Friday, July 12, 2013

Perfume Acting as a Time Capsule: Why We Will Forever Love What We Once Loved

It's an all too common observation with people I fragrance consult. "Tell me what perfumes you have enjoyed wearing in the past", I ask. They invariably reply with names of fragrances they wore when younger, like L'Air du Temps or Fidji or Dior's Farenheit; it varies. Young and older ones alike also love to reminiscence about things they loved in the turmoil of puberty, from Cacharel Loulou to CK one via Tatiana; I suppose it gives us a sense of nostalgia, a queer thrill of reliving a period of our lives when we were not so sure of certain things, innocent enough that we had faith before life bore its heavy blows crushing our dreams. Whether it was something cheap, brash or immature (Impulse body sprays anyone?) does not matter; the memory is there and the hold it has over our hearts reads like the delicious thrill we feel at the borderline segregating damnation from redemption. And because it is such a thin razor's edge, we continue our lives with a precarious, perverse pleasure derived from seeking for the elements we loved in every subsequent scent to be met, almost like a golden standard against which we judge everything that follows; the Mr.Darcy against which everyone else pales, the Heathcliff whose darkness embodies our secret yearnings, yearnings we have buried and mourned only on the surface. Yes, all too frequently the first fragrances we have loved remain our loves throughout our lives, unless perfume Nemesis -in the guise of allergens restrictions or business behemoths pennies-pinching- shutters the gilded foil and makes them unrecognizable. Only then can we continue to love them for what they once were; the seal of accepted, hard-earned maturity.


Contemplating what I just stated I realize "one's youth" is too restrictive. It's also rather inaccurate. "One's prime" is more like it when recalling a given fragrance with a pang of the heart. Shed a thought for my mother in law, for instance, who fondly associates with fragrances she wore in her mid-to-late 30s, because that's the time frame she held a glamorous job that involved international air travel, first class, all over the world. Or a good friend who wore  Gucci pour Homme (from 2003) in his 40s when courting his second wife who proved to be everything he had wished for the first time around. My first Serge Lutens bell jar was La Myrrhe and I was feeling on top of the world when I bought it; I still love it to bits.

Perfume itself is cyclical: like fashion (which famously can be so atrocious that it has to change every six months) it alters its key syntax to reflect a changing world with changing needs. This is why every decade of the 20th century has roughly had its own fragrance background, from the impressionistic scents of La Belle Epoque to the orientals of the 1920s (boosted by the success of Guerlain Shalimar), the advancement of floral aldehydic perfumes, the 1940s and 1950s feminine chypres deriving from the iconic Mitsouko, the hippie revolution with patchouli and musk, the career women of the 1980s with their strong aura of Poison, Obsession and Giorgio up till the 1990s and the watery ozonics exemplified by L'Eau d'Issey, Aqua di Gio and Light Blue and our current inundation of gourmand, sweet perfumes.
But even so generations remember what was the vogue in their formative years: The 40-somethings are still wearing Kenzo pour Homme from time to time and are crazy for Light Blue in the summer, whereas the 25-year-olds are all about the Coco Mademoiselle and Miss Dior (Cherie). The teenagers of today will come to form new associations, different from their elders.

In many ways perfume can act not only as an accurate reflection of the zeitgeist, but also as a time capsule. In fact, time capsule is the name of an actual fragrance, believe it or not. Such is the pull of the concept. No wonder advertising uses this technique, selling the past to the future, its referencing quality being retrospective. For every one of us a scent time capsule is deeply personal. Very often it not only includes the perfumes we have indulged in and felt elated in, but also the other scents we lived through: the stale pizza & fresh coffee brewing in the percolator that morning following a boozed out night waking up next to the object of our affection in our university years; the smell of the new apartment we came into with our first downpayment; the soft fur between the paws of a favorite pet now long gone; the nuzzling warmth of a baby's just slept jumper; the pleasure and the grief of lovemaking; the cold sickly chamber of a deathbed.

So indulge me, cast your mind back: Which are your own perfume time capsules? What period of your life do they capture or would you have liked to capture in something that can recall it for you on demand? I remember a glorious summer spent in the throes of young love, lapped by the waves of the Aegean, accompanied by Parfum d'Ete by Kenzo. The fragrance has since changed and the memory doesn't quite click. In the meantime my old bottle is drained empty, so I'm at a loss; this green floral didn't keep too well and old stock might therefore be rancid. Perfume by its own nature, you see, is destructive; once you spray it, the molecules have flown off their Pandora's box, they're dispersed, you simply can't put them back in. It shares with time that ephemeral, perishable quality which accounts for things of great beauty and great pain.


  1. As a child in the late 50's early 60's, I loved the scent of Tweed which my mother wore in the 40's. I bought an old, almost empty Tweed bottle at a junk shop. Late 60's early 70's it was Coty's Ambergris & Civit Oils. Mid to late 70's Patchoulli. Eighties brought Poison & Opium. I seem to have blanked out the nineties and early 2000s (for many reasons). My latest purchase, which I love, is Botega Veneta; and I'm considering ordering Narciso Rodriguez For Her very soon. As a side note: I can't tell you how much I love and appreciate your blog. This coming from a small-town, Southern U.S. woman who has loved perfume (both the scents and the bottles) her entire life.

  2. Loulou, definitely. When I was in my early teens I had no money to buy it, so I would take the bus and go to the shopping mall just to "try" it once more on my skin... and guess what, my cousin, a boy 3 years younger than me, he would go too sometimes, and once he even said: oh, just one more spray so I can smell it better! (he was also crazy about the perfume)

  3. Very interesting - I never thought of it that way before, but my favorite perfumes absolutely reflect past periods of my life. I'm in my late 20's, and my favorites are J'Adore (pre-reformulation), Miss Dior Cherie (also pre-reformulation...), and the original Juicy Couture - I'm more of a product of my generation than I thought! J'Adore was my very first perfume; my mother gave me her sample vials when I was in high school, and I wore it to my winter formals and my prom. In college I alternated between Miss Dior Cherie and Juicy Couture, with MDC as my "date/classy tea party" scent, and JC as my "clubbing night" weapon of choice. (Just typing that makes me laugh now! I loved college.)

  4. A favorite idea I love to contemplate. So many fragrances to go with it.

    It's funny I turned 30 last year and suddenly realized there are certain scents from my twenties that no longer represent what I want from a fragrance but were so integral to what I thought of myself at the time. Example: Escada Magnetism, this is not a bad scent, but it is a part of the big over the top red berry vanilla accord thing that was so big in my early twenties. This was the scent that made me feel sexy and modern but now putting it on I think "This is not the attention seeking I am going for." Considering I got into fragrances during my early twenties I actually have a good record of my change of heart in what I enjoy.

    Strangely enough I do have a perfume that I got when I was 15 that I still use today: Lolita Lempicka. This is a fragrance that has aged well for me and still retains part of my character well. I have to say 15 year old me had good tasted for her gourmand of choice. It actually occurred to me the other day that indeed I wear a vintage bottle of Lolita Lempicka. Such a strange strange thought.

    I came from the era of big in your face gourmands and aquatics and I have to say while sometimes I veer into that territory I think my nature has finally started to show itself in fragrance choices: quiet and interesting, a hard one to find in fragrance.

  5. Anonymous16:53

    OH, this is a beautiful, thought provoking topic! Thank you, Helg!

    I love Arpege-my mom chose it for me, and Je Reviens for herself, on a holiday to the Frence islands of Saint Pierre. I was 10 at the time, and I would wear it to feed the chickens :)

    I was transfixed by Shalimar, in 1993. I thought it was the most beautiful, haunting thing I had ever owed!

    Smelling Eau de Hadrien in 1998, on a friend-I had to have a bottle, and have loved all things Annick Goutal ever since.

    Wearing Hermes Jardin de Mediterrannee, and getting ots of compliments (my dentist just about lost his mind, he loved it so much!) Lots of river swimming that summer, and the cool slightly metallic edges of the fume coming at me as I swam-it'a a really wonderful association.

    Changing lots of things in my life, and wearing Sharif. It was a gift from a friend, and it was so beautiful-just what I needed at the time.

    And since last november, Ta'waf-a gift from your blog! It was a tough year, and to be able to wear a scent of such beauty gave me courage.

    Thank you, Helg, for your blog, and I hope you have a good weekend,


  6. In high school I wore Emeraude in the creamy reminds me of summer sun and fun! Wish I could find i today. Today, my date night perfume is Amouage's Epic Woman.

  7. Anonymous22:06

    childhood: mom wore ma griffe, joy, and my sin. my first perfume was a blue bottle of evening in paris.

    high school: l'air du temps; farouche; and femme de rochas. also some love lemon and courant.

    college: the above, along with norell.

    20s into my 30s: chanel no. 5 and chanel no. 22, followed by coco; then vca first; and still l'air du temps. also folies bergere, oscar and ruffles.

    40s: other than coco, don't remember much about this period! oh, wait, there were molinard de molinard and quelques fleurs! and there was some rochas byzance in there somewhere!

    early 50s: sooooo many (hundreds), but femme de rochas and coco (still prefer the edt) remain faves, along with no. 5 and no. 22. still love l'air du temps, but only in vintage.

    great fun to time travel!


  8. annemariec00:04

    Hmmm. Just the other night I was on a work trip and sitting by myself in a restaurant having dinner and reading a book about 1970s style ('Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1970s') that my son has just given me for my birthday. (What's his message I wonder?!) Anyway, I was wearing a couple of generous spritzes of Van Cleef & Arpels First EDP. First came out in 1976, a beautiful lush, complex, jasmine-centred floral. And yet, as my book told me, the 1970s (and 60s) was the era of hippie-dom, the back-to-nature movement, the search for simplicity, self-sufficiency, distrust of consumerism and so on. How does First - which reeks of class, money and traditional femininity - fit in with that? How odd, I thought.

    So of course the only answer is that history is never simple. That a perfume like First - a high water mark of the aldehyldic floral - can do well at a time when many young women preferred patchouli and musk oil to 'perfume' demonstrates this. The rich will always be with us, always wanting to flaunt their wealth. You could almost argue that First might have been a counter reaction to the back-to-nature style of the era, which came to an end in a few years anyway. First would have fitted the 80s quite well. What is surprising is that it has lasted until now, still on the market. Still beautiful, too.

  9. Anonymous06:05

    Ahhh... Tatiana. My scarves, vintage clothes, army surplus jackets were all tinged with Tatiana. Devo, Cheap Trick, and of course David Bowie, among others, were the mainstays of my life's sound track. Tatiana. Loved that fume! Loved the drama, the passion, the highs and the heartbreaks of high school...all scented by Tatiana. I am almost afraid of catching a whiff of it today (the reformulated version is so horrible that there is no risk of any scent association) as it will no doubt plunge me back into some puberty fueled despair over a phone call that never came, or exaltation over a canny, if over wrought! turn of phrase!

  10. J.W.

    thank you very much for your lovely note of appreciation which is very touching indeed! Glad the blog is providing welcome pleasure focusing on your favorite subject.

    And thanks for sharing your own perfume timeline. Tweed was like they used to make them, no? I have to say your taste towards Bottega Veneta and Narciso for Her coincides with mine all too well. Those are lovely fragrances to make signatures of. Enjoy!

  11. Sibilum,

    ha, that's a priceless story! Thanks for that.
    I do recall those days when I tried everything at the store and brought back blotters (with notes on!) to make them bookmarks for my books. :-)
    Loulou is a lovely memory for me as well....

  12. Linda,

    thank you for saying so.

    There is definitely a very concrete logic behind your "wardrobe"of scents. J'Adore used to be really good in the pre-reformulation, lots of compliments to that one, I can see how it would shine at a prom.
    College days...ah, the fun, eh? :-)

  13. Jen,

    what an interesting observation that is! Yes, there's absolutely something there, how tastes change, or rather evolve, as in your case. I think with great experimentation and recalibration comes greater precision in finding the weapons of your choice (if I'm allowed the metaphor).
    As to LL, it's a modern classic for a reason, I suppose!
    As to quiet and interesting fragrance choices, I recall you had some which I did admire a lot.

  14. Carole,

    thank you ever so much for your heartfelt words, for the wishes and for the compliment. I appreciate them all.

    Very lovely fragrant memories. I was quite taken with Goutal at some point, thanks to Passion and Grand Amour, they still do lovely stuff. As to the Hermes, you have me sorting out the samples.
    And ever so glad that Ta'waf made it to you in that giveaway, it couldn't have gone to a nicer person and apparently one who needed it at that time.

  15. Lia,

    Emeraude in creamy form. I think I never tried this. Thanks for mentioning it!

  16. J,

    amazing timeline of course! (I didn't expect anything less)

    I always loved L'Air du temps myself for its sheer beauty and romanticism; not a ground-breaking composition, but a very fine one and a message that was put on cello strings. It's a pity it's changed. I still catch whiffs of it on older women here who seem to favor it very much indeed (L'AdT and Chanel No.19 are the wonderful whiffs coming off those coiffed ladies when sharing a cab on the street, they carry proper purses too, you know, structured and everything,!)
    I seem to remember Byzance as a deep, sensual oriental, say it hasn't changed? Though now that Rochas is getting the makeover, everything is at a stall.

    Glad you enjoyed the idea of the post!

  17. AMC,

    ah, that's an ingenious gift of your son's and happy belated birthday too!! :-)
    I think he saw you're interested in fashion and history of fashion and picked a book that probably reminded you of some things you used to wear. I would love to receive something similar myself.

    Excellent observation!
    First by VC&A was composed exactly to contain all the hallmarks of bourgeoisie "wealth"; it proclaimed its message over the rooftops, because it was the brief to be so. So JCE, the perfumer, put everything in his palette that would signify that. It's a beautiful remnant of a past period. BTW, one of the fragrances my MiL with the glamor job admired greatly in that time frame ;-)

  18. Anon,

    the aches of puberty, on the waves of Tatiana perfume. You made me dream a bit with you, you know, and reminiscence about the phone calls expected and the anticipation and the drama of it all. Everything is just so dramatic when a teenager, eh? :-D

    Thanks for the beautiful comment! Have a great weekend.

  19. Anonymous13:38

    Thank you for making me look at my perfume timeline!
    Lots of lovely memories. First one my mother's Arpege, a gift to her that she never wore but I surreptitiously dabbed behind my ears at age 13.
    Similarly my older sister's Lily of the Valley. My own first purchase L'Air du Temps.
    Others are Charles of the Rtiz, Fidji, Paris , issey Miake, Bulgari and Carolina Herrara. Now Eau de Jardines and making my own blends from essential oils.
    Love them all.

  20. I wore White Shoulders when I was very young. Wore others also. Wore Youth Dew in the 60's. I have always had many perfumes so I am picking out the major scents. LAUREN was my basic in the 70's. I also wore Tatiana. In the 80's I met my signature to be OPIUM. I think that perfume made more of a mark on me than any other. I adore so many Guerlain perfumes it's hard to narrow them down. Guet Apens to being on the top. Sooo many perfumes and so little time! So many others too numerous to mention.

  21. Olivia17:40

    what a great post and topic! My first independent perfume purchase was when I was probably 10 or 11 years old, and I bough Xclamation! by Coty (which apparently is still around!) A few years after that I did an exchange student program in France, and my French maman sent me home with samples of all of the great French perfumes of the early 90s (Tresor, Amarige...) I loved Amarige the most, and I always remember the smell of the box where I kept all of those samples that I doled out so carefully so that I wouldn't use them all up.

    The scent I wore on my wedding day was Clinique's Happy. It fit for a 22 year old getting married in the Midwest in the summer. I think I've grown out of that one, but I still love to smell it and remember that day.

    I remember high school being a cloud of CK One - I don't think you could walk through the halls without being blasted by it! My college years were scented by Romance by Ralph Lauren.

    Thanks for starting this conversation, it's been so interesting!

  22. Ellen21:01

    Ma Griffe, Femme, Caleche, and always, always Opium since it came on the market.

  23. Anonymous05:43

    I could write pages on this! When I discovered ebay, I hunted the momentous perfumes of my life, beginning with White Shoulders and Secret of Venus Zibeline, and on through time. The only one that I have not been able to find is a Russian perfume from the 1970s called Laila or Layla. I don't remember the brand, but I think it had a black pointed cap and a shape that created the impression of an onion dome. I originally found it at a gift shop that had eclectic imported items, including Bat Sheba by Judith Miller in its beautiful Roman glass style bottle. Laila must have been more obscure. I've search every way I can think of on ebay (looking at all the Russian perfumes, for example) and never found it. That door to my turbulent college years is closed. ~~nozknoz

  24. Anonymous06:04

    As a teen I wore the Avon perfumes, Topaze now I like Miss Dior by Dior.

  25. I love how many mothers wore Arp├Ęge- mine also. My first perfume was L'Occitane's The Verte which I bought in San Fransisco in my twenties, and my second was Chanel's Chance bought in a German department store, while in the middle of a mildly painful chapter of my life- also in my twenties. You couldn't pay me to be twenty again! Wearing them at the time made me feel like I could recreate myself into someone more sophisticated and confident than I was. Now they are at the back of my exploding perfume collection, but I love to break them out every now and then. I like to think that I'm still forming these associations and that I'm yet to hit my prime, but it's only hindsight that'll prove that.

  26. I still have a bottle of Jovan Pagan, which I wore in high school, and the bottle of Calvin Klein Obsession my first proper boyfriend gave me. At university I discovered Mitsouko and wore that for about a decade, but I hung onto those two bottles. The scent takes me back...

  27. Anonymous00:53

    hi, again. yes, you have byzance correctly pegged. it is a powerhouse scent - very rich and sensual. it kind of grrrrrrrrs.

    has it not been discontinued? i'm not sure.

    rochas lost me right around absolu - which someone gave me as a gift, and which i in turn gifted away. but i can still enjoy their heyday scents in vintage form.


  28. Anon,

    you're welcome.

    It's so very nostalgic in a borrowed, shared way to read everyone's life-stamping perfume choices: somehow I identify with something from everyone. For instance, your L'Air du Temps and Paris mark specific periods in my uni years. Lovely choices all of them and wow, Arpege behind the ears at 13 is so very, very "coquine"! You must have been a girly girl. :-)

  29. Gloria,

    hey darling! How are things? Nice to see you again.

    White Shoulders must have marked many a generation. Never really saw it here nor smelled it, as it wasn't distributed, so I came to it as a grown adult, but I can see the appeal and the formative factor of it. You taught me about the YD body cream (still wonderful), so I thank you for it!
    And as to Opium....yeah, it does leave its mark! :-D
    We share the love for many Guerlains; they have a contemplative but also richly satisfying quality about them, somewhere between lady who lunches and person who flicks through the paper too. :-) :-P Gotta love them!

  30. OIivia,

    thank you, what a lovely thing to say. :-)

    They do still make Exclamation! I recall it in the 90s and I believe it followed Tresor closely (in fact I believe the same perfumer did both, or perhaps the formula was copied)
    As to Happy on such a happy day...what else would say it best? I always found Happy gets a short straw for being so widely available and popular in its day. It's certainly a very palatable fruity floral, quite restrained too, not too sweet.

    Thanks for chiming into the discussion, you enriched it.

  31. Ellen,

    perfect agreement with all your choices. So very different and varied though they may be.
    Thanks for sharing with us all!

  32. Noz,

    don't ever let me refrain you from writing pages on this! Love reading your comments.

    Ah, Zibeline. Now there is a perfume!! So decadent, so warm, so enveloping, so classy still. On WS I have said my piece above to Gloria, so won't repeat myself.

    As to the college Russian scent, hmmm, such a poignant memory and how sorry you haven't found it. Could it be that it wasn't Russian but Polish or Czech or something? (eastern block at any rate?) Though the onion dome does spell R-u-s-s-i-a-n in no uncertain terms. Could the spelling be Lejla instead? (Just trying to help)

  33. Noz,


    It couldn't be Nikita or Maroussia by Slava Zaitsev? Could it?

  34. barbara,

    thanks for sharing! There's something to be said about the older Avon perfumes: they smell much better than most upper end designer fragrances today.

  35. gorgonzola,

    mothers and their scent: the first perfume memory for all of us, eh?

    Ah, the 20s. We live and learn, I suppose. *gentle pat on the back* In a way perfume serves as projecting an armor sometimes, beyond showing what we are, showing what we would like others to perceive us to be.
    As to hindsight, exactly. Can't buy that, if one tries. :-)

  36. Mim,

    I swear this is the first time I hear about Pagan by Jovan, this is a mighty interesting name to say the least!
    Obsession used to be much better, I had the reverse case, had gifted boyfriend with men's version, had him cherish the memory ever since. Impressive duration for the Mitsouko! Kudos to you for staying faithful.

  37. J,

    I believe the whole line has been discontinued to be replaced with new editions. Makes sense in a way and they're honest about it, which is refreshing.

    Rochas is a weird case; I like their products, makeup too, which was nicely presented in 1990s and then vanished without a trace. The perfumes are a bit uneven, never crazy about Absolu (boring advertising too) or Tocade, but did like Rochas Eau, Tocadilly, Femme of course (yes, the 80s reformulation I loved and so did SO) and Byzance (briefly, because I already had Opium and Teatro all Scala). I also found their Moustache to be smashing for men and for borrowing. I miss that.

  38. Laurels00:34

    I wore Tabu (first inherited from my great-grandmother) from my mid-teens to mid-twenties. A dear friend once said to me, "You'll have to always wear this perfume." I gave up on the perfume and the friend at about the same time. I'm afraid to smell the modern version--as you said, a scent gone forever might be my youth gone forever.

  39. Sophie C.16:39

    What a beautiful post - you explore so eloquently what it is about perfume that affects us so deeply!
    I have a wide & varied collection now, but the touchstones for me are always:
    Cabochard (first tried at age 11 in a mini from dad)
    Rive Gauche, Shalimar and Caleche (worn by my amazing mom)
    Tatiana, Paris and LouLou (an 80s teenagehood!)

  40. Anonymous03:01

    Helg, thank you for these ideas regarding Layla/Laila/Lejla and Slava Zeitsev! I will try looking for these on ebay and see if I recognize anything.

    As you did with White Shoulders, I also try something from a given decade that I didn't try back in the day. It's still a form of time-travel or generating retroactive memories. ~~nozknoz

  41. Your prose is gorgeously evocative. Thank you for writing this. Prescriptives Calyx is for me the scent of optimism: I bought it for myself as a kid with money from my first job-- weighing ladies at Weight Watchers. The scent of it also reminds me of silver and amethysts because I bought myself such a ring during that period, too. Mitsouko reminds me of the terrifying thrill and heartbreaking passion of new motherhood because I treated myself to a bottle when my daughter was born. She breathed in Mitsouko quite literally with her mother's milk!

    One prying question: what did your mother in law do? I yearn for such a job!

  42. Anonymous21:24

    I remember in high school getting my hands on some "Evening in Paris MUSK"; yes, they had musk too. This was the mid 70's and everyone on the bus wanted to know what I was wearing. Maybe it was too sophisticated for a teen-age in a blue pea coat, but everyone loved it and always wanted to sit next to me to smell me. Sadly, EIP stopped making these lovely little bottles; but I sent them a letter asking about their musk and they sent me back what they had left; which was about 40 of them. My sister started wearing this as well and sadly, I don't have one bottle left now to remember this lovely fragrance. It does remind me of one of Sisley's fragrances though..

  43. Nozkoz,

    thanks and sorry for the belated reply, just saw this.
    Glad there was some inspiration tucked in here. :-)

  44. Satsumi,

    thanks for your kind words and for sharing this precious memory with Calyx (it's such a fresh scent and it retains that freshness so very well too, doesn't it? It was ahead of its time when it came out).

    MIL used to be first class/luxe air hostess in times where air traveling was still a glamorous affair.... *dreamy look in the eye*

  45. Anon,

    you have me all hot and bothered about this very special musk now!! (and you know, mentioning musk fragrances always has my ears perked up like a faithful canine, LOL).

    Interesting that one of Sisley's scents has a bit of that. Resampling all the Sisley canon first chance I get then!

    Thanks for sharing!!


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