Unforgettable scents with the Scent Guru, Ruth Sutcliffe

“Life is most beautiful when there are scents that enhance it” Ruth Sutcliffe

When it comes to fragrance, there is no mistaking that under the guidance of Scent Guru, Ruth Sutcliffe’s multiple award-winning fragrances and personal care products have all made a major impact on the fine fragrance and personal care industries. Her twenty-five year impressive resume includes titles such as: Perfumer Assistant, Fragrance Evaluator, Senior Sensory Analyst, Creative Fragrance Manager for companies such as: Fragrance Resources, IFF, Bristol Myers and Clairol.

As Sr. Director, International Fragrance Development and Sr. Marketing Director and Fragrance Designer for Coty, it was under that umbrella, she spearheaded and developed some of the biggest celeb and designer label scents. Her impressive client list included names such as: Celine Dion, Mary Kate & Ashley, Beyonce, Halle Berry and Katy Perry fragrances to name a few. Nearly every success story under the celeb categories had her stamp on it. Other major clients included: Guess, Baby Phat and Nautica. Her consulting projects formed alliances with some of the top perfumers in the world and due to Sutcliffe’s expertise, elevated the classification, presence and sales of celebrity fragrances to the highest pinnacles during her duration with the company.

She holds a B.S. in Business Administration and has mentored students within the F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology) Cosmetic and Fragrance Marketing programs and was a member on their advisory board. In 2008, she was Awarded “Woman of the Year” by the Women in Flavour & Fragrance Commerce and has been a panelist in multiple fragrance events globally such as the World Perfumery Congress amongst other prestigious fragrance-related events.

After leaving Coty in 2014, Sutcliffe’s career took a pivotal and unusual detour based on her personal experiences where she was inspired to found her consulting company, The Scent Guru Group LLC.

The mind, memory, and scent.

We know that our sense of smell is linked to the limbic system, a powerful part of the brain that impacts our moods and memories. When an odour is first inhaled, it is sent to the olfactory bulb, which connects to two parts of the brain where memory and emotion are stored. Those odour molecules reach the amygdala and hippocampus and the results are immediate unlike the optic and audio receptors that take another route through the brain. As we age, those receptors can take another turn and some may lose that glorious ability to detect odours anymore. With diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, the link to odour can reawaken some to instant recall. According to the National Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with this disease and the number could total as much as 16 million by the year 2050.

Sutcliffe became deeply involved with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and she shares her thoughts with Basenotes on her personal journeys and creative solutions in the fields.

Thank you for joining us on Basenotes Ruth. What inspired you to explore the world of Alzheimer’s and scents?

My mother passed away from complications of dementia, and my mother- in-law has Alzheimer’s. My husband and I lived with her for a few years until the disease advanced to where she required more care. I became very interested in the disease years ago when I read that losing one’s sense of smell could be an early indication of Alzheimer’s so I dove into learning more about it.

When visiting my mother in various assisted living facilities, I often witnessed the residents just sitting around in their wheelchairs, walking up and down the hallways or sitting in front of the television for hours with very little interaction amongst themselves. The television is a passive experience and does not really result in intellectual stimulation. I felt loneliness in these places and it really touched me. Isolation and loneliness often (if not always), leads to depression, and depression causes so many issues with health.

You coined the phrase “Humanity not Vanity” which is a great quote. This departure from commercial scents to being utilized as a tool to evoke the brain into reacting is fascinating. What is your prime goal and what are the tools that you use in your visits with seniors?

I was determined to do something to serve the ageing community, which seems to be an underserved population, and use my professional expertise to develop the Essential Awakenings smell therapy sessions. My smelling sessions helped me optimize the development of my kits. My goal is “Reaching to memories through the sense of smell.”

What did your research teach you about this field?

For starters, with my mother in law, I noticed that she only enjoyed eating food that was heavily salted or sweet, and sometimes we had to come up with all kinds of tricks to get her to eat healthy food. As we know in the flavor and fragrance industry, the olfactive system is both taste and smell, and if one is lacking, it diminishes the effect of the other. Gerontologists and caretakers know that one of the biggest issues for the aged is malnutrition. Think of it this way:  If your sense of smell is diminished, food is tasteless — so how can eating be an enjoyable experience?  So, this thought brought me a “dreamer’s” idea that “what if I could help stimulate the sense of smell, which would in turn encourage someone to enjoy eating again because food would taste better?  (When I say it was a dreamer’s idea, it is because this was an initial thought before I learned much more about the struggles of research on Alzheimer’s directly from a doctor of pathology at Columbia Medical who has spent years researching ageing brains).

Are you affiliated with a medical program?

Just to clarify, I am not a scientist and did not go into this initiative recording data etc. I researched and developed my kits over the course of a year and many hours of volunteer work giving smelling sessions to seniors at assisted living facilities for memory care and at senior day centers. While not a scientist, I having witnessed and documented the occasions when my “essential smells” stimulated memory recall as well as prompted engagement in conversation.  

You have developed a Premiere Edition Essential Awakenings Smell and Memory kit. Can you explain what is in it and how it works?

I now also have a Second Edition. Each kit has six “essential smells” that replicate the smells from everyday life that might resonate with seniors in the western world. For example, the smell of cinnamon (If you baked your own pies, you most likely used cinnamon, or if you ate/eat oatmeal, cinnamon is often sprinkled on top).  Each kit also contains fact cards with purpose to help bring awareness of the importance of the sense of smell as well as clue cards for each of the smells to help guide the facilitator or family member in conversation using the smells as prompts or in a guessing game of “what is this smell”? The kits are being purchased by program directors, caregivers, and families who have loved ones with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I spent considerable amount of time thinking about the smells to develop for the kits, and made some changes along the way. I knew I needed chocolate, because who doesn’t like chocolate? Chocolate is such a big part of our lives in so many ways: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and it is for the most part, universal. Chocolate has made a huge impact on peoples’ lives, and I think everyone has a story to share. I also knew that apple and lilacs would resonate well with the audience, so those were included as well as others. As for all other “essential smells” selected, I believe that in general, there is a story that can be told behind each one of them.

Your Essential Awakenings kit includes samples of jasmine, cinnamon, pineapple, mint, chocolate and grass. Can you share why you picked these specific notes for your scent journeys with your classes?

There is a story tied to each one.

A raison d’être:

Grass: If you were raised on a farm in the country or lived in New York, the smell of fresh mown grass is significant and memorable. It’s the smell of green and of nature, and recall times when, as a child we would play outside with our pets, tumbled while playing sports. This is a smell that evokes (I’m sure more often than not) fond and healthy memories.

Jasmine: Although not so American, it is a smell that is unforgettable if you had travelled to the south of France or to any other country where the hint of jasmine wafts through the summer breeze. For women who did not travel to these places, we in the industry know that jasmine is a very important component in iconic perfumes such as Jean Patou’s, Joy (which was marketed as the most expensive perfume in the world…therefore an aspiration for many) and Chanel No. 5 – another classic that women aspired to own.

Pineapple: Who didn’t love pina coladas on vacation in Mexico? Or served on a banana split at Dairy Queen? Or what about those who grew up in a household when ham was served for Christmas dinner, with seared Dole Pineapple slices on the top?

Lastly mint: Although mint may sound like an outlier, mint has played a large role in the lives of many people. If you are from the South, mint juleps are significant as a summertime drink. Mint is used to garnish iced tea, and other beverages as well as the flavor of choice in chewing gum and toothpaste. Further more, if you are like me, and from English lineage, you had mint jelly on the side of your lamb. Mint flavors also were used in the ever so popular 8 O’clock mint patties popular in the 70s and 80s and I’m sure before even then. When I say I put thought into the choices, I really did think far and wide.

Does one note hit home and incur more responses more than others? Which one is it and why?

Yes! Notes of chocolate and lilac. For reasons already discussed about chocolate above. But as far as lilac is concerned, lilac is a very fragrant and beautiful flower that welcomes the flowering season back into our lives after the cold long winters. Additionally, Lilac seems to be a hearty flowering bush that is capable of growing in many different geographical climates.

In terms of families, I have found that gourmand scents are easier to identify vs. grass. Flowers seem to be first identified as a flower vs. a fruit, but I often have to give clues for my attendees to be able to guess which flower it is. For example, the clues for lavender would be: 2) Grows like a bush with long stems, has smell cluster of purple fleurettes and grows in countries such as the south of France and Italy 2) Often used as a scent for soap. 3) Is said to help keep you calm.

The Second Edition Essential Awakenings Smell and Memory Kit Second Edition contain additional notes of: apples, pine, lavender, lilac, popcorn and vanilla

Who could benefit by using your kit?

This could be used by family, friends and senior care providers to help individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia to recall cherished moments in their lives through the sense of smell. By stimulating the olfactory memory encourages more brain activity primarily known as the limbic system where smell and memory are linked.

I am currently exploring how the kit might be used by occupational therapists and speech pathologists to benefit their patients.

With these clues, they often can guess what it is.

Can you share any anecdotal stories that bring to light how your kit can impact individuals?

Well, let’s call him “George.” I noticed him outside our usual circle of ladies watching us in our smelling session. I asked him several times if he’d like to join us and he always said “no”. One day he came just a little closer and I walked over to him and asked him if he’d like to smell the smelling strip (it was lavender). When he did not respond very much, I gave him some clues like – it was an ingredient in many men’s colognes, and named a few like Brut, Paco Rabanne, et.,al, and when I said “Canoe”, he said…”I didn’t know you could wear a canoe”!

Then one day when smelling chocolate he said to me holding the blotter in his hand gesturing and saying….”I want to date the girl who wears this”. The he proceeded to tell me a story about a celebrity who he said he used to date and when I asked him who that celebrity was, he responded Barbara Hershey!

Another “George” story, which was very precious, was when we were smelling the scent of popcorn and the clues given are: It’s from corn, we eat it when we watch TV or smell it in theaters. He looked at me and jokingly asked “marijuana”?

I heard that this man had been written cartoon books, so even this showed his humor come out.

Here are some more from a Hebrew Home:

When smelling the smell of fresh baked bread, one lady talked about when she lived on 2nd Avenue and 87th Street in NYC, she lived above a bagelry and everyone who came to her house always wanted to know what she was baking. then another one chimed in who used to live in CT, and talked about the great smell of the bakery she lived by.

When smelling cedarwood that day, a woman told us about the cedar chest that her mother gave her on her wedding day. Another shared the same memory.

On another date at the same home…we were smelling grass, but the smell did not bring back the memory of grass for one of the women, it brought back a distinct memory of the woman slicing open a pumpkin and taking out the seeds and hair to make a pumpkin pie. The way she told it sounded like it was happening at that same moment and I could smell it myself!

Do you plan to expand your concept to say, children? Or people with Autism? Depression or other mental illnesses?

YES. And very soon.


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If you know someone that is suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia and want to interact to bring back those olfactory memories, Sutcliffe’s kit is just the ticket for a fun, evocative and memorable time spent recollecting long forgotten yet familiar memories.

Speaking on a personal note, my own step grandmother who originally gave me my first bottle of Muelhens 4711 as a child too developed a severe case of Alzheimer’s. I remember bringing out my own vintage scents including her favourite to smell and she remembered the name instantly and I was amazed. For a short while, she came back with a memory to share. Sutcliffe’s work in this is area is a wonderful opportunity for interaction, recollections and breakthroughs.

For more information in obtaining the Premiere Edition Essential Awakenings ™ Smell and Memory Kits:

Website:  https://thescentgurugroup.com/

You can also follow Ruth Sutcliffe on TwitterInstagram and Facebook

To view a recent interview with Ruth Sutcliffe, visit:  Ruth Sutcliffe video interview

Ruth Sutcliffe also consults in the fragrance industry and recently developed Tadashi Shoji fragrance that was launched in 2017 as well as consulting with fragrances under Ruth Sutcliffe Consulting, LLC. She is also a: Guest Lecturer, Trainer, Panelist, Fragrance Authority, and Volunteering with many worthwhile campaigns.

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