“Tools” you can use to understand a fragrance.

Luca Turin has used the word raspy to describe a certain quality that some fragrances possess. Reading such descriptions, as well as trying to understand fragrances on my own terms, I’ve developed my own terminology. The basic idea is to think of the effect a fragrance has on your “mind’s nose,” or however you want to describe how we perceive fragrances, rather than thinking about how you think it smells. When we think of how it smells, we are really thinking in our own world of olfactory experience. It’s not at all objective. When I read reviews in which the person states that a fragrance smells like nail polish, hair spray, “perfumey,” a men’s room, etc., it’s clear that this person has yet to overcome this obstacle (unless it’s meant as a joke, of course).

When I smell a fragrance for the first time, I first want to know what the dominant notes are. If there is a note pyramid you can find, that might help, but it’s good to read some reviews as well, because sometimes listed notes are very weak. If you are a “newbie,” you may not know many notes, so the note pyramid can only help after you study the fragrance. You do this by considering the effects that are produced. Open a bottle of ground cinnamon, for example, and think about what it feels like when you breathe it in. I describe this as richness and verticality (it’s also dry). It feels like the scent is “thin,” but it goes right up your nose, almost like being stabbed, though in a nice way, if you can imagine that. Some fragrances start off this way, but are not nearly as pleasant. In that case, you might not like the particular notes, or else it might be that it’s so vertical that it almost feels like really being stabbed !

Now think of a very musky scent. Is that rich or vertical? No, but it is full, it has “body.” It may be a little vertical and a little horizontal, but not to the point of being irritating. Floral notes often have quite a bit of body. Some aren’t very vertical, but they may be quite horizontal, which means that it feels like your nose is being pushed open on the sides. Amber-dominant fragrances (often with amber in the name, such as Ambre Sultan) possess a great deal of body, though they may not be especially horizontal. On the other hand, molecules that generate sweetness generally lack body, as well as richness, but do have verticality.

Lastly, there is texture. Notes such as oakmoss, leather (certain kinds), iris/orris, orange blossom, etc. possess strong texture. Some also possess at least a bit of richness or body, but they can contain a lot of texture. Generally, theses kinds of notes are horizontal, but some can be vertical too (“raspy” orange blossom is a good example). Lavender is very common in “masculine” fragrances, as are strong herbal notes, and my guess is that this is because they furnish the “rough” texture many perfumers think of as a masculine trait in personal fragrances. The fougere accord (lavender and coumarin) possesses reasonable body and texture, though not much richness. Often, this accord is buttressed by geranium, which provides more body and texture, and a bit of richness. Usually, some spice is added for richness (as well as citrus, in the top notes).

The main thing to understand is that you can ask yourself questions when you first sample a fragrance. This works best if you know the most commonly-used notes, but you can try to correlate what you are smelling with note pyramids, if you can find them (fragrantica.com is probably the place to start). Once you start thinking this way, you can quickly focus on certain effects you feel, and then ask yourself what notes may be responsible. Unless it’s an usual note, you should be able to identify it fairly quickly after you try this technique a few times. You might want to write down your general ideas about very common notes, just to force yourself to think about the effects you experience. For example, you might write: “Vanilla is rich but has little body or texture, which is why it’s often combined with something “ambery.” It has some verticality but not much horizontality.”

An “advanced concept” that you may or may not want to consider, is separation (note separation). Some have it and some do not. Generally, the ones that do not are cheap or poorly made, for whatever reason. Why is this important? Because the whole point of a personal fragrance to me (and the only reason I can think of to pay the high prices some companies are asking) is that it is not just a smell but a complex interaction that can keep you entertained for hours. Does your laundry detergent do this for you? If so, then you can just pour a little on a piece of cloth and place it in a breast pocket of your shirt/blouse. Some fragrances are more blended than others, and this does not mean they are low quality in any way. In fact, I find it a bit of a challenge to try and determine the notes when they are never clear.

The key is dynamism. Can you envision the notes swirling around in a mixture, such as if you are in the process of mixing cocoa powder in milk? If so, then the blending is not an issue. The “problem” arises when you just smell what I call a “blob.” The effect is irritating to the nose, as if it is being expanded to an extreme degree in all directions. Good note separation allows for what I call complex horizontality. I’m not sure if you can only do this once you develop your “mind’s nose,” but that is my guess at this point. Think of artist’s palette with many different pigments on it. However, with fragrances, this perception usually doesn’t last long, and the notes collapse back into a whole. Now the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to excellent fragrances, but if you can perceive both the whole and the parts, your experience may be enhanced considerably, which is the case for me. Don’t worry if many fragrances smell like blobs to you at first; it takes time to develop this skill, and hopefully what I’ve written above will help you get there as quickly as possible (but be sure to sample as much as possible). Also, if you think a fragrance has a metallic or synthetic quality, you might be right. Not all fragrances are meant to smell “natural,” and some are just poor quality.

Additional note (added later): If you think you don’t understand most of what you’ve read so far here, that just means you have some work to do. I suggest you get at least one fragrance from each genre. This need not be expensive. For example, the original Lomani men’s fragrance costs $10 or less for 100 ml and is a good example of a traditional fougere. Wear a fragrance from a different genre each day. Think about the note pyramid. Ask yourself what kinds of effects you are experiencing. I tend to avoid fragrances that I consider “blob”-like, which means the notes seem to be all bunched up so that they are like one big accord. These are usually cheap fragrances and usually not of interest to the aficionado. You might enjoy wearing them but they may not help you much in your attempt to understand fragrance construction and content. Of course, you are free to create your own fragrance language, if you find mine lacking in significant ways. Just be sure to find a way to get at the fragrance that allows your mind/brain to create categories and generalizations that match the notes/accords, so that you can then “deconstruct” them.

Happy sniffing !


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