I’m always falling in love. With people, with places, with fragrances, with anything. Every time I do, I want to keep that thing as close to me as possible for the rest of my life and into the next. Forever in a single kiss, an eternity in a spritz of perfume. But more often than not, life has other plans. As a beauty and fragrance writer, I spend much of my time interrogating my personal relationship with beauty. I often create ties to color and scent that are more than just skin deep. So imagine my shock when I began to hear whispers that my all-time favorite fragrance was being discontinued. Beauty products are discontinued every day to make room for newer, more exciting things. It’s normal. But the news of my favorite scent, Byredo’s 1996, being pulled from the shelves forever hit me harder than just another product because, to me, this wasn’t just another product.
Fragrance is deeply personal, arguably more so than any other category, because of its connection to the past and ability to transport you to another time. It entwines itself with other places, situations, and people, making the tie between fragrance and emotion inextricable. But why is that? From a scientific perspective, the olfactory bulb plays a pivotal role. “Scent molecules drift up our nasal passageway and touch our olfactory receptors,” explains Olivia Jezler, a scent technology research expert and founder of Future of Smell, a company that builds sensory experiences. “Once these are activated, they send electrical pulses to parts of our brain responsible for memory processing, associative learning, and emotion.” She notes that no other sense has this direct link to these parts of our brain, and thus, scent is able to quickly trigger a response. Venkatesh Murthy, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, suggests that the way the brain is wired sets the stage for this connection. “Smells seem to readily evoke autobiographical memories, typically something one has experienced earlier in life,” says Murthy. “The parts of the brain that process and convey scent information are wired up close to those parts that are involved in memory and emotion so that they may communicate more readily with each other.”
It makes sense then that our connection to our favorite scents often feels hardwired into us. Scent recall feels visceral, like a mix of time travel and teleportation, instantly bringing you back, not only to the past but to the emotions you felt at that time, like instant deja vu, living in two separate realities at once. I first smelled Byredo’s 1996 in my small midwest apartment in 2014, and everything changed. The way I viewed fragrance, and viewed myself, shifted at that moment. By then, I had made a writing career out of my lifelong love of fragrance. But I had never smelled anything like this before. 1996 is a warm, plush blend of leather, violet, orris, amber, patchouli, and vanilla. It feels like the softest, most buttery vintage suede jacket you’ve ever felt. With a little sweetness and a bit of spice, the fragrance almost melts into your skin, just like the leather jacket would. It’s alluring, mysterious, and hypnotic. The scent immediately connected with something deep inside me. It felt like a hook in my stomach, like when you realize that you’re in love for the first or hundredth time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I had other favorite scents in the past, but this was how I saw my future. I’m not sure 1996 fit the person I was yet, but it was who I wanted to become. And in retrospect, maybe I did.
My favorite fragrance being taken off of shelves may not seem like the end of the world, and I guess it’s not. But it’s the end of one world, a world that I built for myself. Beauty and fragrance are so much more than presentation for others. It’s a love letter to ourselves, a map of how we move through the world. It draws the lines of the person we want to become until we fill them in. I wore 1996 religiously from the moment I smelled it. It’s the fragrance I wanted to define me. I wore it as I interviewed for the dream job that I would eventually get, and then as I moved to a new city to start it; as I was falling in love for the first time, and as that relationship dissolved like smoke in front of my eyes, and then as new love blossomed again and again. And so on. It was who I wanted to be until I actually became that person. So what happens when it’s gone? I know that the obvious answer is, “Well, just find another fragrance you like.” But that’s not the point. There are so many fragrances that I love, but love isn’t enough. Is it ever? You can replace one thing with something similar, and it may fill the vacant space in your life, but it never really satiates the hunger.
Lucky for us, fragrance, like love, exists in many different forms throughout our lives, but it’s never the same twice. Love, like fragrance, is unique, and once it’s gone, it can never really be replicated. We can try to imitate it or duplicate it, but what does that ever really do besides remind us of what we lost? When something we love goes away, what are we left with? Fragrance is a time capsule of the past. It can take you back to who you were and what your life was like at a certain time. It’s often the encapsulation of a relationship, like the embracing Pompeii couple that was preserved forever in ash, or a prehistoric bug frozen in amber. Fragrance is the conduit to access your past and, just for a moment, it’s as real as it ever was, as if it’s still happening in parallel with your present in some other universe just out of reach. The thin, gauzy veil between you and another dimension, where the only thing that can pass between them is as thin and invisible as a scent.
When a fragrance that is tied to so much of your life goes away, where does the rest of it go? All of the memories it can conjure in an instant, all of the feelings that it can ignite, like a fire touching gasoline? I guess fragrance, like everything else, is just a lesson that nothing is built to last forever and that you should enjoy what you have while you have it. The strange alchemy between fragrance and memory is special because it’s rare, and perhaps should only be there for us to enjoy at a moment’s notice, unprepared. The value is in the surprise, and the fleeting flutter of recognition. Or maybe it’s a reminder that, though it may feel that way, memories don’t exist within the scent, but within you. Some of them aren’t meant to last forever. Some fade, but the ones that stick with you are the ones worth holding onto. I guess if I’m always falling in love, it means I’m making new memories, and though the magic of 1996 may be lost to time, I can try to capture the best ones through the next fragrance I love.