How to Choose a Signature Perfume 1: What Is Perfume?

Two 12cm glass perfume bottles in a cardboard box, Gosnell's "Fragrant" Series of Concentrated Flowers. John Gosnell & Co. Ltd. London Paris.


Two 12cm glass perfume bottles in a cardboard box, Gosnell's "Fragrant" Series of Concentrated Flowers. John Gosnell & Co. Ltd. London Paris.

Signature Fragrance c. 1914 – 20. John Gosnell & Co. Ltd. London Paris “Fragrant” Series of Concentrated Flowers via State Library of Victoria

You probably don’t need me to tell you that I am the kind of person that prefers to have one of something, and that goes for fragrances too. While Katy’s dressing table is strewn with bottles of all colours, shapes, and sizes, mine usually has only one signature perfume I wear all the time. (Though technically it has none; it gets hot here so I keep it in the fridge). And while our fragrance styles are different, we both use a similar process to clothing selection to choose them.

But before we start choosing a perfume, let’s take a look at what it is.

What Is Perfume?

We are confronted by so many different fragrances every day that we barely think about perfume anymore. So before you read on, imagine if you can, not having any scented soaps, skin care, hair care, clothing care, room fresheners (aside from fresh flowers) and so on. Everything smells like what it is; sweat, spilt milk, bacon fat.

Now imagine perfume. It’s is a mixture of nice smelling things (like flower oils) in a solvent (usually an alcohol). The alcohol evaporates leaving the fragrant oils on your skin (or the dog, or in your room). It essentially disguises “bad” smells and makes them smell “good”.

Fragrance Families

You may have noticed that there are a lot of perfumes out there. There are so many that it would probably take the rest of your life to try them all. And given you can’t adequately distinguish between more than three of them at a time, possibly even longer. Fortunately, perfumes come in families with similar scent bases and you are unlikely to favour more than two of them. Once you know what they are, you can ask what a store has in those families. Though of course, that shouldn’t stop you from trying something new now and again.

Nowadays, perfumes are generally classified into four fragrance families:

  1. Floral: as it sounds a mixture of flower scents (e.g. rose, jasmine, and lavender). These are usually light and romantic fragrances.
  2. Oriental: these perfumes are made with spices (e.g. pepper, cloves, and cinnamon) that come from places that were once thought terribly exotic. They are warm and sensual fragrances.
  3. Woody: just as it sounds, these perfumes are made from woods (e.g. sandalwood, cedarwood, and vetiver). They are dry and musky.
  4. Fresh: (also known as citrus) are often citrus with herb accents. As the name suggests they are refreshing and reviving.

Other older families you might see include:

  • Aromatic: herbals, often combined with citrus and spice.
  • Chypre: Chypre is the French word for Cyprus, and these fragrances are inspired by Coty’s 1917 fragrance “Chypre” (no longer available). They have the sharp scents of wood and citrus.
  • Green: modern interpretations of Chypre.
  • Leather: combinations of tobacco and wood.
  • Fougère: herbs and wood.
  • Water: clean and oceanic.
  • Gourmand: smells like dessert! (or vanilla)

Michael Edwards classified these families into a Fragrance Wheel that you can use to see how the families are related to each other.

Fragrance Formulation

Perfumes are composed of three sets of “notes” that produce a harmony or accord. There may be as many as 300 individual notes in a blend.

  • The head (or top) notes are light molecules that evaporate quickly, often within the first 15 minutes. These are the light citrus and florals that catch your attention when you open a bottle or spray it on your skin.
  • The heart (or middle) notes emerge as the head notes clear, at about 30 minutes. They form the dominant theme of the perfume and are usually heavier florals.
  • The soul (or base) notes emphasise the heart notes. They create your memory of the perfume and are the aspects that last the longest on the skin. These are the complex notes like smoke or leather.

Perfume Strength

In terms of the ones you apply to your body, perfumes come in different strengths. I’m not certain why they come in French descriptions, except that they were probably the first to start diluting the extracts for different purposes. These are the most common strengths available today:

  • Parfum (or extrait) is the strongest concentration (15 – 40% fragrance oils), lasts the longest (six to eight hours) and is, therefore, the most expensive.
  • Eau de Parfum (EdP) is the most common at 10 – 20% and lasts for four to five hours.
  • Eau de Toilette (EdT) at 5 – 15% lasts three to four hours.
  • Eau de Cologne (EdC) is 3 – 8%, lasts a couple of hours, and is the cheapest.

Just to be confusing, men’s fragrances are usually called Cologne but are in fact EdT. And to make it worse, like all other standard things (e.g. shoes and clothes), different brands formulate them differently. An EdC from one brand may be as strong as an EdT produced by another.

And sometimes different strengths of the same perfume are formulated slightly differently. It might be that the EdC focuses on the head notes, the EdT has more heart notes or the EdP soul. You will also get perfumes with descriptions like extrême or concentrée that are entirely different perfumes based on a similar accord.

Next Step

Now that you understand what perfume is, next time we will move onto the next step; planning a stylish and appropriate perfume.

For reference, here’s the full Choosing a Signature Perfume Suite

1: What is Perfume?

2: Planning a Perfume that Fits

3: Trying Perfume Out

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12th October 2016

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