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.