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The power and intrigue of scent

By Monday, November 24, 2014

I stumbled upon the store Hudson & Grace on Sacramento Street in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. The moment I stepped inside, greeted by the scent of fresh pine trees, my mood soared. It's a small but lovely shop...and I found myself lingering over their fabulous selection of candles. Candles. Who would have thought I would become so obsessed with candles? But I can't stop thinking about them and my experience there.

R. Nichols candles

That fresh pine scent – so sharp, hopeful and homey – was unlike any other Christmas candle I've ever smelled. Named Sparkle and part of the R. Nichols collection, I had to get it for C., who loves candles and is the one who usually buys them for our house. It's perfect for during the holidays, but I want to go back and get the one called Coast next. Described as a blend of ocean salt air, eucalyptus groves and mountain sage, the sales woman said it was like driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with your windows rolled down. Like freedom, bottled.

As amazing as those candles were, with their cute modern packaging, the other side of the store was like stepping into another world. Cire Trudon is the oldest candlemaker in the world, having been the supplier to the French monarchy and the Catholic church for centuries. Fabulously ornate, each captures a moment in time with complex purity.

Cire Trudon room spray and candles

My favorites were Abd El Kader; a wind of freedom coming all at once from the Mascara coast and down from the mountains bringing in its foolish race the green scents of fresh mint, the rashness of fights, the hot and peppered air of ginger and the perfume of tea and tobacco from the Ouled Nail tribe.

And Mérida; the recreation of a balmy night described by Empress Carlota of Mexico on her visit to the city of Merida, Yucatan in 1865. Centering on the exuberant, multi-layered fragrance of the guava tree, it evokes succulent ripe fruit, intoxicating blossoms, foliage and bark, enveloped by elegant woody notes of mahogany and "palo primavera", with just a hint of firework gunpowder reminiscent of fireworks.

Those descriptions!

I would never have described myself as a scent person; more so the opposite (most perfumes give me a headache and I rarely find one I like enough to actually wear). But the concept of scent/smell just fascinates me and has been on my mind constantly. These are just a few of the interesting things I've discovered:

  • Smells have the power to unlock (and imprint) powerful memories because of the connection pathway in our brain. It's the oldest, yet slowest, sense; before sight or hearing or even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them. Even bacteria can smell! (BBC)
  • The difficulty in being able to describe a smell on its own (we always say "it smells like...") gives it a certain power. Memory research has shown that describing things in words can aid memory, but it also reduces the emotion we feel about the subject. When we come up with a story about our memories, we start remembering the story as much as the raw experience. Not so with scents. (BBC)
  • Anosmia sufferers (those who have lost their sense of smell) often feel isolated and cut-off from the world around them and experience a ‘blunting’ of the emotions. Smell loss can affect one’s ability to form and maintain close personal relationships and can lead to depression. I always thought smell would be the sense I would give up if I had to choose, but the impact would be much greater than I ever imagined. (Fifth Sense)
  • Last year, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles held a fascinating event – a scent concert. It was the re-imagining of a failed attempt by Sadakichi Hartmann in 1902. The audience was "transported" from L.A. to Japan through a succession of fragrances, combined with sound and light. What an experience it must have been! (The Creators Project)
Is there a scent that triggers a certain memory for you? 
If you could capture a scent, to always keep a memory with you, what would it be? 


  1. This store sounds great! I love candles and am definitely a scent person :) And, yes! the neurosciency stuff they know about scent is pretty cool and makes sense of a lot of the things I'd suspected about scent before I started studying neuroscience. I can lend you a couple textbooks sometime if you want :)

    1. Did I ever tell you that cognitive science was my first major? I'm fascinated by the full story of scent, but don't know that I'd understand your neuroscience textbooks!