In the cut-throat world of perfume design and manufacturing, perfume is a complex chemical mixture of essential oils, aroma compounds, fixatives, solvents, beautiful bottles and celebrity-endorsed marketing. For those who wear perfume however, the final product is much more than the sum of its parts: for many, perfume is a much-loved element of personal preparation, as essential as dressing or brushing one’s teeth.
A quick tour of the cosmetics and personal care section of any department store reveals the wide array of perfume available on the market, with many more available exclusively through high-end perfume boutiques or import shops. There are so many choices, in fact, that knowing what to buy can be confusing.
Depending on their chemical composition and ratio of fragrance oil to solvent, scents generally fall into one of the following categories:
Perfume extracts (20%-40% aromatic compounds), eau de perfume (10%-30% aromatic compounds), eau de toilette (5%-20 % aromatic compounds) or eau de cologne (2%-3% aromatic compounds). The more aromatic compound that is used the longer the scent will last. Perfume is made up of dozens of ingredients, so it can be difficult to describe the overall effect as just one scent. However, it is possible to identify different contributing scents, similar to how one who knows wine can taste the varying flavors of its composition.
Perfume fragrances are generally categorized by olfactive families such as floral (self explanatory), Chypre (used to describe scents such as apricot), Fougre (woody or herbaceous scents), leather (honey, tobacco, or wood tar scents so named because they are reminiscent of leather), woody (such as sandalwood-, cedar- or patchouli-dominated scents), ambers (vanilla or animal scents), and citrus (refreshing scents).
‘Notes’ are another way to describe or categorize perfume and how it smells as it evaporates off the skin over a period of hours.
Top notes: this is what one first notices after applying perfume. Top notes are generally pleasing and strong, but evaporate quickly.
Middle notes: also called the ‘heart notes’ a perfume’s middle notes are considered the main body of a perfume, and tend to be less strong than top notes. Middle notes are noticeable anywhere from a few minutes up to more than an hour after perfume application.
Base notes: the lasting impressions from a perfume application, base notes give a fragrance its depth thanks to the holding power of the fixatives used in the perfume formulation.
The creation of the art of making perfume is attributed to the Egyptians, but perfume has been embraced by the rest of the world with uses as wide ranging as religious duty in some Islamic culture, camouflage for poor hygiene in early Europe, and even as a slow-absorbing poison! Today, however, perfume is used by both men and women for personal enjoyment and appeal. Many consider a particular scent as part of their identity, and thanks to this loyalty, many popular perfume fragrances, such as No 5 by Chanel, have been around for nearly a century.
As lovely as perfume can be, many people are allergic to it, so always be sure your scent of choice is not offensive to anyone before you wear it in a crowded area.