Do You Know Your Fragrance Note?

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 last stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.

Top 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. Also called the head notes.
Middle notes: The scent of a perfume that emerges just prior to when the top notes dissipate. 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. They are also called the heart notes.
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.

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.

Olfactive Families

Grouping perfumes, like any taxonomy, can never be a complete 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.

Traditional

The traditional classification which emerged around 1900 comprised the following categories:

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 Joyby Jean Patou.
Ambered, 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 and Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium.
Wood: Fragrances that are dominated by woody scents, typically of agarwood, sandalwood and cedarwood. Patchouli, with its camphoraceoussmell, 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, patchouli, andlabdanum. This family of fragrances is named after a perfume by François Coty, and one of the most famous 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.

Modern

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. Two examples would be Estée Lauder’s Aliage or Sisley’s Eau de Campagne.
AquaticOceanic, or Ozonic: the newest category in perfume history, appearing in 1991 with Christian Dior’s Dune. A very clean, modern smell leading to many of the modern androgynous perfumes. Generally contains calone, a synthetic scent discovered in 1966. 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 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. A savory example would be Dinner by BoBo, which has cumin and curry hints.

Fragrance Wheel

Fragrance Wheel perfume classification chart, ver. 1983

Main article: Fragrance wheel

The Fragrance wheel is a relatively new classification method that is widely used in retail and in the fragrance industry. The method was created in 1983 by Michael Edwards, a consultant in the perfume industry, who designed his own scheme of fragrance classification. The new scheme was created to simplify fragrance classification and naming scheme, as well as to show the relationships between the individual classes.

The five standard families consist of FloralOrientalWoodyFougère, and Fresh, with the former four families being more “classic” while the latter consisting of newer bright and clean smelling citrus and oceanic fragrances that have arrived due to improvements in fragrance technology. Each of the families are in turn divided into sub-groups and arranged around a wheel.

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