from my father on a business trip; I had worn it unthinkingly on and off during my many years in London. But in 1996, its smell threatened to pull my heart into pieces. Every dab was a friend whose laugh echoed, unseen; every cobble I crossed on the walk I made to Covent Garden countless Sundays. Even smelling its residue, I suddenly saw scenes from Berwick Street Market, caught the aroma of coffee in Old Compton Street and found myself watching the Thames from Waterloo Bridge. Wearing it was unthinkable.
Spice Market by Sylvia Dahdal
2006’s perfume, Hermes Poivre Samarkande (Jean-Claude Ellena), brought smells of warmth, the spices of the market stalls, dust, and clay, the rosewater aroma of loukhoum. I was working in Ankara, Turkey, and wearing a sample I had brought from the Hermes shop in Dublin. Poivre Samarkande became Ankara that summer: the buzzing heat, the way my eyes smarted from the glaring sunlight when I came indoors, the mingle of cardamom, paprika and sugar in the spice shops. With its soapy pepper and heat, and a dustiness that connotes velvet, I smell it and am transported to a discussion of politics with one of the shop owners in the old town, drinking apple tea from tiny glass cups.
Bearded irises, Digital photo, MC
And 2016? Last spring, with its endless rain and damp, is reawakened by the ashy, rooty iris of Naomi Goodsir Iris Cendre (Julian Rasquinet). I can almost feel the heat rising from the pavements and hear the buzz of cicadas with a splash of DSH Perfumes' lovely, laughing Hansa Yellow. And autumn, that serious time, is already stoppered in Tonatto Profumi’s lactonic, graceful Apeiron. But what the scent I most closely connect with this time in my life will be, only the future will tell me at its whim.
Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, Burning Down the House, London, photo by David Lachapelle, 1996
Burns’ lyrics recall memories of innocence, elation and separation, referencing the braes (hills) of the highlands, strewn with daisies, the streams in which he paddled and the oceans that parted him from loved ones. The events of our own histories are held in stasis by the aromas of those prior times, rekindled with a drop of the fragrances that former selves have lived in.
Edouard Vuillard, The Artist's Mother Opening A Door, 1891-1892
New perfumes bring the exhilaration of anticipation and tantalize with promise. But they are informed by what has come before them. There would be no Rive Gauche without Coty Chypre, no YSL Nu without Opium. So, no, these old acquaintances, whose potent familiarity bring joy, comfort and even pain, should not be forgot. They are doorways to experiences that open through scent and stay just ajar, beckoning us to remember.
For auld lang syne, my dear. For auld lang syne.
–Lauryn Beer, Editor