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?
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.
[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?