by Catherine Spinley

Scent, emotion and memory are closely intertwined - one rarely exists without the other. Think Upper East Side Ladies Who lunch and Birkin bags, Volkswagen buses and hippies or my own personal favorite pair, bananas and peanut butter. And, while you may think it’s in your head, it really is in your head. Scent is processed in a part of the brain connected to many other brain areas, some of which help process memories and emotions.  

Photo credit: Lotus & Grasses by Judith McMillan

Photo credit: Lotus & Grasses by Judith McMillan

Whenever I smell lilac I am six years old again, riding my pink Schwinn bike past our next door neighbor’s lilac bush on my way to meet up with the neighborhood kids. I’m flooded with memories of lazy, summer days spent exploring the woods just beyond our backyards followed by popsicles and fruit punch.

The scent of Irish Spring soap reminds me of my father and the day I returned home from school distraught after the cool girls spent recess and the bus ride home mocking me. My dad sat by my side on our family room couch, hugged me tightly and shed a tear or two with me. 

Walking past a Clinique counter, the scent of Happy perfume conjures up memories of a semester spent abroad. Visions of foreign cities, new friends and beguiling architecture unfurl themselves across my subconscious.

When I began working in the beauty industry I wore one fragrance, Marc Jacobs - a white floral (mostly magnolia) so strong it had that ability to send me into deep Bravo Southern Charm mode. One spritz and suddenly I was a Grande Dame of southern society, draped in a caftan and ringing my butler, Michael, for an extra-dirty martini.

I later learned most women have a fragrance “library,” which I dismissed as exactly the thing marketing teams wanted women to believe. Libraries were for books and records and art. I was born a fragrance monogamist and would stay one, I promised myself (and Marc Jacobs). Then, while in L.A. for work, the fragrant cloud of magnolia suddenly felt heavy, claustrophobic and dated. I made my way to the nearest Sephora and sniffed my way down the store’s fragrance cabinet in search of something light but also sultry and feminine. I didn’t want to be another member of the Flowerbomb or Light Blue brigade and I didn’t want to smell like a sugar cookie or a fruit dipped in caramel, which in 2006 was a tall order.

Photo credit: Lenny&Meriel via Pinterest

Photo credit: Lenny&Meriel via Pinterest

As I reached the end of the wall, I spotted a dark purple, faceted,  jewel-like bottle different from the others. I spritzed the fragrance onto a blotter card, closed my eyes, inhaled and never looked back. A rose note emerged but was balanced by a citrusy sparkle which quickly followed. Next, a sultry amber note sauntered onto the scene adding depth and intensity. This perfume was Stella by Stella McCartney and it was perfection. Perhaps it was the warm Los Angeles nights, the beautiful people crowded around the hotel pool sipping champagne or the palm tree-flanked, iconic avenues but never before had a rose scent been so modern and irresistible.

At that moment I understood scent had the ability to stir a memory and set a mood.

I quickly became Pan-scentual. Yes, I said it. Proudly. There was the summer of 2006 spent with Anna Sui’s Dolly Girl On The Beach; a limited edition sweet, citrusy-floral. I moved on to Fresh Sugar Lychee in the Spring of 2007; a warm, sparkling citrus reminiscent of effervescent summer cocktails. Suddenly I had a fragrance…commune. The bottles all lived together in my cabinet with one shared responsibility - to make me smell nice and feel sensual, or tough, or radiant or whatever it was I was aiming for on that particular day.

Things took a darker turn after I received a gift of Fresh Cannabis Santal perfume, a strong, heady mix of smoke, wood, vetiver and cannabis - perfect for autumn and winter months. In hindsight, Cannabis Santal was more masculine than some of the men I’ve dated.  When spring came, I wasn’t ready to stop smelling like a weed bonfire so I began mixing it with Bobbi Brown Beach, which can be described very simply as Coppertone suntan lotion in a bottle. Suddenly I smelled like the kind of person who does bong rips on the beach at dusk. It was very Keanu Reeves / Point Break, which incidentally was the first R-rated movie I snuck into as a kid.

Which brings me to current day. Unlike my taste in men, my fragrance preferences have gotten better with age. And, really, I can’t ask for much more, can I?

Allow me to introduce you to my Fragrance Commune - Summer 2018 Edition:


Top note: Ambrette

Middle note: Magnolia, Sandalwood, Violet

Base note: Cedarwood, Chantilly Musk, Crisp Amber

You dream of wrapping yourself in in a Pendleton blanket while watching the stars move across the desert sky. You don’t want to smell like anyone else. In fact, you don’t want to smell at all.  Fragrance should become a part of your essence. You want those who get close enough to say, “You smell beautiful,” rather than, “What perfume are you wearing?” It’s a subtle difference and you can distinguish between the two.


Top note: Lime from Mexico, Cool Mint, Petitgrain Bigarade (aka bitter orange leaf)

Middle note: Blackcurrant Bud absolute from Burgundy, Mimosa absolute from Provence, Jasmine absolute from Egypt

Base note:  Musks

You always meditate before melting into your bed. The crisp, cool sheets envelope your body as sleep peacefully shepards you through the night. The next morning, revitalised and refreshed, you step out of the shower, slip into your favorite kimono and walk onto your balcony just in time to watch the sunrise over an empty beach and peaceful sea.


Top note: Sicilian white bergamot, Jamaican lime, Sicilian mandarin

Middle note: Hibiscus, ylang-ylang, Indian jasmine

Base note: Tonkin musk, tropical wood

All of New York is in St. Tropez or The Hamptons drinking rosé. You’re on your roof deck drinking La Croix. The pity party ends now. One spritz and suddenly you’ve been spirited to a white sand beach, nestled in a hammock and comforted by a good book. There are not wristbands, or wait lists or Nantucket Red Pants where you are. There’s just you, the sun, the sand and some seltzer water. And they say heaven doesn’t exist.


Notes: Pure Toasted Coconut, Fig, Yellow Orchid, Vanilla Flower, Sandalwood, Orris Root, SOft Musk and a hint of Citrus Zest for sparkle

You would never step foot onto an all-inclusive resort. You know the ones; there’s always a line for the Belgian Waffle maker, the hand towel animals on the bed creep you out and the drinks contain less alcohol than the cough syrup in your medicine cabinet. Hard pass. You love the tropics, private villas with outdoor showers and a strong Dark and Stormy. You prefer to rent out Mustique or sail from island to island with no destination or end date in mind.

Catherine Spinley is a sometimes-writer and photographer based in New York. When not stalking other people’s dogs or yelling at people who refuse to walk up the left side of the escalator, she works in the beauty industry and practices yoga. You can read more from her at