A year ago, I fell down the chic, beautiful, alchemical rabbit hole that is fragrance. By chance, I was contacted by a fragrance developer whose PR team liked my poetry. They asked if I would work with them to develop a world of language around a fragrance launch. This copywriting experience led me to question: what is it that keeps me browsing in the Sephora fragrance section for hours, spritzing my hands and gazing romantically at each and every box?
If you’re reading this, we’re probably very similar people: I had so many thoughts about the fantastical and sensual names, the fragrances’ branding, and the bewildering scents: tuberose, aldehyde, vetiver? How could I discern the scents, and what exactly was that strange smell I kept falling in love with? Beyond spraying perfume on your hands in a room already full of clashing scents, how could you know what you like or what you are looking for? And what does your perfume say about you?
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The Olfactive Groups
Here are the olfactive groups often considered to be the main eight. I’ve found that there are some fragrance experts who believe there are fewer groups, but this seems, for me, to be correct.
- Aldehyde: fresh, clean
- Aquatic: sea-like, modern, airy
- Citrus: light, berrylicious, sweet
- Floral: often delicate, flowery
- Green: aka chypres, woodsy, with floral notes
- Gourmand: edible-tasting, like sweet vanilla or chocolate
- Oriental: warm and exotic, spicy and dark, musky
- Woody: natural, earthy, woodsy (cedar or sandalwood)
My personal faves? The Woody, Oriental, and Aldehyde scents, just like the Scorpio I am.
Perfumes are like people; they are multi-faceted.
Typically, the essence that builds scent is called an “accord,” and it is made up of many notes coming together to form a new note. Poetic, right? Think of notes as those little flashes of scent you catch when you brush your hair, wave your hands or remove a scarf. You might notice something sweetly floral at first, and then later, you might smell something more woodsy. A box of perfume won’t typically tell you all about its notes, but doing your research on a scent you love can help you identify why you love it. This way, you can find similar olfactive experiences. A perfume can create a world unto your body, so why not make sure you understand and nurture that world?
- Top Notes (Head) are the compounds in a scent that hit you first. They are often the strongest but soon evaporate.
- The Middle Notes (Heart) make an appearance after the top notes fade away and last much longer (for hours, really). These work in conjunction with the base notes.
- The Base Notes (Drydown) are the slowest to disappear. They’re like sneaky, magical little surprises. They are strong and deep and can surprise you well after you’ve sprayed the perfume.
If you want to find out more about your favorite perfumes, use a site like Fragrantica. This haven is like YouTube for fragrance lovers; you can be trapped there for hours. Each page offers a whirlwind of beautiful descriptions, user ratings, histories, and details. Also, each fragrance’s page shows you the notes that make up the overall experience.
For a glossary of several scent descriptions, this list is helpful.
Understand that fragrance names are often based on the ingredient and the concept.
There are plenty of perfume names that simply give away some of their secrets (Balenciaga’s Rosabotanica or Victor & Rolf’s Spicebomb Extreme) and others that do not (Tokyo Milk’s Arsenic or the classic Chanel No. 5). For those that do identify an ingredient (such as “rosa” or “spice,”) you can normally rest assured that those names are telling. This is a wonderful place to start. If you’re not always interested in the scent of roses (although there are many, many rose scents), you’ll know that Rosy Perfume A might be one to pass by. Likewise, if “spicy” isn’t your thing, it’s not your thing. For me, I pass up on anything Ginger or Orange. If the product seems to use a citrus image or has some sort of citrus name (like Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom), I will usually skip it since the name suggests those notes have the starring role in the fragrance.
A lot of the time, though, the fragrance’s branding concept can also speak to the perfume’s notes. I’ve noticed that many of my favorite perfumes are branded to sort of match the scent’s universe. For example, Chloe’s packaging is sweet, fragile, and clean, similar to the scent. On the other hand, Nest’s Indigo is packaged in a dark, strange, sort of chaotic way. This definitely mimics the complexity of the scent.
Pay Attention to the Scent
Something I like to do is browse the perfume section with a little ziplock baggy of coffee beans. Sniffing the beans allows the nose to reboot if you will. In a sea of scent, this can really help you to discern between the many, many, many fragrances you want to try. I like to find perfumes, smell them (the rollerballs are great for trying scents) and then take pictures of them so that I can remember them later. If I really fall in love with something and I’m at Sephora, I ask for a sample. (By the way, this is a totally legit option, and you should do this). A sample lasts long enough for you to decide if you want to spend the money on the perfume. You will adjust to what you like about a certain perfume and what you don’t. For me, I love a floral top note but really appreciate the woodsy scents that linger on your skin like forest air. I now know that those lingering notes are what I’ll go back for again and again (or until my tastes change).
The fragrance is truly about so much more than smelling good. It’s like wearing poetry on your body.