The precise formulae of commercial perfumes are kept secret. Even if they were widely published, they would be dominated by such complex ingredients and odorants that they would be of little use in providing a guide to the general consumer in description of the experience of a scent. Nonetheless, connoisseurs of perfume can become extremely skillful at identifying components and origins of scents in the same manner as wine experts.
The most practical way to start describing a perfume is according to the elements of the fragrance notes of the scent or the “family” it belongs to, all of which affect the overall impression of a perfume from first application to the last lingering hint of scent.
The trail of scent left behind by a person wearing perfume is called its sillage, after the French word for “wake“, as in the trail left by a boat in water.
Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three sets of notes, making the harmonious scent accord. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.
- Top notes: Also called the head notes. The scents that are perceived immediately on application of a perfume. Top notes consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly. They form a person’s initial impression of a perfume and thus are very important in the selling of a perfume. Examples of top notes include mint, lavender and coriander.
- Middle notes: Also referred to as heart notes. The scent of a perfume that emerges just prior to the dissipation of the top note. The middle note compounds form the “heart” or main body of a perfume and act to mask the often unpleasant initial impression of base notes, which become more pleasant with time. Examples of middle notes include seawater, sandalwood and jasmine.
- Base notes: The scent of a perfume that appears close to the departure of the middle notes. The base and middle notes together are the main theme of a perfume. Base notes bring depth and solidity to a perfume. Compounds of this class of scents are typically rich and “deep” and are usually not perceived until 30 minutes after application. Examples of base notes include tobacco, amber and musk.
The scents in the top and middle notes are influenced by the base notes, as well the scents of the base notes will be altered by the type of fragrance materials used as middle notes. Manufacturers of perfumes usually publish perfume notes and typically they present it as fragrance pyramid, with the components listed in imaginative and abstract terms.
Grouping perfumes can never be a completely objective or final process. Many fragrances contain aspects of different families. Even a perfume designated as “single flower”, however subtle, will have undertones of other aromatics. “True” unitary scents can rarely be found in perfumes as it requires the perfume to exist only as a singular aromatic material.
Classification by olfactive family is a starting point for a description of a perfume, but it cannot by itself denote the specific characteristic of that perfume.
- Single Floral: Fragrances that are dominated by a scent from one particular flower; in French called a soliflore. (e.g. Serge Lutens‘ Sa Majeste La Rose, which is dominated by rose.)
- Floral Bouquet: Is a combination of fragrance of several flowers in a perfume compound. Examples include Quelques Fleurs by Houbigant and Joy by Jean Patou.
- Amber or “Oriental”: A large fragrance class featuring the sweet slightly animalic scents of ambergris or labdanum, often combined with vanilla, tonka bean, flowers and woods. Can be enhanced by camphorous oils and incense resins, which bring to mind Victorian era imagery of the Middle East and Far East. Traditional examples include Guerlain‘s Shalimar, Yves Saint Laurent‘s Opium and Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle.
- Woody: Fragrances that are dominated by woody scents, typically of agarwood, sandalwood, cedarwood, and vetiver. Patchouli, with its camphoraceous smell, is commonly found in these perfumes. A traditional example here would be Myrurgia’s Maderas De Oriente or Chanel Bois des Îles. A modern example would be Balenciaga Rumba.
- Leather: A family of fragrances which features the scents of honey, tobacco, wood and wood tars in its middle or base notes and a scent that alludes to leather. Traditional examples include Robert Piguet‘s Bandit and Balmain‘s Jolie Madame.
- Chypre (IPA: [ʃipʁ]): Meaning Cyprus in French, this includes fragrances built on a similar accord consisting of bergamot, oakmoss, and labdanum. This family of fragrances is named after the eponymous 1917 perfume by François Coty, and one of the most famous extant examples is Guerlain‘s Mitsouko.
- Fougère (IPA: [fu.ʒɛʁ]): Meaning fern in French, built on a base of lavender, coumarin and oakmoss. Houbigant‘s Fougère Royale pioneered the use of this base. Many men’s fragrances belong to this family of fragrances, which is characterized by its sharp herbaceous and woody scent. Some well-known modern fougères are Fabergé Brut and Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir.
Since 1945, due to great advances in the technology of perfume creation (i.e., compound design and synthesis) as well as the natural development of styles and tastes, new categories have emerged to describe modern scents:
- Bright Floral: combining the traditional Single Floral & Floral Bouquet categories. A good example would be Estée Lauder‘s Beautiful.
- Green: a lighter and more modern interpretation of the Chypre type, with pronounced cut grass, crushed green leaf and cucumber-like scents. Examples include Estée Lauder’s Aliage, Sisley’s Eau de Campagne, and Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
- Aquatic, Oceanic, or Ozonic: the newest category in perfume history, first appearing in 1988 Davidoff Cool Water (1988), Christian Dior’s Dune (1991), and many others. A clean smell reminiscent of the ocean, leading to many of the modern androgynous perfumes. Generally contains calone, a synthetic scent discovered in 1966, or other more recent synthetics. Also used to accent floral, oriental, and woody fragrances.
- Citrus: An old fragrance family that until recently consisted mainly of “freshening” eau de colognes, due to the low tenacity of citrus scents. Development of newer fragrance compounds has allowed for the creation of primarily citrus fragrances. A good example here would be Faberge Brut.
- Fruity: featuring the aromas of fruits other than citrus, such as peach, cassis (black currant), mango, passion fruit, and others. A modern example here would be Ginestet Botrytis.
- Gourmand (French: [ɡuʁmɑ̃]): scents with “edible” or “dessert”-like qualities. These often contain notes like vanilla, tonka bean and coumarin, as well as synthetic components designed to resemble food flavors. A sweet example is Thierry Mugler‘s Angel.
The five standard families consist of Floral, Oriental, Woody, Aromatic Fougère, and Fresh, with the first four families borrowing from the classic terminology and the last consisting of newer bright and clean smelling citrus and oceanic fragrances that have arrived in the past generation due to improvements in fragrance technology. Each of the families are in turn divided into subgroups and arranged around a wheel. In this classification scheme, Chanel No.5, which is traditionally classified as an aldehydic floral, would be located under the Soft Floral sub-group, and amber scents would be placed within the Oriental group. As a class, chypre perfumes are more difficult to place since they would be located under parts of the Oriental and Woody families. For instance, Guerlain’s Mitsouko is placed under Mossy Woods, but Hermès Rouge, a chypre with more floral character, would be placed under Floral Oriental.