Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Scent Culture: In Search of a First Fragrance

I receive emails regularly from readers looking for scents from their childhood. It is a privilege to be on the receiving end of these inquiries as they remind me why the sense of smell is so important. Though we are living in a culture that is predominantly visual, the culture of scent is on the rise. The reason is deceptively simple. When the economy cycles down the desire to live an authentic life rises. The image we have of ourselves can no longer be masked by things we aspire to, but cannot afford. We question who we are, where we come from and where we want to go. Taking steps to play an active role in our life story is what the journey of life is all about. Reading JM’s letter offers a glimpse into the powerful process of self-authentication that scent plays in our lives.

“After reading your blog for the better part of a year, I realize that you are the person I should ask for help. Years ago, there was a VERY down-market cologne for men, made by British Sterling, called "Bitter Lemon." It was so down-market, in fact, that it made a suitable gift to a boy as his first bottle of cologne, the boy being me.

Since scent is hopelessly tangled in memory (or is it vice versa?), I have tried to find this cologne without success for years, never caring that if I were to find it at all, it would be on the shelves of a convenience store or pharmacy. I can still remember the feelings attached to it, and even the books I was reading at the time, almost twenty years ago. I've been drawn to citrus scents ever since, especially in the summer, but have never found an analogue.

Do you have any suggestions for available products, now, that might be close?” Many thanks in advance –JM”

I love this letter! JM is sharing a life “first”. People remember their first fragrance in the same manner they recall learning how to ride a bike or tie their shoes. The reason is that wearing scent is a way to express identity and emotion; it’s how we self-authenticate. Fragrance allows us to travel in the past, present or future. In other words, it tells us who we were, who we are and who we want to be. In America hero worship is a part of the culture. There is nothing wrong with being led by people who have achieved greatness, but in truth, we are each a catalyst of greatness in our own lives. Our choices determine the path we will follow and the rest depends on the intermingling of chaos and coincidence. Scent allows us to use the familiar as a foundation with which to explore the unknown. This is not a theory; it is a fact. Try a new fragrance and see what happens as you decipher your feelings and memories.

In his letter, JM shows that he is looking at who he is as an adult (in the present) through the lens of childhood (the past). Though I don’t know JM, I would venture to guess that he is in a period of transition. He is in touch with memory and looking for meaning. If he finds British Sterling Bitter Lemon, who he is today will mingle with who he was as a boy. The result will be an enlightening and comforting insight that he could not discover without his sense of smell.

When we are young we are attracted to things without complication. We do not analyze things we are drawn to because layers of life experience do not burden us; we are simply happy to be in the presence of an object that gives us joy. If you look at this more closely, you will see that love is no different. Perhaps this is why romance is the foundation of many fragrance fantasies.

British Sterling Bitter Lemon was manufactured by Dana. Though the company is still in business, it no longer makes the scent (as evidenced on the Dana Classics website). From JM’s description British Sterling Bitter Lemon sounds like a classic Eau de Cologne with a twist. The best modern interpretation of an Eau de Cologne is Cologne by Thierry Mugler (2001). Cologne was co-created by Thierry Mugler and Alberto Morillas, the renowned perfumer at Firmenich who won the Prix Fran├žois Coty in 2003.

Cologne has a sparkling citrus character and an addictive musky drydown. The composition includes Bergamot, Neroli, Petit Grain, Orange Blossom, Green Sap, and White Musk. I’ve recommended Cologne by Thierry Mugler to JM and hope that it serves as a foundation for new memories anchored in what is obviously a charming past.


Cologne by Thierry Mugler is available at select stores, including Sephora. Sephora is currently offering a limited edition .8 oz. spray at a $28 pricepoint. Demand is high and stock is limited.