The Bloom of Youth

September 2003

Rashida Jones can track her move into adulthood by the perfume on her wrists. The daughter of record producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton, she was precocious at 14 with Chanel No. 19. During her Harvard years, she turned romantic with Thierry Mugler Angel and Joy by Jean Patou, then graduated to enigmatic vanilla and musk oils. “After that, I was in limbo,” says 27-year-old Jones, now an actress herself. She recently entered Fragrance Phase Four after meeting a friend for sushi in Los Angeles. “I gave her a hug, and I smelled something very clean. I thought it was a great shampoo or soap, and she told me it was a fragrance called If.” Jones, who quickly dashed out for her own bottle, admits that her taste has changed again, toward something more subtle—which is why she embraced this particular scent. “It just smells like you’ve taken a really yummy shower,” she says.

These days, nearly every scent created for women in their 20s and 30s smells like it could have been yanked from a shower caddy, and is typically described with hygienic adjectives like bright, watery, and sparkling. That’s because fragrance suppliers know that Jones isn’t the only member of her generation who would rather smell clean than doused in perfume. Most companies keep reams of data documenting exactly what young women want out of a fragrance. While “clean” and “airy” top the list, edible ingredients are close behind. There’s also a smattering of traditional, even nostalgic, notes designed to remind these women of their childhood. According to Paul Austin, vice president of fine fragrances at fragrance manufacturer Quest International, specific ingredients like grapefruit, mint, and apple have become so clearly linked with youth that they can even alter our perception of the woman who wears them. In other words, it is possible to smell young…or, more ominously, to smell old.

Twenty-five-year-old documentary filmmaker Liz Goldwyn believes she inhaled perfume for the first time before she started preschool. “I was probably two years old,” she says, recalling a later fondness for Shalimar and Coco. Scientists know that infants respond to scent long before they’re strong enough to grip an atomizer bottle—and a 25-year-old woman’s predilection for transparent fragrances might also he hardwired. ‘In general, younger people have a higher olfactory sensitivity that goes down with age,” says Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz. “I can’t say it’s been scientifically proven, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is part of the reason younger women like lighter scents.”

Most women don’t settle into a signature scent before the age of 30. And while fragrance consultant Ann Gottlieb says that younger consumers are rarely brand loyal when it comes to perfume, companies try to lure them early, hoping they’ll stick with the brand as they trade up to stronger, more expensive versions later.

Unlike their voluptuous counterparts, the sheerer scents popular with women in their 20s benefit from crisp, dewy top notes; wild strawberries and dry grapes in Carolina Herrera Carolina; tangerine, pear, gooseberry, and kaffir lime in scents like Giorgio Armani Sensi, Tommy Girl Jeans, and Moschino L’Eau Cheap and Chic. These fruity flavors can brighten and lighten richer flowers and spices. Ralph Lauren Blue balances rose de mai, gardenia, and peony with a splash of citrus and green scents. “It gives the fragrance a casual attitude,” says Doreen Bollhofer, vice president of global fragrance development at Ralph Lauren Fragrances.

Perfumers are also developing ways to make the rich, classic ingredients often associated with older brews—like rose, jasmine, and clove—more effervescent by capturing a flower’s scent from a distance, rather than from the heart of the blossom itself. When actress Shiva Rose McDermott says that her favorite fragrances have “the scent of flowers coming through an open window,” she may speak for an entire generation of women. For Carolina, perfumers prowled jasmine fields in the South of France, using a glass dome and a collection needle (a process called “living headspace technology”) to capture the perfumed air. This modern twist on the technique, which once meant putting the needle very close to the flower, now “re-creates the most transparent part of jasmine,” says Carlos Benaim, senior perfumer and vice president at International Flavors and Fragrances. Also, instead of relying on traditional heat- based methods to collect oil from a source, which typically yields “thick, deep, sensuous” perfumes, according to David Apel, senior perfumer/vice president of creative perfumery at fragrance manufacturer Givaudan, many perfumers are now turning to carbon-dioxide extraction, which employs a cold, liquefied version of the gas. This produces “a lighter clearer truer version of whatever you’re extracting,” Apel says.

To keep these bright scents from fading into oblivion, many also stir in small amounts of redolent but sweet odors, like white chocolate in Bulgari Omnia, almond in Burberry Brit, and soy milk in Clinique Simply. According to Rachel Herz, assistant professor of psychology at Brown University, a teenager’s carbohydrate cravings—caused partly by a higher metabolism—may “leave an imprint that sticks around well into our 20s.” This could explain why these slightly sweet fragrances are so enticing.

Biology factors into fragrance preference, but psychology may be even more compelling. According to neurobiologist Lawrence C. Katz, “Olfaction, unlike other senses, goes directly to the emotional parts of the brain.” In other words, a 25-year-old woman’s attraction to sweet scents may be nostalgia for the lemon dish detergent, cherry Charms, and cinnamon toast of her childhood. Few of us consciously connect the cinnamon in Liz Claiborne’s new Spark for Women or the citrus notes in Ralph Lauren Blue with those memories, but experts say that women who wear them are responding—at least in part—to an association with comfort and safety.

Nostalgia, according to Alan R. Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, is one of the principles guiding fragrance choice. In a multigenerational study, he found that women of all ages have memories of their mother’ perfume. And even the most youth-oriented perfumers include traditional floral notes along with more sparkling ones- Designer Stella McCartney’s first fragrance, Stella, is built on the unabashedly traditional rose. “My mum always had flowers all over the house,” she says. “Especially white flowers and roses. I couldn’t pass by them without sticking my nose in. I don’t think of roses as old- fashioned. I think of them as the most beautiful flower.” Liz Goldwyn also connects a favorite fragrance with her mother. “I vividly remember the sound of her high heels and the smell of Giorgio wafting down the hall,” she says.

When designing a fragrance for younger women, most perfumers avoid such blatant notes, choosing fresher and brighter traditional florals instead. They also look for new breeds of flowers that smell just different enough from the blooms that scented our grandmothers’ wrists. Estee Lauder’s perfumers found obscure versions of jasmine, then mingled it with a re-created scent of tropical mist for Beyond Paradise. The object is to avoid duplicating any overused floral directly—or risk becoming the olfactory equivalent of lace doilies: “if someone walks into a room smelling like lilac,” says Charles J. Wysocki, neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, “you know darn well it’s a very old woman.”

Part of the success of Chanel Chance can he credited to its recipe, which bears no resemblance to the company’s classic No. 5 perfume. “Young women go through a phase where they say, ‘I want to be sophisticated, but I don’t want to smell like my mother,’” says Laurie Palma, senior vice president of fragrance marketing at Chanel. “We tried to avoid white, heavy florals like gardenia that have been used for years and years, turning to fresher notes like hyacinth.”

When Rashida Jones says she wants to smell shower-fresh, she’s not talking about Ivory soap. Research shows that both women and men use the words “fresh” and “clean” to describe any fragrance they like. “I don’t think there are any perfumes that are intrinsically clean,” says Jerome Jallat, consumer understanding director at Quest International. “If you used a soap for ages that smelled like Shalimar, you’d probably say that fragrance smelled clean.” When Alan R. Hirsch studied olfactory- induced memories, he found that roses and tweed sparked emotions in those born in the 1940s, while those born in the l960s and ‘70s waxed nostalgic over chlorine, window cleaner, detergent, and suntan oil. We’re unlikely to see an Eau de Tide at perfume counters anytime soon, but just as detergent makers add fine fragrance notes to their powders, perfumers have been spiking fine fragrances with laundry notes for decades—and admit they’re doing more of it now. “I personally like fresh linen notes,” says David Apel, who generally reserves them for his more youthful fragrances. Two scents, Glow by JLo and Origins Frolic, contain soapy aldehydic notes. Apel’s colleague, Kate Greene, director of marketing/fine fragrances at Givaudan, points out that Glow’s ad shows Lopez in a shower. “Younger women are very fastidious and very much into grooming,” she says. “They want that fresh-scrubbed feeling.”

“Your mother would probably never describe her fragrance as being fresh and clean,” says Ann Gottlieb. And in fact, choosing not to smell excessively sensuous and floral is one way for a woman in her 20s to separate herself from her mother and grandmother.

But that might change by the time a woman reaches her mid-30s. According to author Chandler Burr, a taste for fragrance generally evolves much like a taste for wine. “We learn to appreciate more complex fragrances and less obvious delights as we grow older” he says, noting that musky or oriental scents ate often unappealing to an untrained nose.

They also might seem slightly inappropriate. For a young woman shuttling from the gym in the morning to an office presentation to a romp with her boyfriend, dabbing on a heady, sultry scent might feel too suggestive. “Anytime you wear a perfume, you’re taking a risk,” says Jerome Jallat. “Simple cleanliness is very reassuring to younger wearers—it’s safe.” And if the newest fragrances are any indication, it’s also a breath of fresh air.
Sidebar: Creating the Classics
A crisp white shirt. Coca-Cola, Levis 501s, and Jane Eyre are all classics—as are certain fragrances. But they didn’t start out that way. In fact, the most enduring perfumes wrinkled more noses than they tickled when they were created, says French perfumer Frederic Malle. Each one succeeded by eliciting a strong reaction and resembling nothing that came before it.

When it was introduced in 1921, the aldehydic florals (meaning soft. powdery, and synthetic) In Chanel No. 5 were jarring and even shocked women accustomed to traditional blooms. In The Emperor of Scent (Random House), Chandler Burr writes about the impression Chanel No. 5 made: From distilled garden roses, we were suddenly amidst synthesized carbon atoms. In 1977, long after women had grown accustomed to synthetic flowers. Oscar de la Renta Oscar paved tile way for today’s clean florals with its unorthodox blend of rose de mai, jasmine, basil, and coriander, “At the time, it was offbeat.” says Annette Green, president emeritus of the Fragrance Foundation. “It was years before the fragrance took off.” Fifteen years later, Thierry Mugler Angel “was the first to offer so many edible notes.” Malle says of the chocolate-and-caramel-infused scent that is now a modern classic. Studying these classics might explain why the fresh, fruit-spiked scents crowding store shelves now may not be destined for the perfume canon. “They mainly express current attitudes and tastes, so I’m not sure most of them have enough personality to reach from one generation to the next,” Green says. “And honestly, I don’t think the companies expect them to.”

Sidebar: The Spice Route
After nearly 20 years of exile, deep, dark oriental perfumes are back. But before you hold your nose and ask a nasal “Why?” fragrance companies are insisting that these orientals are sexy, not heavy. Rather than dense vanilla, spices, and musk, Clinique Simply (so named to distinguish it from all those complex orientals relies on toasted soy nuts and soy milk to give the fragrance its velvety, creamy quality. Giorgio Armani Sensi gets richness from white wood, rather than dark, smokier sandalwood, “for an almost virgin, baby-like effect,” says perfumer Alberto Morillas, who spiked the fragrance with tart kaffir lime for crispness. Bulgari Omnia, arguably the most exotic of the hunch, is built on saffron and tea—with a jolt of mandarin orange. And while perfumer Carlos Benaim added some musk and patchouli to Carolina Herrera Carolina, he mixed in lighter forms of the ingredients that “seem to lift off the skin.” In their efforts to marry richness with transparency, these orientals satisfy both the sultry and the demure. After blind trials, Ray Math, vice president of Clinique fragrance development worldwide, found that “women who tend to like fresh fragrances only smelled the freshness in Simply,” he says. “The ones who liked warm fragrances only smelled the warmth.” According to the Fragrance Foundation’s Annette Green, this marriage works especially well for perfume beginners: “Young women are becoming more open about their sexuality,” she says, “but they don’t want anything too risqué.” These new scents may just be tile fragrance-world equivalent of safe sex.