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 Shani Van Breukelen and Porter Yates, the couple behind Ayond, a restorative skin-care line inspired by the resiliency of desert plants that thrive in extreme conditions, and the transformative scents of Santa Fe. The healing line bottles potent botanical oils and rare ceremonial herbs that not only soothe stressed skin but also stressed minds, with mood-lifting plant aromas that transport you to somewhere more serene. The Cut caught up with the co-founders of the streamlined and sustainable skin-care system to talk freshly plastered walls, carefully curated deodorants, and toasty car seats.
My first scent memory:
Porter Yates: I grew up in a house right off the Santa Fe River, which is a bit of a misnomer because it’s a dry stream six months out of the year, but it’s somewhat unique because there are cottonwoods that grow along it. They have a very unique, kind of sweet scent and it’s very vivid for me — going down to the river in the fall where the cottonwood leaves would gather in the ditch, and get a little bit wet. Growing up in the desert, you don’t really smell earth and decay like you get out here on the East Coast, with the soil and wetness and all that, so that damp, sweet, cottonwood smell is imprinted on me.
Shani Van Breukelen: For me, it’s hurricane season. I grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland, and that was always a very interesting, tumultuous time, but I just love the scent of rain, and the ozonic-ness of it. Those harsh rains and the soaked soil are something that always stuck in my mind as a kid.
Happiness smells like:
P.Y.: I took a trip to Egypt ten years ago, and we went to this touristy perfumery, where I think they just knock off designer scents, and I got a little vial of this Armani knockoff. There’s definitely some orange blossom in it; it’s kind of sweet, a little bit floral, and now it’s not even what I’d call a fragrance that I’d like to wear, but because of where I was in my life at that time, whenever I get a little whiff, it brings back all those kind of happy memories.
S.V.B.: I get really get happy when I forget about a scent and then all of a sudden something reminds me of a person or a time. I remember this one time growing up, I was in my great-grandma’s house, and she had a fragrance that probably wasn’t even an actual fragrance. I think it was just a combination of fragrance, and being out in the country, and cooking by an old-school wood-burning stove. I was walking one day and I caught that scent in the air, and I was like, Oh, Grandma! It was so fleeting, but it was such a really powerful feeling in that one moment.
Love smells like:
S.V.B.: Springtime. It smells like fresh-cut grass, fresh flowers, lilac, air, and just knowing that it’s a really new time. Growing up, especially on the East Coast, the winters can be a little tough, but when you start to get that little bit of spring, you’re a little bit invigorated again, and that, for me, is love.
P.Y.: For me, love’s more associated with comfort, so it smells like those routine smells that have become so ingrained around you, you’re used to it. Particularly when you’re with someone you’ve been around for a very long time, their scent just become second nature. It’s something you don’t really even register when it’s there, but it’s something you really notice when it goes away.
Heartbreak or loss smells like:
P.Y.: Soap, which is something from my childhood that has a weird connection. There was a soap that my mom used in one of the bathrooms and it would always linger. It was probably just Dial or Irish Spring or something, but 15, 20 years later, there were different soaps, and the house had changed, but I was so comfortable with that scent and wanted to try and find it again. It’s usually a mistake, trying to search for something that used to exist, because you’re never going to be able to re-create it. But I went to the grocery store and kept trying to find those soaps. My mom couldn’t remember, and there was a little bit of a loss there, because I know it’s sitting in my head somewhere. That’s what loss is like: never being able to get that thing again. And even if I found the soap, it’s not going to be the same. It’ll never be exactly what I’m looking for.
S.V.B.: For me, it smells like musty, dusty, really dense air. When I go into an old house or an antique shop, that’s the first thing that makes me feel a little bit sad, that smell and the sense of time. I guess there’s something nice about that, that you can remember memories, but a lot of the time, especially in old homes, the air is just so thick that it makes you feel constricted and unable to think about anything else. You’re just thinking about escaping.
Friendship smells like:
S.V.B.: My mom’s car and leather, especially in the hot sun. I remember she had this Mercedes and I remember the colors, the beige interior, sitting in the heat and just being like, “Mom! I do not. Want to sit. On the seat!” [Laughs.] She would have this little blanket, but I just remember having to crawl in the backseat with my twin sister. The smell of leather in the heat was just so intense, but it also reminds me of that time with my sister which I enjoyed so much.
Regret smells like:
P.Y.: A fragrance you can’t wash off. That is instant regret. When you’re in a store and you smell it and it’s just … there. You use soap and you scrub and it won’t go away, and you’re like “Oh, I’m gonna have a headache from this.” I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
S.V.B.: I agree with Porter; it’s like a plastic baby-doll smell.
P.Y.: There’s something about fragrance in general that you need a break from it. You need to have newness, even if it’s the most beautiful scent, you’ll get tired of it, and you get nose blind to it. I think there’s something nice and almost necessary to have a fragrance be temporary, or represent a certain period of time. Sometimes when I travel or know I’m going somewhere new, I’ll get a new deodorant or a new fragrance, and just wear that for that trip. To this day, I can go get that same deodorant and smell it, and it’s like instant memories of being back on trips 10 years ago, 15 years ago. If you ever want to time travel, I think that’s the closest you can get.
Success smells like:
P.Y.: That unexpected route and unknown that you have to be open to. When we were developing our face oil, there were the essential oils that we use for the fragrance, but the vegetable carrier oils, the functional oils, and natural formulas, all have their own blend that uniquely, individually smell interesting. We have one version of the face oil that smells like pepperoni and salami by itself, not something that you want to put on your face, but it was bizarre how tweaking and changing certain oils out made it all come together.
S.V.B.: Yes, adding that element that you might not think would work. For instance, we use a cardamom, a cumin, and different spices that really added a little bit of complexity to fragrance, and also brought Porter back to Santa Fe, which he didn’t expect, because those spices aren’t from that area.
P.Y.: We really wanted to represent my memories of the Southwest. The story of Amber Elix is really about the high desert, and canyon lands, and the conifers, and the warm, dry air that is wafting through at golden hour; and to me, that’s ponderosa and piñon pine. But when we worked with the perfumer, he brings in cardamom, which is way out there. We didn’t know if it was going to work, but when he got that blend in with our carriers, it clicked. It was like, Oh, that’s it. That’s exactly what we’re looking for.
S.V.B.: It’s about letting your mind go there as well. I think it’s easy to look at a certain ingredient and be like, “Oh, I don’t really have an affinity toward that…”, but in combination, you can change your perception 100 percent and it’s a really nice reveal. I think that’s the most fun; creating fragrance for our blends and expressing that story.
My ideal vacation smells like:
P.Y.: Humidity. Growing up in the desert, stepping outside to the scent of dry air is my baseline. A vacation when I was growing up was going to somewhere like the beach, or almost anywhere else that has more humidity than where I grew up. I live in New York now, and even a couple of days ago, I stepped outside in the warm humidity, and it’s like I’m at the beach and I’m on vacation, even though it’s just, you know, Brooklyn …
S.V.B.: When I think of vacation, I always think summer break, and being from D.C., the Fourth of July. The smell of barbecue and the smoke smell in the air, the smell of Bomb Pops everywhere. I think my adulthood vacation smells like more an ozonic scent, something by the sea that evokes a sense of space and isolation.
Our home smells like:
P.Y.: We recently remodeled and I think one thing about living in homes is they take years to develop their own patina and personality of fragrance; all the stuff, the books, the walls, and all of that. I think it’s only been a couple of years, but it’s starting have a recognizable smell when you walk in the door; it’s still developing.
S.V.B.: They plastered the entire house during remodeling, and the wax had a really unique smell that I now connect to the house and that time; just watching him go over the plaster over and over, watching the transformation of the amount of texture he used. He was very particular about it, and I really liked watching him and talking with him about that process.
The first thing I smell in the morning:
S.V.B.: Our Rock Rose serum. I put it on my face and it’s just a fresh, nice, smell … so much so that I actually probably put too much on [laughs], but I really love it. It’s that scent that really wakes me up in the morning. It’s not a rude type of smell; it’s really soft and fresh, but I wouldn’t say too green. It’s comforting and uplifting at the same time.
P.Y.: I get woken up by our dog’s breath. It’s just immediately there. But with the skin care, Shani and I kind of planned it where scent would be part of your morning ritual. Not too strong, not really lingering, but it’s nice to have those scent moments in the morning just to get that part of your brain a little more awake. But then its coffee, for sure.
The last thing I smell before I go to bed:
P.Y.: I put the face oil on as a last step. That kind of seals everything in, and it’s a very kind of grounding moment. It’s a scent that’s relaxing, calming. I put that on and then chill out for a little bit and off to bed.
S.V.B.: That, and of course our dog again. I’m always putting her to bed and she likes to cuddle at night. She has a really comforting scent. She’s a little sweetie pie.
P.Y.: One of the construction workers that was doing the plaster on our place basically moved in with us because he was here so long, and he wore the strongest fragrance. I don’t know what it was, but our dog was infatuated with him, and he would treat her like a princess. Sometimes we would come back from work and she would have his cologne on and we knew that she’d been cuddling with him.
A scent or smell I love that other’s usually don’t:
P.Y.: I think other people do like it, but gasoline is one. I always I remember sitting at the gas station and getting the waft of the fumes and there’s something kind of nice about it. I don’t think anyone wants to smell like gasoline, but it’s an intriguing scent.
S.V.B.: For me, it’s Genever, this Dutch gin. I always like to take in the scent of that, and a fresh sneaker box.
I smell like:
S.V.B.: Right now, we’ve been testing our new fragrances, so sometimes we’ll try the fine fragrance, sometimes we’ll try the oil roller, and see how they change. So I would say we smell like a little bit floral, a little bit like pine.
P.Y.: Very dry, ozonic, with some woods in there. We’ve both been trying that quite a bit so it’s covering up our usual musk [laughs].
S.V.B.: The thing about us and fragrances is we don’t like it to be crazy strong. We really wanted to have a depth to it, and a good length, but not something that lingers the entire day.
P.Y.: I generally like candle or room scents more, just because it’s something that you can walk in and out of. I like something that I don’t have to physically put on. I think it goes back to being able to escape from it. If I want to go in a different room I can, but if I want to go back, it’s still present. So we’re working on a candle as well, and we’re excited about that.