What does a perfume have to do with skydiving? Or staring into the sunset with flowers overflowing in the back of your car?
The world of fragrance can seem as mysterious as it is fascinating. Perfume ads are routinely cryptic – like dream-like flashes of fantasy that see Charlize Theron emerging in gold from a still pool (J’adore by Dior), Cate Blanchett grocery shopping in stunning red haute couture (Si Passione by Giorgio Armani) or Zendaya riding through New York City and beyond on a regal white horse (Idole L’Intense by Lancome),for example.
The truth is, just like Ratatouille’s food inspector went back to his childhood by tasting a well-made dish, a scent is meant to have a spirit and story of it’s own, evoking certain feelings and memories. In fact, scientific studies also point to odour-evoked memories as being important to human wellbeing because they evoke more emotional recollections than any other stimuli.
A perfume tells us a story. And as in all stories, there is a beginning, a mystery and an ending.
More than being a ‘good’ smell, the stories told by a fragrance go naturally hand-in-hand with the concept of synaesthesia. This refers to an intermingling of senses, when you can perhaps taste a colour, see music in shapes, and for fragrances – associate smells with colours, emotions and sights. Billie Eilish, who released her own vanilla fragrance 'Eilish' last winter, said in an October 2021 interview with Vogue Arabia, “I have synesthesia, so my favourite smells are these like, amber-coloured smells, to me.” Synesthesia determines how the perfume is designed, marketed and the bottle it is housed in.
Gulf News speaks to perfumer, Emilie Bouge, from Robertet – which at 171 years, is one of the oldest fragrance and flavour companies in the world, on how to choose your signature fragrance. Back in 1850, it was founded in what is called the perfume capital of the world – Grasse, a picturesque green town located on hills by the French Riviera.
The journey of a fragrance: a beginning, a mystery and an ending
An orchestra, a universe, a story – perfumes have been called many things. It is a dynamic entity: each note and flavour melts into the next harmoniously, until you reach the base note of the fragrance and its final form.
Bouge says, “A perfume tells us a story. And as in all stories, there is a beginning, a mystery and an ending.” This is the story of a fragrance, as told by Emilie Bouge:
Once upon a time...
You spray an eye-catching perfume on a smelling strip, and a wall of fragrance hits your nose. This is the top note of your fragrance.
Bouge says, “For the perfume, the top notes refer to the well-known "Once upon a time...". This is the catchphrase of the fragrance, and it lasts from the first second up to 10-15 minutes. Usually, citrus and aromatic notes have a special place, along with green, fresh fruit or fresh spice scents as top notes of fragrances. This is the first contact with the perfume and it will determine whether you buy it or not.”
The wholesome heart
The fragrance enters its next phase, also called the heart.
She adds, “Then comes the heart, the core notes, the real identity of the fragrance, the story itself. It reveals after 15 minutes and can last up to 3 hours with floral, sweet fruits and spicy scents. “
Living happily ever after
Finally, we smell the final note, also called the dry-down. Bouge explains that the scent that can last days on a smelling strip or on your clothes giving a beautiful sillage (the degree to which a perfume’s fragrance lingers in the air when worn), and that musks, woods, amber and balms are generally featured in the bottom notes.
She says, “This is the scent you leave in people’s memories, the part that gets complimented by saying “you smell good”. That part determines whether you'll be buying your perfume again. And unfortunately, this is the part you no longer smell when you get used to your perfume, because you actually make the perfume part of yourself: everyone but you can smell it, which is, of course, a real drama.
“That's why I recommend to have 2 or 3 favorite perfumes, to keep smelling them.”
This harmonious trio is also called the perfume accord. Although most perfumes follow the pyramid note structure, there are also linear perfumes that sustain the same smell throughout.
Weaving your very own fragrance
Knowing the scent profile you would like your perfume to fall under can be an essential first step to understanding perfumes.
According to Bouge, a scent profile aims to differentiate one perfume from another and help classify them by universe. By isolating the universe of scent, you can then choose the story you would like, complete with its unique mix of characters. You may have sweet memories associated with the smell of vanilla, be partial to floral fragrances from a summer spent outdoors, or even be a beach-going enthusiast who loves the smell of the sea.
To find and create a beloved signature fragrance for yourself consisting of your favourite smells, knowing scent profiles can give you a variety of options in your preferred area.
(Image text: Moreover, a scent profile can change over time. Bouge says, “Yes, it can change, just like the landscape changes when you are on a train, although some fragrances, which we call linear, don't change over time and keep their identity, from the beginning until the end.”)
Perfumers use very precise arsenal of descriptive words to differentiate these scent profiles from each other. Bouge says, “The olfactive description [of a perfume] is generally made of two or three descriptors, the first being the main character of the perfume, and the other being inflections.”
The main character also indicates the scent profile of the perfume.
Bouge adds “For example, my creation Rasasi Hawas is aromatic, woody and ambery whereas Blu for women Ajmal is floral, woody and musky.
“We generally use up to a dozen of main olfactive families and more than 30 descriptors like fruity, spicy, aldehydic, musky, green, citrusy etc... It takes years to really master this typical vocabulary and sometimes even experienced perfumers disagree on fragrance descriptions...”
All the scent profiles you need to know in a nutshell
Created back in 1992 by perfumery taxonomist Michael Edwards, the fragrance wheel shows the main scent families and sub families used to differentiate perfumes.
The four main categories are Floral, Oriental, Woody and Fresh.
Emilie Bouge, perfumer at Robertet, says, “The major families used for feminine perfumes are floral, oriental and chypre (perfume from sandalwood), whereas masculine fragrances are mainly classified in aromatic, woody, oriental families."
Summer flowers, fruity fragrances and tropical aromas are hallmarks of a floral scent profile. Bouge says, “Sweet florals give a sense of romance and spring spirit.”
For oriental, think spice intermingling with sweet for a warmer, heavier fragrance. Billie Eilish’s amber description fits well with the autumns-by-the-fireside appeal of this group. Bouge says, “Usually amber, rich vanilla, balsam and tonka notes are sumptuous scents that helps to charm and leave an unforgettable afterglow; they are easier to wear for a dinner or in winter.”
The beloved fragrance of the Middle East – Oud, made of the oud or agarwood tree – is a woody fragrance. Bouge says, “Woody notes always give a sense of elegance, as do musks. The oud blends attract attention, and one cannot help but follow the person wearing it, with his eyes.”
This is when your nature enthusiast side can revel – with herbs, tangy tropical citrus, ocean-reminiscent fragrances or if you want to be a fairy of the leaves, you can blend into landscapes with these scents. “Fresh and cheerful citrus notes or cologne are perfect for the morning or summer – avoid them for evenings,” says Bouge.
No rules, only feelings
However, perfumes may not smell the same on everyone – your unique body chemistry, also determined by your activities throughout the day can affect how the fragrance develops. Trying on the perfume for at least 30 minutes before you make your choice of purchase, or taking home samples to wear for a day can reveal the true form of the perfume on you.
Bouge says, “I believe that fragrances are the ultimate accessory. It can depend on your emotions, the message you want to express, the occasion, the season, the weather etc... But you can play with your perfume(s) and there are no rules; anything is possible, just like you chose to wear trendy sneakers to modernise a classic Burberry trench coat.
“Of course to play well with perfumes, you have to respect some rules: you might have a natural talent and you understand the world of scents, by instinct. If not, today you can learn a lot of information about your fragrance in perfume stores or on internet. Also, perfume brands are trying to explain their fragrances to consumers, so it is quite easy to find some elements that will help you in the understanding of your scent.”
Ultimately, Bouge believes that everyone has the freedom to experiment with fragrances that best express your tastes. She says, “Women can wear perfect masculine scents, just as men can wear perfect feminine scents... Again, there are no rules, only feelings.”
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