Perfume and Fragrance Notes

Published: 14th November 2009
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I've been working for some time on a kind of primer on "getting to know fragrance notes" (or at least, what small I know on the subject). I kept stumbling over the require to debunk a quantity of the common fallacies about the "lists of notes" that are associated with any given fragrance, & I finally gave up & decided to tackle that topic first.

Everything below can be neatly summed up as follows: not everything in a fragrance is necessarily in the list of notes, & not everything in the list of notes is necessarily in the fragrance. There, now I've saved you the trouble of further reading.

What are lists of fragrance notes, & where do they come from

The lists of fragrance notes you see here & there on the net are usually provided by the public relations department of the perfume house in query. They are meant to give some general idea of what the fragrance "contains", or at least, what the PR department thinks it smells like (or perhaps more accurately, what they think describes it most alluringly to potential customers), but that is all. They aren't recipes, & they aren't complete. Sometimes they are short & sweet. For example, the recently released Ungaro by Ungaro lists only 3 notes: jasmine, saffron & amber. In contrast, Shiseido's recently re-launched Zen fragrance lists 20: grapefruit, bergamot, peach, pineapple, blue rose, freesia, gardenia, red apple, violet, lily of the valley, hyacinth, rose, lotus flower, patchouli, cedar, musk, white musk, amber, incense & marine plant. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Zen actually contains more separate ingredients than Ungaro. It might, but then again, it might not. Perhaps both fragrances contain exactly 101 "ingredients". As consumers, they will never know (& speaking for myself, I couldn't care less).

Moreover, the "list" might get tweaked between the time it is first announced & the time you read it on a department store web-site even if the juice itself hasn't changed in the interim. Or, the PR department might give two list to the sales associates in the stores, another list to the press. This leads to lots of misunderstandings. From time to time, you'll see a post on a fragrance forum saying "Site X lists these notes for Perfume Y, Site Z lists these other notes, which is correct?" The best answer is neither, either, both. That is, neither is a complete list, either might be a better representation of what the scent "has in it". Take your pick, or combine them, it doesn't much matter.

Why the list of notes doesn't matter

First of all, as we've already alluded to above, they don't tell you everything that is in the juice. Another common forum post goes "I hate aldehydes, what fragrances don't have any aldehydes?" Then people list all the scents that don't have "aldehydes" listed in the notes. This is not how it works. There's all kinds of fragrances with aldehydes that don't list aldehydes as a note (&, there is over two kind of aldehyde - you might like two & not the other, & they might only bother you in high doses). There's also lots of fragrances where the aldehyde is "listed" as the note it is meant to mimic, for instance, if you see "peach" in the list of notes, what you might be smelling as "peach" could be an aldehyde.

Correspondingly, when you know a fragrance has been reformulated & you see a "new" list of notes, the difference between the elderly list & the new list may not have anything to do with how the fragrance has actually changed. It may basically reflect changes in how the PR department wants the fragrance to be represented to the public. It is not likely, after all, that you will be told that the costly Grasse jasmine in the original has been replaced with a cheaper jasmine from elsewhere or that part or all of it's been replaced by an even cheaper synthetic jasmine. Nor will they alarm you by informing you that the synthetic musk in the original, which is now banned, has been replaced with something safer.

Even if a note is listed, you don't know what specific aroma chemical was used for that note. So, for instance, I also see posts that say "Musk always turns sour on me, what fragrances don't have musk?" (& then, as you can guess, people list fragrances that don't have "musk" in the notes). One important points: fragrances without any synthetic musk are rare, & there's lots of different aroma chemicals meant to mimic "musk". There's woody musks, fruity musks, powdery musks, tidy musks, "metallic" musks...the list goes on & on. Two fragrance might have two of them, another might have another, lots of perfumers use over two in the same fragrance. The word "musk" in a list of notes therefore doesn't tell you anything about what it will smell like, & there is no reason to assume that because two fragrance with musk smelled sour to you that another two necessarily will.

The same holds true for lots of other notes. Take any floral note - tuberose, jasmine, rose, whatever. The fact that the flower is in the list of notes doesn't mean any actual flowers were used in the making of the perfume. There might be "real" jasmine, there might be a combination of synthetic & real jasmine, there might be synthetic jasmine only, there might be a combination of several different synthetic jasmines. There might be a synthetic aroma chemical that smells like "flowers", & they've decided to list it as "jasmine". So, as with musk, you might like "jasmine" in two fragrance but not in another, or you might see jasmine in a list of notes but not smell anything like jasmine in the juice, or you might smell jasmine in the juice, but it isn't in the list of notes at all.

In some cases, perfumers use what they might call "re-engineered" aroma materials. For Hermès Brin de Reglisse, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena "...turned to his colleagues at an independent perfume lab in Grasse. They asked them to slice natural lavender in to 50 distinct groups of molecules, sniffed them all, discarded four & reassembled it" to get the exact "lavender" they wanted. Likewise, the patchouli used in perfumes these days is often processed to remove the heavy earthy undertones that render it "hippie-ish" for modern consumers. Lots of people who don't like "patchouli" (including me) may find they barely notice patchouli in newer fragrances, others (again, including me) find the use of all these smoothed-over natural materials has rendered lots of modern perfumes tidy for comfort.

You should also be aware that there's aroma chemicals that smell like over two "note", & these may be listed in the notes as separate entities. The notes "precious woods, amber & musk" could all come from two single synthetic aroma chemical. Another company might use that same aroma chemical & list it as "musk", or "sensual musk", yet another might list it as "exotic woods". The notes "tuberose, orange blossom" could come from two aroma chemical, so could the notes "mimosa, jasmine" or "leather, cedar, vetiver".

Why the list of notes does matter

You might wonder why you should bother reading the list of notes at all, then? Well, my answer is simple: as a consumer, it is about all I have to go on*. There's 2-3 new fragrances being released every day, & I'm not planning to smell them all. & while to some extent the list of notes is fantastical, it can offer clues to consumers who are trying to figure out what is worth the effort of smelling.

Two final note that seems to cause confusion is amber. After the release of Prada Amber Pour Homme, I saw people express surprise that the list of notes (bergamot, mandarin, neroli, cardamom, geranium, vetiver, orange blossom, myrrh, nirvanolide musk, labdanum, sandalwood, tonka bean, vanilla, saffron, patchouli & leather) did not include "amber". There is no single natural material called amber; it is a cocktail of notes (or an "accord") that might include labdanum, benzoin, vanilla, tonka bean or patchouli, to name a few possibilities. A fragrance might contain two or more of those materials, or it might contain a synthetic note that smells "amber-y", & the perfume house might pick to list the individual notes, or say "amber", "molten amber", "hot liquid amber", or whatever they think sounds lovely.

I can think of lots of examples where the list of notes has led me astray, & certainly it never tells you everything you require to know. This list sounds lovely to me: green ivy, tangerine, water lily, orange flower petals, Moroccan rose, jasmine sambac, mimosa, apricot skin, amber, precious woods & musk, but it's for the upcoming Vera Wang Flower Princess, & having already smelled the original Vera Wang Princess, I'm sure Flower Princess won't be joining my collection.

The "sparkling green freshness" listed in the notes for Gwen Stefani L.A.M.B. L made me suspect that the top notes would remind me of air freshener, & lo & behold, they do. I can smell the pear & the sweet pea in L, as advertised, even if there aren't any "real" pears or sweet peas in the juice. Likewise, the "strawberry sorbet" & "caramel popcorn" in Christian Dior's Miss Dior Chérie were lovely clues that the final result would be sweet & fruity, & it was, same goes for the "red lychee, golden quince, kiwi & cupcake accord" in Britney Spears Fantasy.

So, make what you will of lists of notes, but don't forget to trust your nose. If you smell vanilla but it isn't in the list, don't assume that means you're dreaming, & if the list includes vanilla & you can't smell it, don't worry that your sense of smell is to blame.

* & mind you, I'm not complaining. I'd much read (& wear) "lily of the valley" & "musk" than hydroxycitronellal & galaxolide.

I am an avid fragrance enthusiast and reviewer. I have been around the perfume and cologne discount fragrance industry for over 20years and provide valuable insight on this complicated topic. I hope my reviews and suggestions on the industry will help in finding the right fragrance for you. A great site i've found that offers a wide variety of all your favorite designer fragrances with discount pricing is YourNewFragrance.Com!

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