Speaking Perfume : A-Z of Common Fragrance Descriptions
The inability of our language to fully capture the nuances of scents can be very frustrating. We associate scents with something – a place, a memory, a flavor – but most people struggle to describe smell on its own terms. Perfumers and professional fragrance evaluators overcome some of the communication issues by being trained to use specific terms to define fragrances. Often this language finds its way to press releases and perfume counters, but lacking an explanation, it is often meaningless. Who would ever guess that "aromatic" in perfumery parlance means green, camphorous, herbal notes, as opposed to "having an aroma," as a dictionary would define it? Or how would one define balsamic, aldehydic and floralcy?
A few months ago we chatted about the terms we found confusing, and based on that discussion I made a list of common terms and perfume descriptors. This list is constantly updated, and for more information on a specific term, please click on the link associated with it. Please feel free to suggest other terms to add.
Accord—a perfume is more than the sum total of its parts. An accord is a combination of two or more different materials that create a novel effect that smells very different from the materials experienced on their own. The personality of a fragrance is determined by its basic accord. For instance, the accord between patchouli and a cotton candy note gives Thierry Mugler Angel, Prada Eau de Parfum and Chanel Coco Mademoiselle their distinctive character.
Aldehydic-—a general term that usually refers to metallic and starchy notes like the top notes of Chanel No 5 or Estee Lauder White Linen. Many modern fragrances do not contain aldehydes in such large doses because they are perceived to be old-fashioned, but a trace presence can give a beautiful sparkling effect. For instance, the aldehydic flourish in the top notes of Lalique Encre Noire Pour Elle lights up this osmanthus and rose composition. Aldehydes are not limited to starchy-waxy notes, however. Cinnamaldehyde is responsible for the aroma of cinnamon. Benzaldehyde smells deliciously of bitter almonds. Vanillin is probably the most commonly used aldehyde material in perfumery, and it smells sweet and creamy.
Amber and Ambergris--some ambers are balsamic and sweet (Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan,) others are dry and woody (Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue) and yet others, especially the materials in the ambergris family, are animalic and marine (Hermès Eau des Merveilles).
Animalic—a general term describing scents of animalic origin such as some types of musk (musk deer), civet (civet weasel) and castoreum (beaver). Today the animalic materials have been replaced by synthetics, and the term animalic can apply more widely. Some plants also have animalic characters. Costus oil distilled from the roots of Saussuria costus smells like dirty hair and mutton grease. Cumin oil obtained from the dried seeds of the cumin plant is warm and sweaty. Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan, L'Artisan Dzing! and Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum are some of the distinctly animalic fragrances.
Balsamic-—unctuous, sweet, heavy scent that calls to mind sticky sap. If you associate balsamic and balsamic vinegar, you are spot on—true wooden cask aged balsamic vinegar has the characteristic sweet, thick and dark character of the balsamic notes in perfumery. The drydowns of Guerlain Shalimar, Ormonde Jayne Tolu and Clinique Aromatics Elixir have a strong balsamic note. I also love the balsamic scent of benzoin scented incense like Armenian Paper. It was the inspiration behind Guerlain Bois d’Arménie.
Butyric—do you know the smell of butter that has been sitting in the fridge too long? That’s a butyric odor! Derived from a Greek word for "butter," butyric acid is used in flavorings as well as fragrances. In minute quantities, it can give a very surprising savory effect, but generally, if a perfume smells like rancid butter, something has gone wrong.
Character—the defining idea of a fragrance. Calvin Klein Obsession has a lot of character, Burberry Body hardly any.
Camphorous, camphoraceous—sharp, cooling scent associated with camphor, a material made synthetically or derived from natural sources like camphor laurel. Camphorous notes are present in many herbal oils such as eucalyptus and lavender as well as in patchouli.
Chypre—a fragrance family based on the interplay of citrus, floral, mossy and ambery notes. Chypre fragrances were used as far back as the Roman Empire period, and an oakmoss based powder called chypre was also fashionable at the time of Marie-Antoinette. François Coty modernized and stylized the chypre idea with Chypre de Coty, a fragrance launched in 1917. It was a bold and startling blend of green notes, jasmine, leather and moss. Perhaps, too bold and too startling for the contemporary public, but it set a trend. The gold standard classical chypre is Guerlain Mitsouko, while Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum is a beautiful modern chypre that takes its inspiration from Femme de Rochas and Gucci Rush.
Cool—some perfumes feel cool because of their association with freshness and marine vistas, while others have an actual cooling sensation thanks to materials like mint or patchouli. Cartier Roadster with its fresh minty note has a cool effect, as does a watery spicy blend like Hermès Un Jardin Après La Mousson.
Creamy—Some perfumes smell creamy thanks to the large doses of vanillic, musky and milky notes. For instance, Coty Vanilla Fields is a familiar creamy vanilla fragrance. An opposite of that is a dry and sharp sensation, similar to the one produced by amber in the base of Paco Rabanne Black XS.
Fatty, Unctuous—an impression of thickness, heft and richness. A French term for it is “gras,” fat, and it is a trait that you often find in classical fragrances. This quality is often imparted by natural raw materials, especially floral essences. Jean Patou Joy is a quintessentially rich perfume, since it contains large proportions of rose and jasmine.
Floralcy—a jargon term meaning that a fragrance has a floral element or a floral character. Sometimes it means an abstract floral sensation that does not refer to any one flower in particular. This can be a radiant, bright effect as in Christian Dior J'Adore, or a blur as in Katy Perry Purr.
Fougère—a fragrance family inspired by Houbigant Fougère Royale (1882,) the first fragrance to combine natural materials with synthetics. Perfumer Paul Parquet added the synthetic material coumarin to the classical eau de cologne accord of citrus, lavender, geranium, amber, musk and oakmoss. Fougère means fern in French, and it was also the first abstract perfume—ferns are scentless, after all. Other great fougère fragrances include Yves Saint Laurent Kouros (1981), Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (1982) and Davidoff Cool Water (1988). My current favorites are Penhaligon's Sartorial and Tom Ford Lavender Palm, which is a twist on the fougère theme.
Gourmand—an edible, dessert reminiscent fragrance. Vanilla, caramel, toasted almonds, cotton candy, chocolate, and marshmallows are the most recognizable gourmand notes. Thierry Mugler Angel is the gourmand trendsetter, but many feminine launches today have some sort of gourmand effect.
Herbal vs Grassy—herbal refers to the camphorous, green, dry aroma of herbs like lavender and rosemary (Guerlain Mouchoir de Monsieur), while grassy is green and sharp like the scent of a freshly mowed lawn or crushed leaves (Balmain Vent Vert, L’Artisan Premier Figuier).
Indolic—a moth-ball like scent present in large doses in jasmine, orange blossom and tuberose. Indole is sometimes described as fecal, but while it is present in products of decay, it does not have the sweet, rotten scent. In low concentrations, it smells pleasantly floral. Annick Goutal Néroli is an orange blossom cologne, which is rich and indolic, whereas Jo Malone Orange Blossom Cologne is a similar idea that uses indoles with a light touch.
Lactonic—milky, creamy, sweet. Lactonic scents are reminiscent of fresh dairy products, coconut, almond or peach skin, since lactones naturally occur in dairy products, pork, apricots, plums, peaches, figs and other fruit. For this reason, the combination of peaches and cream or figs and ham is so successful. In perfumery, Lancôme Climat uses a peach-like lactone to soften its dark mossy richness. The lactonic notes in Hermès Santal Massoïa lend softness to its warm woody accord.
Leathery—a note recalling the tangy and animalic quality of fine leather. It can be smoky and dry like the birch tar based leather of Chanel Cuir de Russie, Knize Ten or Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque. Or the leather note can be salty and green like the leather in Robert Piguet Bandit and Aramis.
Musky—There are many different types of musk, and every fragrance contains at least one of them. Some musks smell metallic and earthy, others are sweet and creamy. White musks, for instance, have a freshly ironed linen impression. Luminous musks, radiant musks, solar musks and other exotic musks that crop up in fragrance descriptions usually fall into the modern white musk category. One of the most distinctive musky fragrances is Narciso Rodriguez for Her.
Oriental—a fragrance family that uses rich notes of vanilla, balsams, sandalwood, patchouli and musk to create a heady, sensual aura. Guerlain Shalimar is the quintessential oriental, and Estee Lauder Youth Dew, Yves Saint Laurent Opium (including the new version,) Chanel Coco and Lolita Lempicka are the other excellent examples of this genre.
Petally—soft, waxy sensation evoking the feel of flower petals. It is a very common jargon term, especially since many feminine fragrances today need to have this feeling. Estee Lauder Pleasures is a good example of a petally fragrance as is L’Artisan La Chasse Aux Papillons.
Phenolic—smoky, dry, slightly acrid scent that can be used to describe various leather notes, including that in Chanel Cuir de Russie as well as blackcurrants, tea, chocolate, coffee, pomegranates and yerba maté. It does not pop up often in marketing copy, but it can be used to describe the scents of certain raw materials.
Powdery—a soft, hazy, opaque sensation imparted by the combination of heliotrope, violet, almond, and musk with herbal and citrus notes. Powdery fragrances can suggest makeup or Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Jean-Charles Brosseau Ombre Rose and Love’s Baby Soft are the traditional examples of powdery perfumes. Among the new launches, Chanel No 19 Poudré and Love, Chloé explore these notes in a modern manner.
Rich—a general term that suggest an idea of opulence, heft, or a strong presence. Frédéric Malle Le Parfum de Thérèse can be described as rich for its lavish use of floral absolutes. The main accord in Narciso Rodriguez for Heris rich due to the generous dose of musks, while the perfume on the whole seems luminous, rather than heavy or fatty.
Sillage—the trail left by a perfume in the wake of its wearer. Guerlain L’Heure Bleue and Calvin Klein Euphoria are fragrances with a strong sillage, while Guerlain Tonka Impériale stays close to the skin. Light fragrances can also have a tremendous sillage. Such examples include Dior Eau Sauvage and Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert.
Soapy—If you’ve ever tried making your own soap, you might be familiar with the scent that rises up as you mix oils or fats with an alkaline solution. However, commercial soap is usually scented to cover up this residual sharp odor, and when we speak of soapy, we mean the scents associated with the common soap perfumes. It is a vague term because soap smells very differently depending on where you grew up. However, when soapy is used to describe a perfume in North America, it usually means that a perfume is either aldehydic, fatty and waxy, has a strong white, laundry-type musk or an orange blossom note. Some fragrances I have seen described this way include Thierry Mugler Cologne, Prada Infusion d’Homme and Chanel No 22.
Terpenic—sharp, piney and biting. If you have ever used the Pine-Sol cleaning products, you are familiar with this pungent scent. What comes as a surprise is that in perfumery terpenic facets show up in the most delicate of floral accords such as lilac and freesia. A small degree of sharpness can cut the richness and create an interesting interplay of sensations, but an overly terpenic scent in a fine fragrance is not pleasant. Some of my favorite examples of mild terpenic notes include Gendarme and Acqua di Parma Mirto di Panarea.
Vanillic—can refer either to vanilla or to vanilla redolent materials: benzoin, tolu balsam, vanillin, etc. Dior Addict and Parfums de Nicolai Vanille Tonka rely on a blend of different vanillic materials.
White Floral—a very general and vague term that encompasses night blooming flowers like jasmine, orange blossom, tuberose, gardenia, frangipani, etc. Robert Piguet Fracas is a stellar example of the narcotic, heady effect of these notes. It is a term I personally find very confusing, because it does not describe anything in particular. Roses and lilacs can be white as well.
Woody—evoking the dry, resin-like scent of pencil shavings. Some materials can smell woody even though they are not woods: the grassy plant patchouli smells dry, pungent, earthy and woody; Cashmeran is a type of musk with a strong woody-ambery nuance. Sandalwood, on the other hand, does not smell classically woody. It is a creamy scent reminiscent of dried rose petals and fresh milk. Serge Lutens Féminité du Bois and Guerlain Samsara are great examples of woody accords, the former is dry and the latter is creamy.
Zesty—a citrusy, fizzy and astringent sensation reminiscent of grated citrus peel. Hermès Eau d'Orange Verte is a classical zesty fragrance. For a modern take on zesty, I enjoy Jo Malone Lime Blossom and Basil.
Photography by Vera, lavender fields in Grasse, France.