Parlez Parfums: Perfume Vocabulary & Fragrance Terms
While just about every industry has its own insider jargon and bevvy of acronyms, perfume vocabulary has an extra layer of impenetrability. Perfumery, which has always held an aura thanks to its traditional formulation in the hallowed, secretive halls of large fragrance firms, has retained its vocabulary as a kind of barrier between them – the perfume chemists and nez – and us, the consumers.
Now, with perfume blogs and social media democratising perfumery and allowing us instant, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the working minds and lives of perfumers – both leading nez and indie artisans – the barriers are being brought down. But, while sales’ assistants’ blah and fragrance marketing copy sways us less in our purchsaing habits, partly because most perfume is bought in anonymous aisles or duty free, the mystique of perfume vocabulary lives on.
For we now have perfume bloggers using terms as shorthand. They savour perfume vocabulary using it in criticisms and for stylistic effect. I too use these terms as neat shorthand and in the business-to-business world.
I have found myself needing these terms to explain more fully the difference between natural perfumes and those predominantly created of synthetics. There are truisms and misconceptions about naturals that require explanation using a common language.
However, I realise the need perfume consumers and wearers might have for a skim-read list of top perfume terms. Knowing what is meant in fragrance literature and marketing speak will help you understand more about the characteristics and performance of the perfume you’re choosing.
Also, if you are buying anywhere other than niche, specialist, independent perfumeries, the chances are the store assistants won’t know as much as you do about perfumes. Knowledge is to be forearmed and forewarned when faced with blank stares or the marketing copy thrown at you.
Here are my top 10 terms in perfume vocab. Just note that these are not the fragrance families nor about how raw ingredients are extracted – so there’s nothing about enfleurage or expression here. They relate to how a fragrance performs and how it is formulated. Armed with these terms, you will be better able to assess compositions and how a scent will work for you and meet your expectations.
Perfume Vocabulary to Help You Buy Perfume
Some terms might seem to be about the same concept. They are not. So do re-read and feel free to ask me more.
This is the French word for ‘wake’ as in the trail left by an airplane in the sky or a rowing boat oar in water. It is pronounced ‘see-arge’ (with ‘arge’ as in the French for age: âge). Listen to Google translate for how it’s pronounced.
In perfumery terms, it means not only the trail of perfume dispersing in the air as the wearer passes by, but also the fact that the perfume will remain with those it surrounds. Imagine another plane crossing a vapour trail and taking part of it with it as it continues its flight.
A perfume with excellent sillage will be one that hangs and clings; the heavier molecules of animalic base notes have this propensity. In natural perfumery, base notes of resins and balsams are often used to produce sillage. I once walked behind someone on London’s Regent’s Street who has a good splash of oud on them. I could taste the smell a long time after. In synthetics, Iso E Super and Hedione are commonly use to project sillage.
Sillage is often the opposite term to ‘intimate’. A good many natural perfumes are described as being more intimate as they can’t use the artifices of synthetic molecules to create excellent sillage. That doesn’t mean they lack longevity or impact, but that they are not structured to disperse in the same way as synthetics.
There are times to choose and places to use perfumes with excellent or weak sillage. If you’re partying and wish to make an entrance, and enthrall those around you then choose one with excellent sillage. If you’re going to be in confined spaces, such as the office or a theatre, where your perfume might irritate others, then it’s wise to opt for a perfume with a weak sillage that offers a more intimate experience.
A perfume note is a class of scent whose role is akin to that of musical note or bar in a piece of music. The individual note or ingredient is one part that will make up the sum of the perfume and while it may be identified on a blotter, its use lies in its role and how it harmonises with other notes to create a full composition. It may well not be discernible in the composite perfume but it plays a role.
Notes are mostly in line with the ingredients used, such as neroli, rose damascena, or oakmoss. Notes can be true to a physical natural ingredient or fantasy notes such as leather and amber which do not exist as ingredients but which are created (and in our minds) by blending various notes, which may be natural and/or synthetic.
Perfume marketing often refers to the notes in the scent that they’d like to inspire the buyer with even if they are barely present. Perfume is after all creative licence. If you follow perfume critique sites like Fragrantica you will find commenters having differing views about the presence of certain notes in perfumes. The fact they are listed by the creator, doesn’t mean you personally will discern them.
A perfume description may list notes in any order or according to Top, Mid or Heart, and Base. If using the classic three-tier structure, the perfume creators are letting us know which they feel will be more volatile and noticed first, which form the main thrust or heart of the perfume and which will linger on our skin and be more tenacious (base notes).
An accord is a blend of notes chosen by the perfumer in constructing a finished perfume. In choosing which individual notes to blend in an accord, the perfumer is delving into both the art and craft of perfumery as well as its chemistry and drawing on their experience and deep understanding of just how notes (or individual raw materials) work together. The accord takes on an odour profile all its own, and one often quite different from the scent profiles of the individual notes it contains.
The number of notes in an accord vary widely. Natural perfumes use incredibly complex natural materials and generally have between nine to 25 notes combined in various accords. Fragrances composed of mainly or in entirety of synthetics can run to 200 or more notes blended into accords.
There are perfumes constructed without accords which are based on a single molecule or are designed to be more linear and not offer top, middle and base note accords. Clearly, accords are still in action in these perfume constructions by default as the notes work their magic together anyway even if the perfumer assesses the whole construction rather than the building blocks en route.
Novice perfumers often ask ‘how can I make this perfume last longer?’ and by this they mean what can they add to ‘fix’ the more volatile notes and anchor the perfume longer on the wearer’s skin. It is a bit of a holy grail as there is no single, nor simple answer. It depends on the creative brief and how the perfumer wishes the perfume to perform and be perceived. However, traditionally, perfumers use what they call ‘fixatives’ to ensure longevity of the perfume. Typically, fixatives are base notes of heavier molecular weight.
The natural perfumer may use balsams, woods, resinoids and animalic notes such as labdanum, cistus, sandalwood, frankincense, birch tar, olibanum, benzoin, vanilla, tolu balsam, ambergris and so on. These notes are less volatile and so fix some of the more volatile notes to them, thereby slowing down their evaporation. A light cologne at 3% perfume oils to alcohol and comprised of mainly citrus notes wouldn’t need fixatives if the perfumer’s idea is to see it splashed on and not leave its scent behind.
Modifiers / Accents
A modifier or accent note is one that enhances or modifies the heart accord of the perfume. Irrespective of construction. Whether the perfumer is thinking along the traditional lines of top, heart/mid and base notes or taking a more linear approach, there will undoubtedly be the need for accent notes to draw out the beauty, longevity, and so on of the core of the scent.
For example, in a rose heart perfume, we may find vibrant, lively spices added, or the warmth and sensuousness of woods or a citrus that complements that greener side of some rose ingredients. The addition of these accent or modifier notes can be what turns a regular rose perfume into something special.
Again, how to modify the heart of a perfume lies at the discretion of the perfumer and their creative intentions. Just think of how many styles of rose perfume there are out there from light and sparkling to true, heady lingering rose to dirtied up rose. The modifiers are at work changing the heart roses in each case.
Not to be confused with modifiers, blenders are notes, raw materials, natural isolates or synthetic single molecules or composites used to round or smooth the perfume. If you imagine the three-tier top, mid and base construction with each part being created as separate accords, you can see that it might be possible to have jarring steps between the accords.
As the perfume evaporates, we might leap from one accord to the next and find the perfume rather angular in construction. Blenders are often silent workers, not discernible in themselves, but which round the notes, bridging gaps to ensure a smooth transition as the perfume develops to drydown (its final throes). Natural perfumes, for example, often contain added linalool to round out accords.
Longevity / Tenacity / Odor Life
Longevity, tenacity or odor life all refer to the staying power of a note, accord or perfume. However, don’t confuse tenacity with impact. It is quite possible to have a material which is barely perceptible at first, and so has little impact, but which develops its odor over time.
A good example of this is sandalwood which is benign and unassuming when you first smell it on a blotter. As time passes, sandalwood deepens and starts to lift off the blotter and has an odor life up to a month, or more.
Impact and odor life are linked but separate perfume vocabulary concepts. Think of impact like a car hitting a wall at speed. A note with impact will hit your nostrils immediately but its scent might dissipate almost in an instant.
Top notes, the ones that are more volatile and will be typically the largest proportion of those you smell when spraying a perfume, will have been chosen at least in part on account of their impact.
A citrus note like Cedrat, a large and ancient forerunner of the lemon, has high impact but a very short odor life. However, impact isn’t the domain only of top notes. Animalistic base notes like civet, castoreum and hyraceum and others like oud and the fresh green note galbanum have very high impact as anyone trying to store them will know. They also have immense longevity. Impact is mostly used though to describe the quick hit notes rather than those that hit you and linger.
In defining radiance of a note or perfume, you might think I am splitting hairs and that this is too obscure a term to bother about. Radiance is rather like sillage but refers to our ability to track and trace, if you like, where the scent originates. A very useful trait if you’re catching prey or locating an enemy (as cats do). It is like directional sillage; and perhaps the airplane vapour trail analogy suits radiance better than it does sillage.
We have two nostrils and in our Uralt past at the dawn of mankind, they would have each played a part in helping us decipher the directional source of a scent.
Radiance when applied to perfumes refers to the ability of a scent to disperse in a more linear, directional way rather than diffuse omni-directionally.
Think of being on a beach at sundown and smelling the scent of a BBQ in the air. You can trace it to a beach hut just opening up for the evening and offering grills.
Spice notes in particular can add radiance to a perfume. I find it is often those notes we use also in cuisine that have this ability to help us pinpoint from where that vapour trail originated.
Many a natural perfumer will cry out and bemoan any mention of allergens. They will say that anything can produce an allergic reaction in us, and that botanical ingredients are being unfairly blamed in perfume as the evils harbouring these nasty allergic substances. Synthetics, lab created and tested, can be produced without the various identified allergens that naturals come parceled with by their very nature.
The naturals’ camp will often blame IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, whose founding members comprise large chemical fragrance houses, for the ever longer list of natural ingredients that are either restricted in part or banned.
Oakmoss is one of the most frequently-cited materials now all but banned for use in perfumes (apart from those for personal use or in bespoke perfumes for customers who know of its restriction). It has been a favourite base / fixative note for centuries and is traditional in Chypre perfumes which are based on bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli and labdanum notes. It is a controversial culled material now off most perfumer’s palettes.
What has this to do with you as a consumer? Why should the debate matter? Well, it matters because IFRA guidelines are there to protect you from doses of certain chemicals that are constituent ingredients of raw perfumery materials and that can cause skin sentisation, photo toxicity, allergic reactions and/or are deemed carcinogenic.
IFRA guidelines, which are paralleled in the EU’s list of 26 allergens are there to ensure the safety of cosmetic products, including perfumes, for use by consumers in ways that are foreseeable. We don’t expect consumers to drink perfume!
I included allergens in our perfume vocabulary to point out the issues and sensitize the perfume consumer and wearer to what to look out for on labeling and why. You will find them listed on perfume ingredients along with ‘Alcohol, Water and Fragrance / Parfums / Aroma’ if they are present in the perfume at more than certain percentages. Linalol and eugenol are two such common and restricted chemicals: the first is present in citrus in large amounts and the latter present in rose.
The EU’s Cosmetics Directive requires that the presence any of these 26 substances be indicated in the list of ingredients when its concentration exceeds 0.001 % in leave-on products and 0.01 % in rinse-off products. Perfume labeling must indicate the presence of these 26 allergens so consumers who are allergic to one or more of these 26 fragrance chemicals can avoid products containing them. This list is set to grow to up to 100 or so allergens and the debate and issues warrants a separate post.
For now, knowing what we are talking about with allergens might help you grasp the backstory and also not be alarmed. With fragrance in virtually everything these days, it’s obvious more of us are developing allergies. But, armed with the knowledge, you can fathom your route through the allergens’ debate and how it might, if at all, affect you. It’s not about evils, toxins and nasties, but about common sense and perfumers working to make positives out of negatives.
I hope this glossary of 10 top perfume vocabulary terms will help you explore perfume better and know how to find a a scent that suits you and performs for you as you desire.