Making scents: On the track of a writer’s tale

Marcel Proust used a madeleine in his book, In Search of Lost Time (1913), to contrast involuntary and voluntary memory. Voluntary memory links memories retrieved by “intelligence” – produced by putting conscious effort into remembering people, places or events.

In the novel, Proust’s narrator laments that such memories do not bear the true “essence” of the past. Then the narrator eats a madeleine dipped in linden blossom tea, and it reminds him so much of childhood memories that his mind summons a flood of images and stories.

The scent and taste of a pastry sparks 3 000 pages of recollections, some from decades earlier. Perfumers call this the Proust phenomenon: when an accord of smells brings back and evokes an individual’s memories.

The creation of perfumes is informed by scientific research into smell and memory, but also by art and literature.

For a perfume creator, Proust’s experience of the madeleine, with its distinct light almond and lemony sponge, combined with green floral and honeyed tea notes, is more than a metaphor for memory and emotion.

It is a key to understanding how to make signature scents for clients.

A bespoke perfume is a voyage into smell and the self, a series of private consultations charting a person’s scent history, memory and influences, and exploring the true essence of both common and rare botanicals. It results in a fragrance suited to the individual and, very often, evocative of their own scent memories.

We use memory – and nostalgia – as a pivotal tool to create a fragrance. The most universally pleasing smell is that of vanilla, simply because vanillin is found in human breast milk. Almost all people will find vanilla pleasing and experience comforting feelings of the past.

Inspiration is the third building block when designing a signature fragrance. If I was to make a signature scent for Proust’s narrator, I would start with a carbon dioxide extraction of the linden bloom.

This is based on something I stumbled on while visiting a farm in Bulgaria. There was a linden tree, stooping with foliage and abundant with bees gathering the sweet nectar. But it was not this visual cue that first struck me: it was the strong scent of jasmine – something like what I can imagine a jasmine nectar or pollen to be – and it transported me.

I finally tracked down a farmer who extracts the raw material and was able to start working with it.

The concentration is important when learning about a new note and I restrained myself, allowing only a few drops to dissolve in alcohol.

Dipping a scent strip in the solution I waited patiently for the alcohol to evaporate off and leave behind the volatile linden notes.

This would be the beginning of Proust’s signature scent.

Writing notes on the performance of those few drops, I would begin the scent story.

Follow Tammy Violet Frazer on Twitter @frazerparfum.

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