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Nathalie Atkinson: How familial bonds inspire fragrance

French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian is the nose behind fragrance hits like Narciso Rodriguez For Her, My Burberry and the behemoth Le Mâle Jean Paul Gaultier. But when it came to creating his namesake brand, Maison Francis Kurkdjian (exclusive to Saks Fifth Avenue in Canada), it was his mother he turned to for inspiration. "The idea was to create a fragrance wardrobe," he explained of his creative approach during a visit to Canada last month. "My mother was a big Yves Saint Laurent fan, and a Jean-Louis Scherrer fan. You were loyal to a designer who would propose a range of clothing that would accompany you."

For him, wearing perfume isn't about having a signature scent but about employing a full range of smells for occasions – sporty for day, and for a night out: "sexy, wearing feathers and pink ribbons and a black décolleté dress, or masculine in a black tuxedo," he says. We were passing around bottles of his latest perfume, Baccarat Rouge 540, sniffing its amber notes as he said this, and my mind flickered back to my own mother. The ticklish kiss goodnight from a powdery cloud of Je Reviens' (later, Shalimar) scent that signalled my parents were on their way out for the evening.

"It doesn't smell the way I remember." I've heard this refrain often in conversations about the way people remember perfume, usually their mother's or a lover's, and usually in disappointment after a spritz fails to conjure them up. But perfume is really about the life it has once it's out of the bottle, out in the world and in combination with other things – mixed with shampoo, a little body odour, maybe cigarette smoke. That's what lingers in the folds of a forgotten sweater and cues vivid memories.The imprints that cling aren't strictly speaking the kind you readily find at the perfume counter, though that's often when they start.

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"Emotion is a central and fundamental feature of odour perception, odour learning, and odour memory," says psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Herz. The sensation of smell happens in the nose and olfactory bulb, but its perception – and negative or positive associations – is in the mind, "where our personal experiences with scents take over," she says.

An assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Herz is the leading expert on the psychology of smell and researches sensory cognition (including the link between quality of life, depression and anosmia, or smellblindness). She says that smell is intrinsic to the most important dimensions of our lives. Smell and emotion, she explains, are located in the same network of neural structures (the limbic system), the ancient core of the brain sometimes called the reptilian brain or Rhinencephalon – literally, the "nose-brain." In her 2009 study The Scent of Desire, Herz dissects these Proustian memories, "typified as emotionally vivid, sudden, autobiographical recollections triggered by a scent."

The exact mechanics of our perceptory system around aroma, nose and mind are still contentious – biophysicist Luca Turin, another scholar of olfactory science and a noted perfume critic, touts the vibrational theory of smell. What isn't up for debate, however, is the effect.

Courtney Wagner and Natasha Gregson Wagner recently launched the perfume Natalie in honour of their late mother, actress Natalie Wood. It's inspired by Jungle Gardenia, a heady perfume from 1933 that was popular in the later Golden Age of Hollywood and was a favourite of Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Bennett and Barbara Stanwyck, who gave Wood (then 12) her very first bottle as a present after they filmed The Bride Wore Boots. The rather brash old-school perfume became Wood's lifelong signature scent. While promoting the launch of Natalie, Gregson Wagner said that this scent is one of their strongest and more cherished memories – when they caught its scent from another room, they knew mom was home.

Kurkdjian has also worked on more esoteric projects, like Marie Antoinette's perfume recipe or, with artist Sophie Calle, an installation called The Scent of Money. And he is accustomed to perfume's idiosyncratic correspondences, be they rueful, fond, happy or melancholy.

The Maison's chypre rose patchouli Lumière Noire, for example, was inspired by previous work on a bespoke creation commissioned by Catherine Deneuve. "She was looking for someone who could duplicate a scent that used to belong to her sister," Kurkdjian says of a discontinued scent worn by the actress François Dorléac, who died in a car crash in 1967 at the age of 25. "[Deneuve] had very little, maybe two millilitres. And it was so old that most of the ingredients were totally dissembled; it was hard to reconstitute."

He landed on the original formula after eight months, but the recreation did not end there: Kurkdjian then put the fresh sample into a hot chamber to age and disintegrate it. Deneuve's treasured last aromatic dregs, by then over 40 years old, "are the sample she knows and recognizes as her sister's scent," he says. The point was not to recreate the scent literally, as bottled and purchased, but to "[build] a bridge to her past memory."

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The sense of smell, above all others, is pivotal to the most important and emotional dimensions of our lives. It's perfume, and the associations and experiences of living with that perfume that attaches to and heightens our relationships and our memories of them. And in some way, it distills them, too.

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