Scents & Sensibility
by Avery Chenoweth
As someone born with almost no sense of smell, I can attest to honest amazement when someone nearby picks up on a scent that I cannot detect even when I try.
“You need something to eat,” Eva once said to me. “I can smell the ketones on your breath.”
Well, naturally, I was embarrassed although I couldn’t imagine what a ketone smells like. Since then I’ve learned ketones convey a fruity compost--not something onerous or bacterial. I owe Eva my thanks not merely for saying so at the moment, but for catching the sugar crash before I could feel it, which is not good. Her sense of smell is acute and so well trained that it drives her creation of fragrances in the lab.
Her sense of smell astonishes me every time it comes up, for my own palette is deaf and dumb to all those nuances that lie outside hotdogs and yellow mustard on a NJ boardwalk. But smells don’t live alone. They come with names, and whether plain or painted, the names also convey their pedigree, and can predispose us to liking them.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet implores the heavens. “...that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet...”
We love the wisdom of Shakespeare’s line, the ernest passion that would sweep away the banalities of names and prejudices that twine up around them. To push back, while we’re here, though, can we really insist that the melodious name of “rose” would have attached, say, to a wart hog? Or, is there a deeper truth revealed in a name, after all?
To plummet from the sublime to the ridiculous, you may recall the early Saturday Night Live bit on Smucker’s. Smucker’s ad campaign in the late 1970s used to proclaim that, “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” SNL ran with it. In the sketch, the list of awful new names grows increasingly noxious, until Chevy Chase tops them all when he says, “With a name like Painful Rectal Itch, it has to be good!”
Even Juliet might have given that one pause. It’s hard to find examples of euphonious names for awful smells, though I’m sure they’re out there. More often than not sounds and scents harmonize to create a picture of a sweet experience. And so it was a high compliment when a customer wrote us, recently, about our soap, Luna Sea.
“I love your Luna Sea bar,” she wrote. “I cannot live without that scent in my life every day!”
We call the bar Luna Sea, for Emergency Mood Enhancement, because the sounds and scents are one expression of the same ineffable quantity. With sweet orange at its foundation, the spice and warmth of cinnamon, and hint of patchouli, Luna Sea imparts a pick-me-up: a complex scent that takes you to a palm-cooled beach via the lather and water coursing over your skin and into all the corners of your body.
On the subject of the power of smell, no one can leave out Marcel Proust, the late 19th and early 20th century novelist, for whom the power of smell transports him across the dead decades. A scene of time-travel opens his great work, the novel-series known as A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, and translated earlier as, Remembrance of Things Past. The involuntary memories that he relives are triggered by the smell of madeleines that waft into his bedroom, and send him reeling back into his childhood; and those acute memories launch an entire world that fills seven novels.
The personal madeleine that transports me across time, is Coppertone Sunscreen. One smear of the white lotion on my forearm, or face, and my visual field spins wildly until I am once again age ten; and a grown woman, my Mom or an aunt, is spreading a swath of the hallucinogen across my shoulders, arms, and back, and across my scowling little face--against the mosaic brilliance of the swimming pool at the Jacksonville Yacht Club.
This is not merely a personal memory. Researchers are working to pinpoint the power of olfactory cues for memory stimulation in the brain; and American journalist and museum curator, Chandler Burr, has described the literally unforgettable fragrance of Coppertone as, “arguably, the single greatest work of scent branding, ever.” Poison, by Chanel, is a favorite of mine as well, but its occasions are rare and personal while Coppertone is as ubiquitous across American sands as the distant sound of The Beach Boys.
One thread lacing these examples into a pattern would have to be the transition from weary experience to refreshed innocence. Whether it’s in a name, an adult going to bed, or a grad student lathering on the sunscreen, the trip follows a similar arc. We leave the neuropathy of the present and return to the freshness of childhood. From a child’s view point, the world may appear new again, and provide shelter from adult worries like bills and mortgages for all those building sand castles against the tide. What’s unknown is a mystery, the horizons beckon and tantalize with adventures--casting over us an alluring set of opportunities that may compel us to feel and claim those sensations--that elusive pleasure of being a child once more, however briefly, in an adult’s body.
It’s a great business to be in, creating memories with scents and sensibility for all of you who enjoy our products. If you like to cook, and give your guests a great meal, and see the pleasure on their faces, then making memory-fields is a related endeavor with a lot of similar pleasures for us. We are delighted that our Luna Sea bar and liquid soap are now a part of that vast pantheon of aromas that carry us away, and bring us back again, renewed and reawakened, to the things that we cherish most in being alive.