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.
Even if you’ve never smelled myrrh, a gum resin obtained from Commiphora myrrha trees native to Yemen and Somalia, its aroma contains so many familiar hints that it is not likely to seem exotic. Strange, maybe, but not completely foreign. Imagine the scent of raw mushrooms and black licorice, then add a bit of smoldering damp wood and bakery exhaust fumes. For some people it is also reminiscent of cool church stones, since myrrh is often used in liturgical incense blends.
Among the notes in the perfumer’s palette, some materials have a reputation of being challenging. Myrrh is one of such difficult, but exciting notes. It has so much character that unless a perfumer is a skilled technician, myrrh ends up smothering the fragrance. As perfumer Calice Becker observes, myrrh for a perfumer is like butter for a chef; it enriches the flavors. A proper balance of myrrh with other ingredients results in a sensual, haunting character. The dose can range from a delicate accent to a heavy-handed stroke, but in all cases, myrrh indeed deepens the composition.
Apropos to my post on ylang ylang, here is an interesting film that shows where ylang ylang is grown and how it is harvested, Ylang Ylang Comores. The video also briefly discusses the adulteration and quality degradation issues that have faced the ylang ylang industry.
Some perfume materials have an unwavering place of honor—rose, jasmine, sandalwood. Ylang ylang, on the other hand, has often been called “a poor man’s jasmine” and given various inferior descriptors. Today, of course, that proverbial poor man must be swimming in cash to afford ylang ylang oil in his perfumes, but ylang ylang still loses in a competition with jasmine. I would like to come to its defense and explain why ylang ylang is such a fascinating material that should be compared to nothing but itself.
Perfume is a blend of different materials that is more than just a sum of its parts; it is a composition with its own unique character. Character in a fragrance means the impression that the fragrance creates: vibrant and uplifting like citrus colognes or opulent and seductive like oriental fragrances with rich notes of vanilla, musk and spices. Each perfume is like a person-- the character it possesses is created by its specific traits, which in the case of a scented blend is determined by materials and their proportions. In the same vein, just like some people have stronger characters than others, fragrances differ in terms of their distinction and individuality.