scent memories

The Perfumer Who Loves the Smell of Shiso Leaves

Julie Massé. Photo: Matthieu Dortomb

Scientific studies confirm that, of all the senses, smell offers the best recall. In “Scent Memories,” the Cut asks people about the scents they associate with different times in their lives.

Next up is Julie Massé, one of Giorgio Armani’s favorite perfumers. She’s the nose behind the Italian house’s iconic Sì family of scents, which recently welcomed a new addition, Sì Intense. A more powerful and sophisticated take on the much-adored Sì, Massé’s latest creation is already winning everyone over with its enchanting and potent blend of blackcurrant nectar, (a signature of Sì fragrances), Isparta rose, velvety davana, warm patchouli, and vanilla. The Cut caught up with Massé to talk perfume halos, sushi leaves, and photogenic hills in the South of France.

My first scent memory: In the early ’80s, my family traveled from Grasse, in the South of France, to Tokyo for my father’s work, so I’m French but I was born in Japan and I spent my early years there. My first scent memory is the scent of tatami mats on the floor, which has a very particular scent. It’s almost like a blend of wood, a little hay, and hinoki, a cypress from Japan.

Happiness smells like: A large bouquet of mimosa flowers. I have a mimosa tree in my garden here, and when it blooms, I make a very big bouquet of mimosa. I love the smell, I love the color, I love the pompon. It’s shiny, it’s sunny, and it brings me back to the Tanneron hills, near Grasse, where the mimosa blooms make all the hills turn yellow. There’s something very dewy, a little bit powdery, very comforting, and comfortable about the smell, but it has also this feeling to it that’s creamy, crunchy, and a little bit watery. I love it.

Love smells like: My children. I’ve been working from home, and when they arrive after school and the playground, they’re full of this energy and they smell like outside, the outdoors, and a little bit of chocolate around the mouth. It’s a very fresh, crisp, yet comfortable scent. I’ll be in a meeting or something, and they’ll just start talking to me in the middle of it — they don’t care, they’re so happy to see me, to talk about their day, and I can really feel the love at the center of those particular moments.

Regret smells like: My grandmother, because I miss her dearly, and I would like to have more time with her. We were really close. She was like my secret-keeper — I could say anything to her, more so than to my parents, because she was very open. I lived with her in Grasse for some years, and she always had the same perfume, a floral aldehydic fragrance. Even years after she passed away, whenever I go back to see my parents and I open the cupboards, the drawers, or the curtains, there is the smell of her. It’s not sadness anymore because it reminds me of the strength of our relationship, but there is a bit of regret and nostalgia.

Success smells like: Smelling a fragrance I created in an unexpected place. Working on a single fragrance is a very long process. There are so many trials, you’re wearing them all the time, and the scents become very intimate and almost natural in the end. But when someone somewhere walks past me in a corridor, it’s almost like smelling something entirely new again.

My home smells: Warm, because there’s this one thing I do. I dip ceramics in a solution of Orcanox, which is a raw material that smells like a woody, ambery note. It’s like Ambroxan; it smells a bit hot, but it’s very comfortable, and it’s something I really like. I’ll make a solution of that in alcohol, dip the ceramics in it, and then place them all over the house to scent it.

The first thing I smell in the morning: Coffee and toast.

The last thing I smell before I go to bed: Paper and ink, the scent of books.

A scent or smell I love that others usually don’t: Shiso leaf. I’m so fond of shiso. I love it. I love it. I love it. A lot of people do not because it’s aldehydic, and because it’s not that common. But there’s something very green, very crunchy, and a little bit almond-y to it, I’ve found. I love to use it in cooking, and I love going to Japanese restaurants that have it. It’s also it’s a very strong memory from my childhood. Olfactive memories and flavors, they’re linked, and they’re so strong.

My husband and I went to Japan for our honeymoon because I really wanted him to understand where I grew up. We spent a few days at a friend’s house; they’re living very traditionally, with three generations all in the same house. For our last dinner together, the grandma spent the whole day cooking several specialties, things you cannot find in restaurants. Naturally, I was surprised by some things, but with other dishes, even though I didn’t recognize them, the second I had it in my mouth, it was something I instantly knew.

I smell like: Nothing, at the beginning of the day. But when I leave the office, I put on all the trails I’m working on. I’m working on several projects at the same time, so it depends — it can be masculine, it can be feminine, there are no rules, but it changes a lot. I always try to take time to live with the fragrance I’m working on; the experience cannot be only smelling it on the blotter.

If I want to really analyze the formula, I’ll apply the trials on my skin, different comparisons on my arms. This is my more technical way of smelling. But I also want to feel if a fragrance has a good trail, and good volume. Because for me, there is no good fragrance without a strong aura. You have to have a halo around you. When I want to work on this aspect, I’ll just ch-ch-ch-ch-ch — spray it everywhere; I’ll do a cloud, to see what other people say about the fragrance.

The Perfumer Who Loves the Smell of Shiso Leaves