Fragrance is like wine… Everyone knows what it’s like, but only real sophisticates have a taste and appreciation that goes beyond “what’s on sale at the supermarket”. Plus, having a nose for fine fragrance is about as useful a life skill as being a certified sommelier—it’s only really essential for a very small number of professionals, and pretty much a party trick for everyone else. That’s being said, it’s nice to not feel lost when you step into classy perfume store, so here a few handy tricks to stay in the know, and on the nose.
1. Know your basic perfume structure
Perfumes—especially good ones—are complicated beasts. They are designed to reveal their character on the skin, starting from the top notes, then unfurling into the middle notes and lastly, leaving a lingering whiff of the base notes. The top notes (aka the opening or head notes) fade the fastest, and give you your first impression of the fragrance. Then come the middle notes, which are the heart of the fragrance, and define the key characteristics of the scent. Lastly, the base notes are the notes that last the longest. The period in which the heart notes have evaporated, and the base notes remain is usually called the “dry-down period”. All three stages work together to create the full effect of the perfume.
2. Know some basic fragrance families
Fragrances are classified into many types of categories, and it’s handy to know at least a few. Floral fragrances obviously are perfumes based on flower scents. Some of the most common are rose, jasmine, lily and iris. Woody fragrances are dominated by notes like sandalwood, cedar and patchouli and are a little more mysterious and heavy. Oriental fragrances have warm notes of amber, musk and vanilla, while Citrus scents have bright fruity notes.
3. Know some iconic fragrances
If you get lost in all the fragrances, knowing a few famous scents and what families they belong to can help you get oriented. Famous florals include Chloe’s Absolu and the iconic Chanel No. 5, which changed the game with its addition of glassy aldehydic notes. Santal 33 from Le Labo is a cult woody fragrance, and Shalimar by Guerlain is a classic oriental your mother probably loved, while Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom is a well-loved citrus.
4. Test like a perfume pro
Now that you probably have an idea of which fragrance families are your favourite, it’s time to level up by testing perfumes like a proper connoisseur. The first step is to make sure you always test the perfume on your own skin. Our bodies’ natural chemistry reacts with every fragrance, so you should not buy based on how the perfume smells on the sample strip alone. Then, after you spritz onto your skin, take your time to decide. In fact, walk away, do some window shopping, and come back after. Perfumes can take their time to develop, and you shouldn’t judge based on first impressions alone. Let the heart notes sit on your skin, and make sure you enjoy the fragrance even in the dry-down period before you make your final purchase. The assistants at the store won’t judge you for walking away before buying—in fact, by getting to know the fragrance fully, you’ll be showing them that you really know what’s what.