Are you getting too fixated on “notes” ?

This topic has reared its head now and then on the major scent sites, and you’ve probably read about it and formed an opinion. However, I’d like to ask a simple question, what are we actually discussing when we talk about a scent’s “notes?” There is the “official pyramid,” of course (though not all manufacturers supply one), and these days we often find a list of chemical names on the back or bottom of the box that houses the bottle. Are these the same thing?

The way I see it, “notes”‘ are impressions. You can combine chemicals that don’t smell like much of anything and produce a note, for example, as Chandler Burr mentioned: “In my presence, Ellena once dipped a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenal acetate, which has a purely chemical smell, and another touche into vanillin, a synthetic version of vanilla. He placed the two paper strips together, waved them, and chocolate appeared in the air.”

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In some cases, a chemical can be more than one note rather than less, for instance I’ll mention the use of ionone gamma methyl in KISS Him by KISS Cosmetics. The official notes are: “…bergamot, white pepper, anise, black cumin, fir balsam, sandalwood and moss” (from This scent confused me when I first tried it a few years ago. It clearly contained cumin and anise notes, and was a bit peppery and balmy, but there was a kind of haze to it that “did not compute” in my mind. It was only after I wore it a week or so ago after having worn Le Dix by Balenciaga a couple days previously that I recognized a violet type of note. I looked at the list of ingredients on the box and saw ionone gamma methyl.

It’s not uncommon to see the “usual suspects,” such as linalool, listed on the box, even if no note is given that seems to correspond to it, and my guess is that in many if not most cases these chemicals are used to provide the scent with some “body” so that it doesn’t seem too “thin,” but ionone gamma methyl seems to have been used in large amounts when KISS Him was formulated. One site that sells this chemical states that is has the following olfactory characteristics: “A very floral note with a strong orris, violet character. An indispensable element in all high quality perfumes whatever their tonality: flowery, woody, chypre, oriental, giving radiance and great elegance.”

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On another site this chemical is said to furnish good “body” to perfumes. And this brings me to a very important point, IMO, which is that there is not necessarily any one “right” way to perceive or appreciate a scent. In this case, the person who smells KISS Him may focus (for whatever reason) on the ionone gamma, the anise, the cumin, some combination of them, or something else. That person could describe this scent as being having strong violet and iris type qualities, even though they are not even listed as notes. And as I pointed out, I may not have realized this if I hadn’t worn Le Dix a couple days before wearing KH, especially considering how large my rotation is.

And why is my rotation so large? Because this way the scent almost seems like I’m experiencing it for the first time again, meaning that it seems much richer and more vibrant that if I had worn it every day for several days in a row. So, with all this in mind, let’s get back to the question that is the title of this post. First, as others have said, don’t get too concerned about the “official” notes, but keep them in the back of your mind as the scent develops over time. If you are trying to study the scent, by all means read the list of ingredients and do some research online. Secondly, you may think you don’t like a note (I certainly have that bias), but keep your mind open to how the overall scent smells and develops. One mistake is to buy “drug store” scents and decide you don’t like a note, when in fact you may just dislike a cheap chemical that approximates something like high quality sandalwood oil.

Another example is Bijan V.I.P. for Men, which I recently sampled for the first time. It lists a “sea” type of note and I can briefly smell it but it’s not rendered badly and it is mild. It also seems to come and go. Overall, I dislike these kinds of notes intensely, but I gave this scent a chance and I’m certainly glad that I did (it’s got a decent, subtle woody/iris/light leather-dominant accord in the drydown). One “exercise” you can do is to take the cap off one of your bottles and ask yourself what notes you detect. Then, a few minutes later, do this with a different scent. Don’t “look” for any of the official notes but instead give your mind a chance to decide for itself. A few years ago, when my mind was still doing some “basic wiring” with scents, I observed that after smelling a new scent it usually took 10-20 minutes before I recognized it as smelling similar to one I already tried. I have no idea why that was the case back then, but now I can usually recognize strong similarities immediately or within a couple minutes. Lastly, don’t let anyone tell you how you must perceive notes (that includes me); instead, do what works for you, but keep in mind that your opinion may change as you do more olfactory explorations!

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