Scents and smells can be passed on to children, just like a seaside home, a photo album or… a family secret.
Shrinks have dubbed them “fragrant flashbacks.” These redolent memories, like Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine bearing “the vast structure of recollection,” encapsulate the intimate links among memory, our sense of smell and childhood. This is because we are olfactory creatures, each of us carrying within a little of these family aromas that are usually (but not always) linked to a delightful memory: the smell of books buckled by sand and suntan lotion in the holiday home in Arcachon, the slightly sweet smell of sap and moss from the Christmas tree, the comforting smell of grandma’s plum tart or the scent of face powder on a mother’s clothes as she waits for school to let out. Over time, all these autobiographical memories form an olfactory family legacy, shaping our sensorial cravings and the fragrances we like to wear. Indeed, there are families in which perfume is passed down like a precious treasure, and what’s actually being transmitted is more an affinity for a label than a particular bottle. Depending on the lineage, a predilection for Chanel, Guerlain or Serge Lutens can be transmitted from mother to daughter or father to son. Likewise for Hermès, another heritage classic that is passed down the generations.
“In a world ruled by the ephemeral, anything that celebrates a memory, a heritage, is fundamental: it makes it possible to reintroduce timelessness where there no longer is any. This is what perfume manages to do,” analyzes Pierre Bisseuil, director of research at the Peclers agency. Why not pass on an olfactory aesthetic? You sometimes hear someone say, “I love chypre perfumes, just like my mother.” “A dad who wore Eau Sauvage [Dior] can pass on to his daughter a taste for Mûre et Musc [L’Artisan Parfumeur],” explains perfume consultant Aurélie Dematons. In some families, one thus bequeaths a love of vetiver or iris or, going back further, of vanilla. We educate our children and introduce them to such subtleties, to the beauty of the raw ingredients. For decades, a perfume like Habit Rouge (Guerlain) was passed from father to son like an old pair of Church’s (30 years later, Héritage would fully embrace this idea of transmission). For women, on the other hand, there is a sort of taboo associated with the idea of following in one’s mother’s sillage. That is why patrimonial perfume houses remix their classics so that they appeal to the next generation without excluding the previous one. “My mother wore Empreinte by Courrèges and one day she gave me Courrèges In Blue,” confirms Dematons. A recent example is No5 L’Eau, an updated version of the Chanel masterpiece from the 1920s. This affiliation to the same clan can even inspire marketing campaigns, like the one Azzaro created for Chrome, in which three generations (father, son and grandson) come together around a universal fragrance, an unusual freshness (accord of ginger, tea and marine notes) that lingers on the skin and appeals to all ages.
But the concept of olfactory legacy can also apply to sourcing. In 1987, Chanel forged a partnership with the Mul family (the family theme, again, with five generations devoted to growing perfume flowers), ensuring that it could purchase the entire crop in order to make its famous extract of No5. It is about preserving a heritage, with the desire to pass on to future generations the absolute of absolutes.