Find out about an 'Olfactory Triangle', 'Olfactive Classification' and 'How To Describe A Fragrance'.
How do you Describe a Perfume?
Perfumes are complex and it is not easy to articulate what we smell with our noses. We struggle with the vocabulary when describing a fragrance.
We might use terms such a 'nice' or 'sweet' but these are not very specific and they are our personal opinion.
Instead, what is required is something like a 'perfume language' that is as objective and as neutral as possible.
In this guide, we introduce the language of perfumers, how they speak about fragrance to each other.
Considering that our nose can smell a trillion different ingredients, shows how difficult fragrance descriptions can be, for anybody.
How Does A Perfumer Start?
When a perfumer evaluates a new perfume, they always follow a certain pattern to find their way into the fragrance.
Female, Male or Unisex?
The distinction whether a scent is suitable for a particular gender has become very fluid nowadays but it is still important.
Equally, just because one might say that a note is quite masculine in style, this does not mean that women won't wear it or like it. The reverse is equally true.
This distinction is just a simple prop to better understand the fragrance.
Further below you can read in more details what Olfactive Categories are but broadly speaking they group perfumes by their style.
For example, is a fragrance 'oriental' or 'aromatic'?
With this step the perfumer goes into a little more detail about the ingredients.
The idea is to identify which ingredients dominate within the creation.
For example, is the 'rose' or 'vanilla' note more prominent in this particular scent.
The perfume accord is the 'backbone' of the fragrance and consists of the main building blocks of the scent or olfactive creation.
The perfumer is evaluating the creation with a view to capturing the character of the scent, its top, middle and base note. Perfumers will also start to assess the scent over time, e.g. its dry-down, and how the accord evolves.
Equally, perfumers will try and relate the fragrance to other scents on the market to identify whether this particular perfume is an 'evolution', 'revolution' and/or whether it has an unusual 'twists'.
Further below you can read in more detail about accords, the analogy with music but also top, middle and base notes.
Give Your Nose A Chance!
It is important not to rush an assessment, as there are numerous factors which will alter your perception on any given day, e.g. fragrances you smelled earlier in the day, the environment within which you are evaluating, what did you eat or drink recently, your own mood, etc.
We also recommend smelling fragrances in a peaceful and quiet environment, to ensure your other senses do not distract the nose. For example, if somebody mentions a particular ingredient, you will notice how you suddenly also pick up the same note.
Evaluating a perfume is not easy, it takes time and you should ideally repeat it several times.
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What is a Perfume Accord?
The sign of a sophisticated fragrance is that it has a complex ‘accord’ of ingredients rather than just a few strong fruity ingredients.
A perfumer typically describes the ‘accord’ of a fragrance using a ‘fragrance triangle’ (top, heart, base).
This classifies the ingredients they have used in a perfume, according to their volatility and perception:
- Top notes are the most volatile and base notes the least. The heart sits at the centre of the perfume and is its very essence.
- Top notes are typically the ingredients we smell first, whereas the base notes develop more strongly over time. This does not mean, however, that the base notes are not perceptible from the start.
A Perfume Accord Is Like A Melody
To illustrate this further, a couture perfume may be compared with a melody.
The character of a perfume can be described using this metaphor in which fragrance 'notes' develop according to their volatility and combine to create a harmonious perfume composition.
Like music, it has an accord of deep base notes, middle notes which are its heart and top note accents which capture us and draw us in. We may not immediately perceive the base notes of a song or melody but they are present from the start.
Olfactive Pyramide or Fragrance Triangle
What are the Top, Middle and Base Notes in a Perfume?
The olfactive or perfume description of a fragrance is usually presented with the help of ‘Fragrance Triangle’.
Above is an example of a fragrance triangle or sometimes it is also referred to as an 'olfactory pyramid' or 'fragrance pyramid'.
Top notes are light, radiant and fresh. They are the first ingredients that one can perceive and identify when smelling a perfume. These are typically citrus, fruity, herbal or floral oils
The heart is the core and very essence of the of the fragrance.
Once the top notes have developed, the flowers, spices, fruits and aromatic aspects reveal themselves.
The base notes (or fond) of the perfume give it depth, richness and mystique. These notes in the fond are the foundation of a fragrance and carry the accord.
The base often consists of combinations of vanilla, musk, woods and spices, which also make a fragrance longlasting.
Typically, they have a very low ‘odour dection level’ and their intensity does not reduce by much over time, both of which ensures that they linger a long time in the air or on the skin.
Perfume Descriptions by Pairfum London
You will find when reading a fragrance description here at Pairfum London, that all of our fragrances have an accord with top, heart and base notes.
Only sophisticated couture perfumes, consisting of 50-200 different fragrance ingredients on average, have top, heart and base notes.
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What is the Olfactive Classification of Ingredients & Perfumes?
There are literally thousands of fragrance ingredients and probably a similar amount of finished perfumes. A luxurious, sophisticated couture perfumes typically consists of 50-200 different scented rawmaterials.
Olfactive Classifications were introduced as a way to bring structure to these and to create a 'language' which allows us to speak about both the fragrant rawmaterials and the blended perfumes.
The advantage of using ingredients and classes to describe perfume is that they introduce a degree of objectivity. Perfumes are a subjective, sensual experience that is unique to each one of us and it is very difficult to communicate this transparently.
Below is an overview of the fragrance classes that most perfumers can agree upon.
Sophisticated, sensual perfumes created with heady substances such as musk, vanilla, exotic woods, spices, tropical flowers and other rich ingredients, such as amber, tobacco, spices, animal notes and tree resins.
These wonderfully warm notes may have facets to freshen them up, e.g. citrus, fruit.
This is a very large and a most widely used olfactive family. Either a single flower, i.e. Solifloral, or a floral bouquet is the main theme of each creation.
It is generally split into red flowers (e.g. rose, violet,…) and white flowers (e.g. jasmin, orange blossom, tuberose, YlangYlang, honeysuckle, …). Some perfumers add another sub-category: white-green florals (e.g. Muguet).
These florals may be enriched with green, aldehydic, fruity or spicy nuances.
The emergence and popularity of 'Florientals' has prompted many to create a new main category: Floriental.
As the name suggests, it describes accords that mix both floral and oriental elements:
- flowers, e.g. rose, jasmine, gardenia, freesia, orange flower,...
- oriental, e.g. vanilla, spices, warm woods and resins.
Floriental fragrances are very sensual and seductive in their style but generally softer and lighter than orientals because of their floracy.
Frequently referred to as Fougère, or translated as "fern-like". In modern perfumery, this is one of the main olfactive families. The name is derives from the perfume ‘Fougère Royale’ (Houbigant).
Fougere is not, however, a single ingredient or a group of ingredients. Instead, it is an olfactory accord or a combination of fragrance ingredients that create a typical perfume that is both fresh and warm.
A classical Fougere usually contains coumarin, bergamot, lavender, vetiver, geranium and oakmoss: they open with fresh top notes of Lavender and Bergamot, develop into a heart of Geranium and finish on a fond of Coumarin, Oakmoss and Vetiver.
We offer an in-depth introduction to Fougere in our Encyclopedia.
Here you find accords created around aromatic herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender,…) that are normally complemented with citrus and spicy notes.
Their masculine character makes them a mainstay of men's fragrances.
This olfactive family concentrates on perfume accords where the heart is one of the following woody scents: sandalwood, patchouli, vertiver or cedar.
Hints of citrus or aromatics are typically added to round them of. These are warm and elegant fragrances and more masculine in nature.
Sandalwood and patchouli tend to be warm and more opulent in character, whereas cedar and vetiver feel dryer in style.
Known in the perfumery world as ‘hesperidics’, these fragrances with a fresh and light character are built around notes of citrus such as lemon, lime, orange, bergamot, petit grain, grapefruit, neroli and tangerine.
These accords typically have elements of other orange-trees (orange blossom, petit grain, neroli), flowers (white flowers) or hints of chypre but also aromatic, woody and spicy materials to give depth and richness.
The family includes all types of ‘Eaux Fraîches’ and was typified by the first ‘Eaux de Colognes’.
A fozzilised tree resin, Amber is valued for its colour and beauty fossilized tree resin which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty through the ages.
In perfumery, ‘amber’ accords reflect the golden colour and its rich warmth. The scents tend to be musky, honey-like, oriental and earthy in combination with elements of vanilla, spices (e.g. clove), labdanum, benzoin resin or incense.
The Chypre category does no describes a style of perfume accord and not its ingredients.
The notes in this group are typically based around an accord of oak moss, ciste-labdanum, patchouli and bergamot. The interplay of the richness and warmth of oak moss in combination with the freshness from citrus are the character that defines this category.
Other woody, mossy and floral notes may be added and even replace some of the elements. The richness of these fragrances mixes beautifully with citrussy, lavender, leathery or fruity notes.
Chypre accords are rich and long-lasting in character. An early and classic example of this family is ‘Chypre’ by Coty (1917).
We offer an in-depth introduction to Chypre in our Encyclopedia.
This olfactive group has no limits: beautiful, fruity fragrances with berries (strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, blueberries, ...), sweet juicy fruit (peaches, nectarines, mango, papaya, ...), tropical fruit (coconut, pineapple,... ), Kiwi, melons, ... there are always new enticing fruit varieties to try.
Unlike the afore mentioned catogories, Skin Care and Toiletries products typically take the lead here. Shower gels, soaps or lotions are more likely to introduce a new type of fruit than an Eau de Toilette.
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