Viewer Mail: Fume Noob

Hi Katie,

I have always enjoyed perfumes, and am interested in becoming more educated on the topic. I'm voraciously reading everything I can, but there’s one major downfall - I don't know what the hell violet leaves smell like!

Perfumes seem to be described with thousands of ingredients that I've never seen or had the chance to sniff. I mean, I've seen a fern...but I've never smelled anything remarkable about it. How do you learn to parse scents and describe them if you've never smelled the ingredients? Where would I even begin to find the ingredients and smell them? Do you have to know what each thing smells like to learn about perfume in the first place?

I guess I could spray every perfume in the world on my skin and take meticulous notes, but I would much rather be able to know what to expect by reading the ingredients lists...or reviews! I just wish I could know what the hell you fume-geeks are talking about.


Teresa, I love your feisty impatience! Sometimes, I’d like to know what the hell I’m talking about, too. Let’s try to get to the bottom of this together, shall we?

[We hear the Sound of Music orchestra welling up behind us. I fix you with an earnest gaze, open my mouth, and begin to sing...]

“How do you solve a question like Teresa’s? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”

[Sensing your mounting alarm, I stop singing, dismiss the orchestra, and return to the computer to quietly finish answering your query.]

“Catching a cloud and pinning it down” is perfume critique in a nutshell. Fragrances contain varying ratios of artistry and chemistry, flora and fauna, beauty and balderdash, and I'm starting to realize that I've got a lifetime of (very enjoyable) study ahead of me.

I agree that it can be infuriating to read a fragrance board or blog where folks are casually tossing around terms like “hesperidic” or “Calone” or “aldehydes”, and you’re left wondering why you’re the only one who doesn’t know the secret handshake.

Reading does give you a quick leg-up on joining the “instant expert” crowd, and there’s an ever-growing body of fragrance literature to sniff out. Perfume critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez and fragrance journalist Chandler Burr have all written superb books that are indispensable for - among many other reasons - their illuminating fragrance and aroma chemical descriptions. Boning up on odor profiles allows you to mentally categorize smells when you encounter them, whether they're in a bottle or out in the world.

For instance, if you read violet leaves’ aroma described as “harsh, wet, sweet and green”, and that it’s a feature of Frederic Malle Dans Tes Bras, Christian Dior Fahrenheit, Narciso Rodriguez For Him Musc Oil and Ulrich Lang Anvers, it’s just a matter of rounding up the suspects and giving them a little nasal interrogation. Is there a common note between them that meets the description? Do you even agree with the description? (Personally, I experience the cold, watery violet leaf accord as “cement-y”.)

Another resource is man’s best friend, the Internet. When I can’t remember the difference between myrrh and sweet myrrh, or am fuzzy on the connection between tonka beans and coumarin, I hasten to sites like Perfume Shrine, Bois de Jasmin, and Bo Jensen’s Guide to Nature’s Fragrances for their expert analyses of odors.

All this egghead stuff is dandy, but for inquiring minds, nothing beats real-life smelling. It all starts with what I call “the conscious nose”. Pay attention to what your nose is trying to tell you - in every situation.

For instance, a stroll around your neighborhood in the morning smells different than the same walk at night. And most people have an idea of what the ocean smells like, but what about your tap water? (Where I live, it’s bleach-y.) A bookstore smells different to a library. A bagel shop smells different to a cupcake bakery.

Think about the difference between the aroma of cinnamon on your toast and nutmeg in your coffee. Or night blooming jasmine’s life cycle from intoxicating sweetness to sour decay. And what about the smell of your pets? Your loved one’s skin?

Now that your nose is limbered up, start seeking out components that commonly appear as perfume notes. If you like to cook, then you’ll already have handy stash of spices in your cupboard to consult. Along with the aforementioned cinnamon and nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, black pepper, cumin, cloves and ginger are popular bit players in many fragrances.

To familiarize yourself with more arcane ingredients, pop into a health food store to check out the essential oils. I’ve spent a lot of time at my local Whole Foods smelling single-note oils like myrrh, frankincense, juniper berry and chamomile to build up my olfactory memory.

If you really want to play Mad Scientist, you can send away for the Perfumery Notes Kit from Perfumer’s Apprentice. The kit contains 40 of the most popular perfume components, both synthetic and natural. Have fun blasting your sinuses with aldehydes and nitro musk, along with natural ingredients like galbanum and bergamot.

And as for your question: “Do you have to know what each thing smells like to learn about perfume in the first place?” - the answer is “no”. There is no right or wrong way to discover, absorb, appreciate, and love these one-size-fits-all works of art. All that’s certain is that your first bottle will lead you to your second...and before you know it, your sixty-second.

Your path to bottle number 62 is down to you. Maybe your love of roses gets hijacked by an incense note that piques your interest, you’re suddenly digging a whole new genre. Or perhaps you’re captivated by a brand’s narrative, like the dark gothic romance of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, and stumble into random, trippy finds. Could be you’re a stat-nerd who methodically seeks out fragrances by ingredient, house, or perfumer, and compiles intricate spreadsheets detailing your results.

Whichever scenic route you travel, you’ll be a fully-fledged “fume-geek” in no time at all...or at least by the time I finish filing my decants by perfume house, name, and genre.

Fumeheads, what are some of your tried and true techniques for schooling yourself on fragrance notes?


  1. Teresa, there are no shortcuts. You have to sniff far and wide. Taking notes helps me, and I enjoy the notetaking, so I keep at it, but that part is optional, sure. The thing I love best is that something you sniff today could smell different tomorrow. And come back to it a year or two later, after having sniffed 500 other 'fumes in between, and you'll be able to pick up on different notes than what you remember smelling the first time, I guarantee it. There is no substitute for personal experience.

    Welcome to the madness!

  2. Buying those 1 ml sample vials has been a good and wallet-friendly way to learn, especially if a fragrance is known for a dominant note - i.e. Diorissimo being a classic lily-of-the-valley. Even if you don't care for the fragrance, you can file it away, as I have done, marked with a label like "reference rose", "reference chypre", etc.

  3. Hey guys! Thanks for the pep talk! And thanks so much for responding to my question, Katie.

    I actually was smelling a new perfume on my skin last Friday (Prada Amber Pour Homme) and I decided my favorite thing about it was the soapy-incense smell left behind on my skin (it doesn't have incense in it, but that's what it smells like to me). I decided I wanted something more overtly incense-y so I googled "church incense" and "perfume" and was overloaded with choices. I found myself perusing and my incense search took me to various fragrances...Reading their reviews made me want to be able to contrast and compare a few to see that the differences were--if I could maybe pin down some of the notes(or simply enjoy their scent if I couldn't). Incense lead to smoke lead to tobacco lead to hay lead to me buying about 20 samples. Samples will make a quick junkie out of me. Seems like we think alike, Patty!

    I think I'm going keep notes like you mentioned ahsu. I'm finding myself thinking "Ooh! This smells like that one thing...oh you know...that thing I smelled that one time?"

    And Katie, thanks so much for your insightful response. I'll definitely check out Whole Foods and that kit. I'm well on my way to a new addiction and a very liquid-centric christmas list--and maybe some of those books, too!

    Oh--and one more little newbie query: Do perfumiers have a "signature?" If I really like a certain perfume by a certain "nose," will their trademark kind of spread to their other perfume projects? It would be kind of cool to follow a certain maker through their career, I think.

  4. Teresa: You ask great questions. I'm dying to hear Katie's response. IMHO, the great noses of today do tend to create in a certain style, and one can sometimes discern the fingerprints of a perfumer (and even guess the authorship correctly without knowing beforehand). That said, many perfumers have also developed and matured during the course of their careers, moving from one style to another. For instance Jean Claude Ellena's early creations, like First for Van Cleef & Arpels, were full throated dense creations in the classical French tradition. Sniffing his subsequent perfumes chronologically, one sees a progression into more refined, edited, transparent, sometimes minimal creations. Also, sometimes, perfumers go through phases, and you can learn to identify a fragrance as "Oh, that a Duchaufour incense", referring to a time when Duchaufour was creation a series of gorgeous incense fragrances. It's very similar to visual artists. We can spot a Cezanne or Picasso, and can even pick out paintings from different periods in their lives (their Dark period, or Blue period).

    Part of the fun for me as a budding perfume enthusiast are those moments when I am able to see a pattern, or leitmotif, running between a particular perfumer's creations. Enjoy the journey, take the long view, have patience. Learning is part of the joy of appreciating this art form.

  5. Hi Katie,

    I want to ask for your advice, I need he-he-helppp, but don't quite know where to post my query, so am just plastering it anywhere higgeldy piggeldy.

    I've fallen for a great 'fume, a real sweetheart, but the problem is I hate her looks and the company she keeps and now I'm afraid my friends will hate me for wanting to be friends with her. Yes, I'm a terrible snob, superficial and scentsitive, but what would you do if your new love turned out to be Miz Dior Cherie L'eau (that's the green one, not the pink one)?

    Katie, can you help me find something that smells like MDCL'E but isn'T MDCL'E, or are you shaking your head in disgust at me?


  6. Tender/Olga, I love your question, and I've turned it into the next "Viewer Mail".

  7. Teresa, Scott beautifully addressed your "perfumer's signature" question. All I might add is that while a perfumer might have a preferred accord (Maurice Roucel's magnolia, Annick Ménardo's smoky vanilla) or a favored style, they're usually working for "the man", and as such, have to churn out whatever sausage the customer has ordered.

    If a perfumer is lucky enough to have artistic freedom, then you absolutely can trace their signature style from creation to creation.

    Another thing to consider are house signatures, which can supersede the perfumer's. Overall, Guerlain and Chanel both have strong house styles, though there are exceptions...and aberrations.

  8. Oh and Teresa, you mentioned Prada Amber Pour Homme's "soapy incense smell". I know exactly what you mean about that. I got it (x 100) in Narciso Rodriguez Essence. And more pleasingly beast-ily in Yves Saint Laurent Kouros.