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Perfumery 101

Notes are the descriptors we use to describe the delicate and distinct scents and aromas that can be detected when a perfume is smelled. Notes should not be confused with ingredients. Some ingredients can give off distinct notes and aromas, but very often the notes we detect when we smell a fragrance are the result of the interplay between the different ingredients, and it is this interplay which gives perfume its rich depth and complexity beyond what one would find in a single variant scent, such as rose water.

Within the body of notes we use to describe scents, we have notes that reference familiar scents, (rose, jasmine, sandalwood, coriander etc) and we have notes that describe more abstract concepts (fresh, aquatic, green, tonic etc). We use the note descriptors to identify the scent components both in terms of the smell they impart as well is in a subjective sense the emotions and images that the fragrance invokes. One must bear in mind however that perfumery is a subjective field and there are no right or wrong points of view, so you may or may not be able to pick up all the notes listed in the descriptors, and you may well sense some that are not listed, this is to be expected, it’s a personal perspective.

We talk about Top Notes, Heart Notes and Base notes. Top Notes will be the scents and accords that are most apparent for 5 mins to 60 mins after having used the perfume and the alcohol has evaporated, the Heart Notes will start to become apparent after 20 mins to 30 mins and may last up to 3 hours and the Base Notes will start to show after an hour and will become increasingly dominant as time progresses until the Top Notes will be hardly detectable, and the Heart Notes only delicately in the background. The Base Notes are the essential accords that define the fragrance, the accords that you will live with when you wear the perfume. The Top Note and Heart Note accords won’t go the distance, they are only companions on the journey for a relatively short time.

The distinct notes and accords of a particular fragrance give an interpretation of the character and make-up of that fragrance, so makes a useful tool in choosing fragrances.

The Fragrance Pyramid is the structure that we use in describing the notes and accords that will be apparent in the perfume when we where it. We use the terms Top Notes, Heart Notes and Base Notes to describe the different “layers” that form the structure of the perfume.

Top Notes will be the scents and accords that are most apparent for 5 mins to 60 mins after having used the perfume and the alcohol has evaporated, the Heart Notes will start to become apparent after 20 mins to 30 mins and may last up to 3 hours and the Base Notes will start to show after an hour and will become increasingly dominant as time progresses until the Top Notes will be hardly detectable, and the Heart Notes only delicately in the background. The Base Notes are the essential accords that define the fragrance, the accords that you will live with when you wear the perfume. The Top Note and Heart Note accords won’t go the distance, they are only companions on the journey for a relatively short time.

The term pyramid is perhaps a bit misleading as it gives the impression that we smell down through the fragrance in distinct steps, with the notes on each level coming through in a defined and linear sequence. To understand this one needs to look back through the history of perfumes to a time when the majority of ingredients where distilled from naturally occurring compounds. These natural oils had distinct volatility profiles meaning that they evaporated at different rates and were thus far more distinct from one another than what we see today where most ingredients are now synthesized in a laboratory and the volatility profiles are a lot closer than they were before.

The fragrance pyramid however remains a useful tool in describing how a fragrance presents, firstly it gives a good summary of the dominant accords and notes that one can expect to find in the perfume, secondly it gives an indication of the structure of the fragrance. The top notes are typically the most volatile compounds so they will be dominant when the perfume is first applied, as our bodies warm the perfume the heavier and less volatile compounds will start to come through and over time the base of the perfume is what we will live with through the day. The fragrance pyramid won’t be able to predict what the fragrance will smell like as it does not detail the relative concentration of each of the notes, but it will give a good idea of whether it is the style of fragrance that you may like so makes a good place to start when looking for a new or different fragrance for your collection or for that special event or occasion.

Perfumes can present differently on different people, to the extent that they can smell like completely different offerings, and perfumes can also present differently on the same person depending on when they wear the perfume. The two main reasons for this are differences in skin chemistry and differences in body/ambient temperature. Perfumes are made up of chemical compounds and the chemical compounds on our skins mix with the compounds in the perfume creating new accords that may mean the difference between a signature scent and an “I never want to wear that again” scent, equally differences in body temperature affect the rate at which the oils evaporate, so on one person a perfume can be unbearably over-powering and on another give off a beautiful inviting sensuous accord. These are the subtle and unpredictable characteristics that makes perfumery such an interesting and complex art.

Quality is a notoriously difficult concept to define as it is so subjective. As one would expect it is not possible to produce a high quality perfume using poor quality ingredients; but how do we as consumers determine if a perfume is what it purports to be?

There are a few tell-tale signs we can use so let’s examine a few.

Most Western perfumes are alcohol based, so at the most basic level perfume is an oil dissolved in alcohol. The essence of the perfume is the fragrance oil, and like anything in life, there are good quality and not such good quality oils available. Poor quality oils will typically have peripheral scents that do not form part of the scent profile of the perfume, these scents often smell industrial or chemical and not what you would want to wear; better quality oils tend to be clean and clear in the way they present and like many aspects of quality you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you experience it. Next up is the alcohol base that should be as neutral as possible so that it does not disturb the fragrance of the oil, I’m sure you would all agree it is not ideal to have a perfume that will get you fired at work for smelling like a drunk.

Next up we will look at the oil concentration, and examine if there is an ideal concentration and whether or not we can take a one size fits all approach.

So firstly how does one decide on concentration? Is a higher concentration better than a lower concentration? This is a complex question, but the simple answer is that the concentration should be high enough that the fragrance is distinctly apparent, but not as concentrated as for any one component to be overpowering or that the mix causes allergies. More is not necessarily better, but less is definitely cheaper, so as a rule of thumb cheaper fragrances will generally have less oil in them, this does not necessarily mean poor quality as the quality of the ingredients may be good, but the fragrance won’t present as it should, and will likely not last as long as it should.

Scents with lighter, smaller, more volatile molecules can take higher concentrations than heavy less volatile ones, so we can mix light citrus scents and some florals to higher concentrations, but heavier Orientals could become over powering, but more is not necessarily better and an important consideration in this is the risk of skin allergies. Perfume designers, design their perfumes to present in a specific way, and varying the concentration will vary the way the perfume presents, in our view part of the question of quality is to establish how the designer wanted the fragrance to present and mix it to the appropriate concentration. Some fragrances are designed to be mixed at 3%-5% and others for 20% or more, and it’s important to get this right otherwise the perfume won’t present as it should.

So does this then mean that if one has the best quality oils and mix it with the best quality base, then one can expect to have a fragrance that lasts the whole day? If only it were so simple. Perfumes are made up of chemical compounds, some are naturally occurring compounds and some are man-made. These chemical compounds don’t all have the same characteristics and efficacy and don’t all behave exactly the same way, smaller more volatile compounds such as citrusy and light floral scents will never be able to compete with heavy Orientals for longevity and sillage so one must be cautious in the quality debate and only compare like with like. What is a more important determinant of quality, or rather what one should see in a good quality perfume is that the scent holds up, and does not break down over time into something unrecognisable or unpleasant, so a light citrus or floral will not last as long on the skin as an oriental style perfume, but the manner in which the perfume opens up over time should be stable and relatively consistent. If your fragrance starts to smell like the monkey cages at the zoo after an hour or so, it is most likely not a well-constructed or well-made and you should return it.

This is a very brief overview and we have dealt with only a few topics very briefly, and our intension was not to present you with a definitive thesis, but we hope we have given you some food for thought.

Exactly when the first perfume was made is not precisely known, but we can trace the origin of certain medicinal compounds to the 10th century AD that may have been used as perfumes, but the first perfumes used for fragrancing specifically date to around the 12th century AD, and were floral based compositions similar in nature to Rose and Lavender Water.

The first perfume so to speak, being a mixture of herb and floral oils blended in an alcohol solution was made for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1370 and was known as Hungary Water. Perfumes and colognes continued to develop with a variety of scents on offer, but it wasn’t until 1752 when a product known as No. Six Cologne was released in America that perfumes and colognes started to be sold on a commercial basis.

One of the most famous Colognes is 4711 released in 1794. The name was inspired by the house number assigned to the perfumery during the French occupation of Cologne, this scent is still produced today (albeit somewhat re-formulated) and really defined the scent we now know as Eau de Cologne. The Perfumery fragrance no 4001 is a very similar composition to 4711 and was produced as a tribute to this ground breaking scent.

The era of modern perfumery as we know it was really born in the 1920’s, this is when for the first time perfumes began to be made from synthetic ingredients. Prior to this time, perfumes were made from essential oils extracted from plants, herbs and other natural substances. Synthetic ingredients allowed the perfumers to create compositions with light, fresh scents something that was previously un-obtainable. The first perfume of this era, the seminal perfume that broke the mould was one of, if not the most iconic fragrances of all time – Chanel No.5.

Although there is some debate on the matter, subjectively one can argue perfume’s transition into mainline fashion came through two icons of the fashion and cosmetic worlds – Coco Chanel and Estee Lauder, Coco Chanel in Europe and Estee Lauder in America. With the introduction of perfumes as part of the fashion landscape, perfumery has quite literally exploded with thousands of fragrances and scents having been created since then.

One of the things that we find fascinating is how when in discussions with people around perfumes and the perfume industry, most people remark that they never thought that scents could be so fascinating.

Unfortunately in our conveniently packaged world, we take our nose for granted. In various surveys asking people what sense they would most likely give up, most select their sense of smell. This is understandable as we don’t really use our sense of smell to anything like the extent that our ancient ancestors would have. In those ancient times, smell was the first sense used to determine if food was edible or detect a predator who wanted to eat us, so without our sense of smell we would not have survived as a species. But take a moment to reflect on what the impact would be if you were to lose your sense of smell. As many studies show, without the sense of smell, our food tastes bland, our libido suffers, our world loses richness and color and even our memories become so much poorer. The message is simple: take care of your nose and use it to its full capacity.

Enjoying perfume is only one facet of being scent obsessed–cooking, gardening, and even something as simple as taking a walk in the park counts too. But perfume is such a great adventure. It can cheer you up when you feel down, makes one feel elegant and it can indulge your fantasies and wanderlust. Exploring scents for their rich history and fascinating craftsmanship gives as much satisfaction as art and music, and it is just as rewarding.

When you are standing in front of a crowded perfume bar, it’s easy to feel disoriented. Where do you start? What do you smell? Do you even know what you like? For most of us the we have never actually chosen a fragrance, we have arrived at the perfume counter to be met by sales associates are only pushing the new releases their brand pays them to promote and aside from that they are usually not trained enough to guide you in any event and its impossible not to be confused when faced with the dozens of perfume bottles filled with nearly identical juice lining the shelves.

or most of us we don’t really use our sense of smell, we know what we like and what we don’t, but how many of us could really describe what we are smelling, break through the layers and identify the individual scents? We are not educated or trained to identify scents, we are trained to recognise brands, so when we go to buy a perfume we ask to try the brand variants, we don’t ask the salesman to recommend a good citrus or oriental. This is really the place to start is to become cognisant of what you smell, so not only can you start to identify what you like and what you don’t but also why. It takes some training and exposure to start identifying individual scents, but once you start to move away from making a binary decision I like or I don’t like and you start to become aware that the a perfume is made up of a complex web of scents and fragrances you can begin to be more critical and can slowly start to hone in on what your favourite fragrance is and why you enjoy it. So choosing a signature scent, will involve lots of smelling until you find the one that really clicks for you, and from there the world of perfumery will start to open up and you will suddenly start to discover delicate jewels that before you did not even know where there.

What makes one a perfume lover? Having a collection that puts the Stuttafords fragrance counter to shame? Knowing the minute details of Serge Lutens’s biography? Speaking of fragrance ingredients with an obsession rivalling that of a Michelin starred chef? Wearing nothing but the most exclusive and expensive brands? No, no, and no. A perfume lover, or a perfumista, is someone who simply loves scents. Period.

Like all hobbies, fragrance can be treated in as esoteric and passionate a manner as you wish, but what is really special about this pursuit is its endless variety. Our olfactory palettes are shaped by numerous factors, including early childhood memories, idiosyncratic preferences and particularities of our noses. It’s a fact that we all experience scents slightly differently, based on a combination of individual sensitivities and anosmia’s. Even perfume industry professionals, whose noses are well-honed to distinguish different ingredients, can’t avoid olfactory quirks, whether it means not being able to smell some types of musk or woody ambers. The wealth of individual interpretations of common smells is what gives perfumery its richness and beauty.

When you start out exploring scents, the amount of information–and choice–can seem overwhelming, and with everyone talking about artisanal and exclusive scents, when all you’ve tried is a selection from your local department store, you may feel the need to catch up. Every now and then, we see comments in which newbie perfume lovers apologize for liking certain department store fragrances or not enjoying classics, really, “So what!”

Please don’t apologize for your perfume tastes. They’re intricately shaped by your personal experiences, and they’re unique. Keep your mind open to trying different things, because this will make your perfume quests more exciting and rewarding, but have confidence to wear what you love with panache. The idea that the choice of perfume indicates the level of one’s sophistication or intelligence seems ridiculous to me. There’s no set formula, no certain things you ‘have’ to like, it’s your journey after all, and it’s your wallet too, so you might as well spend the money on things you really enjoy. This is sage advice and a good reminder that price and brand don’t determine anything. Niche brands offer plenty of interesting lines with distinctive visions and exceptional blends, but a large portion of the so-called artisanal perfumery is dull and overpriced, with the distribution venue, rather than the juice, determining the number of zeros on the label. Being an equal opportunity perfume lover not only exposes you to more brands, it helps you discover hidden gems and have more fun.

Finally, at the end of the day, it’s about pleasure and beauty. Let your nose–and not the noses or opinions of others–be the ultimate guide in your scented adventures.

Perfume layering is a very exciting trend, at its most basic level, perfume layering is the practice of layering one fragrance over another to create a new scent. This can take a number of forms; integrally layering, this is when one uses a cream that is fragranced with the same fragrance, but due to the perfume presenting slightly differently when mixed into the cream the result will be to give a longer lasting and generally richer presentation of the perfume. With supplementary layering we will pick a prominent note in the perfume and then using a single variant scent supplement that note, so if you have a fragrance that has a grapefruit top note that you find really appealing, you can “boost” this note by applying the perfume and then misting with a single variant grapefruit scent to create a new customised presentation of the perfume, with your own unique touch. Complementary layering, we take two perfumes that complement one another and layer one over the other, so we could take something like The Perfumery 6002 which is a rich woody fragrance and give is a sweeter citrusy character by layering it with 0003. This allows a great deal of flexibility, for men they can layer with a whiff of a women’s variant to give a softer interpretation or for woman to take a citrus and layer it with a men’s woody for a warm and enveloping interpretation. Another form of complimentary layering is to use a single variant fragrance to complement the existing notes, so adding mandarin note to a bergamot note or an amber note to a woody etc. A more difficult form of layering is contrasting for obvious reasons, in contrasting we take perfumes with apparently contrasting presentations and layer them to create something new and unique.

Layering is a great way of getting the most out of your perfume collection. It allows you to customise and develop your own scents, your own interpretations, to create something that is truly unique and reflective of your personality and your mood.

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