People do all kinds of things in an effort to keep or get back something of the person they loved who has died. They make diamonds of their ashes, they have paintings of them, they dedicate park benches to them in their favourite parks, keep their clothes in their wardrobes until the smell has faded, make books of their photos, make videos of their movie clips, maintain their Facebook pages, keep recordings on their mobiles of their voice mail messages…you name it, people have done it. The grieving process is long and hard, and it is the very personal, sometimes small things about a person that the people left behind want to hold onto to remember them by. That includes their scent, their perfume, their human smell that was as much a part of them as the air they breathed.


The scent of one perfume wearer

Here is a profile of some of the perfumes worn by one woman in her lifetime. What did she smell of? Classic fragrances, many with a single dominant element, like roses, or lavender. And, surprisingly, intense exotic scents from Cairo, Egypt.

Discovering and opening up those bottles of perfume was like releasing a cloud of memories of one person’s mother.
(Video created with Biteable.com)

As for my own loved ones  – what did my Dad smell of? Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mac Baren Golden Blend pipe tobacco, introduced back in 1952, engine grease and that acidic film-developing fluid he worked with. I suspect it would be possible to concoct a fragrance based on those, considering that some perfumes already contain unusual ingredients like tobacco and oil.

And my mother? Well, I will always think of her when I smell perfumes with the classic fragrance of old, richly fragrant English roses.


Scents are the essence of memory

An excellent article on this subject was recently published in Atlas Obscura. I am quoting liberally from it here – since I cannot put it any better myself. Kudos to Christina Ayele Djossa for her sleuthing on this Science Fiction-type development in the world of perfume. (Source: Christina Ayele Djossa, Immortalizing Human Scents as Memory Perfumes, on Atlasobscura.com, Feb. 28, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-03-12)

“French mother-and-son duo Katia Apalategui and Florian Rabeau, have spent a decade figuring out how to preserve the particular smell of a beloved person. In 2007, Apalategui’s father died of cancer. After he was gone, her mother held onto his belongings and clothes. One particular relic was hard for Apalategui’s mother to throw away: her husband’s pillowcase.  It smelled of a Christian Dior fragrance called Fahrenheit and the tiny dog that lay beside him in his bed at home. Whenever Apalategui’s mother held the pillowcase, the odors immediately brought her back to precious memories of her husband that photos simply could not capture.

“Swiss zoologist Claus Wedekind studies odor in both humans and animals. He says odor—particularly human odor—is a powerful memory-triggering agent. Human odors are, however, ‘unique,’ says Wedekind, ‘and there is not one perfect odor,’ exclusive to every human being. This makes replicating a person’s scent quite tricky, because each person’s smell contains many individual components. If someone or a research team were to replicate a scent, guesses Wedekind, ‘they would extract and reproduce the exact components and put them into the right concentration, and I would be extremely surprised if a company would be able to do this.’” However, this is exactly what Apalategui and Rabeau claims to have done. (Not having undergone this process myself, I cannot vouch for it.)

Florian Rabeau of Kalain. The poster translates as: “Kalain – Creator of olfactory links. Propose an emotional experience, Psychological support”

Influenced by Apalategui’s mother and her beloved pillowcase, in 2015 Apalategui and Rabeau decided to create a company called Kalain to capture the scent of individuals. It’s not the first time someone has tried to synthesize human-related scents. In 2006, French brand Etat Libre d’Orange (that I wrote about here)  released Sécrétions Magnifiques, an ode to sensual pleasure that embodied the smells of saliva, sperm, sweat, and blood.

Etienne de Swardt of Etat Libre d’Orange (Photo by Johanna de Tessieres)

Note: No-one actually wants to smell like a real person – it’s kinda funky

The bottling of human aroma is not always a desirable thing. Society encourages people to remove or mask their natural odour by showering and applying lotions and perfumes. “Nobody wants to smell bad,” Rabeau says. “Everyone wants to be associated with a perfume or a scent that portrays a crafted persona.” That is certainly true – as demonstrated in the scent profile in the video, above. You want to be associated with nice smells – flowers, delicious eats, lovely nature smells – not unpleasant odours which people sub-consciously associate with decay and death. Olive O’Brien’s perfume collection says something about her lifestyle, her taste and her travels – that she was a classy lady with a slight bohemian streak.

Apart from the fact that the natural odious whiffs might outweigh the pleasant aromas on a human body, a perfume is also like a person – too much of any one element can actually be offensive. 

“Apalategui and Rabea wanted to use keepsakes like the pillowcase to evoke past experiences. ‘We felt the need to keep these olfactory memories,’ says Rabeau. Along with chemist Geraldine Savary from the University of Havre, he and Apalategui spent eight years developing a technique to reproduce human scent – one person at a time. The process remains a closely guarded secret, but in a 2015 interview in The Guardian newspaper, Savary gave a few clues:

‘We take the person’s clothing and extract the odour—which represents about a hundred molecules—and we reconstruct it in the form of a perfume in four days.’

This extraction process has been used before, to recreate the smell of old books. Two researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, have figured out how to identify and store the smells of the past, the long-ago past, and specifically, the smell of very old books. Basically, if it can be dissolved, something can be extracted from it.

More than people – places too

In the process of recreating this “essence of father” the precious pillowcase was destroyed. Now Apalategui and Rabeau offer people suffering from loss or dealing with an absent family member to send in their clothing to them, so they could create a customized perfume from that material without destroying it. Customers then could spray the perfume at home to help remember their loved ones and help them with the grieving process.

“‘Human scent is like an olfactory cocktail,’ says Rabeau, and ‘what you eat, where you come from, if you smoke, what products you put on your skin’ are all part of our scent identity. In addition to sight, sound, or touch, Rabeau claims smell and the memories associated with it can create a rounder picture of the person or event someone is remembering—like an olfactory photograph.

(Christina Ayele Djossa, Immortalizing Human Scents as Memory Perfumes, on Atlasobscura.com, Feb. 28, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-03-12)

Customers are more frequently asking Rabeau and Apalategui to bottle their lived experiences, and now they can, for instance, bottle the fragrance of someone’s childhood home or garden. For Rabeau, he does “not seek to materialize good or bad scents but simply odors that will anchor a moment in space-time.”

“When you walk down the street, all of sudden you can smell something, and then you will think of a deep memory,” he says. “Smells are linked to our deep emotions.”


Image credits – background images in video and header:

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