Fragrances have been around as customary gifts since the earliest times. In countries with rich religious cultures like Egypt, China, and ancient Rome, fragrances came in their resin forms and served as tokens of respect and worship. Two of the three gifts the Magi gave the Christ Child were the aromatic resins frankincense and myrrh.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that perfumery turned into both art and industry. (In the 1370s, Elizabeth of Poland, Queen consort of Hungary, was believed to have developed Hungary Water, a scent that wasn’t just applied on, but also swallowed for the kind of irresistible smell and remedy it gave.) Today, scents continue to be favorite gifts. They are universally interesting and appealing as everyone wants to feel good by smelling good. And, the logic seems incredibly simple: pick a fragrance, spritz it on, and if you like it, it’s good to go.
Yet there is a mystique to scents, a je ne sais quoi that goes beyond the olfactory.
First, it’s personal.
There are more than 10,000 fragrances in the world, says perfumes expert Michael Edwards on his official website fragrancesoftheworld.com. He says that each person has his own “‘scent print’ that will influence the development of a perfume.”
Develop a critical nose.
The correct way to try on a fragrance is to spray it on the pulse point of your wrist. You can also rub a scent strip on your wrist. Allow some time for the “notes” to come to life. These notes exude layers of scents that come together in olfactory harmony. The top note, perceived immediately, evaporates quickly. It’s important because it leaves the first impression. The middle note, which comes after, gives body to the blend. The base note, which is released 30 minutes later, is the main theme of the scent. That’s why sniffing a bottle doesn’t work, as “your nose inhales the sharp bite of alcohol and the volatile top notes,” Edwards explains. “A fragrance needs your skin to come alive. It blooms as it reacts with the warmth of your body to create a fragrance that is unique to you.”
Moreover, you can only test three fragrances at a time, as your sense of smell loses its perceptiveness with more. In between tests, sniff on some coffee beans, which help cleanse the nasal palate; they are usually available in the store.
Mind the level of concentration.
Fragrances are primarily mixtures of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives, and solvents. There are five major concentrations based on the volume of the aromatic compounds: Parfum, Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette, Eau de Cologne, and Aftershave. They are classified according to the percentage of perfume in relation to water.
Determine your scent personality.
In 1984, Edwards came up with four major scent profiles, namely fresh, floral, oriental, and woodsy. He developed a more extended chart on these profiles. Each profile is subdivided further into families, i.e. floral oriental and woodsy oriental families go under the oriental profile.
Find out your body chemistry.
Aside from personality, fragrances should also go with one’s body chemistry. This, Edwards explains, is the relationship of the scent’s odor identity to one’s “genes, skin chemistry, diet, medication intake, stress level, and, probably the most important factor of all, the temperature of our skin.” Note that the ingredients of some scents may cause irritation and allergies to flare up.
Know the brands that matter.
The best fragrances come from a storied lineage. European brands like Santa Maria Novella, L’Occitane, Acqua di Parma, and Rance are considered top tier in the world of perfumery. British interior designer Clive Christian created No.1, the world’s most expensive perfume at USD 3,000 per ounce. The women’s fragrance contains Indian jasmine, Tahitian vanilla, and rosa centafolia, while the men’s scent has ancient Indian sandalwood and Arabian jasmine sambac. Brands like Diptyque attempt to recreate a sense of history and experience, which it does with Volutes, a perfume inspired by the childhood memories of one of the brand’s founders. The scent recalls the foreign ports, cities, and coasts he and his family visited when they sailed from Marseilles to Saigon.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 8 2012.