Is there really such a thing as a signature scent?

Pamela Paul observes the changing patterns in perfume practices throughout a woman’s life and contends that there is no set scent for life.

I would like to believe that every woman should have a signature scent, and that I am one of those women. 

A woman who swears by one perfume alone — Marilyn Monroe said she slept in the nude, wearing only Chanel No. 5 — literally knows her own essence.

She is imbued with self-knowledge, unquestionably confident, bien dans sa peau as the French put it.

But here’s what I actually believe about wearing a single perfume forever: Eccch. Inhaling the same smell on your own skin day after day? 

It barely sounds good in theory. Like always eating pizza for lunch: enticing in the realm of childish fantasy but bordering on revolting in practice. Each fragrance that is momentarily so right — so me — inevitably loses its spell. 

And then it has to go. A scented but wordless diary could easily propel me from the tumult of my teenage years through my 30s and into my 40s. But scientific research on scent and memory suggests that this sort of serial monogamy just might make sense.

The idea of a signature scent has a storied history. Caterina de’ Medici was said to have brought her preferred fragrance (along with her perfumer, known as René le Florentin) when she went to marry the duke who would later become Henry II of France. 

Today, the Florence-based Santa Maria Novella pharmacy still sells this cologne, sometimes called “Acqua della Regina” (Water of the Queen). Several centuries later, another royal, Princess Diana, boosted sales of Penhaligon’s Bluebell, said to be her floral of choice.

“I think the signature scent is a fantasy for a lot of people,” says Denyse Beaulieu, author of The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent. 

“Women love this idea that their children will associate them with a scent. But in truth, there’s the first big-girl perfume, the first ‘I’m hanging out with a cool crowd’ perfume, the varying scents with various partners. We no longer stick to one scent the way our mothers or grandmothers did.”

Scent is so powerful in its capacity to muster dormant memories that this effect has been referred to as the Proust phenomenon, or what the author described as “the vast structure of recollection” inspired by his madeleine. What makes perfume especially distinctive is its complexity. 

“Like a computer password, the doors to your memory don’t open until you get every character and number right,” says Luca Turin, a biophysicist and author of The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. 

“You can smell hundreds of perfumes and feel nothing, and then you smell that particular perfume your mother used to wear, and boom, it all comes back.”

Andy Warhol, a great lover of perfumes, actually created a bottled archive of scented memories. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again), the artist wrote:

“If I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months, I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months. I never go back to wearing it again; it becomes part of my permanent smell collection.”

I still remember the first perfume I wore as if it were yesterday. I was in eighth grade and under the heady influence of Ingrid, whose French mother had the unimaginably glamorous position of working the cosmetics counter at Lord & Taylor. 

Anaïs Anaïs was also French, the first fragrance from Cacharel, a brand as closely associated with boatnecked Gallic girlishness as Petit Bateau. It went without saying that all the girls in Ingrid’s orbit wore Anaïs Anaïs.

With its sweetness spritzed liberally on my wrists, I felt as half-French as Ingrid and even contemplated replacing my ’80s layers with a Jean Seberg pixie cut. But by midyear, Anaïs Anaïs felt as seventh grade as Sun In hair lightener. 

Worse, it soon, inexplicably, smelled like cat urine. (It still does.) I, along with my claque of eighth-grade sophisticates, dumped the baby perfume for Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris.

This was how my infatuations always played out: I’d become convinced I’d found the only appealing bottle out there, the one scent that truly suited me, and we were one. 

Then I’d wake up one morning and wouldn’t feel like putting it on. It wasn’t that kind of day. I wasn’t in that kind of mood. Until, inevitably, the cold realisation: It just doesn’t smell like me.

How could I have been so wrong about Anaïs Anaïs? How, indeed, could I have been so wrong about YSL’s Paris, which in its turn grew sickly sweet and cloying, or about Poison, stickier still, or Opium — like a 65-year-old Park Avenue matron hauling old Bonwit Teller bags — or any of the perfumes that followed during the heavy-scented ’80s?

“Odours are particularly good at what’s called classical conditioning,” says Richard Axel, who, along with Linda B Buck, won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work on the power of smell.

“If you pair an odour with a salient situation, one that could be pleasurable or one that can be painful, then the subsequent administration of that odour in a neutral environment will elicit behavior reminiscent of the past experience.” 

Exactly. Coco, a spicy Oriental scent closely associated with Karl Lagerfeld’s then-muse Inès de la Fressange, a model, designer and aristocrat to boot, made a huge splash when Chanel launched it in 1984. Wearing it was like wrapping a scarf around my neck with just the right drape. 

Yet when I moved from the South of France to northern Thailand in the early 1990s, the floral notes positively wilted. If I inhale it now, somehow all I smell is durian, the so-called stinky fruit of Southeast Asia.

And what happened to Guerlain’s Jicky, a mix of vetiver, bergamot and amber, which I first put on as a student abroad?

I remember curling up in London with my then boyfriend to watch Jamón Jamón, the 1992 comedy that marked Penelope Cruz’s film debut, and crowing with delight when one character remarked to another that any woman who wore Jicky had to be beautiful. (It was reportedly Brigitte Bardot’s scent.) But while Jicky is widely considered a timeless classic, for me, the allure faded with the romance.

Perhaps I was just ahead of my time. The whole idea of signature scents may in fact be a relic of the 20th century. 

At cosmetics counters and on perfume blogs, young women now flit through dozens of fragrances, never bothering to choose and commit. Science seems to back up the wisdom of this particular promiscuity.

Why shouldn’t we run through a personal reel of perfumes, whose scents can conjure at will an earlier persona, but whose bottles can also be tucked away like a journal that doesn’t bear revisiting?

For now, I am happily wearing Guerlain Cologne du 68, a unisex scent meant to recall the perfumer’s original address on the Champs-Élysées. By this time next year, it may be replaced.

Rachel Marie Walsh on this season’s top scents:

YSL Black Opium Eau de Toilette, from €49/30ml

Black Opium, YSL’s 2014 perfume release, becomes available in eau de toilette this month. 

Don’t be put off if you find the original Opium (launched 1977) too heady, this one smells far more of flowers than spice. Blackcurrant and pear notes join citrus and green mandarin peel at the top. 

Jasmine-scented tea and orange blossom then take over before giving way to coffee grains, which in this variation mix with creamy white musk and white woods to turn the floral coffee of the Black Opium perfume into a green coffee for the eau de toilette.

Marc Jacobs Daisy Dream Forever Eau de Parfum, €74.90/50ml

Is there really such a thing as a signature scent?

Each of Marc Jacobs’ permanent fragrance lines had a character. Dot is quirky, Lola is sexy, Honey is romantic, and Daisy is a dreamer. Daisy Dream Forever is the family’s new “sister.” 

The scent opens with a sweet, rich mixture of blackberry, pear and grapefruit. A heart of blue wisteria, jasmine and fresh lychee faded to a strong base of blond woods.

Sisley Soir d’Orient Eau de Parfum, from €135/50ml

Marc Jacobs makes perfume for girls but Sisley’s are for grown women. Sisley Soir d’Orient is a darker, more seductive take on Eau de Soir, the brand’s original chypre. 

Both scents have their roots in Seville, where Sisley vice-president Isabelle d’Ornano spent her childhood. Soir d’Orient abandons the city’s flower-filled gardens for the grandeur and mystery of the Alcazar palace. 

While retaining the brand’s signature freshness with Italian lemon and green Iranian Galbanum, its floral and spicy heart hints at the palace’s Moorish history by blending oriental notes of Madagascan black pepper, Turkish rose and Egyptian geranium. 

The exotic base of sandalwood, incense and patchouli lingers longest. Polish sculptor Bronislaw Krzystof designed the cap.

Estée Lauder Modern Muse Le Rouge Eau de Parfum, from €58/30ml

Le Rouge is the follow-up to the brand’s Fragrance Foundation Award-winning Modern Muse and Modern Muse Chic perfumes. Accompanying ads show Kendall Jenner pounding Manhattan’s sidewalks in a sharp red suit and heels. 

This representation of a modern muse may seem a bit 80s but urban settings and office attire are actually a big departure from campaigns for Lauder’s older fragrances. 

Those include models in wedding gowns (Beautiful), propped dramatically against pillars (Youth Dew), nestled among flowers (Pleasures), and hanging out in knickers and men’s shirts (Sensuous), making the Muse collection ladies (Jenner and Arizona Muse) look comparatively cutting edge.

Le Rouge is an oriental floral blend that opens with red currant, raspberry and pink pepper notes. A heart of roses, jasmine and magnolia sink into the creamy vanilla, patchouli and ambrette base.

Jimmy Choo Illicit Eau de Parfum, from €49/40ml (August 31)

Jimmy Choo targets the spritz-happy youth market with this fizzy, “modern floral” scent.

The campaign features singer Sky Ferreira wearing towering gold Choos and underwear the same lilac as the brand’s shoe bags. 

The heart notes — rose and jasminum sambac — are two of the year’s most popular. Ginger and bitter orange top notes give the scent a very zingy opening. Both layers fade into a warm honey-amber base.

Jo Malone Mimosa & Cardamom Collection, from €54/40ml Cologne (available September 1)

Is there really such a thing as a signature scent?

There’s something refreshing about brands like Jo Malone and Acqua di Parma — they sell fragrances comprised of ingredients. That’s all.

There’s no celebrity face or promise — they just bottle mixtures of plant and fruit extracts. You’ll probably really like them. 

Jo Malone’s Peony & Blush Suede is still my favourite autumn scent but this season I’ll been alternating with the new Mimosa & Cardamom cologne.

It’s sweet and spicy eponymous notes give way to a tonka-bean base. A Body & Hand Wash, €35, Body Crème, €65, and Home Candle, €52, will also be available.


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