That Sun-Cream Smell: Why Scent Souvenirs are Worth a Million Photos

We ask home-fragrance pioneers, Earl of East, how to go about kindling destinations through scent and why a single sucker-punch of a candle is scientifically proven to be more evocative than a million photos on your camera roll.

We have apps that saturate sun-baked shores and enhance shadowy glades in Scandinavian forests; filters that supposedly transport us to Tokyo, Lagos, Paris and Jakarta; as well as countless tit-tat lenses that can be snapped on at a moment's notice. In our hyper-visual world, we think nothing of plumping our camera rolls with minute-by-minute, throwaway snaps, but a library of scents? Please.

As travellers, we often talk about "following your nose", but what does it really mean? It means more than ducking into a tasty-smelling trattoria or lusting over a seductively scented stranger. To follow your nose is to follow your gut; to prioritise instinct over rationality.

"There's real science behind it," says Niko Dafkos, one half of the duo behind the Hackney-based shop, Earl of East. He and his partner, Paul Firmin, have been evoking far-off destinations through meticulously mixed scent profiles since the early teenies. They launched their shop In 2014 and the rest is history.

Niko and Paul outside their shop in Hackney | Photos by Earl of East

"Generally, people underestimate the power of smell, but whenever you remind people of the scent of sunscreen," says Niko, clicking his fingers, "they get it immediately." Why is it that a passing sniff of that peachy, chemical smell packs a sucker-punch like no photograph of an iconic Garnier Ambre Solaire bottle possibly could?

It's all to do with the brain's limbic system, a network of structures responsible for processing smell, memory and emotion. It's this interrelationship that makes smell such a powerful proponent of mood, and part of the reason why aromatherapy is often so effective in alleviating anxiety and depression.

For Earl of East, tapping into foggy memories of trips past is an integral part of the scent-making process. "People think of us walking the streets of Lisbon, foraging here and there, but we don't do that." For them, a holiday is just that. "We've never travelled based on sightseeing. We've always tried to find out where the locals go for breakfast, where the locals go to the beach - we always try to pretend we're living in the place we're visiting." It's only once they're back on home shores that the head-scratching ensues.

"We call it the 'blind smell test'," says Niko. "You have the creative brief in front of you and you smell pre-selected but seemingly random scents and see what triggers similar emotional experiences to those that you've written down on your piece of paper. You're matching it without trying to overcomplicate it or to be clever about it."

We’ve never travelled based on sightseeing... We always try to pretend we’re living in the place we’re visiting

Niko Dafkos, Earl of East

Before photography became fully digitalised, it was an indexical medium. The shutter retracted, light hit the lens and whatever poor, usually unsmiling subject was sat before it was captured for posterity - completely unedited.

Paul and Niko are scent sleuths for the digital age. In their eyes, perfume isn't about throwing in all of the rinds and herbs visible or associated with a destination; that's too clichéd. It's about presenting each place through an Earl-of-East filter, one that considers atmosphere, flavours and impressions as valuable parts of the equation.

Its Greenhouse scent, inspired by the summers Niko begrudgingly spent at his grandmother's house not far from Serres in northern Greece, is a prime example of the approach. "As a kid from a Geman city, I didn't enjoy it. I'm here with my grandma who I rarely see, and yet we're supposed to be bezzies?" he jibes.

Northern Greece, the inspiration behind Earl of East's Greenhouse scent | Photos by Niko Dafkos

The resultant candle - a tomatoey, herbaceous fragrance sharply undercut by lemon - doesn't conjure misery and teen spirit (in the bad sense, we mean), but muggy summer evenings spent nibbling on garden-fresh veg to the thrum of cicadas.

While it's easy to travel via your stomach, by rustling up that remarkable meal you once ate in such-and-such a place, making a scent souvenir feels a tad out of reach to the common traveller. How can complete amateurs start their scent journey from home?

First, you need to reflect, says Niko. "Sit down and think about that day or that moment or that dish." Then it's about doing your research around essential oils. "Experiment with blending fragrances together - look into how essential oils work and which mixtures give you the best results." Pouring a candle is the last step. You'll need soy wax, a glass jar, a whisk, a jug, a wick and a peg, though we'd suggest recruiting Paul and Niko to help with this bit.

A good scent is an intercession to different times and places; it's personal; it's part of our living, breathing reality and it doesn't lend itself well to being brandished on Instagram. Short on candles? Stuck for room sprays? The next time you're feeling the call of the open road or you're simply craving a boost of serotonin, reach for that crusty-topped bottle of sun cream. We won't tell if you don't, promise.

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