Scent Diary: How to Get the Right Fragrance

Have you ever seen an ad for a fragrance and just knew you had to have it, only to order it and it doesn’t seem to quite measure up once you get it on your skin? Or, have you ever been in the perfume aisle and one scent smells sweet in the bottle until you try it on your wrist?

There is a science to how fragrances are made and also to choosing one that works for you.

First, let’s delve a little into the history of perfume: how they came to be, how they’re made and why we are so crazy about them. I learned a lot from this really great article by McGill called “The Story of Perfume.”

The word Perfume comes from a Latin phrase: “per” meaning “thorough” and “fumus,” which means smoke. It was the French who coined the term “parfum” in regard to the smells produced by incense burning. Incense was actually the first form of perfume (I still use incense to this day) and was made by the Mesopotamians nearly four thousand years ago. It was very common place for a lot of ancient societies and religions to burn blends of resins and woods at their religious ceremonies.

Sometime around 3000 B.C., the Egyptians discovered incense. During this time, perfumes were only used in religious rituals; to use them in any other manner was considered taboo. Eventually, as priests relinquished their exclusive rights to perfumes, they became available to all Egyptians. It was not uncommon for citizens of Egypt to take elaborate baths and soak in scented oils just for the pleasure and experience.  Ancient Egyptians are also credited with capitalizing on the image in the bottle. In other words, they learned how to create beautiful, interesting bottles to house their perfumes. As we know, this is a practice that continues today. How many times have you been lured to the perfume counter because the bottle was just so gorgeous? I’ve done that more times than I can remember.

The first liquid perfume can be credited to the Ancient Greeks. Arab cultures and their development of distillation made perfume manufacture viable. The seventeenth century was a huge success for perfumes, especially in France. This is due to the hygiene practices of the time, and fragrances were used to mask body odor. Even Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I used perfumes religiously during their reigns in England. Elizabeth I went so far as to have all public places scented because she could not tolerate bad smells.

Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume created by applying modern principles of chemistry and the first fragrance to contain synthetics. Before this time, perfume was usually created froma  single flower fragrance. Chanel was the company who started creating complex natural and synthetic blends made up of “notes” and “overtones.”

Why are some perfumes so pricey? It has to do with the ingredients used and the distillation process. Distillation is the most common method of extracting essential oils and fragrances from plants. Steam distillation is based on the principle that plant materials will release their essential oils and evaporate with the steam once placed in boiling water. Once the steam and the oil are condensed, the oil will separate from the water. It can then be collected. Depending on the flower, thousands of kilos of flowers may be needed to obtain just one kilo of essential oil. Roses are one of the flowers which this applies to, and rose essential oil can be very expensive. This is another reason why perfumes can be so expensive.

Perfumers are scientists who create pleasing fragrances and aromas by experimentation. To be a good perfumer, you really do have to have a good nose. It can take up to six years of being an apprentice before someone gets a shot at becoming a perfumer. You have to be able to recognize all kinds of raw materials by showing a very keen olfactory sense as well as have a good understanding of chemistry. The industry calls them “noses,” and to be a good “nose,” you have to have a really good sense of creativity, artistry, chemistry and be able to combine them to create new and exciting fragrances.

We use both natural and synthetic ingredients in perfumery. Natural components can include flower extracts, leaves, roots and citrus fruit. There are animal extracts derived from musk, but many chemists have become very adept at creating synthetic musks. Fragrances are categorized depending on how concentrated the essential oils they contain are. Parfum is the most concentrated and the most expensive. Eau de Parfum is an alcoholic solution which conbines perfume compounds and eau de toilette.

Each perfume consists of different “notes” which determine the overall fragrance. There are three components: base, top and middle (or sometimes referred to as heart) notes. Some perfumes contain more citrus tones, others more floral. If a scent is more musky, then it is considered masculine since these are the notes most commonly found in colognes.

What is the difference between the notes? Think of the scent more like a pyramid. The base notes are the lingering, subtle continuance of the smell. Have you ever had a garment still smell of your perfume? Chances are, the base notes are still hanging on. The heart notes are the part of the scent that lasts up to an hour and the top notes are the fresh, first thing you notice scent about the perfume. These only last up to fifteen minutes which is why when you first spray on perfume, you get a good whiff of a certain fragrance.

There are also different types of fragrances. Perfume (Parfum) has a concentration of fifteen to forty percent and lasts up to eight hours. That’s why actual perfume is more expensive. Eau de Parfum is fifteen to twenty percent concentration and lasts up to six hours. The most common blend most people purchase is Eau de Toilette, which has a five to fifteen percent concentration. This can last up to five hours. Eau de Cologne and Eau Fraiche have the lowest concentration and last the least amount of time.

Vogue calls finding your signature fragrance a “Scent Profile.” In the Article “What Exactly is a Scent Profile,” the magazine breaks down how to choose your next signature fragrance.

The article states there are eight olfactive families that are divided into two groups: Warm group (fouguere, oriental and leather), Fresh group (citrus, floral and aromatic). It also says that our attention is captured primarily by the top notes because that is what they smell first. If you want to get the true nature of the scent, then the heart notes are what to look for. Vogue says that the “dry down” is when the body of the fragrance starts to emerge, or, when the base notes finally emerge.

So, how do you choose which one is right for you? Close your eyes and ask yourself what smells make you feel the best? Do you like fruity smells, or more floral tones? Or, are you more drawn to heavier, or muskier scents? Personally, I am a fan of citrus, floral and aromatic. Lately, the citrus family has been my favorite to choose from when going with new scents.

Another great way to get your favorite scent in a more functional way is to choose scented lotions and deodorants. Sometimes spray scents are a bit overpowering for me, so I find that scented body and hand lotions give me a subtle, yet long lasting smell.

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