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How To Shop For Fragrances Online

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The Violet Files

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We asked David Moltz, perfumer and founder of D.S. & Durga, about assembling a capsule fragrance wardrobe online and broke it out into 6 easy steps.

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Shopping for fragrances is a deeply sensorial and personal experience, which can make shopping for them online all the more difficult. But if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that almost anything can be done remotely. Enlisting the help of perfumer and D.S. & Durga founder (and master storyteller), David Moltz, we have crafted this guide (and this glossary of terms) to help you confidently assemble your fragrance wardrobe without leaving your couch. It’ll truly put into practice what David has coined, “armchair travel.”

David first suggests that we banish the outdated notion of having a “signature scent” and advocates for the “fragrance wardrobe”––an assortment of fragrances to choose from (and/or layer with) based on the day, “I am always aiming to do what the moment calls for. I choose based on weather, season, feeling, color, mood, occasion et cetera.” Think of your fragrance wardrobe like you do your clothing wardrobe, in which you have different items for different needs. Like clothing, fragrance is, “one of the easiest ways to change the vibe of a moment, delve into something, or create a background.” Another reason to steer clear of just one fragrance? You actually lose the ability to smell it over time and therefore run the risk of wanting to use more, which isn’t always pleasant to those around you––there is a reason grandmothers have a “scent stigma.” 

Something else to keep in mind when shopping for fragrances is that the way a fragrance smells to you out of the bottle and on your skin depends on a lot of factors, some of which can change almost daily: mood, weather, diet, medication, age, preferences, and scent memory. This means that even if you love a fragrance out of the bottle and on your skin for the 15 minutes you are in a store, that fragrance may not smell the same to you over the next hour, or even the next day or week. 

So, trying fragrances at home does have its advantages––it lets the fragrance reveal itself in your own environment. As for risk factor? David says stop worrying, “I’m a big proponent of commiting to what you buy––giving it the chance to give up its secrets to you. Like when you used to buy a new album and had to give it a few listens to see where the artist was going.”

Keeping education and convenience top of mind, our 6–STEP GUIDE to assembling your fragrance wardrobe over the interwebs…

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Depending who you ask, there are anywhere from 4 to 10 olfactory “families” that fragrances fall under, but for the purpose of this guide, we are adhering to Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel which divides fragrances into four families, each with their own subcategories: floral, fresh, woody, and amber. Many people find that they tend to be attracted to fragrances in the same or adjacent categories, but this may limit your exploration of a rich, botanical family. David believes, “You should try everything!” and recommends starting slow with what you know you like and building around that, flirting with each fragrance family.  


Subcategories: fruity, floral, soft floral
Good for:
 June weddings, garden parties, California living

As the name suggests, fragrances that fall under this category smell like fresh cut flowers, but can also read as fruity, fresh, musky, green, bright, uplifting, sunny, airy, and “white.” Common florals used in this category are jasmine, rose, peony, gardenia, tuberose, lily of the valley, and magnolia.


Subcategories: aromatic, citrus, water, green
Good for: summer humidity, seaside escapes, anything poolside 

Fragrances in this family are described as uplifting, clean, cooling, zesty, citrus, and bright and may include citrus notes such as lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot and may also include herbs like basil, coriander, rosemary, thyme and lemongrass. Another popular ingredient in this family is transluzone that lends a quality of fresh minerally dampness, which is why fresh fragrances often remind us of the ocean.


Subcategories: woods, mossy woods, dry wood
Good for: anything outdoors, country clubs, beer gardens  

Getting into the warmer fragrance categories, woody is perceived as earthy, aromatic, spicy, and dry. In this family you will commonly find notes of sandalwood, cedar, agarwood AKA “oud,” patchouli, and vetiver. In other fragrance wheels, you may see the families of “gourmand” and “chypre”, which, though not specifically mentioned by name on Edwards’ wheel, would most closely live within this family.


Subcategories: woody amber, amber, soft amber
Good for:  jazz bars and pool halls, after-hour affairs, Marrakesh

Perhaps the most seductive of the four olfactory families, amber fragrances can be described as rich, heavy, warm, musky, voluptuous, sweet, and sensual. Common amber notes include dry resin, vanilla, myrrh, anise, orris, labdanum, and sandalwood and can also include verbose herbs like tarragon. As we age, our senses tend to develop, encouraging us to be more attracted to more evolved, complex compositions, this fragrance family tends to feel more “grown up.” Because of this category’s heavier base notes, these fragrances linger longer on the skin.


Like music, fragrance is a composed arrangement of different notes that work together to create a harmony. Visually, imagine them arranged on three levels of a pyramid, with top notes, middle/heart notes, and base notes. Each “level” brings something different to the harmony and so every note must be carefully selected, working in accord with the others to create the perfect blend. 


These are the notes that are evident as soon as the fragrance leaves the bottle. These notes are often light, herbal, citrus, sweet, or even bitter. While the top notes are important to how you experience the fragrance, they usually only last 5 to 15 minutes, so don’t get too attached to them.


These notes make up most of the fragrance so are usually full-bodied fruits and florals. Middle notes start to develop after about 10 to 15 minutes (after the top notes have begun to evaporate) and last on the skin for 2 to 4 hours. 


Acting as the foundation of the fragrance, the base notes are typically more rich and heavy. It is their job to help the perfume linger longer by slowing the evaporation, allowing the scent to stay for up to 6 hours. Because a key component to base notes is their lasting quality, compared to top and middle/heart notes, there are fewer base notes for perfumers to work with. You will often see base notes of sandalwood, vanilla, musk, oak moss, and patchouli.


To get started on your fragrance wardrobe, David recommends that you start with your current fragrances, tossing anything that has gone off. Then, assign yourself one fragrance a day, taking note of how it smells out of the bottle, how it smells after 15 minutes of wear, and how it smells after 6. Try to determine the scent profiles and families you are attracted to, and then write them down to look for patterns. It is very possible that you may have fragrances all within the “fresh family” but that there is an amber component that you are drawn to and can find in a new scent or fragrance family. 


After determining what you like, consider what kind of “wardrobe” you want to assemble. Does anything need replacing? Are there “scent gaps”? Do you want each fragrance family represented? Do you only want to explore the subcategories of one or two families? You should also consider any upcoming events for which you may want to choose a new fragrance for scent memory––a trip, a wedding, a first date, the birth of a child. Or perhaps you’ve recently gone through a break up and need a new fragrance that has no ties to your ex-lover? We also can’t recommend hair (!) and body fragrances enough. 


Perhaps the hardest part of online fragrance shopping is determining what a scent may smell like based on the notes, accords, and other ingredients. This is where The Fragrance Glossary comes in. We have compiled and profiled a list of over 80 notes, ingredients, and terms to help guide your digital nose in the right direction.


An important, not-to-be-skipped step of building your fragrance wardrobe is considering the aromas you bring into your home–candles, diffusers, incense, even hand soap. While you carry your perfume on your body wherever you go, using fragrances in your most personal space not only sets an ambience, it is also an extended representation of who you are and the mood you are trying to create.

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