Sitting down at Sweetwaters with Michelle Krell Kydd, I ask, “What exactly can you smell right now?”
“The generic smell of a coffeehouse,” she replies. “I can smell cake. I can smell something sweet, like the crumbs on a coffee cake. I can smell coffee. I can smell someone who is wearing body lotion, what we might call floral-aldehydic. I can actually tell that there’s open brick in here by the way the whole room smells.”
Krell Kydd says smell is just as important to her as sight; she can recognize neighborhoods or friends’ homes merely by their scent. She shares her expertise–honed through years of work in the fragrance industry–via her blog, GlassPetalSmoke.blogspot.com, and at workshops she holds around town. A self-described “walking smellopedia,” she feels that smell is unfairly considered “the bastard stepchild of the senses.
“Vision comes first in our culture,” she says. “But if we couldn’t enjoy the smell of food and eat, we’d die. And if we couldn’t enjoy intimate smells, like the back of someone’s neck or perfume, we wouldn’t have families. So olfaction is pretty important–and I hang my hat on that!”
Her brown hair cut short, Krell Kydd wears a summery, asparagus-colored dress accented with tastefully earthy jewelry. She speaks with composed thoroughness about the olfactory world, but a smile is always quick to rise below her narrow glasses. “I can articulate the invisible,” she says. “It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. I just can do it.”
Krell Kydd declines to give her age but owns up to graduating from SUNY Albany in 1985. She considers her gift genetic: she says her mother, now eighty, “smells like a bloodhound.” Krell Kydd’s olfactory abilities were nurtured from an early age. Born in the Bronx to immigrant parents–her mother Israeli, her father Polish–she recalls a fifth-grade field trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where she was captivated by a lemon balm plant. “I touched it, and I held it up to my nose,” she says. “I thought, ‘It’s green, but it smells yellow.’ And that was because it smelled like lemon.”
After college and an internship at the Village Voice, she worked as a telemarketer before getting into writing. In 2003, while working at Cosmetic World magazine, she attended an event where participants were invited to identify the components in Mont Blanc’s Individuel cologne. “I identified twenty out of twenty-three raw materials right, and I was pissed because I didn’t get the other three,” she recalls. “The instructor came over and told me, ‘You smell like a fragrance evaluator. You must go to school!'”
Krell Kydd attended fragrance evaluation classes at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and at the fragrance manufacturer Givaudan, becoming what’s known as a “trained nose.” She went on to write marketing copy and online content for numerous clients including Estee Lauder, Clarins, and Lisa Hoffman Beauty (founded by the wife of actor Dustin Hoffman). “I would encourage anyone to get into sensory science if it interests them,” she says. “You meet incredible people, you do incredible things, and you learn more about the world every day.”
Over the years, she’s accumulated a stockpile of scents, including a “perfume wardrobe” of around 100 different fragrances. Her current favorites include Lalique Encre Noir and Chanel No. 19; which she wears on a given day depends on her mood. She also keeps a collection of raw materials for what she calls “olfactory calisthenics,” exercises to keep her sense of smell sharp: “If I was to stop practicing now, I wouldn’t be as good as I am.”
Her career took a new turn in 2011, when she and her musician husband, A.J. Kydd, moved from Westchester to Ann Arbor to help care for his mother. Krell Kydd made a contact at the Ann Arbor District Library and was invited to teach a writing workshop there. Soon, she was holding regular “Smell and Tell” sessions at the library and at 826michigan (the next will be September 18 at the AADL’s downtown branch).
Hired as a communications specialist at the U-M in February, Krell Kydd is still “evangelizing for the sense of smell” in her free time. She’s earnest–even zealous–about the oft-neglected sense’s value. Crucial to our enjoyment of life and powerfully connected to memory, it’s also important scientifically: loss of smell, she notes, is often one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
At her workshops, she invites participants to smell a range of different scents and then share the memories that they evoke. “You get a lot of children and young adults with personalities that are not very open,” she says, “and it’s like a hammer that shatters the glass when someone smells something that brings back the memory.”
Tecumseh resident Nancy Austin attended one of Krell Kydd’s workshops at AADL on a whim this spring and was deeply stirred–despite, or because of, having lost her sense of smell in a car accident at age seven.
“I understand that people will smell something and that odor will bring back memories very strongly, and to me it almost sounds magical,” Austin says. “There are a few things that I think I can recall what they smell like from childhood, like crayons or fruit cobbler or Band-Aids. Those memories are kind of precious, and they did come back …”
Krell Kydd’s blog includes everything from announcements of new perfumes to her recollection of the high school teacher who first got her excited about chemistry. She’s been writing it for eight years and may soon compile some of the material into a book.
It’s most likely, she says, to take the form of a collection of autobiographical stories, all linked to scent memories. “You can see something with your eyes and it can be an illusion, but smell is never wrong because it’s part of the basics of survival,” she says.
“That’s another thing about the sense of smell: it never lies.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The year Krell Kydd graduated from college, and the spelling of the magazine where she worked, have been corrected.