Scents and Sensibility
On olfactory nostalgia and its worth in less than a thousand words
Written by Amelia Diamond
Knees have a really specific smell to me. I can’t explain it and most people think I’m crazy when I try to bring it up — “Knees don’t smell any different than the rest of your body, Amelia” — but when people get it, they totally get it.
In fact, Leandra got it right away when we met four years ago. We were having a conversation about knees and how they boast the distinctive smell of summer skin. It made me want to be her friend.
Recently, I was late for dinner with her. I rushed through the restaurant door, crammed myself into a tiny booth then promptly let her and anyone within earshot of us know that — “Ugh, I smell like knees.” Which reminded us both of that first summer we met, and got me thinking about nostalgia and the scents that trigger it.
Isn’t it interesting that certain smells, like songs, have the ability to catapult us back in time? I can outline every stage in my life with a scent, and pinpoint specific ages to the perfumes I used to wear.
Coco Chanel is me at seven years old, lying on my mother’s bed watching her reflection approve its human counterpart through the mirror. At 37 she resembled a young Elizabeth Taylor with dark eyebrows, dark hair and fair skin. She’d spray the heavy scent on her left wrist and twist it in with her right, brush the remainder behind her ear and touch the faintest final kiss of perfume to the absolute tip of my nose. It would stay there until I fell asleep, comforting me while she danced, dined, laughed — whatever it was she did on those nights when she smelled like Chanel.
Clinique Happy is what the most popular girl in seventh grade wore. I thought she was perfect, as did every other boy and girl in the school. And just like any other self-respecting sheep would do at age twelve: I copied her.
As a rising freshman in high school I needed a more “mature” perfume so I asked my grandma to buy me Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. But a fellow classmate named Juliette also wore the elixir, therefore Dolce’s Blue never felt like mine. It will, however, forever remind me of Seth Cohen and Orange County, his sailboat named Summer and the girl I really wanted to be.
I can still smell sophomore year with my three best friends: Annette wore something Ralph Lauren that came in half-round bottle; Kim, of course, wore Abercrombie 8. And when I think of Sam it’s not so much her perfume as it is the smell of her sweatshirts, freshly laundered and folded on the foot of her bed.
Fierce is the scent every “hot” guy wore. Aqua di Gio is what my boyfriend of two months wore and Axe is what my crush sprayed into my locker junior year.
Burberry Brit was the first of many experiments.
Chanel came full circle when I was a rising senior: Chanel Chance, to be specific, and it carried me through two years of college. I wore the same Jo Malone scent as every other girl across America until the year 2009 when I found D&G 3 L’Imperatrice. This was also the year I met a French boy who smelled so heart-stabbingly intoxicating that I forced my best guy friend to smell every single cologne at Sephora with me until we found the one He wore. To no avail, of course.
What’s funny, or at least interesting, is that the perfumes I’ve worn after college have yet to make an imprint on me. Will I smell Hermes in three years and be reminded of my first apartment in Manhattan? Will Marni remind me of my fourth?
It’s the most basic of scents these days — smells, really — that catapult me back in time, like wet sidewalks and summer air. My friend Annabel’s car. And knees. Always knees.
More than anything I wish I could bottle the smell of my grandparent’s house: Brisket roasting in the oven. My grandmother’s perfume. The leather chair in Pop Pop’s office and the faintest hint of mothballs emanating from closets stuffed with cashmere sweaters and wool coats. I loved that smell so much as a young child that I wouldn’t let myself breathe through my nose until I had hugged both grandparents hello, unpacked, and gone to pee. Then I’d lie down on my green polka-dotted bed in my own bedroom with “Amelia” written on the door and take a giant inhale through my nostrils, savoring the comforting scent of home.