A new concept: scent layers.


You’ve probably heard about scent development, in particular top, middle/heart, and base notes. There is also the concept of the “drydown,” which seems to contradict this three tier idea in a significant way, as it suggests two important things happen when you wear a scent (at least on skin), rather than three or more. Perhaps the best way to think about how it is that you smell top notes for a while, and then middle/heart notes until the scent it totally dry, but that begs the question: does this mean middle/heart notes will persist for a long time if a person is sweating?

One term I didn’t see in reviews/posts/books until I began using it in my posts and reviews is the “opening.” For me this is whatever is present until one gets to the “base.” Even if you try to avoid most of the top notes, as I do, there is almost always some top notes residue, so to speak, that persists for more than several minutes. If you study scents on a regular basis, as I do, I think this is the more useful concept, as opposed to the three tier notion, though in rare cases a scent “fools” you into thinking you are at the base, only to reveal a different element. I’m glad to see that the opening idea has caught on, whether or not I was the first person to use it in this context, and I’ll speak more about perfumers versus aficionados below, which will address this is more detail.

I have used the term “drydown” to mean something like “when the scents settle down into a scent that persists for hours.” At this point, many scents have a kind of layered quality, though if you are used to mostly recent designer releases, this may not be the case. Many of these come across to me as a kind of sheet, meaning there is no depth. An older concept is “facets.” This seems to mean that as you wear a scent, you will smell some very different notes or accords, so you may get a sheet-like affect or a layered one, or perhaps even some combination of the two, as the facets come and go over time. Another phrase that might describe this in a helpful way is a “shape-shifter scent.”

My layers idea involves a sense that certain notes or accords are on top or in front of others. For many scents, I’ve thought to myself, “I’ve got to fight through these opening notes/accords and then I will get to a pleasant drydown.” For example, while wearing Boss Cologne the other day (it’s now called Boss Number One) I was thinking that there are two major layers present, one that is “in front” and that seems to be dominated by aroma chemicals, with a second that is “underneath,” and dominated by honey, patchouli, tobacco, and wood notes. Powdery (probably due to the iris) and dried fruit/honey elements seem to tie the two layers together, though there is still some contrast between the two (but never discord), providing dynamism. In general, musk seems to help tie layers together in many scents (this Boss scent isn’t especially musky, but it certainly doesn’t need to be).

Cool Water (“men’s” version) is an interesting example of what happens when there are a lot of notes in the scent but an absence of layering. That is, the notes feel like they are placed next to each other, many struggling to be dominant. Apparently, Luca Turin liked this structure. For example, here is a passage from his review of Eternity for Men:

It smells good but cheap, which would be fine if the overall structure were unpretentious as in Cool Water, whereas it is distinctly aspirational.

By contrast, I find Cool Water’s structure to be flawed (and quite pretentious), perhaps best viewed as a failed “experiment.” My guess, as I’ve said before, is that the perfumer was required to include a tobacco note, but had some other ideas of his own in mind, and so he put together what I view as a cluttered, discordant, flawed composition, though he may have preferred a different formulation that was not chosen, for all I know. A much better composition that has some similar qualities (the perfumer seems to have had a similar idea in mind) is Green Water, though I can’t recommend the latest formulation in this context; the original Green Water was an excellent scent, whereas the newest one is flawed due to a jasmine note that is too strong. However, if you like that note, you may of course prefer the new formulation.

And this brings me to something I was thinking about the other day, which is that perfumers don’t seem to wear the scents they create, at least not in the way I do. That is, they may wear one or two very often, but I have never heard any of them say that they only wear their own scents, or that they wear scents of a particular type nearly every day! Luca Turin, though not a perfumer, has stated that he wore New York by Parfums de Nicolai for many years, for instance. If a perfumer created two hundred scents, he or she could have a “rotation” of those, just like I have a rotation of at least two hundred, but this does not seem to be the case. Instead, they seem to think of their “creations” as a portrait painter thinks of his or her works. That is, the painter might want to keep a photo of the finished work, but doesn’t need to experience it often, if ever again, in person. Some perfumers have said that they rarely wear any scent (on most days), and this makes sense, because if you are composing new scents you can’t have one that you are wearing interfere with your formulations !

Because of this, as well as being taught the traditional notion of top, middle/heart, and base notes and the use of smelling strips to decide upon how “successful” the scent might be, they don’t seem to experience scents the same way as many of us do (and I have a feeling that they don’t perceive “layers”). Thus, for example, Cool Water may smell great on a smelling strip – I’ve never experienced it that way. Moreover, in the few “experiments” I’ve done in an attempt to create a scent, I find it very time consuming, because I want to see how the variations perform during a regular wearing. If a professional perfumer tried to do this, how would he or she be able to get much done in general, let alone meeting a bunch of crucial deadlines he or she probably has?

So, to sum things up: I think how a scent is layered (if it is layered) can determine whether one likes or dislikes a scent. For example, some perceive certain scents as “blobs” (not sure I started the use of that term in this context as well), which clearly means they are not detecting any layering, and this is almost always a criticism (though some may be especially sensitive to certain chemicals, notes, or accords, and so it doesn’t mean you will perceive it as a blob as well). For example, vintage Polo doesn’t seem to have much layering, so at times it can get a bit boring or even irritating to me, whereas Boss Cologne has always been enjoyable, though I actually don’t like its opening much, probably because the aroma chemicals used are too strong at that point. However, perhaps due to a much higher reliance on naturals (relative to Cool Water, at least), Polo seems to be more like a bubbling caldron than a flat sheet (with chemicals spilled over it).

However, if you like the notes in a scent, I suggest you “experiment” with it a few times. For example, the amount applied seems to be an important factor. Less well-known, I’d guess, is how the scent is applied. For instance, I’ve learned that with some scents it’s best to spray it on with a fine atomizer, and from a distance of at least several inches. Also, you may have to “hang in there” a while to allow the “bottom” layer to get stronger relative to the “top” layer. Finally, if I am correct and perfumers are not thinking along these lines at all, you might want to consider sampling scents made by perfumers you think do a good job of layering (whether or not they are doing it consciously), if of course you value this quality.

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