The “madeleine de Proust” is a French classical literary reference that most French people are familiar with. The story goes that Marcel Proust bites into a madeleine cake, and the sensory experience – the smell, the taste, the texture – of eating his favourite childhood treat provokes an incredibly strong sense of nostalgia by which he is completely consumed. The term is used colloquially in French to refer to sensory experiences that promote overwhelming feelings of nostalgia.
I am particularly sensitive to these “madeleine de Proust” moments, more so with certain specific smells. The scent released from crushing cypress berries and leaves between my fingertips instantly transports me back to the garden of my childhood home in Gloucestershire. I would spend hours roaming the garden that surrounded the house, and one of my favourite early childhood activities would be picking the berries off those trees (though I never was allowed to eat them!) This momentary dissociative nostalgic state is unbelievably calming, albeit a little bittersweet, as I still miss that house and that garden even now.
Other smells induce general feelings of wellbeing, even if I can’t quite pinpoint a specific associated event. Freshly cut grass, powdery lipstick, slightly over-boiled plum jam and home-made onion gravy to name a few.
The strongest involuntary emotional responses come from scent. When developing our flagship products, I had to decide what I wanted to achieve from the scent of these products. ASCEND skincare will never contain any artificial fragrances, so I only considered essential oils, and specifically essential oils appropriate for skincare. Firstly, I considered the essential oils as skincare ingredients, with their scent being a secondary additional bonus.
Our Caffeine + CBD Brightening Oil Serum was easy – there’s no fragrance at all. The CO2 extracted Arabica coffee oil has such a powerful coffee scent that there was no point in trying to hide it. The first time I tried it, I was transported back to the terraces of the cafés my peers and I used to spend our spare time in as 16-year-old espresso-drinking students living in France. The unapologetically bold aroma was perfect as it was, au naturel.
Our Phyto-Retinol + CBD Night Serum Concentrate posed slightly more of a challenge. The ingredients and botanical extracts are, as the product name suggests, concentrated. I have found that a general rule of thumb when formulating is that the more potent a vegetable oil is, the stronger it smells. If it has a dark or bold colour, it’ll smell.
We had to mask some of the stronger smelling oils whilst creating a scent profile that encourages relaxation and sleep, whilst focussing on skincare benefits first and foremost. Chamomile was a clear choice, as it is very strongly scented and well-known for its skincare benefits and sedating properties. Vetiver is an excellent skincare ingredient and also helps to promote relaxation. These two combined did an excellent job of covering any strong-smelling oils without being sensitising, but still, something was missing.
Our Rebalancing CBD Lustre Face Oil presented a challenge in the opposite sense. The formula is a combination of fairly neutral-smelling oils compared to our Night Concentrate. This left us with somewhat of a blank slate. Any combination of oils was effective at creating an attractive scent profile, but nothing felt “right”.
I was stuck for months trying to figure out what the missing element was. After what felt like years of “formulators block”, I decided to take a different approach.
How did I want these products to make people feel? How did I want them to make me feel?
I found the answer in Proust’s madeleine. Not literally, of course, but in the exploration of scent-induced nostalgia.
The crushed cypress berries at my childhood homemade in into the bottle of CBD Lustre Face Oil, and the final missing element? I had to travel a little further afield, look through old childhood memories and holidays hoping to find something that would take me on a journey.
I have a lot of South-African roots. My father grew up there, I have South African aunties and cousins dotted all over the world. My grandparents lived there for about 30 years, and I remember going out to visit them throughout my childhood.
In their garden, there was a beautiful frangipani tree that smelt divine and flowered clusters of pristine yellow and white flowers in April. My mother, grandmother and I would pick these flowers, and I kept some to press to keep in my holiday journal. When I put my nose to a bottle of Frangipani flower absolute, I was back in Port Edward picking flowers at my grandmother’s house.
I know that scent is a highly personal thing, and I don’t expect people to have the same nostalgic reactions when using ASCEND products. I do, however, feel grateful at the opportunity to share these little snippets of my life with people through these products. Perhaps I’ll even be lucky enough to provoke a “madeleine de Proust” moment for someone whose mother always drinks chamomile tea.