The fragrant world of perfume

The world of fragrance has its own history and language, evoking memories and seducing our sense of smell.

Coco Chanel described the appeal of perfume beautifully when she said, ‘It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure.’

Undeniably the most powerful of the five senses, our sense of smell is heavily intertwined with our emotions – a quick whiff has the ability to conjure anything from a nostalgic childhood flash to strong food cravings. Have you ever wondered why you can’t stand your ex’s signature scent? It has nothing to do with musk or sandalwood. In fact, emotional associations are the driving force behind our favoured fragrances and this is deeply affected by life events.

Funnily enough, the most powerful of all scents is actually odourless. Sex pheromones might seem like an urban legend (and a bad pickup line) but scientists have since found receptors in the nose that pick up these hormones, triggering an innate animal attraction between certain people. You’re probably repulsed by the idea of smelling someone else’s BO but science says that both men and women fall powerless against the scent of our counterpart’s sweat when sexual-attractant pheromones are at play.

Middle Eastern countries are known for their cultural fascination with different fragrances, dabbing scented oils on areas of the body that excrete pheromones to signpost them to their partner. Even though our pheromones are already individually unique, there is definitely something sexy about customising our glandular excretions for our lovers.

But it’s not just humans pouncing on each other at the allure of signature scents. A study in the Guatemalan jungle has seen scientists successfully use Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men as a lure to make the usually elusive jaguar linger long enough to be photographed and observed. Whether these big cats have a genetic inclination towards bergamot, lavender, mandarin, clove, nutmeg and amber is not known (and a tad unlikely), but the research gained from this experiment has proved invaluable for perfume houses.

The art of perfumery

The basic combination in any perfume is called an accord, where two or more fragrances or notes are combined to make a seamless third composition in which the originals are undetectable. This provides the skeleton of the perfume, with all the other elements added to harmoniously flesh out this fragrance framework.

The process uses ‘bridges’ that connect the different notes and harmoniously add to the perfume’s character (floral, oriental, citrus, gourmand and so on) to create a balanced result.

Accords are often created to evoke a scent that doesn’t produce one single odour, such as the warm, fleshly amber or heady mellis accords. Every perfumier has their own combination of ingredients for creating an accord, although some, such as oak moss in a chypre accord, are regarded as elemental. A soliflore is a composition built around one note.

All the elements combine to create three periods of evaporation during which we can discern the different layers of the perfume. First are the top notes, usually bright and penetrating but light in character and often composed of citrus or aldehydes, then the body, heart or middle notes which classifies the ‘type’ of perfume and can be smelled as soon as the perfume settles. Finally, there are the bottom or base notes that provide depth and solidarity as well as lasting power, or diffusion.

What a perfume smells like after a couple of hours is called the dry down.

Modern chemical processes have enabled the separation of the fragrant essences into components such as esters, aldehydes ketones and indoles, which can be further broken down into subtle scent molecules and reassembled in combinations – to make each final product utterly unique.

Perfume types

Single florals are fragrances dominated by the scent of one flower, although other notes
make up the perfume.

Floral bouquets combine several floral scents.

Bright florals fuse both categories and are characteristically modern scents.

Amber fragrances use animalic ingredients to create voluptuous, earthy and sometimes spicy scents.

Oriental fragrances are usually both woody and spicy.

Gourmand fragrances smell edible, often of vanilla, tonka bean or chocolate.

Wood fragrances are resinous and aromatic.

Leather fragrances have a savoury complexity in the middle notes.

Chypre evokes the scent of moss and soil.

Fougère conjures the scent of ferns, with woody and herbaceous notes.

Green fragrances are a fresher, more modern version of chypre.

Citrus or fruity fragrances are sharp and clean smelling.

Oceanic fragrances are fresh, tangy and slightly salty.

Accords & notes

Amber contains balsamic notes like benzoin, tolu and labdanum as well as vanilla and spicy notes.

Ambrein has more woody notes, combined with rose.

Chypre balances bergamot with oak moss, vetiver, wood and floral notes.

Fougère uses lavender, oak moss and the fragrance of hay from coumarine.

Mellis blends spices, wood notes and coumarine together with balsamic notes.

White floral accord combines gardenia, jasmine, orange blossom and tuberose.

Aromatics are mainly composed of sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender.

Eau de what?

Parfum/Perfume This is the richest concentration of the pure fragrance, at least 20 percent, and will last on your skin for up to six hours.

Eau de Parfum This is around 15 percent of the pure fragrance and lasts around five hours.

Eau de Toilette This is around 12 percent of the pure fragrance and lasts around four to five hours.

Eau de Cologne This is around three percent of the pure fragrance and lasts about two hours.