scent memories

The Candlemakers Who Know What Summer Smells Like

Thomas Neuberger and Kristen Pumphrey. Photo: Courtesy of P.F. Candle Co.

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 are Kristen Pumphrey and Thomas Neuberger, the duo behind Los Angeles–based home-fragrance company P.F. Candle Co. The couple recently debuted their first book, At Home With Fragrance: Creating Modern Scents for Your Space, a guide to DIY-ing your own custom scents and decorating your home with fragrance. They’ve also just launched a new limited-edition candle, Watermelon & Chili, a tart and juicy scent that packs the carefree vibes of pool parties and picnics past into the brand’s signature amber jars. The Cut caught up with the couple to talk hot springs, skunks, and their most memorable summer nights.

Your first scent memory:
Kristen Pumphrey: I grew up in Virginia, and in the summer we would always catch lightning bugs, or fireflies, and put them into jars. My mom would use old Classico-pasta-sauce jars and poke holes in the lids for us. I always thought that the lightning bugs themselves had that kind of mineral-y and sharp scent, but as an adult, I realized it was actually the smell of a cleaned-out pasta-sauce jar. That smell takes me back.

Thomas Neuberger: For me, it’s being stuck in a car in traffic. When I was 18, I left California for seven years before moving back, and when I did, I had all these weird experiences where I would be stuck in traffic and the smell of smog, or exhaust, would just transport me back to being a kid stuck in traffic. It’d be 100 degrees, and my mom’s car didn’t have air-conditioning in the ’90s, so the windows would be down and we would just be smelling the city air, which is not great. It’s always really positional, too. I’ll be on an overpass and I’ll smell something that reminds me of being on that same overpass when I was 5.

Happiness smells like:
K.P.: Warm white florals like tuberose, gardenia, and jasmine. They have a little bit of a vanilla aspect to them, which I love. Because those florals are so warm, they feel like they’re enveloping you in a hug.

T.N.: Happiness smells like freedom and no responsibility. Every so often, I’ll be walking or driving at night, and there’s this cool, minty, medicinal smell coming off the wilderness areas here in Los Angeles. It’s probably a dry creek or something, but it reminds me of being a teenager, when I would just walk across the city because I had nothing else to do. That smell reminds me of being carefree — no parents, no rules, no responsibilities. It’s the scent of freedom, to me.

Love smells like:
T.N.: Anything our company makes, because it reminds me of all the time we spent together building the company. Every time I smell our products, especially our most popular one, Teakwood & Tobacco, which we’re making most of the time, I’m brought back to those first couple years, when it was just us making candles together.

K.P.: I feel like love smells like pheromones and someone’s personal odor. When I first met Tom, he was living in this punk house in Austin. He had a pallet as a wall, not an actual wall; the shower situation was sketchy; and he was always riding his bike, so he definitely smelled grungy. At first, I was very surprised by it, but I knew I was falling in love with him when I liked that smell. It’s a little gross, but that’s how you know you’re in love with someone: when you like the way they smell — all the bad, too.

Heartbreak or loss smells like:
T.N.: Probably flowers, because everyone gives them this gift when you are in the hospital or someone dies. I think there’s some irony there, but it really does make sense because flowers are so beautiful and delicate, but they’re also impermanent, and I think that comes to represent life’s totality. It’s a good representation of the impermanence of life.

K.P.: Yeah, they’re kind of always decaying once you get them. That decaying molecule is called indole, so, for me, that molecule smells like heartbreak or loss. Some people think it smells like halitosis or mothballs. I smell it in old houses, like the built-in cabinets in ours, or in thrift stores. I always associate that smell with other people’s memories.

Friendship smells like:
T.N.: All my friends smell bad, like I used to smell, because they’re all dirty hippies, so friendship probably smells like BO, stale beer, and cigarette smoke …

K.P.: I think my friends smell a little better [laughs]. Friendship smells like balmy night air. This is probably a teenage memory — when you’re driving around with the windows down, and you’re up later than the rest of the world, so it’s cool and balmy at the same time. It smells a little humid, a little dewy, balsamic, woody, and a little spicy and smoky.

Regret smells like:
T.N.: I’m a big proponent of no regrets in life and made it a point to try not to regret anything, because mistakes are just the building blocks to where you are today. So, for me, regret is a building block, like a base note. Probably a woody one, like sandalwood, or maybe something more pretty and powdery, like orris root.

K.P.: Orris root is good because it’s all concrete, too. I feel like regret smells like well whiskey. That’s it.

Success smells like:
T.N.: Something spicy, like cinnamon, pepper, or cardamom. I think success is being content in your current situation, and that reminds me of the feeling of being warm, cozy, and enveloped.

K.P.: To me, it would smell like the top of a mountain: when you’ve made it past the path, and you’ve done something that you’re really proud of. It smells a little foresty, maybe like Jeffrey pine or juniper, with a little bit of granite, which is really flinty, and just cool, crisp air. We’re always trying to bottle our memories like that and put it into our scents, and Cedar & Sagebrush smells like that kind of hike in the Eastern Sierras.

The worst smell is:
T.N.: Barnyard smells. I don’t like barnyard smells. Growing up outside of L.A., there are a lot of cow farms, and I lived outside this city called Norco, which is like the horse capital of the world. The manure doesn’t bother me so much; it’s more the leather and urine …

K.P.: The worst scent molecule I’ve ever smelled is civet essence. It’s extracted from the perennial gland of a civet. They do it synthetically now, but it’s just so sharp and uric and disgusting. It smells like soggy litter box. It’s like decay in a scent. It’s a really important and popular part of French perfumery, where they just use a little bit of civet to get that body and that lift, but when you smell it on its own, it’s disgusting.

Your ideal vacation smells like:
T.N.: New Mexico. There are so many wonderful things to experience and smell there. There’s dry desert air, chiles airing out on the porch, juniper and sagebrush all around, but I think the most iconic New Mexican scent, which reminds us of vacationing there, is piñon logs because everyone’s always burning them. And we actually made a fragrance based on this. It’s smoky, cinnamony, and it’s a little vanilla-y.

Your home smells like:
K.P.: Hopefully good! That’s definitely our job. We just wrote a book where we break down what each room in our house smells like and how we layer. The base layer of our house is almost a musty, woody smell because we live in a 100-year old craftsman. We build off that by gravitating toward woody base notes, so we do our Moonrise diffuser and Teakwood & Tobacco diffuser, and I burn a lot of incense from Incienso de Santa Fe. I’m really into the little paper-booklet incense from Papier d’Arménie for the bathroom, and candles are our nighttime thing. Right now, we’re burning Watermelon & Chili, which is like a summertime-in-a-jar scent, and a really important component to all of this is opening the windows. The fresh air helps get everything moving so it’s not stale and musty, especially in an older house.

The first thing you smell in the morning:
T.N.: We like to sleep with our windows open, so it’s that misty morning smell, ocean breeze, dewy grass. Over the past month or so, a lot of the flowers are coming into bloom in the neighborhood, so I also smell jasmine and orange blossom.

K.P.: Slept-in sheets, and Tom gets up before me, so I smell him making an Americano and that gets me up.

The last thing you smell before you got to bed:
T.N.: Crest toothpaste. I really like the taste and smell of it — that minty and herbal, medicinal smell — much more than Colgate. But I guess all American toothpaste is that way, as opposed to European toothpaste that’s clove based. We like mint in our mouth.

K.P.: Kiehl’s hand salve, which is a little minty, the cool night air, and dusty book pages, because I’m always reading before I go to bed.

A scent or smell you love that others usually don’t:
T.N.: I really like sulfurous scents. I just thought of skunk [laughs]. Okay, I don’t like skunk, but I find it interesting. I wouldn’t want to smell like sulfur, but it’s one of the things that you smell — like skunk, garlic, matches — where you’re like, I want to smell more of this. I don’t think they smell good, but they’re intriguing.

K.P.: I’d say sulfur too, because I love the smell of a just-struck match. It also reminds me of this hot spring that we go to in the Sierras. It’s one of the things that people think is going to smell bad, but because I have such good associations with it, I don’t mind it.

You smell like:
T.N.: I’m hoping I smell good, but I guess that’s up to interpretation.

K.P.: I didn’t lay the groundwork well, did I?

T.N.: It’s gotten better! I’m obsessed with this balm called Solid Vibes from a company called Moon Rivers Naturals. It’s this hippie scent, more or less, but it smells like citrus, patchouli, and powdery chamomile. I’m very obsessed with chamomile. I love the smell of it, I like drinking the tea, I put chamomile oil in the diffuser in our daughter’s room, so I hopefully smell like that.

K.P.: I think you do. I don’t wear perfume, so I think I smell like my scented body products. I wear Tom’s deodorant, which is Old Spice — sharing is caring — and Weleda Skin Food. In the summer, I switch to a dry body oil, so I smell like Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, and R+Co hair products. They’re very strongly scented, but I really like the way they smell; they’re very juicy and aquatic. Using those products in my hair actually pushed my boundaries of the type of products that we wanted to produce. Before, we were doing a lot of woody products, but I got adjusted to the juiciness of R+Co products and started making scents like that, too.

The Candlemakers Who Know What Summer Smells Like