Smelling old: how science influences fragrance trends

You may not consciously realize that you’ve got associations with what smells are age-appropriate, but you probably do. Have you ever smelled a perfume and immediately dismissed it, thinking, “no, this smells like an old lady”? What makes you associate certain fragrance ingredients with people of a certain age? It's because that scent was really, really trendy during a period of time that person was in the market for a signature scent.

But what made that smell so popular in the first place? Fragrances are subject to trends and changing tastes, but, interestingly enough, many of those trends get their start in a glass beaker.

The scents that define a certain time period often have a lot to do with what the smells scientists are discovering in their laboratories. In the 19th century, many perfumes of the day were dominated by notes of tonka bean, which scientists had discovered how to recreate in synthetic form (as coumarin*). What do you do when you’re excited about something new? You use it obsessively. And so they did, for several decades, which is why you’ll notice coumarin all over the perfumes of the late 1800s, in iconic scents like Jicky and Fougere Royal. (More on iconic scents of the last 150 years can be found in this handy timeline of modern era perfumes.)

When new scent molecules are discovered in the labs, there’s usually a patent on them for some time. This was the case with calone, a light, watermelon-y scent that scientists at Pfizer stumbled upon in the 1950s. Since the patent restricted its use, it wasn’t widely used in fragrance for a while. But when the patent expired, calone became a very hip new ingredient to use in the fresh, watery, “ozonic” scents of the early 1990s - think Cool Water and Acqua di Gio, or L'Eau d'Issey.

So, whatever perfumers have recently discovered and are super into for a while, that’s what will likely heavily influence the fragrance trends for a period. As with many fashion trends, it’ll get overdone, the next generation will get grossed out and think, “yikes, this smells like old people! I want something new and fresh and different!”. And so, yesterday’s hot fragrances retire along with their loyal older fans, while younger generations explore newer trends. Until someone dusts it off and decides that these scents are old-school, retro, classic, and chic. And so maybe it comes back into vogue for a while, just as those same tonka notes had a big comeback in the 1970s and 1980s (more on that here, if you’re curious).

Now, it’s not all decided for us behind the curtain: perfumers do care what people like, and they won’t mix up wacky things just for the sake of living out their mad scientist fantasies (well, they might, but they’ll hide those strange concoctions on their back shelves, perhaps waiting for the right time, “...when the world is ready for you, my precious…”). They need to create things that people will like and be willing to buy. So, it’s a bit of a delicate dance between perfumers and customers, a bit of a bit of tastemaking tug-of-war. (Marketing also plays a role in what’s traditionally become popular, but that’s a whole other topic.)

So, what does “old” smell like? Essentially, it’ll smell like whatever fragrances were popular in your parents’/grandparents’/great-grandparents’ heyday. Many of us stick to a particular fragrance, or handful of fragrances, that we loved when we were coming into our own. Think about it (it might freak you out a little) a few fragrances you know you like. Then try to remember when you started using them. There’s a very good chance it’s when you were a teenager, or young adult. (Is this because we’re sentimental about this time in our lives? Are we subconsciously holding onto the period when we think we may have been at our peak? Or have we not even begun to peak?)

And, if you really want to go down an introspective rabbit hole, think about the fact that the fresh, new scents we wear today will probably be thought of as “old” to younger generations a few decades from now. Because, as with many things, today’s modern trends are tomorrow’s dated memories (deeeeeeeep). So, here’s to keeping an eye on those fragrance trends, trying new things, and not getting too set in our ways, and scents, as we age gracefully. And maybe giving grandma's bottle of Shalimar a never know what classic old fragrance may suddenly start to grow on you.


(*Coumarin smells sort of powdery, slightly sweet, and a little bit like hay. In its natural form, it comes from the tonka bean, but since science was able to isolate the molecule in the early days of modern perfumery, we’re no longer completely bean-dependent for its scent.)

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