How the ‘Noses’ Behind Your Favorite Perfume Brands Translate Everyday Experiences Into Scent—Plus 8 Fragrances To Transport You To Simpler Times
We've all had those experiences of being hit with a scent that immediately transports us into moments we haven't thought about in months, if not years. The wafting scent of fresh bread from your neighborhood bakery immediately evokes memories of your grandmother's bustling kitchen; the crisp vegetable smell of your neighbor’s freshly cut grass brings you back to your childhood soccer games; a whiff of a new notebook conjures your first day of Freshman year.
“The part of the brain that processes odor sensation is anatomically linked with the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions and emotional memories,” says Pam Dalton, Ph.D, MPH, a cognitive psychologist at The Monell Center, a non-profit institute that researches taste and smell. “There is a primacy to olfactory sensation, so that when we smell them and they’re associated with something from the past, you recall them and feel like [you’re] back there.”
Much of the fragrance industry has been built on exactly this principle. Think: Vacation-inspired scents that make you feel like you're lounging on a Mediterranean beach (like Tom Ford's Neroli Portofino) or juniper-heavy formulas that make it feel like Christmas all year round (like Ellis Brooklyn's Apres). But recently, brands have started to play with the scent-brain connection in an entirely new way, creating fragrances that translate mundane, everyday experiences into scents you want to spritz on your skin. Lucky for us, the results are often extraordinary—and occasionally, a little weird.
So, how exactly do you bottle memories and experience through fragrance? Keep reading to find out more.
Turning real life (and obscure ideas) into fragrances
For the most part, the average person can’t always articulate what fragrance notes encapsulate an everyday experience, unless there is a food component, like "vanilla" or "birthday cake," as these are generally easier to describe in terms of scent. "Noses" (which is what fragrance formulators are often referred to), on the other hand, are masters at translating an abstract reference into a medley of notes and eventually a stand-alone fragrance.
“I have a catalog in my mind of how things smelled so I can recall them when working on perfumes,” says David Moltz, co-founder and perfumer at beauty editor-favorite brand D.S. & Durga. “It is very cool that we can smell something and instantly be brought back to a place—especially one we may have forgotten about. That's usually how you know that the same aroma chemicals were present at that time, [like] smelling orange gum and remembering a certain deli you went to as a kid.”
Moltz is known for crafting non-traditional scents (both perfumes and candles), with obscure references that are not always seen in the world of fragrance, like the recent "Pasta Water" candle (which smells just like the starchy water you dump out of your spaghetti pot), and a "Jesus Feet" fragrance that he developed for an art show in 2022. “I made that [scent to give] an idea as to what it might have smelled like when Mary washed Jesus' feet with a whole tub of spikenard. I like to add fantasy to everyday life, like, how can a plumeria tree in Turks and Caicos be a portal to all other tropical regions?”
If the freshly cleansed toes of religious leaders aren’t your thing, there are plenty of fragrance options that inspire more traditional olfactory memories. “Vacations, tropical destinations, or a spring garden are often experiences that can be easily translated into fragrances, because they typically speak to people in a similar way,” says Givaudan senior perfumer Olivia Jan.
She explains that although scent is still very personal for everyone, there are certain notes that can transport you to these types of destinations. For example, watery, marine freshness can spark memories of the beach, while fresh green and crisp notes paired with lily of the valley and freesia evoke spring. “If done in a gourmand way, hints of vanilla can often transport the wearer back to their childhood; however, if paired with patchouli or darker notes, it might evoke a more sexy, sensual state of mind,” she adds.
Occasionally, these blends spark enough of an enthusiastic group response that they become instant fan-favorites, like Vacation’s SPF, which the founders tout as “The World’s Best-Smelling Sunscreen.” It became so popular that the brand eventually launched an eau de toilette, collaborating with Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Givaudan vice president of perfumery, and Carlos Huber, founder of Arquiste Parfumeur.
“I wanted to capture the peak days of summer when you're lounging by a pool,” says Flores-Roux on formulating Vacation’s signature smell. “There were obvious references, like suntan lotions, summery cocktails, et cetera, but we infused the composition with more conceptual scents to conjure an impression of the inflatable pool toy drying under the noon sky, the shimmer of pool water, and plastic-like swimsuit Lycra.”
To capture those references, Flores-Roux and Huber looked to the classic notes in American, European, and Australian sunscreens: bright citrus, orange flower, monoi flower, pineapple, banana, and coconut. For a boost of sophistication with some of the more esoteric references, thue turned to “electrified ozonic notes with subtle hints of inflatable pool toys and chlorine notes that evoke swimming pools.” Together, the fragrance has become one of the most recognizable, and beloved, olfactory renditions of summertime to hit the market in recent years.
The art of perfumery and the science of cognition
Of course, nailing the exact compounds that make up real-life scents, like a cup of coffee, isn’t an exact science—perfumery is an art, and targeting specific emotions and memories with fragrance is even more so. That means you’ll never perfectly replicate real-life smells in a bottled fragrance. Rather, a perfumer hopes to invoke the experience of being in that place or near that object IRL with an expertly formulated blend of notes.
As Dr. Dalton explains, “Everything in nature is so complex. You could do a chemical analysis of a rose and there are probably 400 volatile materials from [it], but when you recreate that you're not looking to put all of them in there (that would be exorbitantly expensive and not very useful) so you'd look for the 3-5 compounds that would be most representative [of that thing] and hope that that would be enough to give everybody the experience of a pine forest, or the smell of a salty ocean.”
No matter the experience you’re hoping to replicate with your next perfume purchase, it’s at least helpful to know that brands and perfumers are continuing to push the boundaries of fragrance in the hopes of bottling even more olfactory memories. And with new perfume brands and launches arriving at your local Sephora almost every week, a vacation in a bottle might be much easier than you think.
Current and former restaurant workers (or dedicated at-home chefs) will recognize the biting tang of bell pepper, basil, and coriander from the kitchen line upon first sniff. While the bark of your head chef isn’t included, the mouth-watering scent will easily recall your time in the depths of a bustling line.
Tennis fans will recognize the distinctive flavor of opening a fresh can of tennis balls on a warm summer day as soon as they strike a match. Paired with the green notes of cucumber sandwiches, warm cotton towels, and the brand’s signature sunscreen, this candle will help transport you courtside all year long.
If you’re unfamiliar with “blue medicine,” the idea that water positively impacts your mental health, this marine-inspired scent is a fantastic introduction. A calming blend of seaweed, salt, cardamom, and rose will carry you away to a lakeside retreat in the mountains or the coast of Oregon with just a few spritzes.
Anyone who was alive in the ‘90s knows that smell of a fresh pair of Wrangler or Calvin Klein jeans. That cotton musk is paired with mimosa flowers for an ideal spring scent that’s just begging for a place on your coffee table.
Waterlilies, white flowers, and rainforest vetiver perfectly capture the essence of a rainy day without any of the frizz-inducing humidity. With a base of musk and patchouli, the richness of the fragrance proves that rain is always a good choice when it comes to your perfume collection.
A fresh solar fragrance might not be your first thought when you want to capture that beachy energy, but the added floral and salty notes of heliotrope, coconut milk, and musk evoke your favorite summer vacation with ease.
The sweat of a thousand other dancers, making out on a velvet banquet with cigarette smoke in the air—it’s all perfectly encapsulated in this candle. If you can’t make it to Paris’ underground scene for a while, burn this at home with the lights turned low.
You might not think that paper would make such an enticing fragrance, but this crisp white musk is here to prove you wrong. The brand’s newest release uses notes of steamed rice, sparkling mimosa, and rich blonde wood to capture the distinct grain of paper and diluted ink that smells even richer and more delicious throughout the day.
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