Extended Feature: Perfume

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Photography: Paulina Gallagher – 35 mm film


Chanel Mademoiselle: a classic scent that I have loved for years, but only recently have discovered its name. Upon catching a whiff of the warm citrus-jasmine-vanilla aroma, I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. I knew it had to be a common scent. In hopes of someday learning the name of the perfume, I sought help from anybody who I thought might be able to identify the scent when I described it as smelling like “mom.” It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that one of my friends was wearing the Chanel scent, and I was able to finally uncover the secret that had been tauntingly kept from me for so long.

Even though I am finally relieved of the cliffhanger of the anonymous scent, I am still intrigued by the different associations people made with various aromas. When I asked my friends and family, their answers ranged from humorous to endearing.

My aunt told me she loathes Channel Number 5, a perfume that most people love because it reminds her of a bad college roommate. My aunt will never be able to disassociate Chanel Number 5 with a bad experience because of a mild form of classical conditioning. But how did perfume use come to be a widespread ritual in the first place? And why do we so strongly associate scent with memories of people and places?

Ancient Egyptians originally used perfumes for religious purposes as well as for personal use. Different scents were used to indicate social status. Eventually, the idea of perfume was adopted by other cultures and would become a marketable product. In the 19th Century, progress in chemical intelligence would prompt the emersion of the perfume industry. Grasse, France was the epicenter for early commercialized scents and soon enough, in the 20th-century designers would begin to take perfume production into consideration. One of the earliest widely successful designer scents was the classic Chanel No. 5 that is evidently both loved and hated. More and more designers would take note of the economic success that came with perfume and would integrate it into their lines.

Why do so many people buy these perfumes? Perhaps because designer perfume is what most people can only just manage to afford from these brands;  like a taste of unattainable luxury. Maybe the perfume craze goes beyond the desire to own something that has the name of such respected brands and is actually a trajectory of our society’s obsession with scent.

People are so fixated on finding their signature scent that some even go so far as to ditch designer scents, but to create their own. Companies such as Nova and MCMC offer perfume admirers the chance to develop their own custom fragrance. In fact, both brands were surely enough originated in Grasse, France, the famous perfume capital.

According to Refinery 29, a study revealed that women seek out signature scent because it makes them more “memorable.” For some women it makes them feel more mature. For others, it makes them feel “luxurious.” And of course, some women simply just like smelling good.

It’s not surprising that smell is so strongly connected with associations between people and memories. According to Rachel Herz in a Psychology Today article, a Brown University neuroscientist, even upon first meetings with individuals, our sense of smell and emotions intersect. Both of these psychological factors are controlled within the limbic system, the house of the olfactory center, the amygdala (which controls emotion), and the hippocampus which controls memory.

However, this isn’t to say that signature scents are all permanent. Those of us who decide to take on the responsibility of a signature scent, often also decide to change our scents as time goes by. Many women adopt various scents throughout different stages of their lives. Just as people do, their fragrance evolves and matures with them.


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