My very first memory of all is a small memory. I’m maybe two years old, with my grandmother’s fingers clasped around mine as she rubs them over a scented geranium leaf in her cracked-pane, lean-to greenhouse.
She lifts my tiny fingers to my nose, I breathe in – and it feels as if my whole being is filled with a cloud of spiced green rosiness. So vivid is this smell memory, meanwhile, that when I rub my fingers today over the velvety petals of pelargonium Attar of Roses (for that’s what I discovered it was, years later), I can not only see my grandmother’s face, but the sprigged flower print on her very worn mauve frock. A cliché-d story? Perhaps. But for so many of us, our first scent memories seem to be linked with a beloved grandparent, who baked, or made jam, or gardened.
That’s the moment my sense of smell was awakened. But it truly blossomed in my early teens, thanks to a father who travelled widely for work and sought to assuage his guilt at being absent with lavish purchases at Duty Free for my mother and I. YSL Rive Gauche? Tick. Miss Dior? Tick. Diorella? Tick. Paco Rabanne Calandre? Tick. For a teenager, I had a surprisingly sophisticated scent collection – and a remarkably cluttered dressing table.
Fast-forward to my twenties, and my roles as journalist and magazine editor took me to many a swanky fragrance launch. The unveiling of YSL’s daring Opium, at San Lorenzo, with ‘face’ Jerry Hall in attendance. The ‘olfactory shock’ of the unveiling of Dior’s shocking Poison, which was commemorated by a full-length ballet at the London Hippodrome, its protagonists dressed in purple and green, as a cloud of that room-rocking, no, theatre-rocking scent was diffused into the air. When I finally escaped to get back to the office, headache thumping, a Poison-drenched crêpe-de-chine hankie (purple and green, again) was thrust into my hands. ‘Not so fast,’ it seemed to shriek. And again, at the launch of Angel – another seismic scent moment, when the PR had to ask me: ‘Jo, are you alright?’ That was years before I came to enjoy Angel. ‘Just getting my nose around it,’ I replied, stunned as if by a TASER at that precise moment.
A Springboard for Scent Training
It was when I first won a Jasmine Literary Award in 1991, though, that I set about trying to improve my sense of smell. I’d never enjoyed writing anything as much as that piece, trying to turn air into emotions and feeling like a butterfly-catcher must. And it became the springboard for embarking on a quest to train my nostrils. Or as it turned out, my brain – for as the trio of ‘noses’ who guided me on that journey all explained, that’s where it all happens. ‘Attach words to smells,’ they advised. ‘Smell everything and anything and free-associate. If it was a fabric, what would that particular smell be? A colour? A piece of music? That, the perfumers advised, was how they ‘fixed’ smells in their brains when learned to identify up to 4,000 molecules, as part of their training.
Over the following three weeks, I devotedly did the daily homework set by esteemed teachers Jean Kerléo (then at Jean Patou, who went on to set up the Osmothèque archive of fragrances, in Paris), Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud (now in-house perfumer at Louis Vuitton), and Karyn Khoury (the creative genius at Estée Lauder responsible for so guiding so many fragrances to market – including Tom Ford’s collection). And what to me felt like a miracle happened. I not only became better at identifying what I was smelling, but my sense of smell was so turbo-charged that I actually became able to smell things from further and further away. A whiff of aftershave in the park from a stranger at least 30 feet ahead of me. A flowering shrub, from around the corner. A Lush store, almost from the next town…! (Well, not quite. But it was still hugely impressive.)
So sensitive has my sense of smell become, actually, that a few years back I stepped out of a stuffy hotel just outside Copenhagen, longing for a walk. I got a whiff of curry, in the air. I couldn’t remember seeing an Indian restaurant in the hotel, which was rather in the middle of nowhere – but it got me salivating. To stretch my legs, I set off down a canal. Weirdly, the scent of spices got stronger and stronger – and curry house which I’d smelled ultimately turned out to be a full kilometre from my hotel.
That was my ‘eureka’ moment, when I realised: that’s what our noses were once biologically programmed to do. To seek out berries, in hedgerows. To alert us to the stealthy approach of a sabre-toothed tiger, perhaps. And today? Aside from affording us the pure pleasure of applying perfume – or occasionally telling us the gas was left on, or the milk’s off – this precious fifth sense has become dwarfed by society’s focus on sight and hearing.
But that Copenhagen epiphany made me realise: it doesn’t have to be like that. So over the years, I have soaked up advice from other perfumers on expanding my smelling powers. From scent superstar Anne Flipo: ‘Smell contrasting scents. For instance, smell a really fresh, citrus Cologne, followed by a spicy Oriental. The contrast makes it easier to think, write or speak about each one, to develop your olfactory vocabulary.’ From Honorine Blanc, another highly-respected perfumer: ‘Pay attention to all of the smells around you. Blind-smell your spices, in the kitchen, and try to figure out which is which. Smell plants. Smell wine. Most people go through life not thinking of smells, but when you start to notice them, there are just so many different and interesting things to smell – beyond fragrances themselves.’ And from rising star Sophie Labbé: ‘Open your nose. Be aware of all the smells around you. Start with the everyday smells you take for granted and then move onto perfumes, smelling as many as possible.’
Life as a Sniffer Dog
And I do, I do. That dressing table is more crowded than ever and I basically go through life a bit like a sniffer dog, seeking out whiffs of the perfumes on the skins of passers-by, or cooking smells wafting from restaurant kitchens – not to mention dusk strolls through the garden I’ve crammed with as many scented plants as I can, from star jasmine through to – yes, of course, how could I not?! – Attar of Roses geraniums.
Even more importantly, I’m trying to ‘pay it forward’, sharing with small people in my own life the magic of smell, one geranium leaf, one stem of sweet peas, one Gertrude Jekyll rose at a time. Will four-year-old Melisande think back in decades’ time and remember me wrapping her hand around a green, furry leaf, then lifting her fingers for her to sniff so delightedly? I rather suspect she will. And as legacies go, I couldn’t wish for more.
If you enjoyed this, read Melanie Cantor's piece on Scent, Sex Scenes and Success.