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.

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  • Lovely post! My grandmother wore Youth Dew and I can still smell it when I think of her!

  • Nora

    i recently read an article about how memory and smell are related and how it affects the capacity for remembering of people without a sense of smell. i really like your essay amelia! about the power of a scent, thats why i always want to smell the same when i meet the guy i like, so that he associates that smell with me (i use nuxe huile prodigieuse for my skin).

  • CarlotaLMorais

    This is a beautiful post, I love how you made me think about my childhood and my favourite memories! I’m going to college now and I will be extra careful with the perfume I’m going to wear soo that When I smell it a few years from now it will smell like law school!!

  • shelley

    It is going to sound SO weird but ears smell completely different to me. they have a really really sweet scent.

    I can relate to almost every single one of the scents you named 🙂 I love talking about scent memories.

  • Lauren

    I can never get enough Liz Taylor.


  • Leandra Medine

    Hi, Amelia! Leandra here. So I really like this post for a number of reasons. #1 because knees rule and #2 because I fully agree that scent holsters the most incredible ability to take you back in time. I’d see your narrative and raise you the prospect of spraying your favorite clothes with your favorite scents so that you could make the memories tangible. When I was younger, I used to sleep in my mom’s wool turtlenecks because they always smelled like her (Calvin Klein Escape) when she was away and always snuck a couple to camp because I got homesick as fuck.

  • kirbybee

    My Mum wears Opium by YSL, and although I’d never wear it myself, I love it because it’s her. I wear D&G Light Blue almost exclusively, I think perhaps because it reminds me so much of my first trip/adventure to Europe. Which is so weird because I bought it duty free in the airport in Melbourne after my twenty four hour trip home. Still, Light Blue will always be Europe to me.

  • Surrealist

    I love this article and think that everyone has their own story about scents (especially crazy Grenouille from “Perfume” :))…
    I remember these few when I was a child: smell of the processed wood in my grandpas workshop, mom’s Nina Ricci and YSL (I can’t remember which ones), which I now realize were her own version of the revolution against the communism in Yugoslavia (and we didn’t belong to the elite!), dad’s Pino Silvestre…
    Teenage years were definitely marked by Gucci’s Rush II, Lacoste and Light Blue by D&G.
    Nowadays? Well, as a “serious” business woman ;), what else but: Chanel’s Mademoiselle, Miss Dior and Burberry Brit…
    Love this blog!

    • Lua Jane

      My childhood was in comunist Yugoslavia too, and I recall similar memories. Particularely scents of my mother, and her wardrobe. It’s hard to comprehend for someone growing up in different circumstances, but yes, foreign things were small signs of luxurie, women could, and would afford.
      My mom used to smell of Madame Rochas, Diorella and L’air du Temps by Nina Ricci, and scent of her wardrobe, and slik blouses when she would hug me after work stuck to my nostrils like sweetest and most nostalgic memory. I also loved opening her closet just so I can inhale her scent from clothes, and hide there, in her world. Of course, those precious bottles were handed over to me as toys after perfume was used :).
      My teenage years were after the war, so I didn’t exactly have many choices, but I would get some perfumes, mostly from cousins living abroad, with unfortunately more money than taste. 😀
      I guess my first conscious choice was Laura, by Laura Biagiotti. I loved that scent. I might have been senior in highschool when I discovered another girl in school wearing it, and that was it for me. Small town teenagers can be vane like that.
      I dabbled into Light Blue like I guess just about any young person..even gucci rush, but I think it took me to get to my late thirties to discover what I really like.
      And there comes memory of my mothers wardrobe, again. I ran into L’air du Temps on sale in some duty free at an airport and purchased on the whim, and it brought back so many memories..but also brought ralisation of what I really like in a perfume.( nothing trendy or modern smelling).

      Aside from that I love some of L’occitane scents. They are not long asting, but L’eau de Iparie has that ancient, almost church like smell I adore (Ppl actually told me I smell of church while wearing it, and I took it as compliment :D)
      And some of gorgeous Fragonard scents I get on my trip to France.
      I also love scent of my skin after it’s been exposed to sun. Skin cancer, bla, bla I know..but it smells so fresh, and warm and homey to me. Smells like happiness.

  • Certain smells actually hurt my heart because they remind me
    of a time so perfect and fleeting (obviously involving a young man who is no
    longer in my life). Dolce & Gabbana, The One totally does it for me, it
    reminds me of a last minute trip to Amsterdam when I purchased the scent at the
    tiny airport in Cardiff, Wales. I was a student there and the beau and I took a
    quick romp over to Amsterdam; our first get-away as a couple. The relationship
    didn’t last, and when I finished the bottle I couldn’t bring myself to buy a
    new one because wearing the scent would only remind me of something I had lost.

    • Mimi

      Dolce&Gabbana’s The One does the same to me. For me that’s how a broken heart smells like

      • Granted whenever I wore The One I got compliments, and it was the perfect scent, always lingered on my clothes and in my hair…its divine! Sadly yes, broken hearts are not worth smelling like perfection.

  • Samantha

    This article melted my heart. Growing up I wasn’t in touch with fashion and rarely did my hair or make up, but I always wore some type of scent. Always. And while reading I could relate every year you spoke of to a scent I wore. Or the popular girl, or my ethereal Mother (Always a coconut concoction that catapulted me to my Miami roots). And I didn’t realize how important that nostalgia was until reading this!! So thank you, and yes, knees always smell like summer and sweet sweat.


    I have a serious problem with my perfums. Every time that I love one they take out of market, for example Dolce&Gabbana, the one with the red tap it’s not available anymore.
    Now I have return to my college perfum, Casmir of Chopard, I love vanilla.

  • CDJ

    I recently used the same shampoo/conditioner that was in my shower caddy my freshman and sophomore year of college (because it’s always on sale) and it instantly took me back to when I had to wear flip flops while showering. I almost cried.

    • CDJ

      Chanel Chance also defines my first two years. Getting ready while chasing cheap vodka with blue Powerade from the vending machine in the lounge.

  • CarolinaG

    Love your blog!!
    I’m posting looks from L.A. and accessories:

  • Erika

    Oh man! I feel you on the Light Blue dilemma! I’m in love with that D&G scent but my friend wore it too. So whenever I’d walk into a room someone would ask, “Is Kelley here? I didn’t know Kelley was coming!” I gave up. Sweet post!

  • Angeli

    It’s a fascinating thing – scent.

  • Jessica Yas

    This is super sweet 🙂

  • I can smell a scent and it will remind me of a certain person. Nostalgia is everything.

  • hi_itsgabby

    I just hurt my nose trying to smell my knee. DAMN YOU AMELIA! Beautifully written!

  • I was never a perfume person, but I was really into scented lotion and other body products. Maybe because that was high school. Now, however, I think I may understand your meaning of the “knees” scent. I think.

    Your Friend, Jess

  • Danielle

    This is one of your best posts I’ve ever read on the site. It’s warm and comforting – not to mention superbly well written. Thank you for sharing!

  • Jamie

    I worked at a perfume counter in high school so I can distinguish between fragrances like a total weirdo. It’s amazing what memories come with something as simple as a smell.

    And although it’s not too classy to admit the distinct mix of laundry, bourbon and cigarettes always reminds me of my grandparents – they were from Kentucky 🙂



  • Maui Mendoza

    I wore a deodorant/cologne spray back in my freshman year in college. Now when I smell it I’m quickly transported back to a time when I wore ratty clothes and flipflops, wandered awkwardly at the uni, and desperately struggled to get my bearings straight.

    Good times.

  • Love this post – very beautiful.

    I’m pretty sure Clinique Happy will remind an entire generation of junior high – that takes me back! While I have always tended to lean toward floral scents, I find that I get more adventurous as I get older – even considering sneaking my husband’s cologne once in a while. 😉

    Grandparents really do have the best smelling homes, don’t they? It’s like some kind of old-people magic they conjure up. It’s amazing.

  • Kate Barnett

    scent memories are so powerful. my dad used clubman aftershave, played sports and was fair-skinned. the combination of sweat, sunscreen and clubman is so clearly him to me. chanel allure always reminds me of my mom. my first love wore ck obsession.

    i also love how scents play differently on each person’s skin, so whatever you wear is distinctly yours, even if the woman next to you has the same perfume.

  • milagra egle

    oh i really like your todays post xx

  • milagra egle
  • intheyear2000


  • archie

    this post was beautifully written

  • Lisa Thomson

    What a lovely post. Two scents take me to my youth YSL and Chanel no.19. I love Coco Mademoiselle and wore it during my last few years of marriage so it reminds me of a tumultuous time and I won’t ever wear it again. I’m not one to wear a signature scent. I’m always trying new ones. I smell my grandmother’s scent sometimes although she died many years ago, I’m convinced her spirit is with me once in a while.

  • Caitlin

    I love this too much! I have always known that particular perfume scents remind me of certain parts of my life but never has it been so eloquently put into words. Great article!

  • emily

    really interesting take on scent and perfume.

  • Figuier

    Yes! Knees have a very *particular* smell. I have a memory of myself aged 7ish, sitting on our lawn smelling my knees and being deeply interested in their specific aroma…

  • Heidi Thornton


  • Heidi Thornton

    Summer sprayed in Issey M…like electrcity and watermelon . Moms Youth dew.dicovering Chanels Allure.never repeating a season,assuring a new chapter.

  • Lydia

    Absolutely love this post, I always think of my Granma when I smell Joy by Jean Patou, and it always makes me smile 🙂

  • Sabaa

    I love smell of knees, especially after day in the sun.

    I always smell my SO knees and he thinks I’m silly.

  • a_she_organism

    I tend to have these sorts of moments with music much more so than with scents…but I do have one very peculiar olfactory experience that has stayed vibrant for years…

    …not looking for anything in particular…I was just browsing around Macy’s (I usually speed through the perfume counters) and was caught off-guard by this little pink bottle with a delicate little black ribbon (first of all, I’m not feminine…and roses up to this point, were not my flower of choice…but orchids do remain a close second now after heirloom roses)…I don’t know why or how…I just found it so adorable and somehow like it “felt lonely”…so I had to say hello and take a sniff.

    That “Givenchy Harvest 2009 Very Irresistible Rose Centifolia” took me back to some of the happiest moments of my life during my childhood…to the point where I had to hold back tears…the lady at the counter even asked me if everything was alright.

    At the time…I didn’t know it was a special edition scent…I would have bought out what they had at the time in stock…I have not smelled a scent just like it in years…close…but there’s something very peculiar about that scent…for me…it’s the happiest scent I’ve ever come across.

    Another is my first love: the combination of cigarettes and CK One.

    I also have to sniff my produce (particularly fruit) when I go grocery shopping…it has to smell right to me.

    • Amelia Diamond

      I have a thing about cigarette smoke too. i don’t smoke but sometimes on the right person it smells so comforting.

  • kath d

    Just… lovely. Thank you for putting a smile on my face and reminding me of the scents that make me nostalgic also.

  • Callie Marks

    if its who I’m thinking it was Cartier Déclaration 😉


  • mezzaluna

    My best times in dark, smokey pubs smell of Rive Gauche

  • For me it’s the Shalimar that my mom wore when she got dressed up, and the Cool Water that my now-husband wore in his teenage years, when we were in round one of our romance. Those scents have an amazing power over me.

  • Amatoria Clothing

    One of my favorites is the salty smell of an Ocean Breeze, and humid summer air with freshly cut grass.
    Though every time I smell my first boyfriend’s cologne, I go back to that summer in Middle School. 🙂